Back when I was in 9th grade, I purchased my first desktop computer. I did extra chores, mowed lawns, and shoveled snow to afford my dream machine. It came tricked out with a 900Mhz AMD Athlon Thunderbird CPU, 128MB of RAM, a GeForce 2 GPU, and a Plexdor CD burner. Housed in a bleak grey metal box, it was my pride and joy. Countless hours of Counter Strike, Total Annihilation, and Starcraft were played on that computer.
Despite my fond memories of that first computer, it was never the perfect performance machine. I had made many compromises to meet my meager budget, and the hardware was out of date less than 60 days after it arrived. So around that time, I vowed that someday I would buy myself the most ridiculous performance-intensive machine that could be had.
A while back I realized all of a sudden that I had more than enough cash to buy that no-holds-barred gaming machine. But desktop computers are no longer terribly practical. And I don't play Counter Strike in the evenings anymore. And my middling laptop runs the Adobe Creative Suite just fine. In fact, I spend most of my time in front of productivity and office applications at work, and in the evenings, I try to spend time away from the computer for the sake of variety. I have the cash, but I longer want that beast computer, and it's sad. When I explained my disappointment to a friend over lunch, he shrugged and said, "of course you wanted that computer, but dreams expire."
He was right. Since making my vow to buy an uber gaming machine, the dream had lost meaning for me, and like a mesofact, I had not updated my list of dreams.
This caused me to not only go through that list, but to re-evaluate how I pursue and value dreams. I have kept a bucket list for several years, but I here propose a short list of reasons why you shouldn't have one. Maybe you shouldn't even follow your dreams.
Destinations are boring.
As a society, we praise big dreams and tell kids to aspire to be astronauts. But as a society, we focus our dreams on destinations, not on the journeys that make them meaningful. I fell prey to this exact problem when we were founding my first startup. I wanted to build a successful startup. For three years, we worked hard, we got some lucky breaks, and these days Skritter is pretty darn successful. I have become an astronaut. And you know what? It's an empty victory, because as it turns out, what I really want is not to have a successful startup. What I want is to work hard on difficult problems with people I like. Notice the difference there: the first dream is a state, "success," the second dream is a process "work hard."
For all the glib discussion of life being a journey, not a destination, we overlook that fact when forming our deepest and most personal goals. Maybe you want to be a famous rapper, a skydiving instructor, or a polyglot. All of these are noble ambitions, but thinking about those dreams in terms of continuing actions rather than destinations makes them more meaningful. You don't want to be a rapper, you want to spend most of your time rapping in a studio. You don't want to be a skydiving instructor, you want to teach newbies how to enjoy their first jump. You don't want to be a polyglot, you want to spend time learning the nuances of dozens of languages.
Destinations are boring, and dreams that rely on them are hollow.
The exotic is kinda meh.
You know what sounds cool? Getting out of a Cleveland winter and working from Costa Rica for 2 months. The problem is that if you value a degree of consistency, recurring familial interaction, predictable diets, stable electricity and internet, reliable transportation, and a hundred other factors you probably take for granted, then it's actually not that cool. That was the story of my 2 months in Costa Rica.
Yet despite the disconnect, whenever I tell people about going to Costa Rica, most people said "I wish I could do that."
Daily life constrains choice sets to the degree that most people can't up and move to Costa Rica for 2 months. And for most people, that's a good thing. Dreams often take the form of overcoming the inertial forces that keep us grounded to the status quo. But it is precisely these forces that often make us happy. Many dreams are predicated on circumstances that by their very nature would make us unhappy.
Dreams made in a vacuum are meaningless.
I drive an extremely economical car and I've always dreamed of having a performance sports car. Recently I got the chance to test drive some exceptionally cool sports cars, and coming back to my little Suzuki Aerio was a relief. Why, you might ask, would I prefer my 1600cc putsy hatchback to a Mercedes Benz E55? I won't go into details, but in forming my dream about owning a sports car, I ignored all of my previous preferences. A Porsche looked cool, but in my daily life I prefer gas economy, reliability, and low insurance bills.
Dreamers are encouraged to think big, and that often implies "outside of our experience." This gets back to something Paul Graham suggests about finding what you love to do: if you aren't tinkering with computers in your free time, do you really want to be a programmer? If you didn't sacrifice to buy a sports car when you were 17, are you really invested in performance automobiles?
We often classify our unqualified aspirations as "dreams" and then foolishly work towards them. Daily experience is often a far better judge of what you will enjoy than a groundless idea of you got from society.
All of this might lead you to conclude that I think dreams are meaningless, but that's not the case. I think dreams are extremely important, but they often grossly misrepresent what people actually want from their life experience. I am still struggling to find a good way to pursue my own aspirations and would be interested to hear if anyone else has had luck better forming and achieving meaningful dreams.