My goal was to write and complete a single novel. My dream was to be an international bestselling author.
After I wrote that novel, my goal was to get my work published by any means necessary. My dream was to be offered a million bucks for my manuscript.
After I got published, my goal was to sell 5,000 copies in my lifetime. My dream was to sell millions.
While I was selling my way to 5,000 copies, my goal was to write two novels a year for ten years. My dream was to write three books a year for the rest of my life.
Looking back, it’s difficult to remember what my goals were and what were my dreams. It takes effort, especially now that the two have converged. But it’s worth doing. It’s something I feel all artists should do. I paid careful attention to the distinction between my goals and my dreams while trying to make it as a writer. The constant reminder kept me sane, kept me hungry, kept me motivated, kept me from losing my zeal. And now that distinction is crucial as I balance my encouragement to other writers. I want aspiring writers to dream; I also want them to know what to realistically expect.
It’s a dangerous thing, living our dreams. It’s easy to confuse all our good fortune for careful planning, to think that we got here because we once pictured ourselves here. My goals are the reason I’m here, but they only got me so far. My goals were realistic; luck did the rest. I still contend that anyone who applies themselves and puts in the time and effort can achieve my goals, which are listed above. But it’s unrealistic for any of us to expect my corresponding dreams. It’s also a bad idea to go around telling people to stop dreaming. We have to learn to do both, and that’s not easy.
My habit was this: I would allow myself to dream as I lie in bed at night in those long minutes or hours before I fell asleep. That’s when I would try to calm my flitting thoughts by focusing on a single narrative. Ever since I was very young, these narratives have consisted of extremely embarrassing and hubristic fantasies—dream-worlds where I could have anything I wanted. Such narratives, utterly free of conflict, induced both boredom and contentment, a combination that put me fast asleep.
I dreamed of building a space elevator and colonizing Mars. I dreamed of sailing adventures that took me around the world Joshua Slocum style. I dreamed that somehow I had written a dozen novels without my family knowing about it (thus skipping the boring bit of actually writing the novels), and out of nowhere I became an international bestselling author. In high school, I would dream of a girl moving in next door, a bookworm, and we would fall madly in love and play chess and write poetry and all the other things that explained why I rarely had actual girlfriends.
Like I said: embarrassing stuff to admit. And very confusing later in life, now that some of these idle wishes have come true. It would be easy for me to pretend that my dreams were somehow my goals and that I made them come true. But that’s not the case. I dreamed of being a bestselling author back before I’d written a single manuscript. That dream and my eventual goals share a common origin, a love of books and storytelling, but they don’t share the same odds of manifesting themselves in reality. I had realistic goals. I also had enjoyable dreams. We can have both.
The secret to having both is knowing when you are dreaming and when you are planning. There are several dangers that befall us when we neglect this distinction. When we confuse dreams for goals, we set ourselves up for disappointment. But when we limit our dreams to what is realistic, we deny ourselves both joy and inspiration.
Motivation comes from inspiration. Goals are the mortals bred from the gods of dreams. Bound to this earth, mortal goals still have godlike blood flowing through their veins, and so they can do amazing, superhuman things. We shouldn’t deny them that.
Would I have spent every spare hour writing were it not for my dreams? I doubt it. Would I have persisted for three years and eight publications if I confused those dreams for goals? No way. I would have given up after the first or second novel. I allowed myself to dream. I fought for goals that I knew I could attain. (And upon attaining them, I set new goals.)
This distinction between dreams and goals is both difficult and necessary. I find myself in a surreal place these days, living inside my former dreams. And I realize and appreciate that what has happened to me is a dream shared by many others. I get emails all the time asking for advice on getting to where I am today, and here is where we all can get tripped up: There is no guarantee for these results. I’ve often spoken of the role that luck plays, and I reiterate that here. So when I give advice, I have to do so from the place I found myself in late 2011, back when I was tackling my goals, finding success, finishing the novels I started, winning over readers one at a time, and selling those 5,000 copies that I had told myself I would.
Those were goals. We can all reach them. It isn’t easy. It takes hard work and dedication. You need to read a lot, and you need to read the best books you can find. You need to push yourself to improve. You have to study. Write daily. Make steady progress.
What are your dreams as a writer? I say don’t limit them. Dream of selling ten million books. Dream of movie premieres. Don’t hold back.
Now what are your goals? How many books do you want to write in your lifetime? How many short stories do you want to publish every year? How many words are you going to write every day? Do you plan on selling 5,000 books? 10,000? These are lofty goals, but you can do it. And with realistic goals, you will have the satisfaction of completing them, conquering them, and setting new ones.
There are cynics out there who would have us not dream for fear of our feelings being hurt. There are also idle dreamers who would have us not set realistic goals for fear of having us limit our potential. The cynics go around telling people that it’s all luck and it doesn’t matter how hard you work or what you do. The dreamers say we can be whatever we want to be without explaining all that goes into overcoming the odds. Cynics say we can’t win, that the game is rigged. Dreamers say we shouldn’t keep score or everyone should have a trophy so we can all feel like winners.
I say we should be both of these sorts of people at the appropriate times. We should be happy realists. We should dream when it makes sense to dream and keep score as we track down our goals. Lie in bed at night and enjoy your fantasies. And when the alarm clock stirs you, get up and tackle your goals.