Why You Should Give Up On Your Dreams
How dream bankruptcy can help you move forward in life and work
When Anna* came to me, she was interviewing for jobs after spending the past 18 months writing full-time.
Previously a product manager, some of her early writing had gone viral, and she had decided to quit and throw herself completely into her writing. She had hoped to build an audience, maybe get a book deal, and find a way to make a living doing something she loved… but things didn’t quite pan out that way.
Instead, her early success became a weight so heavy that she barely published any work. With each new piece, she felt like she had to measure up to the standard she had set with her past work or exceed it. She dreaded the thought of putting out something “low quality,” which she feared would lead her audience to turn on her, criticizing the work and leaving her irrelevant.
As a result, her creative output shrank to only a few published pieces in the year and a half she wrote full-time—and the whole process was fraught with stress, procrastination, and anxiety. Even though the writing she put out was well received, she came to hate the process and the craft she’d previously loved.
When we began to work together, what felt to her like a “failure” weighed heavy on her heart. She had decided to get a job back in product to take the pressure off her writing, but she still carried the weight of her unfulfilled dreams. The artistic medium that had once brought her so much joy continued to be a source of stress.
Goal fusion: stuck on dreams
While Anna’s dream was about becoming a writer, her story is not unique. I’ve met numerous founders and creators whose work has suffered under the weight of their aspirations.
In Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), we call this “goal fusion.” In lay terms, goal fusion is when we get stuck on a certain dream for our future and become fixated on closing the gap between our dreams and reality. When this happens, we become disconnected from the work we’re doing in the present and may not realize when our dreams are leading us off course.
Here are a few examples of how goal fusion shows up in other places:
- The bootstrapped founder who keeps grinding on an idea long after it fails to gain traction, burning through savings and putting himself in debt
- The starving artist who refuses to find part-time work because they believe they have to go all-in in order to be successful
- The CEO of a Series A/B/C company who steers the company off a cliff, unwilling to see evidence that their vision is flawed
In each of the examples above, the person has become so attached to their dream that they fail to adapt, even when reality provides evidence that the dream isn’t workable.
On some level, we need hopes and dreams for the future to motivate ourselves to take action. If we don’t expect our actions to have a positive result, we feel demotivated. Dreams, at their best, are winds in our sail, supporting us as we move forward into the future.
However, dreams can calcify, turning into ghosts of their most useful selves. Instead of inspiring us to take action, they become a source of pain and stagnation. At our worst, we can become so attached to our dreams that we fail to recognize when it's time to let go and move on.
Spotting unworkable dreams
How do we know if a dream is helping us or hurting us?
When looking at dreams through an ACT lens, we care less about the content of a dream (what one desires) and instead focus on its function—the impact a dream has on our day-to-day behavior.
As an example, in Anna’s case, there was nothing inherently wrong with her wanting to make a living as a writer. What made her dream unworkable was how it functioned in her life, leading to procrastination, perfectionism, and the loss of meaning in her work.
Here are a few signs that you may be suffering from goal fusion and the dream you hold may no longer be workable:
- Narrowing of identity—you feel like you are your project and you would not be OK in your life or career if your project failed
- Avoiding contact with reality—you stop publishing your work, avoid talking to customers, or delay releasing a product for fear of piercing your fantasies around a project
- Loss of meaning in the present—you are so focused on the extrinsic outcome of your work that you lose touch with day-to-day opportunities for meaning
- Tunnel vision—you become so consumed by your project that you miss out on other things you care about (family, health, etc.)
If you’re noticing some (or all) of these signs, your attachment to your dreams may be getting in the way of moving forward in your life and work—and acknowledging that a dream is no longer workable is the first step toward freedom.
Letting go of dreams
When caught in a cycle of goal fusion, the solution is simple: Give up on your dreams.
I like to think of this as declaring “dream bankruptcy.” Similar to how traditional bankruptcy is a financial reset, dream bankruptcy is about resetting your relationship to your dreams so that you can relate to your life and projects in a healthier way.
However, giving up on a tightly held dream is not always easy. It can be hard to let go of the comfort and stability of our deepest fantasies for ourselves and our lives. Thus, I typically see this as a three-part process:
- Confront reality
- Diversify your identity
- Reconnect with meaning
Let’s explore each in turn.
An important step in loosening our grip on a dream is to come in contact with reality as it is, rather than as we’d like it to be.
This can be challenging, as the more tightly we cling to a dream, the more dissatisfying reality becomes in comparison. When we finally let go of a dream, we crash-land back into reality as it is—and this is often quite painful, bringing up feelings of disappointment, fear, and shame.
Confronting reality also often involves contacting the raw spot that a dream may have been covering. For example, holding tightly to a dream may be a way of managing deep-seated fears around death, unworthiness, or financial insecurity. When we let go of a dream, we’re suddenly defenseless against the demons we’ve been working so hard to avoid.
In response to this pain, we may feel the urge to slip back into fantasy—to find another dream to protect ourselves. However, if we can stay with the discomfort of reality, we can begin to create space around our aspirations and chart a more skillful path forward.
One tactical way to confront reality is by shipping your work! When you release a product, publish a blog post, or hop on a customer interview, you’re likely to get feedback that may disconfirm some element of the dream you’ve been holding. And it’s only once the bubble of a dream has bursted that we can begin to adapt our work to better fit reality.
Diversify your identity
Another step in loosening your grip on your dreams is to diversify your identity.
When we care deeply about something, we often want to pour all of ourselves into it—working like crazy and ignoring other hobbies and relationships. However, research has found that the more complex your sense of self, the more resilient you are to stress.
As an example, a person whose life and identity is consumed by their company may have a simple identity—perhaps just “founder” and “husband.” If their startup fails, the emotional impact may be significant, as it threatens half of their identity. Moreover, if their partner is also in tech, the company’s failure might spill over into their home life—threatening their entire sense of self.
On the other hand, consider a founder with a more complex sense of self, including identities such as: “founder,” “husband,” “guitar enthusiast,” “soccer player,” “friend,” and “father.” Let’s also assume that their partner works in a completely different field. In this case, the emotional fallout from a startup failure will be relatively contained, unlikely to threaten the person’s entire sense of self. Shutting down the company may still be hard, but the complexity of their identity buffers them against some of the situational stress.
To diversify your identity, you can explore relationships and interests unrelated to work. I’ve seen people lean into things like:
- Dungeons and Dragons
- Brazilian jiu-jitsu
- Improv comedy
- Relationships with family
- Pixel art
- Climbing mountains
Whatever it is, when you create space to explore who you are in new spaces and relationships, your sense of self becomes broader and more complex, which can make it easier to let go of a dream and move on.
Reconnect with meaning
By loosening our grip on our dreams through the steps above, we create space to reconnect with the day-to-day meaning in our work. From an ACT perspective, this is about shifting our attention from goals to values.
In ACT, values are qualities that we find intrinsically meaningful, such as “creativity,” “learning,” or “authenticity.” Goals, on the other hand, are like milestones on a valued path. They are specific outcomes we want to achieve, like “lose 10 pounds,” “make $2 million,” or “write a book.”
Through an ACT lens, goals are only important inasmuch as they connect to our deeply held values. However, when we become overly fixated on a dream, we often lose touch with the values that gave it meaning in the first place. As a result, our work can come to feel like a means to an end, rather than an end in and of itself.
One way to reconnect with your values around a project is to reflect back on the early days, remembering what originally inspired you to pursue it. Often, the early days of a project are when we’re most closely connected to our inspiration. Remembering those beginnings in detail—where you were, who you were with, how you felt, and what was important to you—can be a pathway back to the life-giving aspects of your work.
Another way to reconnect with meaning is to reflect on your mentors and role models. You might ask yourself, “What about this person do I feel drawn to? What does this tell me about who I might want to become or the type of life I might want to build?” Reflecting in this way can help you tease out the qualities that could bring meaning to your own work in the present.
For my client, Anna, our work became about helping her get back to writing pieces for herself, rather than for her audience.
When she let go of her dream of getting a book deal and building a career as a writer, all of a sudden she started enjoying writing again. While she still sometimes struggled to put a piece out into the world—fearing what people might think—she began publishing more consistently. And as she did so, week in and week out, she grew much more rapidly as a writer.
She also found that as she published more, various opportunities for speaking and collaboration started coming her way. She still hasn’t gotten a book deal (and she’s not sure if she wants one), but she’s finally enjoying writing again—and that’s important for something that began as a labor of love.
While Anna may still face difficulties if she decides again to try to make a living from her writing, her current plan is just to write about what interests her, and to write a lot. And from that place, I think it’s a lot more likely that she will find a way to make a living doing what she loves, without losing touch with her joy in the work.
We all have dreams for our lives, and it’s natural to become attached to them. But it’s important to remember that dreams can get in the way of what we care about. If that’s the case for you, it may be time to kill your dreams, so you can create a new relationship with your work—one that’s more sustainable, meaningful, and inspiring.
*Anna is an anonymized composite of several people I’ve worked with.
Casey Rosengren is a founder and executive coach based in New York. If you’d like to learn more about ACT and values-oriented coaching, drop him a note.
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This really spoke to me especially as someone who has 1)dropped out of a PhD program after committing 7 years of my personal and financial life to a “dream” and 2)as a recent tech founder whose latest venture was a failure - which was even more painful because I raised a 6-figure pre-seed round. Thank you for this!