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What Happened to Your Dreams? Why You Need Them and How You Can Reclaim Them!

August 5, 2010



Most of us have jobs that are too small for our spirits.”

                                                                                          Studs Terkel

What did you want to be when you were a child?  Do you remember your earliest “callings?”

Most little kid’s dreams revolve around the same general themes….princess…pirate…ballerina….doctor…fireman.

When we get a little older and begin to identify new interests, these desires mostly change (but let’s face it, Johnny Depp has done very well with pirating!)

By the time we get to middle school, parents, counselors and peers are already beginning to discuss jobs and careers – but rarely “dreams.” It’s time to put childish things away they mostly say.  By high school, most dreams are rarely spoken of, except as “what we are good at.”

Essentially for the world, and for us, this translates into practical and most important “marketable” skills.   Dreams take a back seat.  Some dreams become avocations – or are relegated to some far off place with hopes that riches or retirement will make them possible someday. But mostly – they are forgotten. They are not possible; we come to believe, because they are not realistic.

“The average adult thinks of 3-6 alternatives for any given situation – the average child thinks of 60.”                                              

                                                   Robert Epstein, Psychology Today               

Our “retraining” process starts early.   Since the 1980’s Professor Howard Gardner has pioneered the work of identifying and measuring multiple intelligences.  Working with Harvard’s Project Zero, Gardner sought to initially measure: spatial, musical, mathematical, linguistic, kinesthetic and intra/interpersonal intelligences to go beyond standard IQ testing.  In his testing which ranged from babies to older subjects, he discovered that at age 4, almost all children were at the genius level.  But by age 20, the percentage at the genius level had decreased to 20% and above age 20 it diminished to about 2%.

I Want to Be Happy

By the time I got to my teens, I remember some adults asking me the ubiquitous and enduring question, “What kind of work do you want to do?”  I raised plenty of eyebrows at the time with my answer, “I don’t know yet but I know I want to be happy!” When I looked around, not too many people seemed like they were very happy or having any (dare I say) fun, at work.  Looking back, I can see that my concept of happiness was pretty vague, but I do know that I was on the right track by acknowledging the value of my feelings.

Now as then, I see that asking the average high school student to predict the design of their lives seems astoundingly premature.  We are amazed when we hear high school graduates declare their desire to be bond traders, when they have no idea what the life of a bond trader, successful or not, really is. The pressure that children are under now boggles the mind of a Baby Boomer, although we Boomers are a guilty party to creating and reinforcing the conditions most Millennials now confront.

Children, even in high school, don’t get very real, reliable information on what most jobs or careers actually are like.   Most of the information they get seems to revolve around money, promotions and perks.  Of course, in doing that, we reinforce that what work is really about is –  money, promotions and perks.

When most kids ask most adults – tell me about what you do – they rarely get the real deal, even when those adults have problems and are unhappy with the work they do.

Why do so many people pretend that they like what they do when they don’t?

Sadly, we are still passing down the awful tradition of pretending we like our work when we don’t, pretending we are happy when we are not and colluding to push down our dreams and those of the ones we love most.

While expressions in popular culture for the past generation have included ideas like –  follow your bliss and do what you love and the money will follow –  the prevailing conventions are still fairly hard-nosed about work.  Most advice to young people: Determine what is selling in the job market, get the most marketable education to get the best paying job and start developing your brand.

These days, it seems that following your dreams is getting to be a harder and harder sell.  But wait….what about the Millennials? Aren’t they bucking that trend and holding out for what they really want, despite the worst economic climate since the Great Depression?

In an interesting example of a Millennial holdout, a recent NYT article featured a story about a 24 yr old  recent grad from Colgate University with a great academic record, who has been living with his parents for the past six months while job hunting.  What’s made the news and triggered public response was his rejection of an offer made by a company that offered him a lesser job (salary 40K) than one he applied for when the company admitted that it was at least ten levels lower than  where he wanted to be!

The story quickly made the 10 most emailed NYT’s list and racked up nearly 1500 comments to boot!  Apparently, the most angry comments came from self-identified Gen Xers and Boomers, who used the story as an opportunity to release pent up rage over the sense of “entitlement, hubris  and lack of realism” that the emblematic young man of his generation, showed by turning down the job.  All this bitterness is not affecting this Millennial’s dreams or desires – he admits, he still expects a positive outcome.

Recent research has also pointed to the unlikely, and in some minds, unthinkable, optimism that the majority of Millennials have about the future prospects of their work. Maybe it’s possible that this generation will evolve society’s thinking and expectations about work and its meaning.  Only time will tell how durable their positive thinking will be, given future economic and cultural trends

Holding on to Dreams Despite Life’s “Realities”  

One reason why so many people throw in the towel so early on is because we just don’t have many good role models for pursuing our dreams.  Yes, occasionally we hear stories about the tenacity of a Steven Spielberg or the late in life success of Chef Julia Child (who didn’t even start to cook until 40).

Recently Scottish singer, Susan Boyle, vaulted into the headlines and at age 49 became an “overnight” success.  Susan kept her dream alive by singing at local venues and in her church choir for decades. It wasn’t until her ailing mother urged her to audition for the Britain’s Got Talent show that she was brought to the attention of American Idol audiences.

And if you don’t know about Carnegie Mellon Professor Randy Pausch, do yourself a favor and check out his deeply moving story. Randy, who died in 2008, at age 48, taught computer science and human-computer interaction. In 2007, Randy learned he had pancreatic cancer and was given a terminal diagnosis: “3 to 6 months of good health left”. He gave an upbeat lecture entitled The Last Lecture: Really Achieving Your Childhood Dreams, which became a hugely popular You Tube video. Randy lived his dreams, right to the end. In his talk, he shares how the dreams of the boy become the man – in ways that are sometimes surprising and often funny.  But, what makes Randy’s story so exemplary is how he continued to define and act on his dreams – despite the worst case scenario – right till the very end of his days on the planet.

“We are told from childhood onward that everything we want to do is impossible. We grow up with this idea, and as the years accumulate, so too do the layers of prejudice, fear and guilt. There comes a time when our personal calling is so deeply buried in our soul as to be invisible. But it’s still there”

Paulo Coelho

Why reclaim our dreams? Isn’t it too late, or too hard?  While there is no question that the challenges stemming from the economy and the culture it is influencing are significant for many of us.  It will take even more imagination, discipline and commitment to sustain our dreams, let alone manifest them in the world.

Very few of us will achieve fame – but that shouldn’t stop us from acting on our dreams.  Regardless of where we are in the stages of our work – we can reclaim our dreams. But first, many of us need to find them.  While parents, peers and the powerful forces of culture played major roles in shaping our beliefs and expectations – ultimately we are responsible for the construction of our lives.

You need your dreams more than ever! They are not only a potential source of livelihood– they are a lifeline to our energies. Our spirits reside in our dreams.  The emotions our dreams can generate – satisfaction, contentment, happiness, curiosity, enthusiasm, fascination, optimism, excitement, gratitude, calmness, eagerness, passion, elation, wonder and maybe even awe – are our most precious resources. Like mining for priceless gems – we need to activate our dreams to renew and awaken the life forces within us.

We need the energies of our dreams for every thing that we do. Even if we are in an unsatisfying job today, reconnecting with anything that feeds our spirit and rekindles our passion is vital.

Reclaiming Your Dreams Step by Step

  • Be honest with yourself about how you feel about where you are in your life and your work right now. This can be tough, but if you are truthful you’ll be steps ahead of most people who are still rationalizing where they are.
  • Begin to identify the dreams that are still alive (even if faint) within you. Use the list of emotions above as a guide. If you feel even a glimmer of any of them – follow the trail.
  • Make a commitment to exploring (even in tiny ways) the desires you unearth.  Use what the excellent blog post from (WorkCoachCafe) referred to as tasting, touching and trying to tap into new fields of energy as you explore.
  • Get Your Negative Self Talk Under Control.  Typically, our own negative self-talk is a big impediment to taking action and a big energy drainer. The ego resists change. So your conscious self-aware part is going to have to establish new ground rules for how you listen to the naysayer voices within you.
  • Stop focusing on what the outside world says. That doesn’t mean stick your head in the sand and ignore valuable advice and information – it means you have got to become your strongest counsel, coach and supporter. Seek out stories and roles models of people who think in bold and positive ways.  The world is filled with examples of people with great courage, strength and tenacity – unfortunately we don’t hear much about them.
  • Give yourself time to explore your dreams – but also give yourself some benchmarks for experimentation and success.

Too many people give up way too soon. This is a journey and you can’t possibly know the outcome until you jump into the unknown and begin.

One thing is certain, for every step you take you will see a little more, feel a little (or a lot) better and ultimately not be in the same place you were when you started. These are your dreams; they reflect who you are at your deepest level. That is why they are a precious resource.

So, what happened to your dreams?

How are you keeping them alive?

Thanks for reading and taking the time to comment, subscribe, share, like and tweet this article. It’s appreciated.

Louise Altman, Partner, Intentional Communication Consultants

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. August 10, 2010 11:28 am

    I imagine our childhood dreams are locked away in our subconscious awaiting to come forth. I believe they do surface more than we appreciate too. Regularly, we will think we should do something, and this thought is leaning toward what we desire. The misfortune is that we disregard the idea or transform, the thought into what we shouldn’t do. If we did more of what we thought we should we may pursue our childhood dreams one suggestion at a time. However, instead, we choose to find all the rationales why we should dismiss what we perceive.

    • August 12, 2010 9:44 am

      Hi Sandra,
      What a great comment. I agree that our dreams are dormant, using different channels to be heard and find expression. I believe that intuition is one such avenue, which unfortunately, most people don’t recognize or pay much attention to. The skillful use of intuition is not something we are taught to use or to value.
      I believe that another key is paying attention to our feelings, deeply, as a conduit to those dreams. Those desires, especially from childhood, were pure energy – and in many cases were carried by great joy and excitement.
      Listening, as you point out, to one at a time – and following the trail, is open to us all, regardless of age or circumstance!
      Thanks for reading and commenting on the post!

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