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
  • 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

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

    Thank you.

  • 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!

  • 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!

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • Ari Sep 25, 2014, 6:17 pm

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

  • 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

  • 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

  • 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

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