Dreams aren’t for following.
Dreams are for imagining something that might not exist right now. Dreams inspire you to forge a new path that allows you to do whatever you want. Dreams motivate you to build out a fragment of a thought until you create something new.
Dreams are incredibly important, but they aren’t true. They change all the time.
Think about the first dream you ever had. Maybe you were five years old and thought it would be cool to be an astronaut and talk to aliens. Or maybe you were in middle school and you heard a song that changed the way you heard music forever and wanted to make a new song every day for the rest of your life. Maybe your boyfriend died when you were 18 and you vowed no one would ever feel the way you felt ever again. You’d make sure of it.
Dreams are huge like that, right? They don’t follow any rules of logic or reality. You decide on the dream and there’s no one who can tell you it won’t happen. It’s your dream and you’re allowed to have it the way you want it.
So you’ll work hard. And not so hard. And you’ll meet other people with the same vision. Or people who can help you achieve the dream you’ve got in your mind. Responsibilities will get in the way because real life doesn’t care about your dreams. That will frustrate you, but you won’t stop because this is your dream.
And hopefully, one day, you’ll end up in your dream job. And it’ll feel great.
Until it doesn’t anymore.
Until it starts to feel like something is wrong.
You’ll realize the dream you saw back then doesn’t look the same now. Or maybe you’re different. The time between having a dream and reaching it was enough to change all of it and now nothing fits right.
So what do you do? Do you just abandon everything and start over? Do you grit your teeth and bear it?
I don’t know.
Your answer and my answer are completely different. But what I do know is how to stop yourself from falling into a trap like this.
Instead of dedicating yourself to a dream you had once, commit to your values. Work towards being true to the core of who you are — the things you believe to be true above all else.
Because our values rarely change. Habits, behaviors, opinions. Those things are different depending on who you are around. But values are who you are despite your environment. And no matter what, they will always lead you to where you need to be.
When I was in college, my dream was to work in publishing. I thought if I could just become an acquisitions editor, I would feel accomplished and fulfilled. So I worked until I got it. And I almost did. I found a job at a prestigious publishing house on the editorial team and started learning under a very successful acquisitions editor. There are even some published finance and science books where you can find my name right now in the acknowledgements for the work I did*.
But while I was there, I started to get that uncomfortable feeling we all get when we know we’re not in the right place. I didn’t know where it was coming from, but it became too big to ignore.
So I didn’t. I spent days in my apartment thinking about what could be wrong. I thought about why I wasn’t happy at this publishing house and what I could do to make myself happy. I stopped considering my dreams and started to think about what my values were.
What I decided was I didn’t choose publishing because I loved making best selling books. I chose publishing because I wanted to give people a chance to be heard. I wanted to do what I could to connect people who felt like no one else thought they way they did. I wanted to help people learn the one thing they’ve been dying to know but were too scared to ask.
I valued conversations that made people feel connected. I valued learning.
When I realized that, it didn’t matter what my role was. I didn’t have a dream job. I had a value system that changed everything for me. I left publishing and started looking for jobs better suited for the connection I wanted to make between people.
And now I won’t take a job without knowing how it will uphold my values. Instead of asking about the title or the pay, I ask whether or not it aligns with my values.
It’s a change in behavior that has made my path a little unpredictable — leading me to different departments and industries. But every time I find a new role, I still feel like I’m doing exactly what I need to be doing. My values never change.
A writer much more talented than me, Lauren Duca, said in her commencement speech to Bard College and Simon’s Rock, “You can and must decide to be defiantly empowered, to live up to the standards you’ve set for yourself, and to work like hell, not for a set of goals, but toward becoming the person you know you’re meant to be.”
Empower yourself to abandon your dreams and adopt your values.
*A fact that is absolutely absurd when you consider I suck at money and once had a science teacher tell me I was the most clueless student she’d ever had.