“Dream big, don’t waste your potential”. But what’s wrong with little dreams?

May 4, 2020

Posted in  Thoughts

19-year-old me is elated to share where I’ve chosen to go for further studies.

“Dad, I’d like to go to photography school.”

Dad looks up from morning paper, eyebrow raised.
“Don’t waste your potential. You can dream bigger; go to business school.”

(He also said he’d disown me otherwise, so to business school I went.)

Where does the valuation of dreams as “big” or “little” come from?

Why is the ambition of going into business a big one and photography a waste?

Whenever I’ve been told to “dream bigger” and not waste my potential, I’ve realized that my potential usually meant maximizing my earning potential.

What to study, what industry to enter, what job offer to accept… The advice was always the same. “Dream big; go where you have the highest chance of material wealth”.

I was ashamed of my “little” dreams of a different life.

Of a life that doesn’t pursue market share, going public or taking over the world.

Of my dream to be a photographer. Of my dream to open a cafe, but not one that would be the next Starbucks. Of my dream to become a teacher, but not one whose lectures have a global social media following.

Shelving my “little” dreams, I went to business school and later to a travel tech company earning a more than decent salary.

I was living the dream before turning thirty, achieving my potential by all measurable standards.

The very fact I can debate between “big” and “little” dreams is a huge privilege.

But this privilege also feels like a trap.

That I’m supposed to want all these amazing opportunities that come along with this privilege, otherwise I’m a failure for letting down the generations before me. It took decades and innumerable collective efforts for women to finally join the workforce — how can I not desire to be an example of one successfully smashing through the glass ceilings?

Still, I lived the dream everyday under a cloud of enormous dissatisfaction.

I felt incredibly guilty about this. What was wrong with me? How could I not be delighted to be where I am? What kind of lame #firstworldproblem existentialist crisis am I having here; I had no right to. The cycle of dissatisfaction, guilt and self-punishing fed the growing despair.

The dream template I was handed may work for others, but not for me.

Yet creating a new template completely separate from the context I find myself is an impossible task.

There are always going to be expectations, the allure of stability and safety, and a fear of what others may think of me. The power of groupthink cannot be underestimated. One’s reality gets distorted by the influence of others, even when they are complete strangers. And it’s even harder when it’s people I care about.

Elevator groupthink on vintage candid camera.

Since February, I’ve been on a sabbatical to step as far out of the elevator as I can and take a year to sit with my little dreams. If not earning potential, then what kind of potential do I actually care about realizing?

I don’t have an easy answer.

For now, I’ll celebrate my little dreams. Keeping them close to my heart. One by one, when the timing’s right, I’ll pluck their images out and place them into reality.

One day, I’ll open a cafe out of a brick and wood house built by my own hands. The air will be salted by the nearby sea, her waves my nighttime lullaby. Or maybe I won’t.

Sometimes, all I need from a dream is the hope that the possibility of a different life is close by. And right now, in this crazy pandemic, we could all use the hope of little dreams.

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