I was recently asked, Is it better to be a dreamer or to be practical? It felt wrong to me that those were the only two choices, so I didn’t answer right away and chewed over the question for a while. To answer that question, I spent a lot of time thinking about my dreams, and why they have or haven’t come true throughout my life. Have you ever had a dream die? Or a dream you could never seem to bring to fruition, even though it consumed your thoughts? I have. Very recently even.
The worst thing about unfulfilled dreams is that they make you hesitant about creating newer dreams, for fear of further disappointment, which can cause a really bad downward spiral of hesitation and pessimism.
I’ve recently come to realize the difference between dreams I realized and dreams I didn’t is that the dreams I did realize were the ones that evolved into visions. Many people create this conflict between dreaming and being practical, as if those are the only two choices in life, and if you choose wrong you’re screwed. But it isn’t dreaming itself that’s the problem. Dreaming is great. The problem is when you never move past the dreaming stage and into the vision stage.
Having a dream and having a vision aren’t the same thing, although many people use the terms interchangeably.
- A dream is passive. You just sit back, close your eyes and let it come to you. A vision is active. You have to actively engage it and bring it forth through effort.
- You have to remain asleep or in a waking trance to dream. No matter how good the dream is, you’re still asleep during it. You have to be awake and aware to have a vision.
- A dream can be wildly unrealistic. You can fly to the moon in a hot air balloon in a dream if you want. A good vision on the other hand, even if it’s a loft, improbable goal, has to be reined in by realism to some degree.
- A dream is sprawling, unfocused and often incoherent overall. A vision is specific, focused and coherent.
- Dreams, even recurring ones, are inconsistent. They appear one way one night and another way another night. A vision is consistent and linear.
- Dreams, no matter how good, fade from memory the moment you stop dreaming and return to waking life. Visions crystallize and get committed to memory during your waking life.
- Dreams encourage lack of direction and self-indulgence. Visions encourage clear goals and self-discipline.
- Dreamers take foolish gambles. Visionaries take calculated risks.
- A dream represents a wish. A vision represents a desire.
- Dreams are what your mind produces when allowed to wander about aimlessly. Visions are what your mind produces when forced to move purposefully in one direction.
A lot of my thinking on this issue was inspired by the book The 4-Hour Workweek by Tim Ferriss. He doesn’t specifically say the things I lay out above, but the recurring theme I kept noticing with him was that whenever he had a dream, no matter how unrealistic it initially seemed, rather than waste time romanticizing it and indulging in how awesome the fantasy was, he would immediately set out to create an action plan with clear cut, achievable steps to make it happen. And he wasn’t vague in describing these plans in the book; he specifically laid out how he achieved the goals of becoming a Guinness Record holder for tango, a National Chinese Kickboxing Champion, a successful entrepreneur and an accomplished angel investor.
One of my favorite passages from the book:
Doing the Unrealistic Is Easier Than Doing the Realistic
It’s lonely at the top. 99% of people in the world are convinced they are incapable of achieving great things, so they aim for the mediocre. The level of competition is thus fiercest for “realistic” goals, paradoxically making them the most time- and energy-consuming. It is easier to raise $10,000,000 than it is $1,000,000. It is easier to pick up the one perfect 10 in the bar than the five 8s.
A Better Question Than “What Do You Want?”
Excitement is the more practical synonym for happiness, and it is precisely what you should strive to chase. It is the cure-all. When people suggest you follow your “passion” or your “bliss,” I propose they are, in fact, referring to the same singular concept: excitement…
The question you should be asking isn’t “What do I want?” or “What are my goals?” but “What would excite me?”
Adult-Onset ADD: Adventure Deficit Disorder
If you’re five years old and say you want to be an astronaut, your parents tell you that you can be anything you want to be. It’s harmless, like telling a child that Santa Claus exists. If you’re 25 and announce you want to start a new circus, the response is different: Be realistic; become a lawyer or an accountant or a doctor, have babies, and raise them to repeat the cycle.
If you do manage to ignore the doubters and start your own business, for example, ADD doesn’t disappear. It just takes a different form.
When I started BrainQUICKEN LLC in 2001, it was with a clear goal in mind: Make $1,000 per day whether I was banging my head on a laptop or cutting my toenails on the beach. It was to be an automated source of cash flow. If you look at my chronology, it is obvious that this didn’t happen until a meltdown forced it, despite the requisite income. Why? The goal wasn’t specific enough. I hadn’t defined alternate activities that would replace the initial workload. Therefore, I just continued working, even though there was no financial need. I needed to feel productive and had no other vehicles.
This is how most people work until death: “I’ll just work until I have X dollars and then do what I want.” If you don’t define the “what I want” alternate activities, the X figure will increase indefinitely to avoid the fear-inducing uncertainty of this void.
This is when both employees and entrepreneurs become fat men in red BMWs.
Remember – boredom is the enemy, not some abstract “failure.”
Correcting Course: Get Unrealistic
There is a process that I have used, and still use, to reignite life or correct course when needed. In some form or another, it is the same process used by the most impressive New Rich I have met around the world: dreamlining. Dreamlining is so named because it applies timelines to what most would consider dreams.
It is much like goal-setting but differs in several fundamental respects:
1. The goals shift from ambiguous wants to defined steps.
2. The goals have to be unrealistic to be effective.
3. It focuses on activities that will fill the vacuum created when work is removed. Living like a millionaire requires doing interesting things and not just owning enviable things.
Even all those great artists who had ideas come to them in dreams made sure to not be satisfied with the dream. They immediately got up and started committing the dream to paper and working on it voraciously. Take Paul McCartney and the song yesterday for instance:
Paul McCartney woke up with the tune for Yesterday in his head, along with some strange lyrics. For a long time, he was sure he must have heard it elsewhere, he dream was so clear.
The lyrics he had with the simple tune were –
Oh my darling you’ve got lovely legs
hardly a romantic set of thoughts! McCartney mulled over the tune for a while, convinced he must have heard it on the radio or elsewhere. But finally he played it for his fellow Beatles, and none of them remembered the tune from anywhere else. They put it together with some more romantic lyrics –
All my troubles seemed so far away,
Now it seems that they are here to stay,
Oh I believe in Yesterday.
“Scrambled Eggs” is a dream. “Yesterday” is a vision.
This isn’t meant to disparage dreams; they make for a great starting point. However, they shouldn’t be allowed to become the end of the journey. Dreams should never be your primary vehicle; they should be what informs your visions.
So in response to the original question about whether it’s better to have dreams or be practical, I say both are bad. Dreamers spend so much time dreaming that they keep their head in the clouds, don’t get disciplined, don’t hustle, have no focus and just expect things to magically work themselves out. Practical people go too far in the other direction, focusing on being safe and secure, and the price they usually pay is they end up being bored, neurotic, uninteresting and ultimately vaguely unfulfilled. Visions are the perfect mix of dreaming and practicality: enough dreaming to keep the goals unrealistic enough to really inspire you in the way Ferriss describes, but enough practicality to create defined, achievable steps to carry it to fruition.
So in my personal life I’m trying to make more of the shift from dreamer to visionary. I have a dream for something I want to accomplish in the month of November. I’m going to spend the rest of the month transforming it into a vision. I’ll let you know how it goes.
(Also, props to The G Manifesto for putting me on to Ferriss and his book.)