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How to let go of a lifelong dream | Psyche

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Guide

How to let go of a lifelong dream

Adaptability is as much of a virtue as grit. Overcome any feelings of loss or failure by pivoting toward a new passion

by Christian Jarrett

Photo by Ian Maxwell/EyeEm/Getty

Christian Jarrett

is deputy editor of Psyche. A cognitive neuroscientist by training, his books include The Rough Guide to Psychology (2011), Great Myths of the Brain (2014) and Be Who You Want: Unlocking the Science of Personality Change (2021).

Edited by Brigid Hains

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Emma Garber began dancing aged three. By the time she was a teenager – following years of dedicated, exhausting, sometimes painful training – it was her burning ambition to become a professional ballet dancer. ‘I think around age 14, I sat my parents down and I said: This is what I want to do with my life. This is what makes me happy,’ she says.

All of us have dreams and hopes for our future. They are often career-focused, but not always. Some people dream of starting a family or living in another country, for instance. Our dreams form part of our identity, giving us purpose and direction. That is, until reality gets in the way, as so often happens: the change might come from within us, as our passion wanes, or the obstacles to realising the dream might become insurmountable (or a mixture of the two).

Garber’s dream began to fade amid burnout and doubt during her freshman year at the University of Massachusetts. After a particularly terrible dance class, she recalls: ‘I was like, I don’t think I want to do this for the rest of my life. I stood up, I walked out, I called my mom and I was like, I don’t even know what I want to do with my life anymore.’

You might be experiencing one of these unsettling fork-in-the-road moments yourself. Perhaps the dying breath of a fading dream is leaving you with intense feelings of regret and failure. You might fear how others will judge you. After all, in today’s culture, in many parts of the world, we’re taught from a young age that success is born from stubborn perseverance.

‘To be gritty,’ writes the psychologist Angela Duckworth in her bestselling book Grit (2016), ‘is to fall down seven times, and rise eight.’ The gist of her advice has echoed through different eras. ‘Many of life’s failures are people who did not realise how close they were to success when they gave up,’ wrote the inventor Thomas Edison.

Given this dominant narrative of the virtues of perseverance, and considering how our ambitions can become a core part of our sense of self, it’s understandable that you might be finding it difficult and unsettling to face the prospect of losing your dream. You can take comfort, though, in knowing that being adaptable and flexible in one’s ambitions is just as important as being gritty or determined. ‘By definition, if you cannot achieve what you want to achieve, you will fail repeatedly if you don’t stop,’ says Carsten Wrosch, a psychology professor at Concordia University in Montreal, who has been studying the construct of ‘goal adjustment capacity’ for more than 20 years.

Goal adjustment capacity – which psychologists see as a beneficial form of ‘self-regulation’ or ‘self-management’ – encapsulates two key components: the ability to disengage from fruitless goals and the ability to reengage in new, more productive goals. You could see it as knowing when and how to switch from one dream to another. It’s measured by agreement with questionnaire items such as ‘It’s easy for me to stop thinking about the goal and let it go’ and ‘I tell myself that I have a number of other new goals to draw upon.’

Wrosch says that people who lack this capacity are inclined to ‘bang their head against the wall’ when they’re confronted by an unobtainable goal, and, long-term, they’re more prone to stress and chronic illness. In contrast, those with greater adjustment capacity ‘have a much easier time’ – they decommit to the fruitless goal and find a different ambition to pursue. The virtues of being flexible and adaptable are also recognised by careers researchers, who refer to ‘career adaptability’, aspects of which involve being curious about new opportunities and being confident in one’s ability to learn new skills. People who score highly in this trait are generally ‘happier. They perform better. They get promoted … Just a whole range of good things,’ says Rajiv Amarnani, a lecturer in the University of Western Australia Business School. That you’re contemplating giving up your dream suggests that you have a healthy willingness to adjust and adapt, which is to your advantage.

If you’re nonetheless finding it difficult to look beyond the immediate sense of loss or failure, know that there are routes ahead and that other opportunities will emerge. By having the wisdom and flexibility to know when to let go, or when to redirect your passion, you’ll be following in the footsteps of many who have achieved greatness. David Foster Wallace let go of his tennis-greatness dreams and became an acclaimed novelist and writer instead. Meanwhile, Roger Federer’s dreams of tennis greatness came true, but only at the expense of his dream of becoming a professional footballer. And Maryam Mirzakhani let go her childhood dream of becoming a novelist but went on to be awarded the Fields Medal for mathematics in 2014 – the first and only woman ever to receive the honour.

These are dramatic examples, but they show that the path to fulfilment isn’t always smooth or direct. Once you’ve come to terms with your loss, you’ll find other passions. New dreams await.

What to do

Come to terms with your decision

As you let your dream go, you might be agonising over whether you’re making a mistake. ‘There’s no good answer, there’s no formula’ for deciding whether to plough on or give up, says Wrosch. However, he recommends bearing in mind a phenomenon known as ‘goal shielding’ – when we’re highly focused on a particular dream or ambition, we tend to filter out inconvenient information that might imperil the project. ‘Motivational psychologists call it an “implemental mindset”,’ says Wrosch. ‘If you cross the Rubicon, you focus on what you want to achieve, and you don’t have that balance [in how you process the situation] any more.’ For that reason, he says most us are, if anything, probably more at risk of stubbornly pursuing a dream for too long than giving up too early.

The author and entrepreneur Seth Godin agrees with Wrosch – ‘there’s no calculus’ for deciding when to give up, he says. He too warns that most of us ‘lie to ourselves all the time about whether we have the resources to get through the dip’. ‘The dip’ is Godin’s term – taken from his 2007 book of the same name, and subtitled A Little Book That Teaches You When to Quit (and When to Stick) – that he says refers to the ‘difficult space in between the joy of starting and the benefit of getting to the other side’.

One way to think about this emotionally difficult moment is as a chance to be objective about your dream. Was pursuing it coming at great personal cost, in terms of your relationships and other goals in life? If so, that would suggest it was what psychologists call an ‘obsessive passion’ and you’re wise to give it up (as distinct from a ‘harmonious passion’ that fits well into the rest of your life).

Also, try to think, if you can, more like a ‘healthy perfectionist’: recognise that letting go of your goals doesn’t cast some final verdict on you as a person, and acknowledge the influence of circumstances beyond your control. Remember too that success isn’t all or nothing – although you might not have fulfilled your dream in its entirety, you will likely have learned much along the way, and you now have the chance to redirect your energy and passion in new ways. This is also a good time to seek the counsel of close family and friends. They’ll be able to help you view your situation objectively and come to terms with your decision.

Be realistic about what you just gave up

When you decide to let go of a dream, it’s almost inevitable that it’s going to hurt, at least for a time, but there are ways to ease the discomfort and move on. ‘My approach to this is starting with the tragic realism of it, that it’s going to be hard, it’s going to hurt,’ says Amarnani, who likens the experience of giving up a dream to a romantic breakup. ‘To have an ambition is to have this vision of your future self, and to drop that is to drop a piece of you,’ he says.

That parallel with relationships offers an effective clue for how to cope. In the context of romantic relationships, Amarnani says that it can be therapeutic to be realistic, rather than idealistic, about the person you’re breaking from, even to focus deliberately on their flaws. If we’re honest, many of our dreams are romanticised, and it’s worth remembering that what you’re giving up is not that fantasy version of the future. We think of doctors as healing people, says Amarnani, or that staff at the United Nations are building peace, but then their daily reality is often far more mundane – doctors are navigating the bureaucracy of their healthcare system; workers at the UN are pushing paperwork around.

Amarnani speaks partly from personal experience. He once harboured a dream to become a computational cognitive neuroscientist, but he suffered repeated rejections and then the financial crisis hit. He changed gears to become a management scholar – ‘I thought I was selling my soul,’ he says, ‘but really what I was doing was just adjusting to the situation, being adaptable and trusting that, when you try something new, the passion will come.’ To help make peace with his decision, Amarnani focused on the negatives of the field he gave up –‘Decades of research on the brain has taught us next to nothing about the mind’ – and today he couldn’t be happier that he gave up his dream. ‘I grieved, genuinely,’ he says, ‘but life does go on.’

Find a new passion

It’s a cliché to say that one door closing means another opening, but it’s true. By letting go of an impossible dream, you’re freeing yourself to put time and effort into a potentially more rewarding project. It’s tempting to look at a high achiever such as Godin and assume that he arrived at his success via a direct path, propelled by grit and focused ambition. But, like most successful people, Godin has left behind many dreams in his past, including the sale of his company Yoyodyne to Yahoo for about $30 million in the late-1990s. ‘So I didn’t end up running a giant corporation. And that was fine,’ he says. ‘And I used to help run a summer camp up in northern Canada. And it was my dream for a long time. But if I had pursued that dream, I wouldn’t have the stuff I have now.’ Among other things, that includes authoring no fewer than 19 books since 1993, and being inducted into both the Marketing Hall of Fame and the Direct Marketing Hall of Fame.

Godin’s is an extraordinary career, but you too can find ways to redirect your passion and interests in new paths. If you can find something that fulfils the same needs, but which is more feasible, then that’s likely to be ‘a good replacement goal’, says Wrosch. If you dreamed of playing professional football, for instance, you could become a coach (and still play for your local club at the weekends). Garber has taken this approach: she still dances as a hobby – and enjoys it more now that there’s no pressure – and she’s combining her new career path as a journalist with her former dream. ‘This summer, I did a PR internship for a dance company, which was really rewarding, and I’m doing some similar work now,’ she says.

It can be particularly painful to let go of a dream when you’re forced to do so by circumstance, such as for health reasons. But, still, there might be ways to channel your passion. If you dreamed of starting your family, for instance, but haven’t been able to for whatever reason, you might find fulfilment in teaching or childcare. Acceptance and commitment therapy – an offshoot of CBT – teaches us to focus on what we can do in pursuit of our values and interests, rather than lamenting what we’ve lost. Say you dreamed of being a lawyer but health problems preclude such a heavy workload: perhaps your overarching concern to stand up for people could be expressed through community advocacy?

On the other hand, now you’re liberated from one particular dream, you might find it more appealing to use the newfound freedom to strike out in a completely different direction. If that’s the case, take your time and weigh up your options. Godin cautions against rushing. Instead, he talks about the ‘white, blank, empty, open space’ – that’s where ‘your subconscious will cook up the next thing you’re supposed to do,’ he says. ‘So, if you need to invent a new trapeze to hold on to, to get rid of this one, you’re probably not going to invent properly. You’re probably going to do it out of desperation. And I think it makes more sense to say, how do I use this open space to figure out what’s actually worth committing to?’

One practical exercise you could consider is to take a career interests quiz. There are many different versions available, but one of the most respected is the Career Aptitude Test that’s based on the RIASEC theory put forward in the 1950s by the American psychologist John Holland, and which categorises your interests as being predominantly either Realistic, Investigative, Artistic, Social, Enterprising or Conventional.

Certain careers are considered a better match to the different test categories (see a breakdown here) – for instance, civil engineering falls under Realistic, and clinical psychology under Investigative. Underlying this approach is the basic idea that we’re more likely to excel and find satisfaction in career paths that match our underlying interests. Whether that’s true or not – and there’s a lively scholarly literature debating the evidence – the exercise might help fuel your imagination for what ambitions to pursue next.

Key points

  • Our culture lionises grit and perseverance, but the ability to be adaptable and flexible, and pivot to new opportunities, is just as important.
  • The common phenomenon of ‘goal shielding’ puts us at risk of persevering for too long with unobtainable dreams, though there is no surefire way to make the right decision on this.
  • To assuage the pain of letting go of a dream, be realistic about what you’re giving up – even if you succeeded, it was unlikely to be the romanticised version you pictured.
  • To let go of a dream can be difficult and unsettling, but there will be other ways to channel or redirect your passion.
  • Turn this moment to your advantage by exploring new opportunities and building your adaptability for the future. New dreams await.

Learn more

A key part of having the capacity to move on from past dreams – ‘goal disengagement’ in the psychological jargon – is to relieve the sense of regret you feel, that nagging voice asking: ‘What if…?’ Earlier in his career, Wrosch tested the benefits of a writing exercise for overcoming regret, one that was targeted at older adults for whom regret can be a particular issue. He and his colleagues found that the three-day exercise reduced regret intensity (as compared with a control group who didn’t complete the exercise) and this had a knock-on benefit for participants’ sleep quality.

To try out the exercise for yourself, on the first day spend some time writing about those of your friends and peers who you know have regrets about dreams they’ve let go; on day two, spend some time writing about the external factors beyond your control that led to you giving up a particular dream or dreams; and finally, on day three, spend some time writing about your new dreams, why they’re interesting and enjoyable, and how they benefit others in your life or community. These three activities are based on the idea that it’s easier to let go of dreams when we realise that changing goals is an inevitable aspect of life; when we acknowledge the part played by external factors, rather than focusing on our own responsibility; and when we turn our attention to our uplifting replacement goals.

That exercise will hopefully help alleviate your regret at lost dreams but, as you move on, you could also use this moment to your advantage, to build your adaptability for the future. After all, such is life: you’ll likely have to let go of many dreams – both in your career and in your personal life. Learning to be flexible, how to pivot and find new purpose, is a skillset that’s just as desirable as having ‘grit’ or determination, though it’s not as exalted in the cultural consciousness.

This could involve your overall attitude to goals and dreams. Having just one intense, overarching dream will always be high-risk. So one simple way to increase your adaptability is to have at least two irons in the fire. Godin suggests starting a side hustle. ‘Turn off Netflix, turn off Facebook, and spend 20 hours of your free time a week doing a new thing without quitting your day job,’ he says. ‘Because this idea that everything has to be certain and perfect and full-time, I don’t think that’s particularly contemporary.’

There is also some evidence that it’s possible to train one’s general adaptability for the future. These findings stem from the field of occupational psychology, and so they pertain to career adaptability, but the general philosophy is just as relevant for any kind of ambition.

For instance, a 2012 study led by Jessie Koen at the University of Amsterdam suggested that it’s possible to train people (in this case, recent graduates) in several facets of ‘career adaptability’ – a flexible, forward-looking disposition that’s associated with greater odds of pivoting and finding satisfying re-employment opportunities. Specifically, exercises such as reflecting upon one’s values, visualising an ideal working day, training in information seeking, and in career planning, all helped to develop ‘concern’, ‘control’ and ‘curiosity’. The first of these career adaptability facets is about teaching people to look ahead and prepare for the future; the second is about being decisive (such as knowing when to change tack); and the last is about being open to different career opportunities. Other adaptability training studies have produced similar results.

If you’re at school or college, it’s possible that your institution will offer a similar training programme. For everyone else, it might be a challenge to receive formal tuition in career adaptability, but you could take inspiration from the formal approach, for instance by reflecting upon what matters to you in life, spending time exploring new opportunities, and mapping out several alternative paths to your goals and dreams. In future, you could also consider planning in advance the conditions under which you’ll quit any particular goal or dream – that way, you avoid getting caught up in the emotion of a dream and persisting even when it’s to your disadvantage.

Let’s be realistic, though. No matter the preparations you put in place, and no matter how adaptable you become, the day you give up on a dream, you’re bound to feel sad. It’s only natural. You might well grieve. But do take comfort that it’s not forever. ‘That [bad] feeling will pass,’ says Armanani. ‘It’s all ephemeral.’

Garber experienced ‘a brief period of grief’ after letting go of her dancing dream, but two years later she says ‘it’s the best decision I ever made’. She’s still dancing, but now it’s purely for pleasure. And she’s loving her new passion of writing and journalism. ‘If something isn’t making you happy, don’t do it,’ she says. ‘Go find something else, because it’ll be worth it in the long run.’

Links & books

The Career Relaunch podcast is presented by the psychology researcher-turned insurance salesman-turned medic-turned marketeer-turned career coach Joseph Liu. It features countless inspiring stories of people who have let go of dreams and found new paths to fulfilment.

The Side Hustle School daily podcast tells many stories of people who found reward in what started out as projects in their spare time. The host is Chris Guillebeau who wrote the book 100 Side Hustles (2019).

The uplifting story ‘It’s Alright to Give Up on Your Dreams’ (2019) by Emma Garber for UMass, the magazine of the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, tells how she moved on from her dream of being a professional dancer.

The Career Aptitude Test is a free test based on the theory of the American psychologist John Holland, from the Dutch careers publisher Jobpersonality. Use the test to kickstart your search for new dreams and ambitions.

In her book How to Be Everything: A Guide for Those Who (Still) Don’t Know What They Want to Be When They Grow Up (2018), the career coach Emilie Wapnick provides advice on coping with the guilt of giving up on earlier passions, and how to make progress on multiple projects at once. Also check out her TED talk ‘Why Some of Us Don’t Have One True Calling’ (2015).

In his short bestseller The Dip: A Little Book That Teaches You When to Quit (and When to Stick) (2007), Seth Godin lays out his advice on how to know whether you’ve got what it takes (time, money and tolerance of pain) to work through ‘the dip’ to achieve your ambitions – or whether to find something new.

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16 December 2020