In interviews with people who have just done something great, you will often hear them say something like "and I'd like to thank my parents who always told me I could be anything I wanted to be..." I think to myself: That's sweet, but your parents lied to you.

You can't be anything you want to be. Consider those pathetic American Idol contestants, typically showcased in a season's early episodes, who are interviewed by the host after howling tunelessly and being dismissed by the judges. Often in tears, many of them genuinely can't sort out what has happened, and say something along the lines of "They don't understand, this is my dream."

Great TV-what could be better than watching people humiliate themselves in front of millions of viewers, right? But what interests me is that it seems these folks believe it's the strength of their dream rather than ability to sing that should determine their success. But then I guess it's no surprise they might think this, because in our society we are repeatedly told that we should pursue our dreams and let nothing stand in the way. Again, that's patently untrue-even if it's their dream, tone deaf people can't be popular singers-and you have to wonder why something so false is so often repeated.

It's repeated because it's fundamental to our economy, our whole way of life. I've asked hundreds of people about this over the years and I've learned that most of us dream of transformation; although we may acknowledge that our lives are fine right now, we also carry around an underlying fantasy that things could be much better if only...I could finish my novel, get a date with Mary, win the lottery, you name it. Such dreams keep us going, they give hope, even to those who have little to be hopeful about.

So, what's wrong with that? Well, two things. For those whose lives are fine right now, dreams of transformation create a restless dissatisfaction instead of appreciation of the here and now. And for those whose lives aren't fine right now, what's needed is not dreams, but realistic plans.

The advice we should give people is not "follow your dreams" but rather "follow your aptitude." This would seem to be a simple thing, why don't we do it? We don't do it because we need to preserve the fantasy that is the basis of most of our stories, movies, and self-help books: "No matter how bleak things seem, what you dream about is ahead, just around the corner. Go to the movies, buy this book, join our church and you are guaranteed a place in heaven."

This fantasy must be preserved at all costs, for if too many people started to suspect that their road to the top is effectively blocked, they might begin to question the entire economic system. Instead of going to the movies or buying the promises, they might instead organize political groups to address, for example, the spectacular income inequalities in our society. And we can't have that, can we?

Peter G. Stromberg is author of Caught in Play: How Entertainment Works on You.  Photo by Gisela Giardino.

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