There is a game teenagers play called truth or dare. If you don’t know it, it requires you to publicly tell the truth about some usually private or intimate detail of your life, or else hold your secrets, but perform some reckless forfeit instead. It can be a very cruel game, but there’s an insidious in-built bias within it that I think requires deeper examination. Truth or dare suggests that daring is a method of evading the truth. In fact, daring instead of just dreaming is a confrontation with the truth.
I think it was J.K. Rowling who suggested that dreaming (of becoming a successful author, in her case) is all very well and good, but the real test of your mettle is whether or not you dare to try to realise your dreams. Action counts. In the life game of dream or dare, only daring can actually make your dreams come true. Endless dreaming doesn’t really change your situation at all, no matter how beguiling and comforting those dreams might be. Ultimately, you have to take some chances and do the work.
And you might fail repeatedly. Application improves your chances of success and recognition, but offers no guarantees. That’s the bitch of it all.
It can be extraordinarily hard to dare, when you’re already not coping and feeling overwhelmed. When you’re overwhelmed, you need help, but so often there isn’t any. Just existing can fully deplete your limited motivation resources. Finding the courage and energy to try to realise your dreams can seem utterly impossible.
I struggle with this constantly. I, like many dreamers, have big dreams I want to bring to fruition, but just holding station, without my life dissolving into uncontainable chaos, takes almost everything I’ve got. Progress is hard won. The prevention of regress seems like a full time occupation.
Sometimes the dream you have is too indistinct, or the end you dream about doesn’t convince you and this causes inertia. When your dream lacks detail, it’s hard to know which small initial steps will carry you in the right direction. It’s also impossible to tell how many steps might be necessary. That’s enough to stop you in your tracks.
If you can’t clearly visualise yourself after you succeed, in your imagination, feeling like it could never really happen for you, then your dreams lose credibility and daring to realise them feels futile. You first have to convince yourself you’re worthy of success and that yes, you can be the one that makes it. Wanting your dream to come true involves imagining it already has, in a peculiar way.
The problem with dreams is that they can be seductive. Daring feels like hard work and risk. Dreaming, on the other hand, requires much less stress, sweat, failure, disappointment and time. It’s difficult to go wrong, in a dream. Things are under your complete control and they turn out the way you decree. There are no compromises, no need to adapt to circumstances, no unanticipated disasters and little to confound your intention. Daring involves all of those inconveniences and many more.
If you’re in any way aware of your mortality, you’ll probably feel some aversion to spending your energies and limited lifespan on something that feels like a sure-fire failure. Yes, it might be a grand dream, but if it’s daunting, unlikely and unrealistic to your rational mind, you might feel crushing guilt and foolishness for spending any time at all daring to make the dream come true. Yet, dare you must. Dying with unfulfilled dreams, or worse, losing the capacities required to fulfill them as you age, is no picnic either. Many people end their days riddled with such regrets.
You might have the feeling that you don’t have the skills to turn dreaming into daring. You’re not alone. Nobody starts with every skill they’re going to need. Rather, you make the best of what you have and try to learn the additional skills you need, as you go. There’s no other way to do it. This is why it requires daring. You can never be sufficiently prepared to guarantee success. There’s no such thing. All you can hope is that you’ll get the skills you need by the time they become necessary and decisive. In that sense, it’s like walking a tightrope blindfolded.
You need persistent courage. Desperation can be a great motivator. Having no choice but to dare can be the factor that propels you forward. When you have alternative choices, it’s easier to convince yourself that some other path is easier and less risky. That, indeed, may be so, but it won’t get you any closer to realising your dream. Often, all you’ll do is fulfill somebody else’s dream, while neglecting or even abandoning your own. There is nothing sadder.
Sometimes, it’s better to have to realise your dream, come hell or high water, because you have no viable plan B. Even then, you can still fail and in all probability will. Resilience will be needed to pick yourself up and carry on toward your goal somehow. This cycle may repeat. It may repeat multiple times. Daring is a very hard road.
People who consistently dream great, big, brilliant dreams often get intimidated and gaslighted into believing their dreams and ideas are ordinary, by people that only have ordinary dreams. This is because that makes them feel better about their own ordinary dreams. It’s an easy trap to fall into. The grandiosity of the dream doesn’t always make it any less likely than a small dream. Small dreams are not necessarily easier to accomplish because they’re small. Many other factors come into play. Audacious, moon-shot dreams are not as common as ordinary dreams. If you have one, you should probably honour it. If you don’t dare to make this outrageously unlikely dream come true, there probably isn’t anybody else even trying.
Great things never come from comfort zones.
I found this useful graph of the emotional journey associated with daring to create anything great that you have dreamed, somewhere on the Internet:
The dark swamp of despair is inevitable and might even be necessary. While dreaming might be soothing and entertaining, daring is going to suck. Until it doesn’t. At the end, the joy you get from accomplishing your dream far outweighs the pleasure you get from merely dreaming about it.
Like many people, I’ve spent time reading about how dreamers turned their dreams into reality. We intuitively believe that if we focus on the successful and emulate what they did, we’ll be successful too. Unfortunately, this turns out to be incorrect. There’s something called “survivorship bias” and there is an excellent, lucid explanation of what that is here: https://youarenotsosmart.com/2013/05/23/survivorship-bias/amp/?__twitter_impression=true
The problem is that the advice business is a monopoly run by survivors. A stupid decision that works out well becomes a brilliant decision in hindsight. The struggle to dare greatly is real and focussing on the winners means you ignore the lessons of all the failures. Most survivors, it turns out, were lucky. They like to tell you it was all part of their carefully executed master plan, but it’s a lie. Things simply went their way.
If we want to turn dreams into realities, we should also study the failures, to avoid the pitfalls that derailed their projects, but of course the literature is very sparse. Nobody wants to read about how people tried and failed. There’s no happy ending. Consequently, we remain blind to experience that might actually help us succeed. We dismiss the failures as if they had no merit. In fact, there may be patterns contributing to these failures, from which we never learn.
Interestingly, believing yourself to be lucky means you notice lucky breaks to take, and serendipitous opportunities that arise, better than people who believe they’re unlucky. If you think you’re going to be one of the lucky few who succeed, you’ll be more attuned to daring, as opportunities you didn’t anticipate, and weren’t part of your premeditated plan, present themselves. Being open to serendipitous circumstances increases your chances of actually being lucky.
Unlucky people, in contrast, are said to be more narrowly focused. They crave security, tend to be more anxious, try harder to stick to their plan and instead of wading into the miasma of random chance, open to what may come, they remain fixated on controlling the situation. They’re so hell-bent on seeking a specific goal, they completely miss other equally fruitful outcomes. As a result, they miss out on the thousands of opportunities that may float by, untaken.
Lucky people tend to constantly change routines and seek out new experiences, yet routine habits build skills and are how you become persistent, in order to accomplish big things. These approaches are in tension. You need good work habits, to get things done and hone your expertise, but enough variety of experience to encounter and follow paths that might lead to better luck than the ones you habitually pursue. Do you see now why advice from those that succeed is too often riddled with self-justifications and faux wisdom, when the truth of the matter is that they made a happy, propitious choice, somewhere along the line?
The lucky try more things and fail more often, but when they fail, they shrug it off and try something else. Occasionally, things work out. If you’re going to stop dreaming and start daring, you’re going to have to make peace with that reality. You might do everything right and still miss turning your dream into reality. If you’re lucky, by acting in a way that improves your luck, the roll of the dice may possibly favour you some day. If you keep dreaming, though, you’ll never be lucky.
Your best option, to avoid disappointment at your unfulfilled potential, is to dare, expecting to be lucky, but being resilient about it, when you aren’t. That’s the best you can do.
Some dreams aren’t big. Rather, some are small and exquisite in detail. Their size doesn’t make them any less worthy of admiration, but it also doesn’t make them any easier to realise. The corresponding dare needs to be equally intricate and detailed. And you still might fail. There are no guarantees, even with small dreams. Ask anybody that has repeatedly failed to realise one.
So, there you have it. Dreaming is fun; even recreational. It sows the seeds of better future possibilities. However, without daring to turn those dreams into reality, they’ll never be more than some happy ideas. Daring is painful, uncertain, risky, distressing and totally sucks, but not as much as never realising your dreams. That’s the human condition. Struggle is part of the deal. Reward for struggle isn’t always forthcoming.
Welcome to humanity.