On How I Failed; A Warning to Dreamers

Perhaps I haven't actually failed yet, perhaps I am still in the process of failing. When you get to a certain point in life, you start to realise all that has past, look at others and see their successes, recognise your own missed opportunities, start to have regrets that were never present when you were younger and comprehend that many dreams that are held in the heart will never, can never, actually be achieved. You ask yourself, for all that I have done, what have I actually DONE?! Maybe nothing. Perhaps that discerning moment is marriage, that willing loss of freedom that means you can't chase dreams in quite the same way, or fatherhood, that appreciation of your mortality that youth doesn't see, or perhaps it's just getting old, and understanding the pressure of passing time. So I thought about why we have dreams and  why we often fail to realise them.

It is true that we are younger than are forefathers. In many ways there is a truism in Sex and the City's "40 is the new 30". People are getting married later, having kids later, having, in essence, a longer youth. There isn't quite the same pressure to work, marry and produce the next generation, that even our parents had. These advances and changes in society over the past 100 years have opened up all sort of possibilities that our forefathers couldn't even imagine (writing from a developed world point of view that is. It is clear that in other parts of the world people still don't have the opportunities afforded us, although I hope that's changing). More and more people have access to education, information, media that empowers us to do and dream in all sorts of new ways. We are freer, more emancipated, maybe because we are basically wealthier.  We are, also, constantly told that "anything is possible" and "you can do anything" and it would consequently seem that, according to recents studies, we are becoming more narcissistic. We are overwhelmed by possibilities and choices, yet it's useless comparing oneself to others, to the Bill Gates', Caesars, the Miles Davis', the Jones' of this world. That is a recipe for depression. I am not them and they are not me, and moreover they are just statistical anomalies. For every successful person, there are thousands, perhaps millions who just weren't that lucky. Despite that we all have dreams and ambitions, from big to small and there is nothing wrong with that. We all want to be somebody, do something, don't we? As a result it seems there are too many choices about what you could do and perhaps its all to easy to end up dreaming and not actually doing anything.
Since reading his book, I have come to have the utmost respect for Daniel Kahneman, and among the many amazing points he makes, one in particular, that he also mentions in his TED talk, has stuck with me, especially with respect to dreams and ambitions. It is such a profound and obvious point. A point that when you notice it, you say "Oh yes. That's completely true." When we think about the future, think about our dreams, we think in terms of imagined memories. We picture the future, we imagine the fulfilment of our ambitions, as a memories, which is perhaps one reason one old people have memories of things that never happened, and one reason it feels so good to dream. If you imagine yourself doing, living, achieving your dreams and your ideas, you are using an imagined memory. The problem with that is, somehow, somewhere, it feels almost like a real memory and that gives us a sense of achievement, a sense of having already done it. This feeling, in turn, is likely to actually demotivate us because we believe that it is real, or can, or will soon be real. We feel assured of the outcome and then forget to actually make it happen. This, I can sense, has been a bit true of my own experience. All through high school, university and even my postgrad course, I had a sense that the outcome was assured, guaranteed. It wasn't that I then rested on my laurels, but at the same time that sense of guarantee meant I was unrealistic about the amount of work that really needed to be done to get there.
This is also why a lot of New Year's Resolutions fail. We feel that making the resolution is 99% of the way there, when it is only the 1%. There is a sensation of euphoria in the simple act of deciding to do something. It's quite possible that this is a bit of drug, that we take once a year, to make us feel good about ourselves, but when euphoria wanes and the real work begins we often give up especially if the goal is too big. Something similar happens when we tell other people about our dreams, or goals, or ambitions, as David Sivers point out in his TED talk.
It's not only this mental crux. There is something in middle class religion, in the UK at least, that feeds a kind of apathy mixed with a touch of narcissism. Religion preaches that we have a divine destiny, that there is a reason, a purpose and a planned outcome to our lives. It is by far not the only thing, there are plenty of other religious aphorisms that could fuel a more pro-active attitude, but certainly this idea of a divine plan mixed with the comforts of middle class life, can combine into a woeful narcissism. A belief in a planned destiny, gives you a sense of security and an unfounded confidence. The divine plan can often cause people to not take control of their lives and their own destiny and so dreams pass by. The idea of divine plan, as an aside, can get us into a conundrum about free will, and whether this is part of the plan or not? And if not was it part of the plan? What is the plan anyway?! And again people can sometimes, blissfully, accept failure as part of the plan rather than taking it as a sign to pull themselves up. 
It could also be said, rather cynically of course, that society, media and even the education system feed on our need for dreams. Everything from the "X Factor" making everyone believe they can be a pop star, to music schools making everyone believe they can be the next great musician, to Universities telling you you can do anything and that everyone will have a great job after graduation. There are always people willing to sell you the easy answer, sell you a secret to success and it is easy to believe. "I just need a book, a degree, to study with "so and so", a chance, and then I will be successful" Buying the book, getting the degree, studying with "so and so" are not wrong in themselves, indeed they can be beneficial but it is easy to substitute these simulacra for the real thing. In reality a book is just a book, a degree is just a piece of paper, "so and so" is just "so and so" and it's not privileged information only available for you, it's available to everyone.
What, then, do we do then? Dare to dream. We must dream. Having dreams is part of the hope that fuels existence and makes it bearable, but dreams have to meet realism. Daniel Kahneman, him again, points out in that book, again, that setting the wrong goals and aspirations when a person is young can have woeful consequences for the happiness of a person's life. Setting unrealistic goals, based on fairytale dreams, when unfulfilled can make a person, well, unfulfilled and full of regret. Ultimately they end up living an unhappy life, and perhaps that's a wasted life. Additionally it's worth considering at what cost we should pursue our dreams. It is sad to see people chasing dreams, especially unachievable ones, to the point of self-destruction, but there are also sorts of reasons why don't want to let go of dreams. They get tired up in our identity and we invest a lot of energy and love into them.
An analogy of climbing mountains might be useful. Not everyone wants to climb Everest, not everybody can (physically and mentally), so the big dreams in life have to be both something you want to do (it requires passion) and something that is within your talents, abilities and opportunities to do. Just because you want to and can do something though, doesn't mean you actually will do something. Looking up at the summit and imagining about getting there from the comfort of the hotel room isn't going to actually get you there. You have to get out of the hotel, simply put one foot in front of the other and start climbing, taking one step at a time and focusing on the next few steps in front of you. You have to work hard, and it is when you look back that you see how far you've come. We do need to look up sometimes to remind ourselves of what we are aiming for, but the more time you spend looking up the slower your progress or worse still you will slip, trip and fall off the nearest cliff. This is true in my own case. It was not that I didn't do the work, but I could have worked much harder and instead I spent more time with my head up rather than down meaning that time passed and I hadn't got nearly as far as I had imagined. There is no mistaking how, perhaps unfortunately, true Nike's slogan is. With dreams both big, climbing Mount Everest, and small, reading War & Peace, you have to "Just Do It" before it's too late. Carpe Diem. I might be in the processing of failing, but I haven't actually failed yet. Not at everything anyway. 
March 2013

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