Dreams have a mystique in America. Teachers tell students to follow their dreams. Friends encourage each other: Go for it! Never quit! You can be anything you dream of being!!! Except…
A dream is a regular idea with a fancy name. That’s all it is. It’s an idea that popped into the head. Understanding that is very important. Why? Have you ever had a bad idea? Ever looked back at something and thought, “Whoa. I shouldn’t have done that. That was a bad idea.” Be realistic: Lots of people have bad ideas. And if a dream is an idea with a fancy name, lots of people have bad dreams, so to speak. Lots of students do, too. How do we deal with “stupid” dreams?
It becomes important because we treat “dreams” so differently than “ideas.” Let me give you an example. I was playing golf at a municipal golf course. My playing partner was 46 years old and announced that he had just quit his job to focus on golf. There is a Senior Tour for professional golfers, and he figured he could make lots of money there. Except he wasn’t that good. If he had said, “My idea is to try out for the Tour and become rich,” I would have said, “That’s a really bad idea. Every year, many touring pros with years of experience turn 50. These guys regularly shoot in the 60’s which is something you have never done. They have years of experience playing under extreme pressure and you have none. You have no chance at surviving the qualifying process to join the tour. Get your job back now!”
But he said, “My dream is to try out for the Tour” instead. Dream? No one can step on another person’s dream, right? So I said, “Oh. Go for it.” Which is really bad advice. Who knows what realistic opportunities he missed by looking in the wrong direction? Who knows what successes he could have had in the business he left to foolishly chase his dream? How did his unrealistic personal self-assessments cost him years later when his dream turned into a nightmare?
You have seen the “Famous Failures” poster, haven’t you? There are a few versions of it. Michael Jordan didn’t make varsity as a high school sophomore; one person said Walt Disney wasn’t any good; The Beatles were rejected by a recording company; Steve Jobs was fired once… AND THEY DIDN’T LET THOSE THINGS STOP THEM FROM THEIR DREAMS!! Follow your dreams, too!!
Should we point out that of the hundreds of millions of Americans who lived in the 20th century, they picked out six? Should we point out the arrogance of comparing yourself to one of these people? Should we point out that for every wrong statement such as “you will never make it as an author/musician/cartoonist/athlete/whatever” literally millions of similar statements were true? Edgy stuff, right?
Do we have a responsibility as educators to teach realistic expectations? The default is “Hey, go for it! Follow your dreams.” Who would dare to challenge that? But are we sending students down the wrong path and shutting down their possibility of developing their true talents? I know some readers are thinking, “Who are you to make such determinations?!” I also know that every reader can think of students (and adults) who had very bad ideas and you knew they were bad. When should we stop parroting the cliché?
Does age matter? Let little kids believe in Santa but tell older kids the truth? When do we share important realistic information? Do the math. There is one president, and he (or one day, she) holds office for four years. It is not the case that anyone can be president. Only one of 333,000,000 can. Do the math. There are five big name pop stars/movie actors/filmmakers/Internet company developers/baseball players/etc. The planet has 7 billion people. Do we have a responsibility to share this? Should we ever say, “You draw well and it will be a great hobby for you, but what else should you be doing?”
The odds are overwhelming that leading students to realistic expectations will be better advice than “Go for it!” Do you want to play the odds? Do you want to educate about reality or encourage fantasizing about what will never be? I struggle with that. I fear I do a disservice by blindly saying, “Follow your dreams.” I wish the kids just said, “My idea is to…”