When I was just starting out my professional career, I had all sorts of crazy dreams: an amazing car, an amazing house, and so on. I believed my life was headed in such a direction that such things were an inevitability and that they would just simply come to me. I wanted them badly, but I didn’t really do anything to move in a direction that would make those dreams a reality.
It took a financial meltdown and some maturity for me to realize that there was a big difference between goals, dreams, and values, and that not understanding these differences was in many ways holding me back. In fact, the biggest step forward I made was realizing which dreams were merely dreams and which ones ought to be converted into goals.
Let’s start with the basics. A goal refers to the specific desired outcome of a situation that you currently have control over, while a dream, on the other hand, is a specific desired outcome of a situation that you may not have full control over.
What separates the two? Obviously, control is a major factor. Do you have most of the variables in hand and know what you need to do with them to achieve the outcome you want? Another important aspect is your values: is this truly the outcome you desire within your life? Let’s look at those two dreams I had as a young professional.
The amazing house. For me, this is a goal. Why? First of all, it matches my values. My family is extremely important to me, and a home is something we all can share together. Plus, a home can be a solid investment over time, which matches my values as a financially stable person. Given that, I sat down and figured out whether I had control over this dream: is this something that my wife will be on the same page with me about? What about my children? Do I have the financial power to make this happen? The answers here are all yes, so this house dream becomes a goal.
The amazing car. For me, this is a dream. Why? As fun as it would be to drive an expensive car, it doesn’t really match with my values. It doesn’t fill a need in my life (a more economical car can do the same job), it’s a terrible investment, and more than anything, it would be just a pure pleasure item for me and not for anyone else. Given that it doesn’t really pass muster with my values, this one will remain nothing more than a dream.
You might be asking yourself why do this? Why do I need to tease out goals from my dreams? The best way to explain it is simply to say that by having a goal, you actually have something tangible that you can work towards, while a dream is something enjoyable, but it doesn’t require anything out of you. A dream is how you fill idle moments, but a goal is something that gets you up off the couch, walking towards fulfilling something you’ve wanted your entire life.
Here’s a great exercise for separating your goals and your dreams. Make a list of everything that you want in your life. A big house? A nice car? A secure retirement? No need to work? A wife or a husband? Children? What things do you imagine for your future when you close your eyes?
Now that you have this list, visualize what your life actually has the potential to be in, say, ten years, and decide which of these dreams fit into that picture. Do you want to be a bachelor with all of the latest gadgets and a life of freedom? Or do you want to have a nice family with children? Your image of yourself in ten years will give some clues of where your values are telling you that you should be going.
Once you have that picture, circle the items on that list that match what you have visualized. The ones you have circled are the ones that have strong potential to be goals, so you should spend some time defining those goals in more detail. The others? Leave them for the idle moments – and move ahead with your life.