Flights of Fancy: Why Lofty Goals Can Be Powerful Tools

When I was about fourteen, I went through a period where I wanted to be an archaeologist in the vein of Indiana Jones. I had just read a few books about ancient civilizations and a book or two about how archaeologists had discovered artifacts from those civilizations and it sounded incredible. At the same time, I watched the Indiana Jones movies in quick succession from the local video store, perhaps inspired by the reading.

For a week or two, my mind was enraptured with the idea of basically being Indiana Jones – going to exotic locales, wandering through the jungle, discovering artifacts of lost civilizations, and so on.

After a while, though, I began to see that as a flight of fancy. In reality, archaeologists are less Indiana Jones and more methodical analysts, digging with extreme care at historical sites. Archaeologists do interesting work, don’t get me wrong, but it’s not Indiana Jones.

On a surface level, that short-lived archaeology dream might seem like a waste of time. It didn’t guide me toward any career path and it was unrealistic at even a cursory glance. One might think of such a flight of fancy as being a complete waste of time.

What I’ve come to learn as an adult is this: flights of fancy aren’t wastes of time at all, provided you use them correctly.

As someone in their mid twenties working in the bowels of a research lab scouring data for patterns, the idea that I might be a full time writer would seem like a complete flight of fancy, but the key difference between dreaming about being a writer and dreaming about being Indiana Jones is that I could become a writer if I put in the work, whereas I couldn’t be Indiana Jones no matter how much work I put in.

If I love basketball, I might dream about a life revolving around basketball. I can be a basketball analyst or coach if I put in the work, but I can’t be an NBA player no matter how much work I put in, as there are physical gifts that basically bar me from doing it.

Flights of fancy are amazingly powerful for getting you to go down the path of changing your life in terms of things you can control. They’re damaging if they’re all about aiming for things outside of your control – things in the past, or things with requirements you can literally never meet.

No matter how much I dream about it, I can’t suddenly make some of the worst mistakes in my life right. Dreaming about “what if…” is a waste of time. You can’t change it or achieve it.

On the other hand, I can take a flight of fancy about the great relationships I can build in the future and those can become real if I put in the work. That’s valuable.

Flights of fancy are powerful tools to help you aim for things that are at least possible, though you will have to work hard to get there. Daydreaming about things that aren’t possible – like literally being the best NBA player when you have few basketball fundamentals or like being Indiana Jones in, well, reality – isn’t useful, nor is daydreaming about “what ifs” from your past. (Daydreaming about stuff that’s really ordinary is pretty useless, too, outside of directly planning the day ahead.)

So, what’s the point here?

You absolutely should daydream about your big financial, professional, and personal life goals – and aim big with them. You want to retire early? Dream big about how you’d spend those extra years of health without needing to work. You want to be a basketball analyst? Dream big about a life wrapped around what you love. You want to be a pillar of the community? Dream big about having lots of relationships.

Recognize that the things worth daydreaming about are the ones where much of what will create that success is under your control with steady effort. The key is to learn how to separate things that are largely possible with a lot of hard work from the things that are impossible. Things in the past are impossible. Things that require specific physical gifts that not everyone has are impossible unless you happen to have those gifts. Things that only exist in movies or on television are impossible (like a huge apartment in Manhattan on a chef’s salary).

When a daydream about a possible huge goal really resonates with you, start breaking it down into realistic steps that you have control over. What steps do you have to take to get there? What steps do you have to take to complete that first big step? Keep breaking it down until you get to actionable things you can do today. The thing is, most big goals – financial success, career success, fitness, whatever – end up breaking down into daily steps. The only thing keeping you from the success you want is completion of those daily steps, over and over again.

If you want financial success, get in a habit of careful control over your spending.

If you want career success, figure out what you need to have on your resume for the next career step and make it happen.

It goes on and on like that. The key is to do something today.

What if it’s just too big? There are some goals in life that have certain requirements that not everyone can fill. No matter how much you love basketball, not everyone has the natural physical gifts to make it to the NBA. However, that doesn’t mean there isn’t something adjacent that you can achieve.

You might not be able to be a billionaire, but virtually everyone can achieve financial stability and have money in the bank provided they’re willing to work for it.

You might not be able to be an NBA player, but virtually everyone can build some sort of side gig related to their passion of interest, whether it’s commentary or coaching or podcasting, something that doesn’t have a natural requirement you can’t fulfill but does let you dig deep into a passion.

What about goals that might be too big? My approach here is to ask myself whether I would be thrilled to achieve a leaser version of that big goal, one that I feel more confident is within my grasp if I work at it.

For example, I might dream of being an NBA commentator on ESPN, but would I still be happy, say, working for a local news outlet covering sports, or having a successful Youtube channel or podcast about the NBA? Both of those could be milestones along the way to the big dream and the lesser ones are certainly within reach.

I might dream of being a millionaire, but would I still be happy simply having all my debts paid off and having some money in the bank for emergencies and retirement? Absolutely.

If the lesser step is still something that’s exciting, then aim for the big one that’s even further out there. The worst case scenario is that you make it to the lesser goal along the way.

Here’s the real lesson: dream about the huge things that are barely possible. Don’t dream about things you can’t change, like the past. Don’t dream about things that are actually impossible, like an older guy making it in the NBA. Rather, dream about big things that could actually happen if you put your mind to it. Keep dreaming, find the dreams that really resonate with you, and work for them.

No matter what your preferred flight of fancy is, the journey to it starts today.

Good luck.

Trent Hamm

Founder of The Simple Dollar

Trent Hamm founded The Simple Dollar in 2006 after developing innovative financial strategies to get out of debt. Since then, he’s written three books (published by Simon & Schuster and Financial Times Press), contributed to Business Insider, US News & World Report, Yahoo Finance, and Lifehacker, and been featured in The New York Times, TIME, Forbes, The Guardian, and elsewhere.