I doubt you’ll ever hear this admonition from popular media. The mantra most consistently reinforced in our culture goes something like this: “set your dreams high, cling to them with all you’ve got, and if you work hard enough, you can make them come true.”
If you’ve lived past the age of 20, you probably already view this outlook as suspect. Over 40? You’ve likely dismissed it. Over 60? You probably have already or are currently helping a younger relative over their disillusionment with this belief.
Sometimes it happens: the Olympic gold-medalist, the NBA MVP, the kid from the rough neighborhood who ‘makes’ it, the nerdy computer nut who starts in his garage and becomes a billionaire. And when it happens, we applaud it. We say: “See! It can happen! You should believe it!” And when the cast of thousands do try – try hard! – and don’t succeed, we tell them they didn’t try hard enough or they didn’t keep trying or they are just one simple tweak away from stardom. Why do we tell them this? Because if we stop, they may stop believing, and then all healthy pursuit, all good striving, all those positive efforts toward the progress of humankind are jeopardized.
Cling to your dream or give it up for a hum-drum life? Tough call.
So when a mentor gave me this advice several years ago – “hang onto your dreams loosely” – I thought he was kidding. I said: “what a lame approach: there’s nothing casual or lackadaisical about winning a gold medal! If you’re going to fulfill a dream, you’re going to have to muster every ounce of determination in your bones, right?”
“Maybe,” said my mentor. “But in the meantime, there are a whole lot of circumstances you have no control over. You can’t control the weather, the stock market, the employment rate, or who will win next year’s election. You can’t even control the temper of your roommate. So much is way beyond our control. And yet we do have enormous control over what we do, how we perform, who we influence, where we focus our efforts. Our destiny is not fully in our hands but our dreams certainly affect the outcome.”
Hence, hold onto your dreams . . . loosely. Keep after them, but understand they may not materialize on our timeline. Pursue them, but know that they may take a very different shape than what we had visualized. Be determined, but don’t be definitive. We need purpose, direction, and drive. But we don’t need to cling to outcomes. Dreams that come true are gifts, not rewards. We can bank on nothing.
Dr. Martin Luther King had a dream. Did he see it come true? No. Did it finally come true? Not yet. Was the dream worth pursuing? Absolutely. As are most. As long as we hold on them . . . loosely.