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.
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.