The other day, two things made me think of the dreams I set out for myself. More than goals, these are the aspirations I carry with me everywhere. They consume me.
Ever since I was a senior in high school, I’ve set out some large, possibly outrageous goals that I wanted my life to live up to. It rarely did. But as the years passed—and the goalposts I set out for myself were not met and left me with disappointment—I seemed to have not learned a lesson from this. I still set out impossible goals for myself to reach. I still have alarmingly ridiculous fantasies of what life could be like. I still want to be successful enough that I could buy my mom a townhouse on Sullivan Street, on the same block as Anna Wintour because I like the townhouses there, and I think of this ridiculous, impossible goal every time I’ve walked past a certain door on that block that I’ve fantasized is my mom’s future door, and behind it, her future home.
My goals are still outlandish. And I don’t know how to stop myself from having them.
Things I wanted in my life included fortune and literary recognition. I still want to pay off all our student loans (an impossible goal if there ever was one) before I die and take care of my mother and help my sister. And I want to have a solid career as an author. In my mind, this “career” involves a certain number of things that haven’t come true yet, and each month that passes in which they haven’t come true, I feel disappointed in what I’ve done.
It’s ironic that I can be filled with doubts over my worthiness and skill as a writer and yet still want impossible measures of success for myself. How do I even justify the two together? The contrast—and wide leap between—is alarming.
The first thing that brought this all to mind was this vlog by author Daniel Marks. (He’s been a guest writer on this very blog with this hilarious, and horrifying, post on his worst fear!) In this video, he gives a really affecting, personal talk about his history with depression. He says, “My mood is really wrapped up in expectations. I have a tendency to set really high expectations for myself, for other people, for situations, for events, things like that. And because of doing that, I really set myself up for a lot of disappointment.”
This vlog resonated with me—especially the part about high expectations and disappointment—because I can get like that. “Down,” I call it. I’ll feel down, and not much can lift me up. And I think so much of the reason that I go to this down place and let myself linger there is due to disappointment at not reaching difficult—in fact, impossible—goals for myself as a writer and published author and person in this world.
With this great vlog on my mind, I was flipping through TV channels the other night when I should have been reading (another disappointing trait of mine, but let’s ignore that), and I found Little Miss Sunshine playing on the IFC channel. What a great film.
As the opening scene unfolded and we met the characters, I realized how some of them were set up for such obvious disappointment.
Specifically, Richard, who’s trying to be a motivational speaker on the subject of being a WINNER and not a LOSER, and failing miserably at winning his own success.
And teenage Dwayne, who wants to join the Air Force so badly, he has taken a vow of silence until his mother lets him take the test for his pilot’s license. (SPOILER: During the film an accidental discovery proves that Dwayne is color blind, so he will never be able to get his pilot’s license. Dream dashed, gone.)
And Olive, little seven-year-old Olive. Just looking at her in the first few moments of the film, we can feel it in our ugly little truth-telling guts that she’s not going to win the beauty pageant. We can see this, but she can’t.
Sometimes I feel like Olive.
I’m Olive because some of the dreams I have for my future are laughably impossible. And maybe everyone around me can see that. But at the same time, no one can burst my bubble and take these dreams away from me.
You see, I like having big goals. It makes me strive for big things, and I can look back and see the successes that have come from all this striving. But when so much of my happiness is wrapped up in attaining something that is not necessarily ever possible to attain, I am, as Daniel Marks says in his video, setting myself up for disappointment… and my “down” feeling comes from that.
So I’m thinking about this. About how to fix this part of myself and still keep a hold on my big dreams. Can I?
I want to tell you why I think I’m this way. Why I’ll always strive to win that beauty pageant when I look like this.
When the “Impossible” Came True
When I was a teenager, my family situation was very dramatic. Usually I don’t talk about this here. The man my mother was married to at the time tormented me. He was fun and wonderful one moment, monstrous the next. And I never knew which way he’d wake up in the morning. None of us did.
I’ve touched on this in the blog before, but I remember once how he was yelling at me and said these words: “Why would anyone want to read what you write?”
He said it like it was the most impossible thing in the world. Anyone. Reading. What I, of all pathetic people, wrote.
He knew my dream was to be a published author because he’d read my journal where I’d confessed as much. And maybe it offended him, that I wanted to do this. How dare I even think I was worthy of such a thing?
It’s funny how small moments can cause such explosive reactions to move ahead and focus your entire life. Because I want to tell you, when he said that—I remember this was a throw-off line in a fight. I remember which house we lived in then; I remember where he sat at the dining room table, and I remember where I stood in the room and how I cried. I remember how I flung myself on my bed in my basement bedroom, and in a rage I thought of my dream—to be a published author one day—and this determination grew inside me. The dream felt so impossible, you have to understand. I didn’t know anyone in my life who grew up to be what their secret dreams said they could be. Every adult I’d known had sacrificed and turned responsible and got a job to take care of their family. Real people—people I knew, people from families like mine—we didn’t do outlandish things like become published authors.
Well, I would, I told myself.
It was the most impossible thing to imagine for myself. Like being a rock star.
Yet I pushed myself toward that fantastical goal for years. It became my entire life.
And I didn’t do it alone: I had my mother, who always believed in me, I found E when I was really young, and he always believed in me. But you know who else believed in me? Me. I thought this dream of mine was near impossible, and yet I still thought I could try for it, I thought if I kept trying maybe just maybe it would come true. And here I am, with my third novel coming out this spring.
I think this is why I can’t let go of impossible things. I don’t believe in the word. I may be filled with doubt and worry and think bad things about myself, but there is also that girl still inside me somewhere, the one who was told she couldn’t and knew she could.
I’d rather let her keep believing in impossible things.
But Let’s Be Realistic
So I’ve seen the “impossible” come true. I’ve seen magic. And once unseen, you can’t unsee it, you know?
I know I need to find a way to temper my expectations. To not expect the world from myself—and from the industry and every single person around me. Because I have my dream. I’m living it. And when I think of new and exciting things to want—when my Twitter feed glides past telling me all the wonderful things happening to other authors who are not me—I tend to forget what I have. I want more. And I hate that about myself.
I reached a good place last year with this war inside myself. But I can do better this year, though. I will.
I think it’s only that I love the feeling of reaching. I always want to aspire to be something bigger and better than I am and I want to prove to the world (as if it’s my stepfather at the head of the dining room table yelling at me) that when I say I will do something, I mean it. So lately, I’ve been turning this inward. Instead of reaching for outside markers of success—dreams that rely on other people and the industry to make come true—I am trying to reach only with my own two arms.
In my writing. Which is what I can control.
I am a work-in-progress. I will always think impossible things are possible. My life has shown me some of that. But I think I need to remember how I felt when I was a teenager, when even this very moment seemed like the most impractical, fantastical, never-to-happen-to-someone-like-me thing I could ever imagine.
How many impossible things can one person have in one life?