When We Stop Dreaming Big

Do you remember your first aspiration? I’m not sure if I came by goal-setting naturally…I actually think swimming eventually drilled it into my thick skull. But I remember wanting to win at an early age. Anything really.

I wanted to go to the Olympics, though I had no idea what that meant. I wanted to be a dentist and a vet and a dog barber (a kid’s term for “groomer”). I wanted to be a cheerleader but that dream was smashed when I realized I was born too big to be a flyer. I wasn’t all that coordinated on land either, but I didn’t know that in elementary school.

I thought I could do anything. I was in choir in 5th grade and even scored a duet in the Christmas program (something my brother still laughs at, since I have never been a vocal talent). I was filled with hopeful confidence in most arenas in elementary school.

Then middle school happened and it crushed my soul. No, not entirely. That’s when I realized I could be quite good at swimming, but I started to lose confidence elsewhere. Like in math. But my 8th grade English teacher, Mrs. Bullock, did me a solid one day. She put an essay of mine up on the overhead projector. I was horrified at first. I thought she was going to rip it apart.

I thought she didn’t like me. (Context: I acted out a scene from The Tempest with two other girls and a boy in her class. Two of the characters spoke two lines then were to fall asleep, leaving the remainder of the scene to myself and the boy. I needed prompting on one line and ended up getting a lower grade than my two classmates who were given A’s for being good fake sleepers. I’m not bitter…)

To my surprise, Mrs. Bullock went through my paper line by line and commended my work. Was she actually using my prose as an example of good writing?!

I was still embarrassed because I was in 8th grade and as grasshopper-esque as they come at 5’11, 110 lbs. Any extra attention made me blush. But this gift of encouragement stuck with me…and sort of freed me to give up on math. Kidding, kind of. I didn’t think I wanted to be “a writer” after that, but I added writing to my small box of tricks I may dip into later in life.

Honestly, in high school all I thought about was swimming. I slept through a lot of my classes because…swimming. I wanted good grades, but I wasn’t really focused on retaining the information beyond the exam. I wasn’t thinking about a long-term career. I was just dreaming about being the best at swimming.

I gave my Olympic swimming dream a college try plus two years. When it didn’t come to fruition, I endeavored to pursue other dreams.

When do we stop dreaming big? I’d say mid-20s (subjectively speaking for the next five paragraphs). College graduation is exciting and you think the world is your oyster (because that’s what we’re taught in school).

You begin applying for unpaid internships and get turned down. “Hmmm, how worthless am I?” we start to think.

After a couple dead-end internships, we just start looking for a job, any job will do. I just want employment please, so I can have an answer for friends or family members who ask, “What are you doing these days?” without lying or sounding pathetic.

Our major didn’t end up mattering after all. I had one boss tell me she filtered through applications by degree– if you didn’t have an MBA, you were tossed. A PhD is really preferable, she said.

OK, but what can I do with my bachelor’s degree, ma’am?

My dreams of making a writing income began to fade before college graduation. Many of my college professors had been laid off by newspapers and they accidentally portrayed journalism as a dying art to their naive students.

I thought about many other career paths: counseling, speech pathology, massage therapy, nutrition, strength training…all of which would require more school.

Not everyone loves school, but without realizing it, school trains us to expect feedback. But you apply to enough jobs online without getting feedback and you begin wondering if you really are talent-less. I spent good time on countless cover letters and resumes without receiving a response– good or bad.

After taking a couple jobs I hated, I started coaching and writing and I realized I did have some experiential wisdom to impart to young swimmers.

I have never won any awards for writing, but I guess that’s not why you choose to write. I do it because occasionally I have thoughts that I feel others might relate to. And maybe my version of these thoughts will help others through a similar struggle. Or they’ll just feel like they’re having a conversation with someone as vulnerable as them and feel less alone.

I recently read (and loved) Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird. She has some off-the-wall, yet on-point metaphors and a dark humor that’s refreshing because it’s raw. She’s writing about writing and I love how much of herself she’s willing to share. Here’s an excerpt that freed me up from feeling guilty about being unoriginal:

“Mark Twain said that Adam was the only man, who, when he said a good thing, knew that nobody had said it before. Life is like a recycling center, where all the concerns and dramas of humankind get recycled back and forth across the universe. But what you have to offer is your own sensibility, maybe your own sense of humor or insider pathos or meaning. All of us can sing the same song, and there will still be four billion different renditions.”

The whole idea that we stop dreaming big after our big dreams get squashed by enough overworked potential employers isn’t original. The compiled list of Abraham Lincoln’s long list of failures isn’t fresh material, but it’s never not inspiring. Rejection and failure can make us doubt our worthiness.

Author Hannah Anderson says, “Your belief that God couldn’t possibly call you to write or to evangelize or advocate for children in foster care means nothing, especially when we’re talking about a God who routinely does above and beyond what we can ask or think.”

So who are we to stifle these deeply embedded ambitions? If we’re banking on encouragement and coddling from others to get dream-chasing, then we’ll be waiting forever. As Rachel Hollis frankly puts it, “Nobody will ever care about your dream as much as you do. Ever.”

If you’re half narcissist, half insecure maniac like me, this is gold to cling to. Because 1. It means you need to authentically care about your dream. And 2. Not care that other people don’t seem to give a crap about it.

We’re so easily offended and discouraged out of taking the plunge, whatever the plunge may be. If only we could all have our reckless, child-like confidence back for a few days…the stuff that existed before we became so self-conscious. We’d serve one another better if we got on with using our gifts and quit wasting time writing scripts for our future critics.

I prefer stealing closing lines from smarter people, so here’s one from the brilliant Bob Goff. He wrote Love Does or Everybody, Always. Two books which can alter the way you view religion and life.

“The difference between a prudent pause and persistent paralysis is a distinction worth knowing. Recognize when your beautiful ambitions are getting stuck inside your head. You don’t need to take all the steps, just the next one.”

Everybody, Always


  1. Crystal

    I think our young thoughts of “that can be me” change to “that can’t be me” as we hear about and watch people we do know (friends/coworkers/peers/Facebook acquaintances) dream big, go for it, and fail. When we don’t have as much front seat proof of this while we are kids (or aren’t paying attention to it), it’s easy to be the dreamer. The real test is keeping the dreaming going even after the logic of adulthood wants you to put it away. I think it’s a challenge and a blessing to be able to keep our childlike faith, not only in regards to God but in our life goals too. A kid attitude with adult abilities is necessary to see a dream through. Way easier written than done.
    It’s helpful to read we are not alone!

    1. Post

      You just said everything I wanted to say way more concisely, Crystal. 😀 Amen, a thousand times. I feel like we waste a lot of time contemplating (and I suppose writing can fall into that category!), instead of attempting. My mama made a good point after reading this: “I think God makes your dreams happen in His ways — hard to recognize at times, but in your best interest ultimately.” So, even when we’re feeling like we’re failing at chasing our dream, it’s creating space for us to pursue the plans God has for us. I like this. Sounds like a win-win. 🙂

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