Dreaming is Poison


We begin by worrying we aren’t good enough, smart enough or talented enough to get what we want, then we voluntarily live in this paralyzing mental framework, rather than confront our own role in this paralysis. Just the possibility of failing turns into a dutiful self-fulfilling prophecy. We begin to believe that these personal restrictions are, in fact, the fixed limitations of the world. We go on to live our lives, all the while wondering what we can change and how we can change it, and we calculate and re-calculate when we will be ready to do the thing s we want to do. And we dream. If only. If only. One day. Some day.

I wanted to be an Olympic figure skater, you see. I was I think five, maybe nine, so stop laughing.

We were watching the Winter Olympics, and the things those girls could do blew my mind, and I wanted to do that. I twirled around the house. I talked about it constantly. And my parents said to me, if you want to do that, you can do that. You can be anything you want to be. Anything at all.

But you have to get up every single day at 4 a.m and train for three hours before school, and then train for three hours after school and spend every night and weekend, and spend all the money you would otherwise have for college on skates and trips and lessons and ice time, and that is all you will do for the next five years of your life. Maybe the next ten years. Maybe for the rest of your life.

Those girls are thirteen, fourteen, fifteen. You have to start yesterday. So is this all you want to do? Is that how bad you want it? Is that how sure you are?

On the surface, doesn’t that seem like an awful thing to tell a child? Way to harsh my buzz, Mom.

But in retrospect, it was the best possible thing anyone could have ever said to me. I don’t know who it was that came up with the reductive, lazy, insulting concept that all you need to do is dream about what you’re going to do and it’ll just happen, but I want to punch that person right out. You don’t have to just dream. You don’t have to just imagine yourself doing a triple lutz. You don’t just have to believe in yourself. You have to work your ass off.

You have to have time and money and freedom to do what you dream about doing, and if you don’t have those three things you have to work even harder to get them so that THEN you can start where everybody else has already been for three years and work harder than them. And on top of that then you have to be incredibly fortunate. If it’s something physical you dream of, you have to be physically suited to it and stay uninjured, which sometimes is taking care of yourself and sometimes is just dumb-ass luck and not getting broadsided by a truck on the freeway.

That sounds like condemnation, but it’s not. It’s the most loving, positive thing. You want something? Make a plan. Step one in almost any plan is “get a shitload of money somehow” because have you seen this country of ours lately, but sit down, write a list. Pick something off of it. Do it. Then do another thing. Then another.

Then you’re into it, and it has to work.

Planning is so much better than dreaming. Planning lets you see the cracks in the impossible, figure out ways over the walls in your way. Planning is what gets you past the limitations. Planning is what pulls you out of the panic, and believe me, I still get the panic every time I start something new, that says OHMYFUCKINGGODIAMNOTGOINGTOBEABLETODOTHIS. I get that panic DAILY, and the only thing that stops it is a physical sketch on paper of what needs to get done immediately, what can wait until tomorrow, and what we don’t need to worry about until it’s actually on fire.

And planning gets you to see what you really want bad enough to do all those things. Dreaming shows you the good stuff, the endgame. The gold medal, the applause, the win. But planning shows you the work, the shape of the days it will take you to get where you need to be. A dream is insurmountable. A plan gets you past the dream.

Had I wanted to be a figure skater bad enough, it might have been possible, with enough of a plan. Had I gotten up, every day, at 4 a.m. and trained for three hours before school, and then trained for three hours after school, and scrounged the money, and spent it all, and disciplined my diet, and stayed uninjured, and done nothing but that every day for five years or ten years or the rest of my life, it might have been possible.

That wasn’t what I wanted bad enough. There was something I wanted bad enough, but I hadn’t found it yet. When I did find it, it slammed into me like a wrecking ball and I mortgaged every inch of myself to get it. I have boxes, in storage, full of plans, on thousands of legal pads and notebooks and scraps of calendar pages. To this day, I stay up at night running scenarios, bothering people with them, thinking what if I move this here, what if I do that there. It’s not a dream. I can see it.

I barely remember the figure skaters. I barely remember how I once felt about them.

That was a dream.


5 thoughts on “Dreaming is Poison

  1. I’d have to say it is a fine line.
    Dreaming is a way of finding what enlivens you. It helps you explore new areas. It gives you the energy to deal with getting on the ice at 4AM every morning. It is a way of teaching dedicated work. Following a dream teaches you how to overcome obstacles. Even dreaming and failing isn’t necessarily bad as you both learn to deal with failure and to mold your dream to something different.
    But, as in Les Miz, the tigers come at night.
    The champion figure skaters of today have their newborn hospital pictures in the bassinet, wearing figure skates (I wouldn’t be surprised if someone is working on a proceedure to permanently implant skates in utero.) I can’t imagine how destructive this one-sided / one-dimensional psyche could be – especially in knowing that the percentage of even these champion skaters managing to make the transfer to a professional career is low enough to be essentially zero. Working so hard on this dream can crowd out the benefits of having other dreams. Plus, if you walk away from your dream, you always wonder “what if…”
    Additionally, we’ve become a world where one must devote huge resources to develop many dreams. The figure skater needs a parent to haul them to the ice every morning and afternoon. The outfits cost loads of money. There’s transportation to local meets. There is transportation as well as hotel, etc. for regional and national meets. And if one wants to be at the top, they must have exposure to their top competitors including top coaches.
    I find this a very pernicious effect in that the Romneys and Bushes of the world have the resources to either do these things or hire someone to do them. Their kids grow up hearing that they can do it and getting the accolades for being the top skater / top salesperson of the stuff your band sells to get some funds for music and uniforms/ etc. If and when they fail they have someone there to pick them back up. If they have problems in school their parents can hire tutors. Their wealthy parents assure that in business they have a distinct edge of getting to the top.
    OTOH – someone in the lower 50% (and yes I mean to say at least half, or probably more like 75%. Admittedly there are exceptions). They don’t get the opportunities to succeed. Their parents can’t afford it so they are told they can’t. It becomes a repeating slap at them that starts from the outside but readily works itself into their head to become a self-criticism and self-fulfilling prophecy.
    Along a similar balance, the link touts the modern mantra of just believe in yourself. A healthy self confidence is good. But there is also a certain realism. For example, as hard as I practiced piano as a kid, there is no way I’d ever be another Rachmaninov.

  2. I don’t know who it was that came up with the reductive, lazy, insulting concept that all you need to do is dream about what you’re going to do and it’ll just happen, but I want to punch that person right out.
    You better start training to fight.

  3. My 4 year old watched the ’98 winter olympics with us and particularly loved Tara Lipinsky. “Wan be her”, she said. On the bright side, she did learn to become a fine Irish Step dancer:)

  4. This is so good. Needs to be syndicated. I had to learn about effort and planning from a boyfriend when I was a sophomore in college. I still haven’t caught up to his level of discipline but at least I learned what it takes. Thanks, A!!!

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