“Ya Gotta Reach For Your Dreams”: An Optimistic Realist Perspective


Should we, in fact, always reach for our dreams?

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.)

American idol

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.

Road closed

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.

Bridge collapse

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?

Tree surgeon

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.”

Also in the Optimistic Realist Series:
The Harm Reduction Model of Life
Is Altruism Real?

“Ya Gotta Reach For Your Dreams”: An Optimistic Realist Perspective

16 thoughts on ““Ya Gotta Reach For Your Dreams”: An Optimistic Realist Perspective

  1. 1

    I lurk quite a bit around here, but this post called me out of lurkerdom because I have been thinking about this topic recently, specifically on the topic of writers (like me) who do not end up with the publication career they initially expected. So, great post. Keep ’em coming!

  2. 2

    Thanks for a great piece. It’s good to dream, it’s good to reach for our dreams, it’s good to know when it’s time to let go and move on to something else, and it’s good to appreciate and enjoy our experiences along the way.

  3. 3

    There’s an additional element to this, which you sort of touched on at the end: you may find that you don’t actually like what you thought you wanted. Better to try engineering for a few years and discover that while you may be good at it, it’s not your true passion (as I did), than to spend all your time doing something you enjoy but thinking you’d be happier doing something else. As my grandfather used to say, “Even a bad experience is good experience.”

  4. 4

    Here’s the coda I want to add:
    Of course it seems to you that you can achieve your dreams if you really try. Lots of people on the TV tell you that they believed in themselves and they achieved whatever it was, and you can too. The thing is, those examples are vivid to you because those people are on the TV. The millions more who tried just as hard – doubtless harder in some instances – and got nowhere are much less available; maybe they’re sitting opposite you on the bus but you wouldn’t know.
    The other unfortunate thing about this trope is that unless you become the very best in the world at whatever you dream of, you are headed for crushing disappointment. Few dream of doing OK, of making a success of it; in the end dreams are usually of total ascendency. But since everyone can’t be the best in the world, it’s nice to promote other images of what it means to succeed.

  5. 5

    Optimistic realist? Of all the silliness! Don’t you know by now that atheists are hopeless, angry and amoral people? Yeah, you think you are not, but you are, because my pastor said so, and my pastor woudln’t lie to me, would he?

  6. 6

    I’m reminded of the quote at the very end of the otherwise-mediocre 2003 film “Prey for Rock & Roll,” starring an especially yummy Gina Gershon as the 40 year-old lead singer of an L.A. punk band. After concluding that her band, alas, will never achieve mainstream success through a record deal, she muses in a voiceover during a performance (and I’m only paraphrasing): “I may never be rich and famous, but I’m the lead singer in a rock & roll band, with the best bandmates in the world. And that’s pretty fucking cool.” I figure that, even if “success” never finds me, at least I’m doing what I love, and that it helps some people–it doesn’t really matter if it’s by the tens or the millions.

  7. 8

    I like that, Cryptic Philosopher. And now I’m trying to think of other movies/ TV shows/ bits of pop culture that run counter to this trope.
    One that leaps to mind is the first “Rocky” movie. Funny, because it’s so much thought of as a classic example of the trope. But in fact, the message isn’t, “Stick your dreams and you’ll win in the end.” It’s, “When faced with impossible odds, redefine success on your own terms.”
    Similarly with “Bull Durham.” The whole movie is about somebody who’s spent his whole life working hard to chase a dream, never making it… and (a) redefining success and (b) shifting his dream to one that might be achievable.
    Any others come to anyone’s mind?

  8. Ola

    One thing I thought you were going to say, and you didn’t, was that this trope is irrefutable. “If you try hard enough, you’ll succeed”. If you didn’t succeed — well, that means you didn’t try hard enough! It cannot be disproved, because there’s always something else you could’ve done, and you didn’t. Same thing about luck: sure it plays a role, but one might say that really determined people are those who recognize their chances and don’t let them slip. This is also closed upon itself — people could argue that if one seemingly had no luck, it just means he didn’t see the opportunities that were present, or didn’t know how to create them…

  9. 10

    This is precisely the reason I liked the original ending of Dodgeball better than the release ending. There’s no shame in losing, or in failing. I like that Rocky was pointed out fairly quickly here. If you try your hardest and still don’t win – at least you went the distance, right? It’s not about victory, it’s about the will to keep going.
    In the end, it’s the things we never did that we regret the most.

  10. 11

    By an odd coincidence, this seems to fit in with the last episode of The Atheist Experience. The topic was financial scams, and the presenter spent a fair amount of time talking about Amway.
    Evidently one way that Amway (and Scientology) works is to convince you that you’ll be successful if you try hard enough, and that only losers fail. When you’ve tried and tried, but success has eluded you, someone upstream of you will suggest that you spend five or ten or fifty bucks on a motivational tape or seminar or whatever, that’ll help you achieve success.
    In other words, people in Amway make money by convincing other people to keep pursuing their dream, instead of giving it up as unlikely to yield fruit.

  11. 12

    This idea that you can (and should) do anything you want and make your dreams come true, as long as you try hard enough/really, really want it/never give up, gives people a nice excuse for being egotistical. Actually, two excuses: 1. If I spend all my money, energy, time and attention on trying to achieve success, I will be a star. And mediocre is just not good enough, so I can’t waste my time etc. on worrying about other people’s problems (i. e. everything that is not directly related to my personal success). 2. If you are not 100 % successful, if you have problems, it is your own fault for not trying hard enough. So why should I help you?

  12. 13

    Randy Pausch “The Last Lecture” (look it up on youtube) is an inspiring look at what it means to reach for your dreams. You should check it out.

  13. 15

    I was so glad to hear this… it’s something I’ve also been reflecting on lately with relation to my ambition to be an opera singer.
    I entirely agree about the “double failure” idea. It’s like the “you can cure your cancer if you think positively enough” meme that seems everywhere at the moment. Yes, positive thinking can do a huge amount, mostly because it encourages us to keep trying, but there has to come a time when you say “enough”!

  14. 16

    Great article. Reprints of it should be posted in every high school guidance office and college admissions office in America. When I failed first at becoming an engineer then a computer programmer, I thought that my life was *over* (I wonder how many suicides the trope you wrote about has contributed to?). I totally ignored my other skills, or at least got little pleasure out of using them, seeing as I was a “failure” and all.
    I also hear what you said about the singer who never gets on the radio. Bargain bins and used bins in record shops are full of excellent records and CD’s by artists who made or still make great music but just never succeeded in the often arbitrary and predatory music industry.
    Two more cents’ worth – America runs on mediocrity. Mediocrity is the true religion of America. You only need to look at our popular culture for proof of that. Talented, ambitious, creative people get distracted, discouraged, crushed by a society that places greater value on functionaries than visionaries.

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