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Livin the Dream (But Whose Dream Is It?)

Dreaming is a topic we reserve for Kindergarten and elementary school. I move we upgrade this topic to an adult one because we’re making a royal mess of it lately.

We’ve confused dreams with escapism and naivety. And we’ve normalized pedestaling the dreams of those who came before us over our own, resulting in outcomes I do not support (an insincere and unfulfilling, mostly empty emotional life).

Dreaming intersects with morality in our Western culture for reasons I do not support or understand. Exhibit A: A person’s desire to be a math professor is not morally superior to someone else’s desire to be a CEO; in the same way that someone’s desire to have four children instead of two says nothing morally meaningful about who they are.

There are no “better” or “worse” dreams or desires, just different ones.

Dreams and desires, in the way that I’m referring to them here, are expressions and extensions of who you are. They aren’t seeking to fill a hole inside of you, they are the fullness that is you.

Dreams can be emancipatory when they come from a sincere desire to express the trueness of who you are, but toxic when they’re fueled by a desire to meet standards set by the outside world. This includes parents, teachers, bosses, the media, your ex, your friends, The Man, your industry, a religious clergy member, and basically anyone who isn’t you.

When we conflate moral value (aka: worthiness) with “life outcomes,” we make our feelings of self-worth contingent upon external things we cannot control (and do not actually value).

When we conflate moral value with “life outcomes,” we make our feelings of self-worth contingent upon external things we cannot control and do not actually value.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in the unexamined trope of the current American Dream. If you discover that someone is married with two kids, has a nice $650k/year job, lives in a beautifully furnished home in an upscale neighborhood, and regularly vacations in Cabo, what do you think about them?

I’ve conducted this experiment anecdotally (highly recommend you do this) and here is what I’ve found:

Most of us, when faced with this hypothetical, judge this person as “successful.” They appear to have all the material trappings of a good life, as well as the emotionally fulfilling components of a “family” and “vacation.” Except if we revisit what I wrote, I’ve told you nothing substantial about the subjective quality of this person’s life.

We can make assumptions, but the reality is the only thing you can say with certainty is this person lives in a house, has two children, has an income, and travels to Cabo.

You don’t know the state of this person’s marriage or finances or health. You don’t know if this person is drowning in debt or if the house is a money pit or a haven, you don’t know if they own this home or rent it. You don’t know if this person is harboring scars from the weight of purity culture or sexual abuse. You don’t know if there’s a Vicodin addiction or emotional neglect.

You don’t know if that job is crushing this person under the weight of expectations, robbing them of time with their children, or filling them with meaning and purpose. You don’t know if there is kindness and love in the family or deep burning resentment.

You don’t know if this is a man or a woman. You don’t know if they’re gay or straight, cis or trans. You don’t know if they’re Jewish or Methodist or Muslim or Buddhist or atheist. I’ve told you nothing meaningful about this picture, and yet most of us reflexively think, “Damn, this 40-something white guy is livin’ the dream.”

Whose dream exactly is this?

And why is it so nonspecific? And why do we all assume this refers to a Christian white hetero cis dude and not a black trans-Sephardic Jewish woman? Here’s the question I’m dancing around:

Why must my dream for my life look the same as yours?

Because the world will be a much better place when we value and judge ourselves based on our own success metrics and values instead of the arbitrary desires of people who are not us.

Lots of people have expectations for who you are supposed to be, who you should be, what you should value, and why.

The question you must answer for yourself is what do YOU value and why?

A shortcut I’ve found for answering this question is not using your head. Do not think about this answer. Instead, observe your behavior. Find where you spend your time.

You’ll uncover exactly what your values and priorities actually are – and whether they are misaligned with what you believed they were.

If they are misaligned, today is a great day to change that.

Livin’ the dream should be living your dream, not fulfilling the wishes, desires, and obligations of someone who isn’t you.

To follow your dreams, to believe they are possible and matter, you have to know first who you are and what you value.

Otherwise, you get stuck in a trap of blaming others for why you are where you are in life. It might sincerely be their fault. But it is your problem.

And mine too, since we’re in this together.

Let’s stop promoting one version of success. I’d like to see more diversity in this conversation. What is “killing it” to you? Not your immigrant parents, not your mean dad or stage mom, not the professor who said you couldn’t – to YOU.

Tell me that dream.

I’ll champion it all day every day. And so should you.


PS: This PSA comes with a giant caveat for those of us who are caregivers and fighting forces bigger than ourselves, as the constraints are a bit different. However, they aren’t forever. And I believe the exercise is still worthwhile. A woman in Brainstorm Road this week comforted one of our members with a story that nearly brought me to tears. She said that when she was 12, her mother went back to school. It meant her mom was around less, but this member never forgot what “following her dream” did to her mother. It not only gave her her mother back (in spirit), but gave her (this woman) permission to do the same with her life.

I’ve not seen many examples of emancipated women living out their dreams on their terms. Only women who insist a family is their dream and then hold it against them (if the family is your dream, that is beautiful and please keep doing it – we don’t judge dreams here, we judge dishonesty). Because if it is not true, and your heart longs for something different – you steal from all of us (especially your children) when you cut yourself off from feeling your own desire for the thing you want.

I say this as someone who is mostly cut off from the things she wants and is fighting tooth and nail for what she wants before she ever starts to lie to herself that perhaps she never really wanted it. I will die on this hill. No good comes from denying who you are and what you want.

Living the dream is living your dream. And it doesn’t need to be big and giant or small and little. As a frat bro once said, size doesn’t matter. Your dream is YOURS. The qualification for it is simply that: it exists.

I dream of uninterrupted time in the mornings to drink strong coffee slowly and write my morning pages. I work very hard every single day to make that dream a reality.

What do you dream? What does it mean to “live your dream?”