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The lie behind “If you dream it, you can be it”

My speech to a group of high school students about careers in psychology was preceded by an inspirational video presented by another speaker. “If you dream it, you can be it” was the affirmation to these high school seniors.

The teacher asked me to say a few words about this motivational message. I knew she expected me to endorse this psychobabble pabulum, but I just couldn’t bring myself to mislead these young people.

I told them that dreaming about what you want to do with your life is pretty useless. Wishing and wanting accomplish nothing. You should instead work hard, learn how to deal with failure, and be willing sacrifice doing what feels good today for something better tomorrow.

Some adults may advise you to follow your dreams, but that’s terrible advice.  What you accomplish in your life is not determined by your aspirations, but rather by your talent, hard work and luck.

We are not created equally when it comes to our abilities to become musicians, plumbers, doctors, or chefs. Some of you are academically gifted, while others can play a song on the piano after listening to music on the radio. If your teachers and parents have been honest with you (and you have been honest with yourself), you should know by now your aptitude for various jobs. Don’t waste your time dreaming about becoming something for which you have no ability.

Many people squander these talents because they are lazy and lack self-control. Speak with your grandparents about any regrets they have about their lives.  They won’t talk much about their dreams. Instead, I bet they’ll mostly feel badly for not working hard enough to develop their talents. Each you have special skills that will help you live a life with purpose. Those talents are like gifts, but they cannot be opened easily. You need to develop lots of self-discipline to develop those abilities.

I understand that this “follow your dreams” stuff makes you feel good, but adults should help you focus on the values that will help you be successful and happy. Other than being a person of integrity, self-control is perhaps the single most important skill you need to develop in your life.

Finally, while talent and hard work matter a great deal, luck also plays a big part in how you develop into adulthood. Some of you were born into families with modest resources, while others had many financial benefits. Some of your parents are loving and supportive, while others are disengaged. Throughout your life, recognize that chance occurrences will impact you significantly.

I finally got around to speaking about careers in Psychology, and the teacher thanked me for my “interesting” comments. I knew what that means. I’ve never been invited back to speak with her class.


  1. Reply
    Marybeth July 21, 2013

    I think you are missing the boat here, doc. Your interpretation of the video theme seems so literal and pessimistic. I don’t think anyone who has any sense would think that if they dream something, then, poof! it happens without any work. As young children, we dream of what we will be when we grow up. These dreams CAN drive one to work hard to achieve our aspirations. How many times have highly successful people, in interviews, said they dreamed of being a baseball player, football player, actor, president, doctor (whatever profession in which they’ve found success). Don’t you believe that every accomplishment begins with a dream, aspiration, a thought in your mind of , “I would love to do_____. I would feel so happy if I did __________.” Aren’t these thoughts and dreams what motivate us to do our best? Aren’t they the spark that drives us?

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