Four Reasons to Keep Your Dreams Alive—and They Have Nothing to Do With Money
This morning, as I’ve done for the better part of forty years, I woke up early, made myself a pot of coffee, and sat down at my writing desk to enter the storybook of my imagination.
I started this daily routine early in my professional career when I was working as a pup reporter at a local weekly newspaper. Before going into the office, I would always carve out an hour to work on whatever writing project I had going—usually a novel, short story, or poem. When I had completed the piece to my satisfaction, I would mail it off to the publishing world and wait for the rejection letters to come back.
I continued this routine when I entered Corporate America and started working my way up the rungs of management. As my responsibilities increased, the work hours on both ends of my day grew steadily longer, and so I found myself waking up ever earlier in the morning to get in my writing time. I needed that time to give play to all the story ideas swirling in my teeming brain. If I didn’t have it, my day felt hollow and incomplete.
As the years went by, the pile of rejection slips grew as tall as a mountain, but still I persisted. I had a dream—to be a published author—and I was determined to get there.
Now, forty years is a long time to be pursuing something, and so the natural question arises: what do I have to show for all those thousands of hours spent sitting at my writing desk?
The answer is: not much. I have yet to publish a novel. My first non-fiction book, The Long Walk Home, didn’t come out until last year. Beyond that, I’ve had a handful of short stories and maybe twenty or so poems published in literary journals over the years. All the other creative projects I’ve worked on over the decades—five or six novels, dozens of short stories and poems—sit unpublished in notebooks and in computer hard drives because they didn’t make the cut.
In terms of return on investment, that’s pretty pitiful. No fame has come my way and certainly no fortune. I haven’t made a penny on sales of my first book and won’t until the publisher claws back the money it put into production, printing, etc. Considering all the fees and postage I’ve paid out over the years on my submissions, I must be thousands of dollars in the red, and that doesn’t count the opportunity costs of all those hours spent writing stuff that never earned me a dime.
And yet, here I am, at the ripe age of 63, still writing, still pursuing that elusive dream.
Why? Why would I, or anyone, continue to plow time into something that provides so little in material return? Why not just throw in the towel on that dream and do something more … practical?
There are four good reasons I can think of for keeping our dreams alive, and they have nothing to do with money.
1) Dreams give our lives purpose and meaning. Can you imagine life without dreams? I can’t. So much of what we go through in this world is brutally hard: sickness, disease, hardship, adversity, aging and the incalculable losses that come with it. Unlike animals, human beings need something higher to get us through the daily slog. Simply making money doesn’t do it. Playing golf and going on fancy vacations don’t do it. We need a sense of purpose and meaning in our lives to be happy. “One must have a reason to ‘be happy,’” Victor Frankl wrote in Man’s Search for Meaning. “Once that reason is found … one becomes happy automatically.” Family, religion, spiritual practices, charitable work—all these things help provide us that sense of meaning and purpose. Dreams do as well. Pursuing a dream, no matter how seemingly small or impossible, adds color and meaning to our days. By drawing on our unique talents and gifts, dreams can be powerful sources of happiness and satisfaction.
2) Dreams get us out of the bed in the morning. Because dreams are so closely tied to our inner sense of identity and purpose, they give us a reason to get up every day. They are the brass ring we reach for as we spin on the merry-go-wheel of life. It doesn’t really even matter if we succeed in grabbing that ring, as long as we continue reaching for it. The enjoyment is in the chase. That’s how it feels for me, at least. Most mornings, I can’t wait to get out of bed and get started on whatever writing project I’m working on. Right now, for instance, I’m in the middle of revising my novel, Unto the Mountain, based on feedback I received from a professional editor. I’m genuinely excited about the book, which is about a multigenerational Pennsylvania lumbering family. The book will have a host of characters including a cantankerous old black bear that seems determined to wreak havoc around the homestead. Will this novel make the grade and find its way to publication? I certainly hope so, but in the meantime, I’m having fun with it. That’s important at any age and stage of life.
3) Dreams keep us learning and growing. In June, I’ll be taking a four-day intensive online fiction-writing course with a well-known editor and writer. I suspect I’ll be one of the older writers in the class. Who cares, as long as I’m learning? Numerous studies show that learning new things and staying intellectually engaged helps stave off dementia and other age-related ailments. Because they’re important to us, because they provide color and meaning to our lives, dreams push us to keep learning the craft of our trade. As such, dreams provide powerful benefits in keeping our minds sharp and active as we age. As long as we're learning, we're growing. That's what I want to be doing, for as long as I can.
4) Dreams keep our inner child alive. Because dreams are forged in our childhood, keeping our dreams alive keeps us connected to our inner child and to that childlike sense of wonder and possibility. If you think that inner child died a long time ago, you’re wrong. Anytime you feel a twinge of joy or happiness, it’s your inner child who is feeling it. If you’re not feeling that joy, or not feeling much of it, it’s only because the adult in you is stifling your inner child, keeping him locked up in some dark corner within and telling him not to come out. The best way to bring that childlike sense of wonder and delight back into your life is by rekindling the dreams that fire your inner child. Ah, but the dreams of my childhood are just not realistic, you say. Who says they aren’t? What do you lose by pursing something that brings you joy?
Whatever your dream is, no matter how seemingly small or distant or impossible, I hope you keep it alive. Nurture that candle, pay attention to it, give it space to breathe, and it will light your days for as long as you live.