It’s good to have a dream. A dream inspires you. It gives you purpose and spurs you on when life gets tough.
But dreams can have a dark side. If your dream is unbendingly idealistic it can actually set you up for failure. It can elevate your expectations to an unattainable level and blind you to other opportunities.
Yes, I know, it sounds horrible to say anything bad things about dreams. And please, before you go casting figurative stones at me through cyberspace, let me clear something up. I’m not talking about your dream to be a good person, or to get married, or to visit the south of France, or to eat an entire carton of Krispy Kreme doughnuts in one sitting (trust me, not worth it).
I’m really referring to career dreams.
Do you find a knock on career dreams offensive? That’s no surprise. From the time we can walk we’re encouraged to follow our dreams no matter what. Some have noted that the problem starts long before we ever reach adulthood. Go interview a group of school kids and you’re likely to find a startling number of aspiring astronauts, actors, sport stars and even Presidents.
As a boy I was no exception. From my earliest days I was busy preparing for a career in the NBA. Sure, it was a lofty goal for a scrawny kid growing up on the Canadian prairies, but that didn’t bother me. “Anything is possible,” crowed the coaches at the summer basketball camps I attended. “Just believe in yourself.”
And I did! During the days, I practiced my moves and watched Michael Jordan highlights by the hour. At night I prayed to be seven feet tall. My dream went unrealized. And though I’m still holding out hope, my chances are looking dimmer by the day. Not too many 29-year-old guys with burgeoning potbellies end up getting drafted.
As an idealistic kind, I wasn’t alone. A study done by Northeastern University’s Center for the Study of Sport in Society found that two-thirds of males (in this case, African-Americans) between the ages of 13 and 18 believe that they will one day become professional athletes. Of course the statistical reality is cruel. Of those skilled enough to play in high school, only 0.14 percent will ever play professionally. The study raised alarm among advocates who understood all too well that the future success of the vast majority of these youngsters depends, not on their determination to become L.A. Lakers or Dallas Cowboys, but on their ability to get educations and find good jobs.
It isn’t just young kids who tend towards idealism when it comes to careers. Flip open a high school yearbook and you’ll find that expectations haven’t changed much. The college years can deliver a good dose of realism, but I can’t count how many self proclaimed future stars I met in college as well. Even in grad school I encountered the phenomenon. I must have met a couple dozen students who planned on becoming either Hollywood actors or directors upon graduation. Now granted, this was L.A. and many were talented. But I didn’t attend film school. This was at a seminary!
The difficulty about examining unrealistic dreams is that it flies in the face of our dream-obsessed culture. From a thousand different directions we’re encouraged to pursue our dreams against all odds and at any cost. That kind of thinking might be OK if our dreams were realistic — or at least accompanied by second and third options. But often they are not.
Few dream about becoming plumbers or accountants — though such professions pay well and provide much-needed services. No, in this land of self-made millionaires, American idols and dancing stars, “dreams” are typically about fanciful pursuits. They are about finding fame or being so wildly successful that even your great, great, great grandchildren can coast by on your name.
In some ways youth has always been marked by unfettered idealism. However this generation has had the flames of youthful optimism fanned by self-help gurus and self-esteem driven education. The result is often an all-or-nothing approach to attaining lofty dreams of questionable value.
I have friends chasing big, unrealistic dreams even as they pass up promising careers to do so. I know that at every stage they were coddled and assured by well-meaning educators and parents that they could (and would) achieve anything they wanted. But the result has been an unyielding attitude toward any other plans God may have for their lives.
I need to make a serious qualifier here. I’m not against dreaming big. And I don’t believe pursuing dreams and finding the right career is an either/or option. If you’re realistic about your prospects, it can be a both/and scenario. But I believe that we need to examine the kinds of dreams we have and remain open to reconciling our talents and aspirations with the real-world challenges of establishing ourselves and eventually supporting a family.
In one way it’s natural for us to dream big. The culture may encourage us to chase our dreams, but really, we don’t need all that much encouragement. We love to dream. It might sound like a cliché, but we all desire, at a deep level, to be part of something bigger than ourselves. Unfortunately, too often that inbuilt desire gets twisted into a dream that fails to extend beyond personal achievement.
The truth is that there is, behind the longing, a thirst for something that no accomplishment can slake. So it’s not always that we’re dreaming too big; it’s that we may be dreaming the wrong dream. For instance, according to the Pew Research Center, 81 percent of 18-25-year-olds today say their generation’s top life goal is to be rich. If that assessment is correct then something has gone terribly wrong.
As Christians we need to find different dreams. God may want you to be rich and famous, but probably not. He wants you lead an extraordinary life, but one defined as extraordinary according to Him. And that may be very different from what the world deems dream-worthy.
When it comes to finding the right career, the values of the surrounding culture will inevitably lead you astray. If you want clues as to what you should do with your life, examine the patterns of your life. What are you good at? What kinds of pursuits bring you joy and give God glory?
It’s OK to chase dreams that some would consider lofty. Just don’t let those dreams prevent you from taking advantage of other opportunities that come along in the meantime. Besides, the biggest dreams are usually realized through incremental advances.
Yes, some people become overnight successes. But that is the exception, not the rule. The largest mountains are climbed through a series of small, stubborn steps.
Additionally you should realize that not all your fulfillment will (or should) come from your occupation. You will derive satisfaction from what you do, but it will also come from your family, your church, and your community.
And most of all it will come from your relationship with God and your dedication to His Kingdom. That’s where true and lasting joy is ultimately found — in realizing God’s purposes for your life. Your deepest longings are met not through self-actualization. They come through self-denial, making your life a humble prayer that in some small way His kingdom will come and His will will be done through your simple obedience to Him.
And that’s a dream that really matters.
Copyright 2007 Drew Dyck. All rights reserved.