Help – What Can I Do If I Haven’t Fulfilled My Dreams?
Illustration by Mr Donghyun Lim
I’m a big New Year’s resolution setter. Love a New Year’s resolution, me. The me I imagine at the beginning of a brand-new year is impossibly kind, productive and cool. The 365 days always stretch out like the moving walkway at an airport: my progress will be smooth, inexorable and artificially fast. I will wave to everyone as I smash my dreams on my way up into the sky. Inevitably, because life gets in the way, I always end my year thinking I’ve disappointed myself and maybe everyone else in the world – even if I’ve ticked off 15 of my 22 resolutions (yes, I made 22 resolutions at the beginning of 2023).
At the age of 33, there are so many things that I feel I should have achieved by now; so many ways in which I think I could be better. You might think the same. You might look at your life and see only the flaws and the unfulfilled ambitions. You may think that you aren’t the person you wanted to be when you were younger and perhaps that everyone else is crushing it but you. Is this just the nature of ambition? Or is problematic thinking? What do you do in this situation?
One word you should eliminate from your vocabulary at the outset is the fourth one in this sentence. “The word ‘should’, I think, is quite shaming,” says life coach Mr Nick Hatter. “To a child learning how to ride a bike, you wouldn’t shout, ‘You should know how to do this by now!’” says Mr Hatter. Apply a similarly compassionate approach to yourself: replace “should” with “could” and life will start feeling better.
So, why do we pile these “should” on our shoulders? We are “story-driven animals”, says life coach Mr Alan Quinn. Every other animal on the planet is a fact-based animal. Though there are great advantages to our story-loving brains, they cause us to create narratives rather than focus exclusively on facts. “It’s an evolutionary protection mechanism,” Quinn says. “So, there’s a large part of your brain that’s constantly looking for threats. It perceives something to be a threat very often until it knows otherwise.” We self-sabotage where other animals do not. If a lion fails to catch a zebra, Quinn says, she doesn’t say, “‘I should have become, I don’t know, a fucking cheetah.’ That’s irrelevant. It’s a complete waste of time.”
“Focus on what you do have and what you can do about it, not what you don’t have and can’t do about it”
Quinn’s advice – which he caveats by saying it will differ according to one’s specific circumstances – is to concentrate on the facts. “Instead of focusing on the things you haven’t achieved, [focus on] what have you achieved?” The word “achieved” comes with a lot of weight, he says. “If your story is, ‘I have not achieved what I want to achieve’, what your brain does – just to slightly prove you’re not batshit crazy – is it looks for confirmation bias to back you up.”
In his book The 7 Questions, Hatter writes about using an “existential cattle prod” in order to motivate his clients. Assuming you will live to 80 years of age, subtract your age from 80 and multiply that figure by 365 to get the number of days you have left. Clients are often shocked at how small the number is. “We do need a little bit of a kick up the bum,” he says. But the number is still great enough to allow you to transform your life. It is never too late. “Try not to create your own mental prison,” says Hatter, who is fond of a quote from Mr Carl Jung: “Life really does begin at 40. Up until then, you are just doing research.”
Once you’ve listed the things you have achieved and you notice there are still dreams yet to realise, ask yourself why you want to achieve them. Even if they don’t know why, men tend to say things like, “By this age, I should be a millionaire”, or think they should have a body like Mr Chris Hemsworth, Hatter says. If you feel you have a good reason to strive towards an ambition, focus on what you do have and what you can do about it, not what you don’t have and can’t do about it.
Get started immediately. Quinn recommends making a two-year plan, not a five-year plan. “You don’t know what you’re going to want in five years, so it’s nonsense,” he says. “You can do almost anything in two years.”
Most importantly, as Hatter puts it, “You don’t want to compare your insides to other people’s outsides.” Comparison is fatal. No one is having as good a time of it as you think. When you compare your body with the bodies you see on Instagram, not only are you exclusively seeing the things that these people are deciding to show you, but you are probably looking at someone who has been working at it for far longer than you. “Don’t compare your chapter one or two to somebody else’s chapter 20,” Hatter says.
“Don’t compare your chapter one or two to somebody else’s chapter 20”
“You’re only seeing the stuff that backs up your story,” Quinn says. “You’ve probably heard the line, ‘The grass is always greener until you get up close and see the shit between the blades.’”
If you are tempted to compare yourself with others, remember that after people achieve a certain salary – research in 2010 suggested that it was then around $75,000 per year – they don’t get any happier. Hatter confirms that the millionaires he sees have their fair share of problems. The money can buffer stress, “but it doesn’t necessarily make you happy”, he says. “You don’t need to be a millionaire in order to be a good father or a good partner.”
The best thing you can do is simply take action. Identify your ambition and start making progress. “Often when you take that first, smallest step, it becomes easier to take another one,” Hatter says.