The Logical Argument for Chasing Dreams

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the roles of dreams, the hope they provide, and the role they play in life. I’ve been conflicted about this topic for much of my life and career.

I’ve associated with two polar opposite peer groups. One that says the only thing that matters is chasing dreams — the bigger the better. The mantra on this group is “Go Big or Go Home.”

The other that says chasing dreams is irresponsible, impractical and irrational. Their mantra is "Why pursue something that is unlikely to succeed?".

So which one is right?

I’ve pondered this question for nearly two decades — and have been on both sides of the debate at various times.

Here’s what I’ve concluded...

Both sides are wrong.

Here’s why.

The premise in both arguments is based on the statistical concept of expected value.

Expected Value = The Probability of an Outcome x The Magnitude of the Outcome.

If you flip a coin, and if side A lands face up you win $1 million, and if side B lands face up you win $0, then the expected value = 50% x $1 million = $500,000

The difference between both camps is not in the formula itself. It is in the assumptions used.

The “Go Big or Go Home” crowd aims for bigger outcomes and tend to perceive themselves as having odds of success that are substantially higher than the rest of the population.

The more conservative crowd see their likelihood of success as extremely low, and therefore not worth pursuing even if the potential, but unlikely, outcome is quite high.

My problem with both arguments is the formula itself.

I think using an expected statistical value approach to deciding on whether or not to pursue a dream isn’t the right approach.

It presumes the only value in pursuing the dream is if the dream comes true.

After much thought and life experience, I’ve come to an alternative point of view entirely. I think there is value that comes from pursuing a dream even if you never succeed.

It is entirely possible to pursue a dream where the outcome of your efforts is perpetually unknown. That is, you may be on your way to succeeding or you may not. The point is you don’t know.

This happens when there is a major time lag between when the effort is put into a project versus when you get any feedback on whether your efforts were successful. For example, writing a book that takes 4 years to write, conducting a longitudinal study that takes 15 years to run, etc.

In these situations, you put in the effort — often enormous amounts of effort — and the time to find out if it “worked” is many years later.

From my point of view, the PURSUIT of the dream itself has VALUE to one’s life, irrespective of the outcome.

Let me give you a personal example.

It has always been a dream of mine to go to space (Yes, I watched Star Trek as a kid, and still do, and I’m proud of it, damn it! Sometimes you just gotta take a stand on some things.)

When I was a kid, it was inconceivable that an everyday person could actually find a way to go to space. Fast forward many years later and the space tourism industry was born. The first group of space tourists, which includes the software engineer who created Microsoft Excel, had the honor of paying $20 million to go to space.

Richard Branson is looking to sell tickets to go to space in the range of $250,000 within a few years.

If you want to send a few ounces or grams of your cremated ashes into space, that will cost you $10,000.

Here’s the thing about this dream of mine.

Every time I think about it, I smile.

Here in the Seattle area, our summer just ended and there will be about 9 months of clouds and rain. The other night was incredibly clear. So I slept outside in a sleeping bag, without a tent, so I could look at the stars.

It was the first time I’ve done that since I was in junior high school.

It was AWESOME.

There were so many stars out that night.

For the first time in a long time, and perhaps in forever, I actually fell asleep with a smile on my face.

Now if I wanted to make more actual progress towards the goal, I could set up a savings account of some sort and save $1 per day towards my dream. If you do the math, you quickly realize I’m not going to make it in my lifetime.

But here’s the thing.

Every day I get closer, and you never know what might happen in the future. Maybe prices come down (which is very likely), maybe I win the lottery and can put in $10, $100, or $1,000 into that account per day.

The point is NOT that the math doesn’t work out.

The point is NOT that the pursuit of the dream is illogical because mathematically it can’t be achieved (given current assumptions).

The point is that by making some progress towards the goal, the POSSIBILITY of reaching the goal, no matter how remote, remains just that... slightly more POSSIBLE.

In other words, the value of a dream is NOT in its statistical likelihood of coming true. The value of a dream is in the HOPE it provides to you every day.

A life without hope is not much of a life. You might be able to survive without hope, but you certainly do not thrive.

Just look at numerous wealthy celebrities who end their lives. From the outside, they seemingly have anything and everything the rest of us could ever want. So why did they end their lives when the “expected value” of their lives was so high?

While we will never know for certain, my speculation is their lives somehow reached a point where they had no hope.

Just because hope isn’t quantifiable doesn’t mean it isn’t important.

I am a firm believer that having dreams and pursuing them in some capacity (even if it’s just as a fun thought exercise) is very much worth doing.

The real issue with pursuing dreams isn’t whether or not to pursue them. It’s whether or not it’s worth RISKING what you already have, or giving up what you might get in the future, to pursue it more aggressively.

So pursuing my dreams of visiting space via looking at the stars and smiling is pretty easy to do. It costs me nothing and I have no downside risk.

Would I go to space, assuming I could afford to do so, if there was a 10% chance I would die on the trip?

Now, that's a decision about a dream with a tradeoff involved.

Making the tradeoff decision is important and something I will address on a different day. It’s also separate from being willing to even entertain the thought of a dream.

But for now, I want to argue that the intellectual pursuit of a dream is fun, doesn’t cost much. It provides hope, joy and smiles — all of which are priceless. Dreams have value — even if never realized.

I encourage you to remember this in your own life, and to think twice before criticizing or stomping on someone else’s dreams.

 

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32 comments… add one
  • MS Sep 25, 2014, 5:36 pm

    You can ruin your family by betting too much on your dream coming true. Pursing dream itself is a mathematical problem. You design a strategy to get closest to your dream while sacrificing the least. The risk level is an important parameter to consider. Sometimes you have to go to the dark side when your plan is about to falter, which is the extreme case of this math problem. In the end, think about the cost of pursuing your dream and what it really brings to you. If your dream can’t make anyone live better other than yourself, then it’s meaningless. Because your value lies in others. Statistics is always time varying. Avoid relying on stats. Find out the principles instead.

    • Victor Cheng Sep 26, 2014, 9:34 am

      RS,

      I do agree the resources one decides to devote to a dream must be carefully decided, but the mere fact of having them is or I’m arguing should be an easy decision. Many people don’t even give themselves the permission to have dreams that get them excited, which I think is too bad.

      Victor

  • Nicholas Sep 25, 2014, 5:37 pm

    First of all I must say it was a relief to read this because I almost felt like you were a robot, someone who knew the in’s and out’s of Consulting and what it takes to be the best consultant but never showed an emotional side to things. I “dream” every night and have goals in those dreams, and before I go to bed I say to myself, “what did I do to come closer to that dream today?” Having hope is part of life, it should be a never ending cycle, whether it is for yourself or for others in your life. I also have the dream to become a successful consultant, and with your daily emails and words of wisdom I believe that I will achieve this. Thank you for throwing this out there, dreams are important and they are not discussed as often as they should be. Another future topic for you should be “Luck”, something that I have seen in common with most successful people I have met in my life (I am 24 years old.)

    Best,

    Nick Martinez

  • Aditi Gupta Sep 25, 2014, 5:55 pm

    Mr. Cheng,

    I don’t remember when I subscribed to your site but have been a regular reader of your articles for quite sometime and it always is a pleasure! The simplicity of the analogies and connect you make in your articles almost always brings a smile to my face.

    Once in a while I particularly enjoy a article even more than others just because I am able to relate with something as it always happens in the world of readers- for instance I really enjoyed how you used the concept of expected values in this piece.
    I have a special thing for the beautiful analogies, which brought me here to leave this comment and clutter your already overflowing inbox I am sure.

    Just would like to say thank you for all the enjoyable reads!

    Regards,
    Aditi

  • Ari Sep 25, 2014, 6:17 pm

    Thank you Victor. Hope is so important and doesn’t get adressed enough.

  • Andrew Sep 25, 2014, 7:13 pm

    Reading this piece, I could not help but think of the famous quote by Tottenham’s legendary coach, Bill Nicholson:
    ‘It is better to fail aiming high than to succeed aiming low. And we of Spurs have set our sights very high, so high in fact that even failure will have in it an echo of glory.’
    -This is my usual response to friends and family members when they give voice of their worries that I have overly ambitious goals, which, according to them, I will certainly not achieve. Well guess what, so far I have proved them wrong and I am on my way towards my dreams. Yes, maybe still far from getting there, but definitely progressing. One step at a time. So I perfectly agree with your point Victor.

  • Joshua Sep 25, 2014, 9:34 pm

    I often find myself repeating this quote when encouraging others: “It is best to always shoot for the moon. Why? Because if you miss you’ll at least land on the stars.” 🙂
    Victor, as I read I envisioned you softly landing on the stars from the comfort of your sleeping bag. Awesome! Keep up the great work.

  • Kunwar Sep 26, 2014, 1:48 am

    I remember telling my mother that dreams are what make things possible. No dream and its not even possible, so I continued to dream as a young boy and still working on my dream against all the odds. It is so very encouraging to see that there are others like me 🙂

    Cheers!

  • Pascal Sep 26, 2014, 3:25 am

    Dear Victor,
    I have been reading your newsletters since nine months, parallel to my consulting interview preparations.
    For me, business was always separated from life philosophy (a subject in which I invest considerable time to read and think about). However, with this post you combined these two areas in a way I never expected. It is great to see you applying your structured thinking on this subject and I appreciate the conclusions you draw. Thumbs up for this great posting!

  • Nikolay Ryabkov Sep 26, 2014, 3:51 am

    Thank you.

  • Olumide Sep 26, 2014, 5:25 am

    Every man must have a dream…just like hope it’s indispensable! I agree to a certain extent with Mr. Cheng that there is value that comes from pursuing a dream even if you never succeed, but then I believe the value of achieving a dream and the satisfaction that comes with it is immeasurable. However, it is imperative to state that some dreams have timelines once you cross the age limit that dream dies a natural death. In addition to one’s dreams hope and faith are two positive drivers especially if you come from the part of the world where I come from (Nigeria, Africa), you can’t do without them as nothing is guaranteed anymore. One of my dreams is to become a McKinsey consultant regardless for how long (1 week, 1 month, 1 year).

    • Victor Cheng Sep 26, 2014, 9:42 am

      Olumide,

      Reading your comment along with others sparked a thought. Let’s say you decide to pursue your dream of being a McKinsey consultant and let’s further assume you knew in advanced you would not succeed. What value could you or one derive from the attempt?

      Victor

  • XZ Sep 26, 2014, 5:44 am

    Reading this reminds me of a commencement speech by Shonda Rhimes, which was excerpted into a comic. She contrasts the people who dream without doing and the people who are busy working towards those dreams. I agree with her that if it is your dream, you should be working hard towards it.

    Don’t just revive the dream (which I would call fantasy) whenever your current job frustrates you. It is within your power to change that.

    The comic here: http://zenpencils.com/comic/161-shonda-rhimes-a-screenwriters-advice/

    It sounds like this article is advocating that chasing dreams (especially with minimal effort) is great because it brings hope. I would compare this argument to the two girls in the comic lying on the lawn staring up at the sky. I’m sure they’re got plenty of hope and it makes them happy, but I would rather be the person on the right who has hope and makes hope a reality.

  • Manuel Sep 26, 2014, 6:27 am

    This is the first time I am writing although I have been reading you for years. Your article this time was something which also makes me thing quite a lot, and for me the important question is: what if you don´t have dreams? Yeah, sure, you may think, I want to be millionaire, I want to be a rockstar or a famous actor, but those are not concrete dreams/goals you can pursue. I once read “there is no good wind for a sailor that doesn´t know where he is going” , in my case I have been consultant for years (I am 31) and right now I think every day which are really my dreams, where I want to be in 5-10 years, managing a beach restaurant in Thailand? Helping kids with a NGO organization? Just having enough money to live well with my family? Every time I think about it I seems more and more difficult to get an answer and I surely envy those people who have everything as clear as you  (both professionally and personally) congratulations for the web! Every article you post is a piece of wisdom.

    -Manuel

    • Victor Cheng Sep 26, 2014, 9:47 am

      Manuel,

      The path to clarity comes from the willingness to continually face the lack of clarity. The path to figuring out what you want comes from being willing to pursue what you THINK you MIGHT want, tolerating being mistaken, and learning from the mistake.

      Despite the premise of the strategy consulting, clarity for life decisions often does not come from sitting there and thinking about it.

      Victor

  • Winston Wee Sep 26, 2014, 7:33 am

    Thank you Victor, another nice piece as clear as that summer night sky.

    I like the fact that you have highlighted that the pursuit of a dream is non-linear, and along the way there may be possibility of leaps and bounds that bring that goal closer.

    I can imagine how had the first Homo Erectus not looked up at the stars, we may very well be a specie that still crawls along on all fours.

    Thank you for the very kind and poignant reminders…

    “Only in their dreams can men be truly free. ‘Twas always thus, and always thus will be.”
    ― Tom Schulman, Dead Poets Society

    • Victor Cheng Sep 26, 2014, 9:48 am

      Winston,

      What a lovely quote. Thanks for sharing.

      Victor

  • Flex Sep 26, 2014, 8:20 am

    What a great read! Totally made my day and put a smile on my face. Thanks for all the hard work you do and for the thoughts you share. All the best.

  • PAKB Sep 26, 2014, 9:55 am

    I totally agree that dreams are indeed present, to bring hope. In addition to hope dreams infuse us with a huge amount of energy to chase them. It’s up to every individual on how he wants to utilize that energy – statistical calculations are a good way of arriving at a decision but at times the energy is so high that one just decides to chase the dream.

  • remita Sep 26, 2014, 12:43 pm

    Hi Victor,

    Dreaming is about humanity. Much part of our daily life has been dreamed at some point in the past.
    Dreams and desires have been mixed some times and created frustration or made the dreamer suspicious.
    I am a strong believer that dreaming is an essential activity whatever the outcome.
    Regards and thank you for your article.
    Hadi

  • Darryl Sep 26, 2014, 4:01 pm

    Another way to look at this is to consider that at least in the US, we market and advertise the “idea” of “the dream” as the province of the 18-34 year old age group. As we age, our dreams are sobered by the reality of family, children and job security. It is remarkable to think about this from “idea of the possible” if you look at the evolution of the country from President Kennedy’s time upto the election of President Obama. While I continue to dream, with each year, they are reshaped by my personal and professional journey. In fact, while I have no desire to fly to space, I do dream about finding the “fountain of youth” and turning back the clock to Year One of my college days.

    • Victor Cheng Sep 29, 2014, 1:45 am

      Darryl,

      I don’t know how old you are now, but I’m not old enough to appreciate the saying that, “Youth is wasted on the young.”

      One thing to keep in mind. Let’s say you are now 40 years old longing to be 18 years old again. When you’re 60 years old, you may long to be 40 years old again.

      Today is year 1, from the perspective of you 20 years from today. Don’t overlook the opportunity in front of you to chase the opportunity that disappeared a long time ago.

      -Victor

  • September Sep 26, 2014, 5:00 pm

    Mr. Cheng,

    This was a great piece, especially considering many people who read your website are aspiring to fulfill their dreams.

    I wanted to comment on the question you posed to Olumide about whether pursuing the dream to become a McKinsey consultant would be worth it if you knew you would not succeed. More specifically, would there be value in the attempt itself?

    I believe the answer lies in how one defines happiness. If achieving your dream is the only passage to true happiness, then, regardless of the value you accumulate from trying to become a McKinsey consultant, you will never be happy if you cannot achieve the goal. But, if true happiness is not tied to this particular dream, then the juice may be worth the squeeze even if you never achieve the goal.

    For concreteness, entertain a short hypothetical example:

    You have 2 dreams in life: to marry an amazing woman and to work at McKinsey, and these 2 dreams are mutually exclusive. If you can achieve at least 1 of these dreams, then you will be happy. In this case, pursuing the McKinsey dream knowing that you will never achieve it would still be valuable because your happiness isn’t completely tied to the dream. This also assumes that you can attain your goal of marrying your dream woman! But, if your only passage to happiness is working at McKinsey, and you know that won’t happen, then you either have the wrong dream or you need to find other things in life to dream about as well. One who has only 1 dream, essentially has only 1 passage to happiness, and if they know that will not happen, they cannot pursue it. The danger in pursuing a dream that never comes true is that you will spend most of your life unhappy, focusing on something that will not happen, and in the meantime you will miss out on the greatest aspect of life: happiness.

    • Victor Cheng Sep 29, 2014, 1:42 am

      September,

      Core happiness does not come from chasing or realizing dreams. It comes from appreciating what you have.

      With respect to would pursuing a McKinsey job offer have value even if you knew in advance you would not succeed, what I had in mind were the following:

      1) As you researched McKinsey, you added 10 people to your professional network that you would never have otherwise had the opportunity to meet or to develop a relationship.

      2) You developed your analytical skills from 20% of what McKinsey requires to 80% of what they look for. You fell short of the McKinsey threshold, but you now had a problem solving skill set to apply to your current job, to seek out other jobs that require only 80% of what McKinsey requires. You tackle new projects in a new way. you impress colleagues with insights you could not previously identify of articulate, etc…

      3) You got some insight into how McKinsey operates and why. Then in your current job, you have an opportunity to work on a team with McKinsey consultants (where you are the client). With your newer skills, you’re able to take a very proactive role as the client, impress colleagues in other divisions, improve your intra company reputation, etc…

      -Victor

  • Francisco Sep 26, 2014, 7:03 pm

    Dreams work as long as you keep a sense of hope along the road, and as long as they are for noble purposes where prosperity is shared with the universe.

    Perhaps most of the dreams will never reach reality, or even fully fulfilled after all. Nevertheless, that’s when we try to keep them alive in our inner world, hoping that along the road,and as Victor said, everytime you get a little step closer, you get credit for that attempt.

    A noble dream will always pay off, even if things are hostile and against your will. As far as you keep your good faith, your patience , your humbleness, and your consistency, life will work in mysterious way to reward the effort from a different perspective, and whe you less expect it.

    Also, bear in mind that noble dream can be shared and even passed on to the next generations as well.

  • chris nicholas Sep 27, 2014, 4:09 am

    Victor,

    Yes, Hope is the answer. We cannot live fully without it.
    My hope is in The Lord. The Creator of the Universe. The One who died for my sins and those of the entire world. My hope is in the Lord. He was, is and is to come. The same eternal. He is my rock and salvation and I am making progress every day towards Him. All mankind can…if they will use their free will that came from Him to pursue Him. All other things are sinking sand. He Lives in our hearts, not our heads….the place where dreams are born and hope springs eternal. Jesus is Lord.

  • Zhen Mahoney Sep 27, 2014, 8:52 am

    Victor, I have been enjoying your essays. They are insightful and you have a talent in articulating your insight in an easily accessible way. I AM A DREAMER! Have always been and will continue to do so. I agree that it is not about the end point of whether you achieve your dream, as it might not be relevant now whether to arrive at some of my childhood dreams. However, those dreams defined who I am, brought me where I am today and will continue to provide guidance for my future actions. I want to bring the reader’s attention to an inspiring talk, Randy Pausch Last Lecture: Achieving Your Childhood Dreams. You can find it on both YouTube and TED.

  • Paul Sep 27, 2014, 11:52 am

    Victor, I noticed you leveraged some teachings on stoicism in one of your previous emails. If you wouldn’t mind, I would like to suggest a Christian perspective on “why [people] end their lives when the ‘expected value’ of their lives [is] so high,” simply for consideration.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_mK65lpveSM

  • Volha Sep 29, 2014, 12:30 am

    Among all of your posts, this one seems to be the most unclear to me.
    Every time you brilliantly make a point, but this time – I am missing the point.
    First, there are so many dreams that come true, and just as many – that never come true. Consider equal chasing efforts.
    Second, there are so many “wrong” dreams, and every one of us would say at some point – thanks god they never came true, so silly of me to even dream of that, and waste energy.
    And third, it does not really matter who is wrong and who is right by choosing to follow or not to follow dreams, because it is a matter of choice. Commitment is a choice. And we know that people make choices mostly with their hearts and not minds. So, there is very little calculation behind it anyways.
    Once I decide to commit and chase – it is a goal and not a dream any more. So, a dream is an embryo of a goal. It is developing with time, getting more defined, more specific and one day you know – whether it will fly.
    Finally, I have to say I was surprised you dream of space. It seems to be so…. unrelated. I think it is great through.

    • Victor Cheng Sep 29, 2014, 1:35 am

      Volha,

      I like the distinction you make between dreams committed to = a goal. My point was that dreams, merely as a thought, have value in and of themselves. And the pursuit of a dream irrespective of likelihood of success has intrinsic value separate from the outcome.

      I specifically and deliberately did not address the issue of the level of effort to devote to dreams vs their tradeoffs and opportunity costs. That’s an important consideration, but one that I find people to jump to immediately — missing out on the intrinsic value of the dream itself.

      -Victor

  • Larissa Oct 2, 2014, 5:17 am

    Victor, I really liked this post. I remember reading somewhere that one of the keys to happiness is to have the following 3 things: someone to love, something to do, and something to look forward to. I think sometimes we focus a lot on our ‘something to do'(work), or focus on getting ‘someone to love’, and don’t have our ‘something to look forward to’ as a priority.

  • Oladiran Olakunle Oct 2, 2014, 1:33 pm

    Thank you Victor, for that inspiring piece. With so many thoughts and wish-to-dos floating around, some conflicting, some achievable, in the end I learnt the strength to carry on lies int the hope of eventual success. I think that’s enough get one to the promise land.

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