The Difference Between Dreaming and Doing


Setting goals can be great motivation, but how often do we actually pursue them? For a large part of the most recent decade (if not since the beginning of time), popular psychologists and their famous Self Help books have trumpeted the idea of “The Power of Intention.” Their urging voices have promised us that if we simply visualize our goals, if we can really see them, we will be able to bring them to fruition. This idea has been met with great popularity; as any twelve-year-old rehearsing Academy Award speeches in the mirror can tell you, visualizing is easy.

Actually seeing the vision through is another story entirely. The barrier between intention and doing can often seem like an impenetrable wall. Inertia holds one in place like a straitjacket, while every man-made excuse imaginable (ie gas money, train delays, internet failures, baby sitter shortages, classes and happy hour) serves to halt any thoughts of progress. Even once enough strength has been gathered to set aside all external roadblocks, the biggest impediment of all remains to be faced: ourselves.

There is something in our gut that really doesn’t want us to change.

Why is moving from envisioning to doing so terrifying? Why, for example, does it take us sometimes years to leave a job we hate for a new career? Or why can we talk for months with our significant other about getting married or buying a house, but can’t quite bring ourselves to actually propose or start seriously saving? Why is our life littered with thoughts like, “I wish I knew more about art,” “I wish I had a prettier apartment,” “I wish I was a better cook,” but we never make it to the art lecture or the flea market or the cooking class?

There are many simple answers to these questions. They are the answers we like to tell ourselves: “I’m too busy, I forgot, I will later.” While these may or may not be valid reasons, I would venture that the wall of resistance has a deeper root.

We fear failure. We fear if we move beyond wishes and daydreams and actually do something, that we will mess up and that we will lose something we value in the process. If all doesn’t go well, we might waste money, or lose someone’s respect, or miss out on some other opportunity. It’s as if an old instinct from our hunter-gatherer ancestors has resurfaced, reminding us that deviants from the set path are the most likely to get eaten.

Our hesitation moving from dreams to realizing them doesn’t always come in a convenient “I’m scared of failing” package. This is more common with big choices that are career or success oriented. Most of the time, this deeper fear of inadequacy is masked by excuses that are much easier to avoid addressing head on. For example, “I don’t know where to start,” is a favorite crutch. You can beat this. We have Google. Start by Googling.  

Another common excuse we use to mask fear is “I don’t have anyone to go with me.” This is understandable. Experiences can be incredibly rich when shared with others, and if something goes wrong we have someone other than just ourselves to fall back on. On the other hand, if we never step out without a wingman, how many opportunities will we miss?

The “I’m tired” excuse is also nearly universal. There is a difference between seriously needing a recharge (please, for heaven’s sake, take that nap! Eat that ice cream!) and taking the easy way out. The importance of knowing your own body and limits cannot be stressed enough.

Related to “I’m tired” is the also ubiquitous “I don’t have time.” Fact: We all have the same number of hours in our days and there is physically only so much we can fit into those hours. Contrary to what we believed in college, some of those hours need to be spent sleeping. If you have completely maxed yourself out and there are changes you want to make, you’re going to need to have a tough conversation about priorities with yourself. Or try combining goals. Instead of seeing friends or going on a hike, can you go on a hike with your friends? If you haven’t maxed yourself out, you’re still going to have to pick your priorities: Lazy Sunday or a trip to the gym?

If we really want to do something, none of these excuses should prevent us from doing it, but pushing through them is rarely easy. No matter how dissatisfied we are with our present circumstances, there is comfort in the familiarity. What if we took that cooking class and it was too hard, or we embarrassed ourselves? What if we started that blog and no one liked it? What if it was stupid?

The good news is that the daunting jump into the unknown is nearly always worth it. Having a new experience, and learning from it, is far preferable to not doing anything and wishing that we had. Regardless of the comparable success of the venture, pushing our comfort zones in even the most basic way is how we grow as humans.

The alternative is that we do nothing. We stay at the job, we don’t ask that person to marry us, we don’t plan the big trip, and we still can’t use Photoshop. We continue down the road of life comfortably dissatisfied because it is safer than doing what we actually want to do.

Don’t let yourself get away with it.

The wall of fear and excuses may never be an easy one to cross, but with practice we will begin to recognize its arguments more quickly and, hopefully, to defeat them more successfully. What excuses are stopping you from pursuing a dream right now? Pick one of them to focus on and spend the next 30 days identifying what fears are behind that excuse and seeing what you can do to purposefully overcome those roadblocks. If you can, share the stories of what you discover in the comments section below – you may help someone else beat their own excuses and make their own dream a reality.

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