Ann has been struggling for several years now trying to make it as a writer. She has submitted two novels to editors and agents, to no avail. She’s discouraged, and giving up the notion that she’ll ever see her work in print.
Alex has always wanted, of all things, a brand new Audi. But he realizes that no matter how hard he works, given his career and the demands on his income, he’s never going to be able to afford one. If he thinks about it hard enough, he quickly begins to feel like a loser.
Most of us have something that we really want, "bucket list" stuff like a big house, the perfect job, two kids—or, like Alex, something singular like that Audi or a first-class trip to Paris. Others dream of accomplishments like running a marathon or starring in a play.
We work toward such a dream, it becomes our primary focus for a period of time, and then... we don’t make it. There’s never going to be enough money, or we find out that we’re infertile, or an injury makes running a marathon forever impossible.
I meet people who face such issues fairly often. They come to me weighed down by a major sense of loss, disappointment, or deep regret. They circle around the wound over and over, or try to push it aside, knowing that any time they mentally go back to it, they will feel the sting. Instinctively they incorporate the non-achievement in the narrative of themselves and their lives, creating a moral to the story—that they are a loser, or life is stacked against them, or they need to grow up and lower expectations.
But these dreams tell us about what we need, and it’s possible to transform even a dream we haven't achieved by figuring out its core, seeing what we envision as a means to something deeper and not an end in itself. We need to see what the dream—being a writer, buying the car, running the marathon—represents. What do we really get when we get what we want? If we can figure out the dream beneath the dream, we are freed to look for other paths to that end, rather than feeling stuck or stopped.
Ann desperately wants to be a writer. Why? What does it represent to her? What does she gain most by achieving it? Is it fame, an appreciation of her efforts and talents, a confirmation that she is indeed a creative person, a possible lifestyle change where she can not worry about working for someone else?
What does the Audi represent for Alex? Is it status, or success? Is it a sign that he has made it, that he is not a loser after all, that he has done better than his father ever predicted? What?
They both have to figure this out by asking themselves Why questions and using their emotions as a guide to discover what's at the heart and purpose of it all. If Ann discovers, for example, that writing is not just about writing but about creativity or living closer to her vision of everyday life, can she then brainstorm other ways to getting there, maybe through writing without worrying about publishing? If she wants to change her everyday lifestyle and get out of the 9-to-5 work cycle, can she explore other ways of reaching that important goal that have nothing to do with writing?
If Alex finds that what's really behind his Audi dream is showing his father that he has succeeded in life, could he embrace other measures of success rather than fixating on this one? Better yet, could he resolve the underlying issue by talking with his father about their relationship, or talking to a therapist about changing his view of himself? Similarly, does that frustrated marathoner need not to finish a road race but just aspire to a single hard challenge she can measure herself against? Are there other ways to achieve this besides running?
The notion here is clear: Find other ways of getting what is really beneath the dream. Sometimes it’s easy to feel initially that these "something elses," these other paths are not quite as good as, or are just watered-down versions of the original dream. If that is the case, if it feels too compromised, it may be that you haven’t really defined the true core yet, or that you are still in the midst of grief over the initial sense of loss. Give yourself time to sort it out, then continue to ask the Why questions until you get to an emotional point that feels right and solid.
But don’t give up, lick wounds, lament the past, or stay fixated on what you didn’t do. Instead, transform the dream.