How to Move On When Your Dream Fizzles
Replace an unachievable fantasy with one that ignites your passion and purpose
When Donna Harris-Earl, a 50-year-old aesthetician, opened her 7,000-square-foot grand salon and day spa in Beaverton, Ore., in 2007, she was living her entrepreneurial dream — though it wasn’t long before that dream started to unravel.
Her vision had included a salon/spa with stylists and aestheticians, nail technicians, massage therapists, a naturopath and a beauty school. But state regulations made it more expensive than expected to run the beauty school; it was surprisingly hard to find reliable employees; and when the economy tanked a year later, customers were nowhere to be found.
Like so many of her peers, Harris-Earl had faced adversity before. After getting divorced, she put herself through beauty school and then supported her four young sons by working in someone else’s salon. So she wasn’t about to give up on her dream now.
Launching and maintaining her own salon cost her a half-million dollars, which she drew from savings and investments. For two years, she struggled and poured more money into the business in a desperate effort to keep it afloat. She even defaulted on her home loan, gave up her house and declared personal bankruptcy. But it took a personal tragedy — the suicide of her adult son — for her to decide that the salon was no longer worth fighting for.
“His death put everything else in perspective,” says Harris-Earl. “Having a big ‘go-to’ salon wasn’t that important anymore. The passing of my son helped me to let go of that business.”
Deciding if the Dream Is Realistic
Following your passion is something we treasure in our culture. So giving up on a lifelong goal can be heart- and gut-wrenching, especially when you’ve spent decades planning, preparing and busting your butt to accomplish it.
But if your success is limited and/or the process is no longer satisfying, calling it quits is actually the healthiest thing you can do, says psychologist Heidi Grant Halvorson, Ph.D., associate director of the Motivation Science Center at Columbia University and author of Succeed: How We Can Reach Our Goals.
In several studies, psychologists Gregory Miller, a professor at the University of British Columbia, and Carsten Wrosch, at Concordia University in Quebec, found that people who refuse to abandon an unobtainable goal have higher levels of inflammation and put themselves at greater risk for chronic disease. Those who give up and redirect their energies report feeling a greater sense of happiness and well-being.
But sometimes, in spite of all the stress and frustration, people just can’t walk away from their dream.
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When It’s Time to Give Up the Ghost
Quitting in this culture is complicated because it implies weakness and failure. We are raised to “try, try again,” "never say never” and “do or die trying,” and this mentality conditions us to persevere long after the effort stops making sense. Psychologists refer to those incurred losses as “sunk costs." The hope of one day making good on that investment often drives people to continue their pursuit of a goal, even if it’s a miserable failure.
A better plan, says Grant Halvorson, is to pursue a dream that provides a sense of purpose and progress. “We need to feel effective, like we are moving toward something, making a difference in the world,” she says. “That sense of efficacy gives us confidence and meaning, and those things contribute to our well-being.”
Sometimes giving up the ghost at midlife comes easily. At 50 or 60, we might naturally accept that we’ll never have a baby or compete in the Olympics or become a pop star. Often we simply lose the drive, or momentum, because we realize we picked the wrong goal in the first place. Yet for people who’ve chosen life goals because of others’ expectations or because of “superficial” rewards like status, fame or money, it can be harder to let go, says Grant Halvorson.
Donna Harris-Earl, for example, could finally abandon her dream when she recognized that she had been focusing on external rewards — money, respect, status — rather than the things she actually cared much more about: interpersonal relationships, good health, delivering quality service, building a loyal customer base.
“In the beginning I let my ego run away, and it sounds so stupid to say that,” she says. “I wanted to be successful. I wanted my boys to be proud of me. So I put everything I had into the spa, but even that wasn’t enough. Now I know that I don’t necessarily need to run a giant business to feel like a smart, successful woman.”
Grant Halvorson's advice: When you’re doggedly pursuing a dream that isn’t providing any payoff, or you realize it can no longer (or maybe never did) give you a sense of purpose or meaning, the smartest move is to cut bait and find something that does.
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How to Replace One Goal With Another
Passion is an important predictor of well-being, happiness and success, but the dream that fuels it doesn’t have to be massive to be meaningful. Here are three ways to start the process of supplanting a failed dream with a new one.
1. Consider your motivation. Ask yourself: What do you care deeply about? What are you doing when you feel the happiest or most fulfilled? What do you want your goal to provide? When you get clear about this, you’ll find myriad ways to pursue the right goal rather than clinging to what isn’t working.
Thirty years ago, New York songwriter Stan Satlin, now 74, dreamed of having his music performed on Broadway. He had modest success (an off-Broadway play and an oratorio that was performed at Lincoln Center). But he never hit the big time and wound up working as a psychotherapist and teacher and managing a guest house to make ends meet.
There was some disappointment, Satlin says, when he realized his music wasn’t going to land him on Broadway anytime soon. Then one day he had an epiphany. “At first, I just wanted to be recognized,” he says. “But at some point I realized that wasn’t driving me. I was doing this for the joy of writing and having the music heard and appreciated — even by a small group of people. That is something I could do, and I’m still doing that.”
Real success always requires you to change and adapt your dreams along the way because seldom do we know what we’re in for when we start down a path, Grant Halvorson says.
2. Set a deadline to disengage. Once you know what you want to gain from your goal, set a deadline — maybe three to six months for smaller goals, up to a couple of years for more grandiose ones — to evaluate your progress. If at the end of that time you haven’t made any headway or you determine your goal no longer aligns with your desires, values and needs, give it up.
You might feel sad or disappointed. But rather than dwell on what you’ve lost, focus on all the things you’ll gain by moving on, Grant Halvorson advises.
3. Find a replacement goal. To avoid repeating past mistakes, identify what didn’t work with your original dream. Then home in on a new goal. This could mean scaling back the original plan or coming up with an entirely different one.
Often reshaping a dream means letting go a quest for status — in the form of fame, wealth or power — and focusing on what truly enriches our lives, says Grant Halvorson.
What’s most critical, she adds, is to do something. When we direct our attention and energy toward a greater vision, we stay active and engaged in life. And that keeps us from falling into despair over our past failures and disappointments.
Creating a Brighter Future
After Harris-Earl finally closed her grand salon, she opened a smaller one. In this way, she reconnected to her original dream: operating her own business and providing excellent care. Now she has time to personally serve her clients, which makes her happier than she was when she spent all her time managing employees and running the business end of things.
As for Satlin, after all these years, his early oratorio is being revived by a theater group in Atlanta, and he’s working on a new play. In a few weeks he’ll record his latest song, a celebratory take on growing older called “Better With Age.” Ironically, it’s a tune he couldn’t have written in his 30s. It was only by accepting his reality and reframing his dream that he’s finally living it.
Polly Campbell writes and speaks on personal development and spirituality topics. She is the author of Imperfect Spirituality: Extraordinary Enlightenment for Ordinary People.