A Vacation From Your Dreams

There's a hidden bonus in our mass loss of net worth; It's a respite from ambition.

By Judith Sills Ph.D., published on May 1, 2009 - last reviewed on June 9, 2016

When the real estate bubble burst and the market tanked, something else went down along with them. Well, OK, a lot of somethings—probably more than your Viagra or my psychotherapy could easily prop back up. But the something I have in mind is the one plus to come out of our current crash: We've had an aspiration deflation. Unexpectedly, many of us are enjoying standing still.

I don't know who or what first fueled your professional ambitions. Your mom? Your sibling rival? The zeitgeist? My own were jet-propelled early on, when one Marty Finer—former high school slacker and now professional colleague—let slip his enormous income figure. (Ha! That was an accident, Marty, right?) I vowed then and there that Marty would never out-earn me. I have been chasing him ever since.

Well, last month Marty got laid off, and you want to know what? I find it kind of restful. Scary, of course, in a there-but-for-the-grace-of-God way. But strangely relaxing, too. My own practice has felt the sting of this economic downturn and, if Marty has it worse, maybe I don't have to scramble so hard. Maybe I can just be grateful to be where I am.

Paradoxically, financial upheaval releases us from the tyranny of money. "I offered the oral surgeon a case of great wine in exchange for yanking my son's wisdom teeth,"confided a beverage distributor. "He seemed happy to take it. That's something I don't think either of us would have done a year ago."

After two decades of being urged to follow one's bliss, mere employment is the new jewel in the crown. "It was supposed to be a first-job-out-of-college thing," explained the manager of a small bakery. "I've been here for three years, but I've pressured myself the whole time, trying to figure out what I really want to do when I grow up. Suddenly the pressure is off. I've got health care benefits and vacation time and no one wonders why I'm staying put."

Some self-employed professionals are savoring the same kind of breather; some are sick at heart. And sometimes it's the very same someone on alternate days. A corporate art consultant describes herself on that very emotional seesaw. "My market is totally dead and there's no way I'll make my numbers this year. But we've had the art tiger by the tail for ten wild years. On good days I can enjoy the break, especially because it's no reflection on me."

The relief of lowered expectations makes sense if you consider the basic principle of economic competitiveness: We do not compare ourselves to the zillionaire in the Hamptons or the vice president six ranks above us. Rather, it's the guy in the house or the cubicle next door who gets our juices going. And this year, well, look around and then relax. Nobody near you is doing all that well either.

If you, like most of us, have been chasing ambitions that moved endlessly forward, you've been haunted by visions of others who are—at least in your own imagination—doing better or rising faster.

That's a formula for the chronic sense of dissatisfaction that has afflicted so many, independent of any and all achievement. Now, all of that nagging individual dissatisfaction has been magically replaced by communal fear. Together we are watching the crisis unfold.

But even though we're off the competitive hook, we do need a strategy for realigning our personal ambitions in a shrinking economy. There is no cookie-cutter solution. It all depends on your personality and individual means.

You might, for example, snuggle down and deepen your appreciation of security. Some of us will come to cherish the sameness of work that was boring us to death last year. We will come to savor it, grateful to have a professional "blankie."

Or you might be one for whom standing still triggers an urge to finally stand farther out on a limb than you have before. You have come to understand that even the safest bets have risk. When you can no longer hope for much reward where you are, you might just take a flier. Why not open that muffaletta stand in Maine, despite your absence of fast-food training? Big moves are easiest when there is less to lose.

A sideways step may take you to safety. You'll use the moment to carve out a new path, because rewards that will be long-delayed by education don't seem so bad when the current crop is dried up. You might, for example, go back to school and get that degree in nutrition. You will wait out the lousy economy in a cheap rental, and emerge with a new career that you actually care about.

Or you will just pause in place and then keep on pressing forward. Because while permission to stand still is a blessing, some will feel a burning desire to do better and develop their potential before too long. Giving up on dreams may be more crushing, in the long run, than trying them out and failing miserably. True, we're not in an era that will nurture every entrepreneur's goals, but that doesn't mean they should be relinquished.

Being forced to stand still can help you figure out if your ambitions truly coincide with your strengths and passions, or if they represent a younger, different you—or a restless you who will always want more.

Whichever option suits your soul and/or your bank account, one thing is likely: A deflation of aspirations can go hand in hand with hard times and real suffering. But look around and be reassured: You are in very good company.—Judith Sills, Ph.D.

In Place of Aspiration

Now that you are not plotting your next move, you can focus on other goals.

  • Communicate. Write a love letter. Tell your spouse or your business partner what it means to get through hard times with someone by your side. Leave a happy note in your kid's school lunch. It's free.
  • Cogitate. In the rush toward success there is hardly ever enough time to think things over. Carefully reevaluate your five-year plan, your before-I-die plan, your in-case-of-emergency plan.
  • Cooperate. Help a friend who can't afford to hire a mover, cook for the potluck because the caterer is now out of reach, lighten workloads for colleagues who might be struggling.
  • Celebrate. Because we need a little Christmas. Whether at home or at the office–don't wait for someone else to plan the party.