Updated on 05.01.07

Goals, Dreams, and Values: Separating the Tangible from the Fantastic

Trent Hamm

DaydreamingWhen 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.

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  1. MVP says:

    I like this post. Makes me see I’m naturally going in the right direction to eventually be a stay-at-home mom with a modest house in a modest neighborhood, a fabulous marriage and awesome children. This all takes some serious planning, in my opinion, and I’m sure ten years from now, my husband and I will be pleased with ourselves that we put off certain fun things we could’ve done in our early marriage to get out of debt and prepare for our future as a one-income family.

  2. paula says:

    The painting that accompanies this post is very nice. It also serves as a reminder of what we did before air conditioning. Have you tried to find a fan like this in recent years? It’s impossible. That’s a terrible shame. With all the stuff being imported from China, you’d think the hand-held “oriental fan” would be among them.

  3. Paula says:

    Hey, paula, Paula here: you can get fans on eBay easily, and Arribas Brothers carries nice ones.

  4. Gal Josefsberg says:

    I read an interesting book lately. There’s a line that stuck with me. It was “A goal is a dream with a deadline”. A dream is just that, something you dream about but are not actively pursuing. A goal is a dream you have decided to do. You set a deadline, you create a plan to achieve it. That’s an important lesson about dreams. If you want them to come true you have to stop dreaming and start planning.

  5. paula says:

    Hi, Paula, thanks for the advice. But I think a fan is the sort of thing that should be carried routinely everywhere, so people stop thinking that using $$ with the A/C is their only solution to feeling hot. We now use electric ceiling fans, so we need to bring back our grandmothers’ sustainable-energy-friendly hand-activated fans!

    I use one my daughter picked up at some tourist trap about 10 years ago. (I don’t dare tell her I have it, or she’d demand it back!)

    Plus, fans are so romantic: people always lean in for the air that I generate with mine! ;)

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