When is it time to stop pursuing your dream and start being realistic? When do you decide to quit on one path and take up another one? If you listen to most self-help hype the answer is never. Never give up, these authors proclaim because if you believe and try hard enough your dreams will come true. Although this paints a fairly rosy picture of the world, I think it can be a little misleading.
Despite what those success stories proclaim, there is always the chance that you can pursue a path for your entire life without reaching the dream you desire. Perhaps you want to become a famous actor, you may end up spending the rest of your life doing small time theater and waiting on tables to pay the bills. You might want to own and operate your own highly successful business, but there is always the chance that you never actually get a company off the ground.
I hate to burst the self-help bubble here, but all efforts towards correctly pursuing your own personal development must take into account reality, not how you think the world should work. The truth is reality isn’t fair and just trying your best towards your dream doesn’t always cut it.
Ultimately the real question is when do you give up on one pathway in life and move to another? When do you quit? There are very few people in this world who could only be happy in one stream of life and fewer that have only one passion they could pursue. In a life of near limitless opportunities for growth, when is it time to quit seeking one and pursue another?
Having dreams and working towards them is excellent, most people don’t even have that. But whenever you decide to take up a path you need to ask the inevitable question of when do you need to turn around. Life is rarely all or nothing, so choosing when to continue and when to quit can be an extremely difficult question and most self-help author’s tendency to continually spew, “stick to your dreams no matter what!” messages don’t help.
Now if reality isn’t nearly as rosy as most personal development authorities paint, why is this so? Are they simply lying to you? The answer to this question is, no. Personal development authors that tell you to have infinite persistence towards a dream aren’t tricking you into thinking that is the only requirement for success. The problem is the success bias.
Ask yourself, who do you get personal development advice from? Well, most the time these authors and speakers are fairly successful. The more successful these authors are, the more people use their products, read their books and pay them money, correct? Basically, the more prolific your ideas are the greater chance you have been successful in achieving your dreams. As a result, authors with a high bias towards success end up being the ones to provide most the information.
Because you are absorbing the belief structure only of people that themselves have achieved their dreams, you get a bias in information that makes success appear easier than it actually is. If when deciding to become an actor you not only looked at Tom Cruise but Tom Smith who is waiting tables in LA, you would have a more accurate reflection of what your chances are.
What this really means is that almost no popular self-help authors are going to have had the experience of pursuing a dream (like becoming an author) and not having it eventually work out. Sure these people will often note all their past failures as proof that they got where they are from hard work and by pushing through pain, but they did eventually reach their goal.
Understanding reality means that you have to accept that some of your dreams won’t come true just because you work hard enough, be creative enough or go to enough seminars. Life doesn’t work that way. Don’t base your decisions on a false model of reality.
This brings up a very interesting question. If the answer isn’t simply to persist no matter what, how can you possibly decide how to run your life? The answer requires a shift in your thinking, but it completely resolves these problems entirely.
Outcome Based Thinking
There is an implied assumption when you are pursuing your dream. That assumption is that reaching your outcome is the only valuable part of the process. Being the famous actor, owning the billion dollar empire, selling the best-selling novel. Realizing the dream is what matters most.
There is only one problem with outcome-based thinking. It doesn’t work! When you ask most hugely successful CEO’s what the best part of their journey to success was they will tell you it was when they were still young, optimistic and struggling. Achieving goals doesn’t make you happy because achievements on their own hold no lasting emotional value. Only growth, fullfilment and passion has value.
When pursuing a dream you have the underlying assumption that when you reach it you will be happy. I’m here to tell you that you’re wrong. You will probably feel happier for a short time but then you will be right where you started. I have consistently noticed this pattern whenever I achieve goals myself. When you reach them you are elated but after a few days, weeks or months you aren’t any different than when you started.
Your dream had two outcomes, either you reached it successfully or you didn’t. Success or failure, these were the two outcomes and the primary source for your equation. Unfortunately the difference between these possibilities on your total level of happiness is negligible in the long-term. Your outcome based thinking has been sabotaging your happiness and destroying your ability to make effective decisions.
Experiential Based Thinking
The answer to this problem is to shift the way you look at your life. Instead of judging whether or not you should quit pursuing your dream based on your chances of success you ask a different question. Would I like to experience working to become a famous actor? Would I like to experience building a business from the ground up?
In this perspective goals are merely lighthouses in the distance with no intrinsic value of their own. These lighthouses merely guide your travels through interesting waters. By taking up this mindset the question of whether you will fulfill your dream becomes irrelevant. By focusing on the outcome you are putting all of your emphasis on the tiniest portion of life’s journey.
So if you are pursuing your dream and you don’t think you are going to make it, the question of whether or not to quit doesn’t depend on your chance of success. The real question is whether pursuing this dream is causing you to grow? Does this path fill you with passion and enthusiasm? Do you feel alive? If the path you are on currently is giving you the greatest growth, passion and fulfillment it doesn’t matter whether you ever reach your destination.
Too many people focus on the celebrations and not the ordinary days. Instead of worrying about the marriage they focus on the wedding. Instead of worrying about the practice they focus on the big game. Although these special occasions and events can be exciting, they make up a tiny percentage of your total experiences. If you can make your ordinary experiences fantastic, why do you need to save up for a party?
Having dreams and goals is still important. Goals and dreams give you directions and they help you chart the unexplored territory of your own growth. But they have no value in themselves. Becoming a millionaire, marrying a supermodel, winning the Olympic gold. If the journey to these destinations wasn’t fantastic then the reward is only dust.
When to Quit
When do you give up on a dream? The answer is simple, when you have an alternative path that will give you more growth, passion and fulfillment. You don’t have complete power over the outcome of your life but you have complete power over the experience. If a new experience will be better, then switch to that. There is no shame in leaving a path that has become barren.
When I first started goal setting I pursued a lot of goals feverishly that had no intrinsic value and I felt empty when I achieved them. Now I don’t have a problem abandoning a goal that has lost its challenge and passion for me. Your dreams can’t be lived in the future, they must be experienced now.