What to Do When You Don’t Have a Dream

Stop me if you’ve heard this one:

“If your dreams don’t scare you, they aren’t big enough.”

It’s sort of assumed that we all have dreams. Big Dreams. Lofty Dreams. Impossible Dreams.

But we’re supposed to dream them anyway. Shed those conventions! Trounce on those naysayers! After all, the future belongs to those of us who believe in the beauty of our dreams, right?

Actually…hang on, Mrs. Roosevelt. Isn’t that kind of a backhand to the rest of us?


Dream big or go home? I’m not so sure.

To those of us who don’t have a Big Dream? What are we supposed to do, make one up in a desperate bid to grab our slice of the future?

We hear it all the time:

  • Dream job
  • Dream wedding
  • Dream vacation
  • Dream house
  • Dream car

What if we don’t *have* specific dreams about these things? What if your dream is just to be happy and keep that going for as long as possible?

Is that…big enough?

Because, seriously, I don’t have a dream wedding. I have a couple of Pinterest boards, but frankly am more interested in finding dessert recipes that I can make at home on a Tuesday than quirky, emotionally poignant centerpieces that will be relevant for approximately five hours.

The same goes for a career. I thought that by now, I’d know what I want to do.

I don’t.

I also uncovered a major secret that society has been trying to keep under wraps for years, and that is that we don’t have to know what we want to do. Ever.

I’m not so sure that a dream job has to be life-changing, or fulfilling, or fantastic. It should facilitate the overall life you want and allow for that to happen.

For example:

Scenario #1: Establish your own business selling flip books on Etsy. You enjoy it, but the hours are long and it’s hard to turn off your brain even when you’re not technically working. Truth be told, you are always. working. It’s making you sort of despise those flip books and you have to remind yourself not to draw devil horns on some clients’ heads (but doing it in your mind is totally okay).

Scenario #2: Flexible office job that you don’t love but you don’t hate, either. Your co-workers are nice, the vacation is good, and the pay is enough to let you do what you want during your off time. When you leave the office, you don’t think about it. At all. In your free time, you travel, hang out with friends and family, and enjoy drawing flip books.

It feels blasphemous to say, but Scenario #2 could actually be your dream job. Less stress, flexibility, freedom, security – doesn’t sound too bad.

Of course, there are endless possible scenarios – you may work round-the-clock at your own creative endeavor and love it, which would be ideal. (Some may even call it living the dream.) You may have a flexible, low-stress office job that absolutely feeds on your soul, and I’m not trying to suggest that it could be your dream job. (Get out. Get out yesterday.)

I’m just saying that your dream might already be in progress.

I used to think that my dream was to become a writer. Once I identified this as my dream, I let it dangle in front of me, referencing it in the abstract and keeping it tucked safely in the future. I hoped, I wrote, I waited, I hoped some more.

And you know what happened? Becoming a writer kept on being my dream. Even as I was being a writer, I kept imagining what it would be like to be one. Suddenly having a dream felt limiting but the thought of adding a dream to meet all of my interests was exhausting.

The reason I didn’t accept that I was, in essence, living my dream, is because it didn’t change my life. That’s another thing about dreams – they’re supposed to change your life, so it’s really obvious when you’ve achieved them.

After ten years of travel, when I wasn’t so sure my dream was really my Dream anymore, I realized – dreams are totally useless until you turn them into goals.

So now, I don’t have a Big Dream. I have lots of goals, and plenty of ideas, and I work towards them on a daily basis. You could say that my goals are my dreams; it’s a matter of semantics, really. My main objective (goal? dream?) is to be happy. Live a life I feel good about.

I can achieve this goal in a million different ways, and I’m not sure how I’m going to keep doing it. It won’t be by one big action, but lots of little ones. It’ll be trial and error. It’ll be hard. It’ll be fun.

It doesn’t scare me at all.

I’m totally okay with that.

2017 update: I still don’t have a dream



60 Responses to “What to Do When You Don’t Have a Dream”

  1. I think about this a lot. When people ask me what my dream job is, or what I am working towards, or where I want to be-I feel like I have to make something up to satisfy an answer. In reality-I really don’t have one. Once I just tried shrugging and saying ‘Nothing, really. This, I guess.’ and I got a worried side-eye, like they were trying to gauge my level of depression.

    • Exactly – like you’re an underachiever or slacker if you don’t have this dream to aspire towards. I figure you can spend your whole life fretting about chasing the perfect dream and never find it, or you can just enjoy what you’ve got and look for ways to keep making it better.

  2. I hear ya. It’s hard when you think you have a dream and then you realize it isn’t at all what you thought it would be, like the flipbooks. I thought I wanted to work in private equity for the rest of my life and then realized, whoa, hell no! I think it’s more about being resilient and flexible than having a “dream” and not being willing to bend with it as it changes.

    • Yes – being willing to bend with your ‘dream’ is key, rather than feeling like a failure if it doesn’t pan out. I find it hard to swallow that we’re all supposed to have one or two things that we’re ‘born to do.’ That’s way too limiting for me!

  3. I feel pretentious quoting my own work, but whatever. “Dreams may be sexy, but planning is the condom that makes it all possible.”

    Nobody ever tells you that “follow your dreams” often simultaneously means “acquire startup capital.” I think the “live your life, have no fear” inspirational quotations and whatever are fine for some, who might need that extra push, but kind of annoying to the people who know that it takes a whole lot more than dreaming to make it happen, and that it might not actually be an ideal lifestyle anyway. Living your dreams is usually far more labor intensive and with a draconian budget than plenty of people ever discuss. But sometimes it works out, so…

    • Those quotations are part of what drove me to write this post. I usually like them and see the value in them, but I’d hit my limit. If an inspirational quote is what it takes to propel you into action, then great. But if you’ve pinned 100 quotes and you still aren’t taking action, step back and re-assess. (Grab a metaphorical condom, if you will)

  4. I love your job scenario comparison. I came to that conclusion a couple of years ago. Many of my friends were striving for more money or a better title and I realised I was earning as much as I needed to lead a happy life, and I enjoyed my time off. I didn’t mind the work I was doing either, so perhaps that was my dream job. Then I left it to ‘live the dream’ and travel, which has been awesome too. But when I settle again, I’ll be looking for a job just like my old one 🙂

    • Right? It took me a while to accept, because I’m looking for part-time work at the moment to complement what I do online – something to get me out of the house and bringing in a few Aussie dollars. And I kept thinking, ‘could I really do admin work again?’ but if it meets my needs for the time being, there’s no reason why I can’t. It’s a constant battle to remind myself that I’m not defined by what I do, even though I firmly believe that I’m not!!

  5. Oh my godddd, thank you so much for writing this! I feel exactly the same way. I keep waiting for some great epiphany to strike me of what I want to do with the rest of my life but instead I just keep thinking… “well, I’d really like to live on a sailboat for a while, and I’d also like to work on a farm for a bit, maybe I’ll try teaching in Korea, and doing yoga and writing in Bali sounds nice.” I wonder when my REAL dream is going to occur to me but perhaps all of these experiences are collectively “my dream”. Thanks for helping me realize that! 🙂

    • That’s exactly what I was trying to say! Everyone’s further articulating in the comments what I couldn’t fully express. The idea that you have lots of things you’d like to do, and one isn’t necessarily more ‘right’ than the other. I totally felt like writing was supposed to be my REAL dream, but in reality it’s just part of my collective dreams. Good luck with your dreams/goals and glad I could help!!

  6. I love this! Don’t worry about having a big dream, have lots of goals instead. That helps! I’ve been trying to figure out what my dream job scenario is or what my passions are besides travel, and it’s frustrating and I feel bad for not being able to figure it out. This is a much better approach!

    • Yes! It makes us feel bad when we can’t figure it out, like we’re doing something wrong or missing out. I’m so over feeling this pressure to meet my dream or have a grand vision for my life. As soon as I scaled back my ‘writing’ dream into smaller, achievable goals, I started actually writing and am almost finished with the first draft of my memoir. Plus, it’s left room to explore other things that I also enjoy, like making a mess in the kitchen or surfing. Funny how that works!

  7. I really needed to read this – thanks.

    Maybe we don’t realise we’re ALREADY living our ‘dream’ because we’re constantly looking for the next one.

    I like your Scenario #2…very much. I am in a similar situation, except I teach.
    You have summed up what I’ve been feeling for a long time.

    • As I wrote that, I thought of how teaching is a prime example of Scenario #2. My dad tried to tell me that for years and I wouldn’t hear of it. Now I think that I could have been just as fulfilled as a teacher as I am with my lifestyle now. It goes back to that concept that we’re supposed to love what we do. What about if we like what we do and we love what it allows us to do in other areas of our lives?? That’s pretty fantastic, too!

  8. I’ve been wondering about this too, especially lately. Dreams may not be all their cracked up to be, so instead of making a list dreams I made a list of “things that I can do”. Rather dreaming that some big thing would come along and change everything – what if I don’t even want things to change that much? I just made a list of goals that I can achieve that would led me to being more fulfilled and happy -I think that’s what it’s really all about anyway. Also, it’s funny that I read this today, as I only made that list last night 🙂

    • Sounds like so many people are thinking about this at the moment! And yes to not really wanting things to change – I feel like I’ve tried to gradually cultivate a life that makes me happy, so why would I need a dramatic change? The idea is to change if you’re unhappy. I’m probably going to try your ‘list of goals’ idea – I love making lists and would probably experience a modicum of fulfillment just by making the list itself!

  9. I love this article! My husband and I dreamt about sailing around the world for decades, but until we actually retired, set the goal, and cast off those docklines, it was just a dream. During presentations re: my books about our circumnavigation, I always tell my audience to pursue their passions, whatever they may be, and to live their dreams!

    • Thanks for commenting! That’s the key, isn’t it – pursing your interests and actively living your dreams. Until then, there’s this nagging feeling that you’re missing out on the life you’re meant to have and that just takes away from the life you do have!

  10. Awesome post! I definitely feel insecure sometimes about not having one big dream because I feel like I’m supposed to. In reality, I prefer having smaller goals, and allowing my plans for the future to be fluid. I haven’t figured it all out, but this seems like a better route towards happiness than pinning your life on one future big dream that may not be all you expected it to be when you finally get there.

    • Thank you! I agree about having fluidity in your future. Keeping your options open and going after the little things that make you happy or build to bigger goals is the way for me. Not that having a big dream is bad – for some people it’s perfect – but for me, not so much.

  11. I love this. 🙂 I think I was always against the term ‘dream’ because, like you said, dreams are supposed to be a fantasy and unrealistic. I see most of the things I want to do in life as totally attainable … mainly because I kind of have an old school ‘If you work hard to get what you want, you can get it’ mentality. 🙂 Everything I’ve wanted, I’ve gone for and I think that’s the best way to be.

    • Yes. Calling it a dream kind of gives you an out – an excuse to fail or not try hard enough. Make it a goal, work for it, and surprise! Things happen.

  12. I love it! Always wanted to be a writer, didn’t realise it was happening … same here. I have just lived the dream, 3 years of travel, mountaineering, paragliding all around the place and you know what my dream was when I returned? Well, it was pretty much what I left…a normal happy life, just enough adventure so I can appreciate it.
    Happy is my new dream 🙂 Thanks for writing this

  13. Yes, dreams can be destructive, always dreaming but never doing. I like to travel. I want to travel more than I do. I’d like to have a job tied to travel more than my current newspaper editor job. But my place of employment is fun, I enjoy the people I work for and sometimes feel like we’re doing important work. But you know what? Sometimes I just want to find a good beer. That’s my dream, and goal, a lot of days of the week. I don’ think there is anything wrong with that. I don’t want to kill myself trying to make travel blogging some awesome career. If it happens, great. But I need to enjoy the travel opportunities that are coming along with it instead of just worrying about the next opportunity that can take it to another level.

    • Ha ha! I feel you on the ‘find a good beer’ dream. It may be small, but it can be very rewarding. And I completely agree with the travel blogging as a career thing – I thought that’s what I wanted to do, but along the way realized that it wasn’t. At all. I enjoy running the blog, and traveling, but I don’t need to make it my career. Your job sounds pretty good to me, but I guess the grass is always greener!

  14. Came across this whilst I was home alone. I usually think of where I am going when I have nobody around. I am a teacher. Most people see me as doctor or scientist material. Geez. I enjoy teaching Science but that’s just it. I love what I do. I am also lead vocalist. So what if that’s what I want to do? My lifestyle doesn’t necessitate extravagant spending. What I make is just enough.
    Currently, my short term goal is to study Instructional Design and Technology and Educational Assessment and Evaluation.
    I am a family person so I am also working towards my dream home. That seems like a lot to me.
    Did I mention that my biggest dream right now is paying off debt? That’s the only way my other dreams will come to fruition.
    Life is dynamic. Life is unpredictable. Why worry about one particular dream? Do all the things that you love. In the end, you won’t be stuck regretting that you only had one BIG dream that lost its sizzle within a few years.
    I love my life. Simple, complete.

    • I agree – it sounds like you have a lot of good things going for you already. And solidarity on paying off debt being your main goal. I’ve been there, and getting myself debt-free was one of the biggest accomplishments of my life so far.

      But this is what I agree with the most: “Do all the things that you love.” That’s what I’m trying to focus on this year. Doing all of the things I love but giving them the attention they deserve, not doing them halfway. Good luck and thanks for the comment.

  15. Thanks for sharing this! I was thinking the same for a while now. I lay in my bed, reading inspirational quotes and nothing happened. I just nod, yeah, they are true. But ‘get out and make a difference!’ No. I can’t be bothered. I’m in fact happy. It bothered me that i had no dream though, for a while.
    I’m a person who is not too demanding. I can remain a whole year in one room, almost, i just need my tablet and food. I stretch in bed and purr happily. Housework? No. No matter how they tried to raise me, i never felt the need to tidy – it will soon return anyway and my husband is the same sort. I don’t even bother with tidying before visitors come. If they don’t take me as i am, then they are not my sort and they can leave again. Including my family.
    Now staying at home and playing games is too boring already. I finally found a job, part time only but that’s fine. In fact i only need enough to pay the bills and get food. Some reserve would be nice too but i won’t fret… i might not be alive the next week.
    So my dream? Maybe a wish, not to be alone. Especially, when i ask for help and get it, i don’t want to be left again by that person. I want them to stay with me. And be with me through my good times. Will i do something for it? Like, talk to random strangers? No, for crying out loud. I’m shy. I socialize only online. I’d love to have a friend who is always here for me, who i can talk to daily. So far i haven’t met one such. A husband is close but he is different, he has his own hobbies, world, and mainly not enough time. I might have a kid, if that fills that hole. That might work. I was unprepared for having one till recently coz it would mean tidying up and caring and i’m not a caring type. But it will still be interesting so i’ll take the chance.
    I just take whatever comes. I’m not active. A friend told me she has a full diary till the end of the year! I have only one holiday planned with her, which she pulled me into, and then nothing. 😀 just my peaceful life. But then i don’t have to stress over stuff so much.

    Hmm, that was long. I bet i departed from what i actually wanted to say but it felt good to share and maybe someone else will find it helpful too, how i found other posts helpful. It is nice to find out inside people are basically the same; and whole lot different than what they appear.

  16. I googled to see if anyone felt like I feel. Well, you do! Yippee! Thank you for sharing with me that you do, in fact, have goals. One is to be happy. Your goals and my goals … your dreams and my dreams are the same. Interestingly, my goals and dreams have led me in many, many directions and places I probably may never have been if I set out to get there. Just living with a goal and dream of being happy and being authentic has created a very rich life for me. Yes, it may not look great on a resume, and, at times, I struggle with that. When I imagine having lived a more resume-pleasing life, I come to the conclusion that I don’t know if I could have actually done it! I think I would have had to compromise my goals to have achieved it … and happiness and authenticity is just too valuable.

    • You are not alone! My resume is a little bit crazy due to all of my jobs, but it’s amazing how every choice you make leads to a new opportunity. Leading an authentic life is crucial – if something’s not working, change it!

  17. today morning i got an email to write about myself..it asked what is your dream… and here i am … to be honest .. i do not have a dream..hang on, i do have plans, ambitions etc- things that helps in building an agreed future.
    But it is not my dream to have a good job, beautiful house etc. I guess my dream is to be just happy, and for that i do try.

    • Being happy sounds like a pretty good goal to me. The phrases ‘goal’ and ‘dream’ are too often treated as interchangeable, and I think they are two different things!

  18. I was like ‘oh yes’, ‘I know right’ , ‘so true’ ….. While reading this article. It is a well thought out and beautifully delivered piece. Thank you for writing this, loved it.

  19. and what if you have nothing you are working towards and have a stuck bored feeling

    • Well I would say to set a goal as soon as you can, even if it means completely overhauling your everyday life. Sounds like you’re ready for a change.

  20. I Googled it, I typed in ‘I don’t have a big dream’ to see if there are others like me… I’m glad I did 🙂 Reading your post and the comments have put a smile on my face 🙂

    I have always felt I must have some big dreams, and then I have to go and achieve them to live a fulfilling dream life. Dream big, live big! But the reality is that all these ‘things’ I have called my ‘dream things’ have not really been the kind of stuff that would actually make me go after them. For a long time I though I’m just lazy – I have the dreams, the potential, the skills… just the drive seems to be missing. If I discipline myself enough I can get over the laziness, right?

    Wrong 🙂 It wasn’t about laziness at all… I just made these dreams up as I felt I must have ‘big dreams’ as it seemed to be a requirement for fulfilling life. None of them were real. I mean real real – like something I would really really really like to do or have or be.

    Like others who have commented here I have now realised that I’m already living my dream life, without any need for life changing dreams. There are things I would like to have, places I would like to visit, certain amount of money I would like to earn, but non of these goals are the kind of ‘big dreams’ that would make me give up my peaceful life, as the inner peace is the only real dream I have ever had, and I’m living it as well as I can, and nurture it as well as I can, and live as happily as I can.

    Goals are good though, I like goals, they help me to get what I want or need. They are like tools meant to help in the process.

    So, I leave the ‘big dreams’ alone, and live happily with my bite-size goals, and wish you all well and that you can always live your life as you wish, dreams or no dreams.

  21. I have a slightly different problem. I do have a dream (to be a social entrepreneur) but don’t know how to get there. I’ve tried many attempts but they all fall short and leave me miserable and depressed.

    Life is too short and I find myself depressed all the time because I am not where I would like to be. But may be I am ignoring what life is telling me – to take it easy, stop dreaming and start living.

    Smaller goals or projects is a good approach. Whatever makes me happy, healthy and a better person. Thank you – this article helps me see things a bit differently.

    • Hi Srini, thanks for your comment! It can be really overwhelming to tackle your goals, especially if you’re not sure how to do so. I’m glad this post helped and I hope you find what makes you happy 🙂

  22. Hi Lauren – what a timely post for me!

    I’ve always struggled with not having one big overarching career plan. But the truth for me is that, like you, there are a lot of careers I could have, but never really pursued.Lately, at 50+, I’ve been looking back and seeing a zig-zag instead of a staight line behind me. That brings up feelings of regret and even shame.

    My husband has always been ultra-focused. He knew by high school what kind of job he wanted, and pursues his hobbies the same way. I’ve made the mistake of comparing myself to him, and guess who feels inferior?

    After reading your post, I think it’s time to question my assumptions and expectations for myself. How great would it be to stop defining myself by how much I impress others by what I do?

    Thanks for the inspiration!

    • Hi Heather, thanks for your comment. I can relate to so much of what you said – I feel like I’m constantly re-learning how to stop defining myself based on how my actions might appear to onlookers. It’s so much more important to define myself in my own terms. I think having a zig-zag instead of a straight line shows that you tried different things, and that’s nothing to be sorry about 🙂

      I’m glad this post helped!

  23. Thanks for this post, although it’s been up a few years I see that it’s relevant to many people and I am not the only one wondering. I can relate to Lauren’s recent comment.

    After reading your post, I remembered this David Bowie quote: “I don’t know where I am going from here but I promise it won’t be boring” That’s the best we can do and that’s pretty good!


  24. Hey! thank you so much for this article….. you have no idea how much relatable this post is to me and you ve taken off a huge weight from my chest by this piece ….i m at that point in my life where everyone my age has set some really huge and cool dreams and goals for themselves and their burning desire to achieve them is so strong and here I am totally contented with the 20 years i ve lived and totally peaceful about my future life too… as I know one thing for sure that i m going to be contented in there too…. dreaming n desires are probably just not my cup of tea….. my friends n collegues have this notion that only after achieving those few milestones in life, will they really be happy and this life that they are spending right now chasing success is the preparation of future happiness and contentment… but what about now?!…. I am glad that I am happy n content right now itself without the need of any persuit of happiness or dreams…. And now that they see me as a passive and non-ambitious person with no personal future control and as a girl who is drifting through the wind of her life, I have this article to back my notion… thank you! 🙂

    • Thanks for commenting! I’m glad that the article helped you and it’s good to hear that you’re happy and content with who you are – many people would not be able to say the same.

  25. I do not dream when I’m sleeping.

  26. A wide awake dream is to be a marriage and family counselor.

  27. hi Lauren,

    I love your post, enjoy it so much. I have done many things, I am very obsessed with dreams. I feel that I must have it and work really hard to achieve it. Even though I end up with just an ordinary job, not an impressive career. But somehow I managed to get whatever I dream of, a house, cars, fancy vacations, adventures, etc. But it did not lead to happiness, there was always another dream to get obsessed to. And that lead to another despair and stress. So thank you for your article, I think I got a few ideas to resolve this.

  28. Hi Lauren! I’ve recently discovered your website and I’m very glad I found you, I agree with many of your views!
    I also consider myself as a “jack of all trades, master of none” type of personality, and it took me a long time to come to terms with the fact that I don’t need to have a “big goal, big career, big dream” in order to feel content with my life! Happiness is fleeting, you get what you want and the satisfaction lasts for a while until you need to find the next “fix”, the next big thing to strive for, that once you’ll get it you will feel happy again! No, contentedness is much more desirable for me. And it can be achieved by what you describe, setting small goals for ourselves and leading a life towards the right direction for us, not towards a right destination!

    You can only achieve your dreams by turning them into goals anyway 🙂

    I also got a masters degree (in Astrophysics of all things!) and I was getting so much pressure to continue with Academia and a PhD. Otherwise, all that struggle would have been for nothing! (according to society and family)
    But I’m very glad I listened to my heart’s desires and started a life of travelling and working in different countries! Travelling is a passion, and as long as I find ways to bend my jobs around my lifestyle (and not the other way round), I’ll keep doing just that.
    Finally got the motivation to start my own blog too, and I’m pretty excited to start this journey!

    Thanks for this article, keep it up 🙂

    • Hi Nicky, thanks so much for your comment! It sounds like we have a very similar perspective on life and happiness, and I’m sure travel has a lot to do with that. Even though expat life brings its own ups and downs, I wouldn’t change my choices. I look forward to following your blog too 🙂

  29. Feels great to come across someone following a similar attitude towards life. Even I don’t have the so called big dreams of owning luxury cars , luxury apartments,having own business. I have a 9 to 5 job, decent pay to survive and enjoy life, good vacations follow my interests. I do have some career goals and working on them.On whole I am quite satisfied with the way my life is going.

    • Thanks Swati! I’m the same, as long as my job affords me the time and income to do the things I truly want to do, then I’m pretty satisfied with things.

  30. So beautifully explained – and I assume almost everyone feels like this from time to time? But I think you’ve tapped into the truest, best dream of all – pure, simple happiness. Good luck!

    • Thanks Kelli – I’m glad to report that a few years after writing this post, I still feel the same way and am pretty happy with how things are turning out.

  31. Forgive me for saying so, but I really hate those “inspirational” quotes. Without going into too much detail, I am an HFA. I’ve been told I’m “inspirational” just for doing what I’m supposed to do despite my limitations. But I see two problems with this logic:

    1. It’s not that hard for me.
    2. Is it really “inspirational” if you’re *required* to do it? I mean, going to work isn’t really inspirational. And I don’t do much outside of it. What’s inspirational about that?

    • I’m with you on the inspirational quotes. They have lost all meaning for me, especially after being circulated so widely on social media. I think it’s an interesting perspective that you offer on what it means to be inspirational – on one hand,if someone is inspired by something positive then that’s a good thing, but it must be odd when you’re the one who is unintentionally doing the inspiring. Thanks for your comment!

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