Are you a day-dreamer? I am. Sometimes I have a hard time keeping my feet on the ground and my head out of the clouds.
The worst symptom of my day dreaming is the bad habit of turning hopes into unrealistic ten-year life plans. If the hope is grad school, the plan is go to this school, get that internship, meet the guy and live happily ever after.
The main problem is that I’m driven by the picture of success — I give little thought to what I actually want.
Luckily nothing goes according to plan: big or small, for better or worse, things change.
If my college plan had worked, I would be living in Minnesota, finishing school, accumulating debt and hoping to break into a competitive career I had no idea I would like.
Instead I went to grad school in Scotland, finished my degree in one year, and have my dream job in a beautiful beach town in West Michigan. And I have the time and energy to write and work on my visual art.
All of this because I was forced to let go of the plans I had made. I didn’t get in to my first choice school or my second or my third. My only option was the foreign university (don’t ask why it wasn’t first choice), and that set me on a path better than I imagined.
Through that experience and countless others, I’ve learned that when you set a strict plan a couple things happen: you close yourself off to other possibilities and you stress yourself out.
Personally, I have to work to keep my feet on the ground. Here are a few things that I’ve found help:
Set achievable goals. Books have been written on goal setting. It’s important. Just because I’m not planning out my future as intentionally as I used to doesn’t mean that I’m not thinking about the future: completely disregarding the thought of tomorrow wouldn’t be smart or beneficial. But instead of setting “goals” that I have little control over reaching, I set achievable goals with action plans.
So instead of holding myself to the goal “I will learn French” (while picturing myself speaking fluently to a cute local in Paris at 27), I edited it to say “I will complete Level 1 of Rosetta Stone by August 30.” It’s a little, manageable step towards a big dream.
Be present. It is so cliche, but maybe it’s cliche for a reason: live in the moment. Take each day and challenge as it comes. This is why it is helpful to have smaller goals. They carry me to achieving the big dreams, but they help me keep my eyes and thoughts on the present.
For example, today I will practice French for 30 minutes. It’s one thing that gives today some excitement and purpose because I’m actually working towards a dream and not just daydreaming about the day it might happen.
Hold it loosely. Things don’t go according to my plans and dreams, and that can be upsetting. So I try to hold them loosely. Whatever it is — a dream, a relationship, a job, even a sentence in a draft or a line in a rough sketch — I hold it loosely. For example, my dream would be to travel to France over and over and over again, sometimes for months at a time. But for whatever reason, that might not happen.
If I hold that dream too tightly and I’m taken down a different path, I’ll be pulled on a violent ride in my fight to keep it. But if I hold it loosely and it slips through my fingers I’ll be okay. My hand will be open for the next opportunity.
The first chapter of Annie Dillard’s The Writing Life clearly communicates this concept. Here’s the first paragraph:
When you write, you lay out a line of words. The line of words is a miner’s pick, a woodcarver’s gouge, a surgeon’s probe. You wield it, and it digs a path you follow. Soon you find yourself deep in new territory. Is it a dead end, or have you located the real subject? You will know tomorrow, or this time next year.1
It’s not something I have mastered, — this plan ditching — and I don’t think I ever will. But when I stop planning, live my life each day and remember my passions, I find that everything works out.
Like I said, the last two completely un-preconceived years of my life have been the best. Nothing is how I expected — it’s all better.
1 Annie Dillard, The Writing Life (New York, 1989), p. 3.