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The side-effects of dreaming big
Exploring my weariness around one of our greatest dogmas
I’m feeling thrown off. Suddenly, I’m highly suspicious and resentful of a central part of my identity: having dreams (also known, less romantically, as “goals”).
I’m not original in this: “I don’t dream of labor” and “vibes, not goals” have become catchphrases on the anti-work internet, enough that work-humpers such as Noreen Malone worry that we’re in the “age of anti-ambition.”
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But unlike other shifts in my thinking since starting this blog, the idea of disowning dreams makes me agonized and confused. As a society, we hold on dearly to dreams, to living “goal-oriented.” My spouse reports discovering they loved me when they first saw me listing weekly goals. The few I’ve told about my new weariness have gotten equal parts angry and worried about me.
Of course, dreams are constructs. You don’t NEED to organize your life around them, and many people don’t. I have a friend who never thinks about what he wants from life, doesn’t make plans, and simply doesn’t care to think that way. He seems very happy, even though I can’t wrap my mind around how one can function like this.
But dreams being merely constructs doesn’t make them useless or bad. Time is also a construct, one which helps us coordinate and do cool things with each other.
The problem is that sometimes we internalize constructs so deeply that we forget they’re constructs at all, instead confusing them with unmovable laws of life. We forget that even the best tools don’t always work and can have bad side-effects (as a computer, for all its uses, has the side-effect of making users more sedentary). Dreams have two such side effects that, as I’ve become aware of them, have made me question the whole concept.
Side-effect #1 – present contentment becomes difficult
Dreams, true to their name, take your mind elsewhere—usually to the future. They make you feel the constant “debt” of not yet achieving what you’ve set out. I don’t think it’s bad to visualize the future per se, but being a “goal-oriented” person often results in ONLY being in this mindset, constantly experiencing the present as barren.
This is especially true with dreams that are comparative by nature (ex. skill, salary, internet followers). Laurie Santos—a cognitive psychologist who studies happiness—points out that, for motivation, we often aim toward “reference points” that make us feel bad about our present selves. Worse, once people reach their desired point, they quickly shift to a new one, even higher, that makes them feel bad all over again.
As someone who has lived a goal-driven life, I can attest to the constant dissatisfaction. A lot of “I just need to get to X, then I can be happy.” But you eventually realize there’s never truly “getting to” anything. And if you didn’t enjoy the journey to your mirage destination, you’ll have defrauded yourself. Life is now, not in our future dreams, and we must live it now.
Side-effect 2: “career dreams” make you vulnerable to exploitation
This side-effect compounds the previous one by bringing in your employers. When you ignore the present to live in a future that rarely comes, it becomes easy for employers to paint that future in a rosy hue to make you accept a shitty present. This hoax is surprisingly hard to notice otherwise if you don’t think critically about your dreams, leaving you vulnerable to bosses who co-opt them to redirect your passion and energy for their own banal ends.
What dreams have done for employers is obscure that most obvious truth: most jobs are no more than labor to make stakeholders rich. Telling us sweet little stories about our own career dreams dressed this fact in a higher purpose, but the pandemic has largely laid waste to that notion. While complaining on the kids these days, Noreen Malone awakens to this almost in real time:
“All jobs were pointedly rebranded: essential or nonessential. Neither label feels good… ‘nonessential’ is a word that invites creeping nihilism. This thing we filled at least eight to 10 hours of the day with, five days a week, for years and decades, missed family dinners for…was it just busy work?”
It certainly was, Noreen!
This pandemic “rebranding” unintentionally made us confront the unpleasant fact that jobs are, as Ed Zitron puts it, “transactions for money” (that we can blow off without being bad people, by the way) and not “moral goods.” Most are not only nonessential in that they don’t significantly improve anyone’s time on earth, but straight parasitic—extracting value for megalomaniacal corporations in exchange for nothing.
Interestingly, when people let go of that notion, they don’t become nihilistic. Instead, they shift to pragmatism, improving the act of working itself in present time, making it less punishing and more pleasant. Again, Malone:
“Confronted with this world, many young people with professional options want to be in solidarity with their colleagues instead of climbing the ladder above them. The meaning that they once found in work is now found in trying to make the workplace better itself.”
I would tweak this to say that they now look for meaning in the concrete present instead of in abstract futures. Though I get the sense that this alarms Malone, to me it serves as a compelling reason to cultivate skepticism toward dreams.
The void without dreams
It took me a little more than a decade of chasing status and salary to pay off my student loans. The night I made the last payment, I couldn’t remember why I took them out in the first place. I felt like I cheated myself. This forgotten dream I had cheerily followed into indentured servitude--had it even been my own, or just a decoy for other people’s profits?
Plus, what’s so wrong about saying that we already have everything we want? What’s so great, in the end, about leaving your overbearing mark on the world?
I resolved to try an alien way of operating in the world: to keep a general vibe going in my life–doing what I enjoy as much as I can every day while meeting day-to-day needs, but without making long term plans or stressing about changing anything. Basically, trying to spend my time the way I used to dream I would in the future, but in the present. And keeping that up until I died.
Initially, the sense of freedom and play felt energizing. But after a few months, I was listlessly going through the motions. I felt my life becoming what I always feared it would, the “shapeless and ineffective mess” screenwriting gurus label stories where the protagonist has nothing to strive for.
When I became enamored with “antiwork,” I tried to be cautious about letting it become a curtain for apathy. While I’m convinced it’s possible (and more healthy) to feel hopeful for life in terms of the present, without dreaming and making plans, it’s also very hard. I still appreciate that dreams keep me and buffered from existential dread. Life is a wonderful wide open game, but a canvass that’s too blank drives those of us not evolved enough into despair.
As much as the antiworker in me wants to, I think it’s unadvisable (maybe impossible) to live without striving for some future-state. Whether you call that “having dreams” or “making goals,” it arguably makes us human, and at the very least makes a lot of the cool stuff we do possible.
Yet, there are subtle, important distinctions to make here.
A properly reduced role for dreams
A recurring theme from the most fulfilling areas of my life is that I don’t attach goals to them. These are hobbies for which I never entertained the notion that I could achieve anything. Yes, I have some subconscious ideas for what I want to see happen with my skills, but I don’t worry about it either way. The point of the activity is just to do it.
Compare these to passions I had in my teens, when I had big dreams (from making the school team to forging a career) constantly hovering in my mind like an factory warden. Not only did this suck the fun out of everything—it also stunted my learning of the crafts themselves.
Claire Emerson, who’s no one’s antiworker, is also highly skeptical of big goals for this reason, saying “they make you a failure until the moment you succeed. She likes to think in terms of “projects” instead, because with those “you’re successful until the moment you fail.”
And while dreams are a very useful tool and motivator, most of us could benefit from limiting the size of their role. Chris Sparks describes this well, defining them as “only the start” to growing as a human, meant to help you notice and follow your inspirations—but not letting them be the end-all.
A little external pressure is also arguably necessary, in healthy doses, to fully self-express your abilities. If that’s what you’re into, explicitly declared dreams are great, best coupled with activities you feel fulfilled doing anyway, independent of results. You’re living the dream NOW by doing the thing, but you want to know how well you can do the thing, so you use dreams to push you.
The mistake we make is allowing dreams to become tyrants that punish us and make us feel in debt if we don’t fulfill them. Dreams linked to career achievement tend to be so toxic precisely because they’re designed to do this: most bosses mistrust anyone who tells them that simply doing the current job is the dream. This would imply satisfaction with the present and show no concern for “growth,” the unquestioned sacred cow of our corporate capitalist work mores.
So, it’s always useful to check with yourself: are your dreams leading you to do something you’d do for fun anyway? Yes? Are you using them to punish yourself? No? Then you’re good.
Otherwise, let them go. They’re just tools, not a life calling worth suffering over. As my friend likes to rub in my face:
“I don’t burden myself with dreams like you do. That’s why I’m happy and you’re not.”
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