I know. That sounds like an almost stupidly obvious question. But stay with me. I’m going someplace with this.
You’ve seen the movies, the TV shows; you’ve read the inspiring books. Scrappy underdog with a dream struggles against all odds — conformist friends, an implacable authority structure, traditionalist parents who are scared of change — to astonish everyone with their awe- inspiring talent and win the big game at the end.
It’s the Flashdance/ Bend It Like Beckham/ Strictly Ballroom/ Mighty Ducks trope. And it’s very deeply embedded in our culture. You can do anything you want, as long as you set your mind to it. Take your passion, and make it happen. Do, or do not — there is no “try.”
In my ongoing attempt to be both an optimist and a realist, I’ve been thinking about this trope. And I want to take it on.
Yes, I think we should, most of the time, reach for our dreams. But I also think this is a screwed-up trope that does a fair amount of damage. It undercuts a realistic view of the world… and in a weird way, it undercuts optimism as well.
Here’s the thing. The trope offers false optimism. It strongly implies — and sometimes promises outright — that if you try hard enough, you’ll succeed.
But if you look at the world around you for ten minutes, you’ll see that this is patently untrue. Not everyone succeeds in their dreams. The world is full of singers who never get on the radio; ball players who never make it past college or high school ball; students who flunk out of med school; writers who never write a bestseller, or indeed never get anything published at all. (I always have to remind myself of this when I’m feeling cranky about my struggles in my writing career: no, I’m not as successful as I’d like to be, but the overwhelming majority of writers don’t even reach the modest level of success that I have.)
It isn’t always for lack of trying, either. Sometimes, for instance, it’s for lack of talent. The American Idol tryout shows are Exhibit A: a pathetic parade of self-delusion, a nearly endless caravan of dreadful, dreadful singers who saw Flashdance and The Mighty Ducks and think this is their big shot, that if they work hard and stay true to their dream they’ll someday be a star. The line between confidence and delusion is a fine one indeed, and sometimes very difficult to detect.
And sometimes it’s simply for lack of luck. As any successful person who isn’t totally arrogant will tell you, luck plays a huge role in success. Especially in difficult and highly competitive fields, like ballet dancing and hockey. You have to be talented, you have to be ambitious, you have to work hard… and you have to get the breaks. (Even if it’s the often- overlooked breaks of birth and upbringing.) If the difference between confidence and delusion is simply in the outcome, then sometimes that difference is drawn by a roll of the dice.
Hard work and determination are no guarantee of success. And one of the hardest lessons to learn, one of the hardest balances to strike, one of the hardest choices to make in life, is figuring out when you should keep trying and when you should let go and move on. Which setbacks are just temporary obstacles on your path to glory, and which ones are the universe telling you, “Forget it, kid, it ain’t gonna happen.” (It’s not just about careers, either. I’ve definitely hung onto relationships that were dead and rotting because I had “If we try hard enough we can make this work” damage.)
These are some of the hardest, most wrenching decisions we have to make. And I think the “Stick to your dreams and you’ll win in the end” trope can cloud these decisions and make them even harder. It can turn confidence into delusion, way past the line where it’s difficult to see the difference. It can make people think that their big break is just around the corner, they can’t give up now, if they just stick with it long enough it’s bound to happen.
And it makes people feel even worse if they don’t succeed. This is what I mean about the trope undercutting optimism. You’re already feeling bad about failing, and then on top of that you feel like a double failure because you gave up. If you’d really wanted it badly enough, if you’d worked harder or had more confidence or just stuck with it a little longer, you’d be on your way to Dreamtown. How much harder is it going to be the next time you pursue a dream, if you start out feeling like your last failure is proof of a character flaw?
So here’s what I think.
You shouldn’t reach for your dreams because if you stick with them with enough confidence and determination, eventually you’ll succeed.
You should reach for your dreams because you may or may not succeed if you try — but you sure as hell won’t succeed if you don’t.
You should reach for your dreams because the reaching itself can be satisfying and valuable.
You should reach for your dreams because the reaching itself can get you to places that are interesting and worthwhile, even if they’re not where you’d originally set out to go.
You should reach for your dreams because you’ll regret it forever if you don’t.
And you should reach for your dreams because… well, what the hell else are you going to do?
You have one life. (No, I’m not going to debate that point.) Are you going to spend it trying to do what matters to you? Or are you going to spend it wondering what would have happened if you’d given your big dream a shot?
When you’re near the end of your life, would you rather look back and say, “Boy, I wish I’d tried to be a tree surgeon. I bet I would have been really good at it. I guess now I’ll never know.” Or would you rather look back and say, “What a life I’ve had. Look at all the crazy things I did. Remember that time I tried to be a tree surgeon? Boy, did that ever not work out — but it sure was interesting to try.”