Cold, hard reality: we all need a dose of it from time to time, and sooner or later, we all get one. If you’re lucky, you’ve got people in your life who administer those doses with compassion and respect. These mentors, friends and teachers don’t pump you up with “yes man” enthusiasm, or fill certain orifices with the smoke of blind optimism. They tell you the truth. They measure your dreams against the actual world we live in, with all its possibilities and limitations.
As someone who guides budding entrepreneurs, I’d hate to be the guy known for bursting bubbles. But sometimes, a bubble is obscuring our view of more realistic possibilities. Sometimes what’s inside the bubble, the core of your dreams, is set free when that sucker pops. Sometimes the bubble just needs to be deflated a bit, so that it can fit through reality-sized doorways. Dreams can be too big. Dreams, in fact, can hold us back as surely as obstacles.
How do you know if you’re dreaming too big in business? How can the dangers of over-reaching be avoided? I think it comes down to differentiating between dreams and goals, and replacing one with the other.
Dreams vs Goals
Dreams are something beginners have. They’re vague, they’re grand, and they’re usually well out of reach. They’re in the realm of fantasy rather than action, and they’re often unattainable. Like literal dreams, their relationship to your actual life is tenuous at best.
That doesn’t mean they’re not useful.
Goals are the product of dreams. They’re what you get when you reach into a dream, pull out its essence, and apply it to the reality of the business world. They can be big, but they come with a path to realization. There are steps that lead to their completion, and those steps are actionable. While dreams are limitless and beautiful, you can have a goal when you’re awake!
To illustrate the difference further, here are some typical dreams:
I want to be rich.
I want to see the world.
I want to do what I want, when I want.
These are tempting. They’re invigorating. They’re also unspecific. They’re so vague, in fact, that no realistic steps can be envisioned to achieve them. They are so poorly defined that at the end of the day, they’re not of much use. They’re something people think about while they’re drifting off at their desk- the one they use at their real, unfulfilling job. They’re simply not actionable, which makes them almost pointless.
Goals, on the other hand, look like this:
I want to be financially independent, to afford my life as my own boss.
I want to see Europe and the American West.
I want to retire at 55.
I want to feel like I’m teaching people something useful.
These are actionable, achievable, specific goals that a person has a legitimate chance of completing. They are destinations to which roads exist- roads that are accessible. These things can happen, and not in the way that winning the lottery can happen. They will happen, if the right plan is formed and executed.
That’s not to say that dreaming doesn’t have its uses. The key is to bridge the gap between dreams and goals by analyzing your dreams for the goals that are hidden inside. For example, being “rich” is a dream. But ask yourself: what’s “rich?” Why do you want to be rich? How would being a millionaire actually fulfill you? Of course the money itself wouldn’t do a thing; it would only give you access to some means of achieving your real desires.
Maybe you love the beach, or you’re fulfilled by travel, or there are people who you want to support financially without stressing over bills. Maybe you just want to do work you consider meaningful. These “whys” behind the dreams are the foundations of achievable goals. By examining the deeper motivations at the heart of your dreams, you can uncover real-world possibilities.
From Dreams to Goals
To establish your real-world business goals, start with your dreams. You can even write them down, no matter how wildly unrealistic. Then ask the question: why? Why do you dream of what you dream? What is it you really want? Then ask yourself what it would actually take to fulfill those desires. This can be done in monetary terms. Make a list of the core things that would satisfy your most grounded, reasonable wishes, and write down what they would cost in dollars. What would the mortgage on that beach house be? How much would two good trips a year cost? What is the literal price of supporting yourself or your family while still saving for emergencies and retirement?
The numbers may surprise you. Often, the cost of what we really want out of life is far less than the millions we fantasize about. When we whittle the excesses of our dreams down to what’s really important in the broader view, it all starts to look pretty attainable. Honest, basic fulfillment doesn’t usually take billions. It may only take a few hundred thousand, or fifty thousand, or the same amount of money you’re already making, but made independently rather than as an employee. It all depends on your own vision of happiness.
Once you’ve calculated the literal cost of your life goals, convert that to sales goals. How much product would you need to sell per day, week, month and year to hit the numbers you’ve established? What do you have to do to make those quotas? How many steady customers would support your sales goals? You may only have to serve a few thousand people to get what you need. Now you’ve stopped dreaming, and are ready to start doing.
Daring to…NOT Dream
Converting dreams to goals isn’t about being timid or hedging your bets. It is not about settling. It’s about chasing something that’s defined and attainable enough to actually catch. It’s about deciding what’s truly important to you and insisting on having it. It’s about choosing real change instead of nursing disappointment with fantasies. What you really want and need may be closer than you’ve dared to hope for.
So can you dream too big? That depends on you. You can dream too big if what you’re chasing is so detached from reality as to make it a counterproductive pursuit. You can’t dream too big if you’re willing to see your dreams as a starting point from which you can identify goals. From goals, you make plans. With plans, you create steps and deadlines, and start plotting your way to success.
In the end, the usefulness of dreaming comes down to authenticity. Authentic, successful business people don’t chase pipe dreams- and they don’t sell products that encourage other people to. Beware the “entrepreneur” who offers the moon and the stars, or who sells promises of a lifestyle. Those of us in the business of education know that success isn’t something that can be bought or sold. The product is tools and knowledge. The empowerment comes from within, from a place of honesty and realism.