Goals vs. Dreams

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.

COMMENTS (39)

reat post, Hugh.

Some people think that to be a realist, you need to forget about your dreams. You don’t. They’re a great motivator, and help keep you positive. You just need to know the difference between dreams and goals.

I think of goals in terms of video game style achievements. Unlock one, and move onto the next. Ba-doop.

Hugh,
Thanks for a great post. A number of writers set themselves up for disappointment by either confusing goals and dreams or setting unrealistic goals. My goals have always been related to production as a writer (one novel a year) and self-improvement, which is difficult to measure. My dreams have become increasingly less elaborate as my writing career has progressead–or not progressed as the cse may be. I would be happy to make enough money to support my writing habit (hire book editors, graphic designers, website help, and attend a couple of writer’s conferences each year). When it comes to goals, I believe the focus has to be on the writing, not on things largely outside the writer’s control, like book sales. Thanks again.

Another great post, Hugh.

I have big dreams, always have. In fact, I sometimes still imagine a world where I essentially have superpowers. I have more realistic dreams too. I dream of earning a living from writing. I dream of retiring early to write. I dream of living in a forest or on a beach or anywhere warm and dry and writing.

When it comes to bringing those dreams into reality, I try to separate goals from consequences. Goals are things I can control, consequences are things that could happen when I achieve those goals but that I can’t control. I can control whether I write a novel and how much effort I put into making it as good as it can be, how much I spend on editing etc. but I can’t control whether it gets to number one on Amazon.

I focus on achieving my goals and dream about the consequences.

This should be mandatory reading for all graduating students from 8th grade through post-graduate Doctoral candidates. There’s a difference in wanting and needing….

Great post, Hugh! I like the way you distinguish between goals and dreams while not making it sound like a bad thing to dream. I have a similar goal as what you had years ago, i.e., writing one novel a year for ten years, but I dream of writing more and selling a heck of a lot more. Dreams can inspire you and drive you forward when you don’t feel like putting in the work, but your goals are what’s in your control. If you don’t achieve your dreams, there’s no one to blame, but if you don’t achieve your goals, the one to blame stares back at you in the mirror every day.

I love that term, “happy realist.” That combination of realistic goals and inspirational dreams is a good way to approach life. Being happy as you work toward your goals and envision your dreams will make anyone’s life better. So, thanks for the post!

This makes a lot of sense and is something I’ve been doing myself without realizing it. Dreams are important, but I think it’s having goals that make things seem obtainable. Goals are the filters through which dreams become reality, become hard work instead of simple whimsy. Nice post.

Nice post! I have to admit that while I’ve written one book and have started my second, I haven’t thought about my long-term production goals.

I’ve realized as I’m writing the second one that I can produce a lot faster than I thought (since the first one was a total pantser). I think two a year for ten years sounds realistic for me.

Also, as I was writing my first book (which I started in a class), my classmates kept saying, “Wow! Your book is so amazing and original. It’s going to get snapped up right away and get rave reviews.” Meanwhile, it kept getting shuffled around by editors who said they liked or loved it, but “didn’t know how to market it.” While I never thought it would be easy, that really showed me how hard this business is!

Great post, Hugh. Thank you!

I love this so much. Words cannot express…

A great post!

I’ll concede I love to dream, perhaps a little too much, making me over promise and put too much pressure on myself.

Holding a clear perspective on the difference between goals and dreams is important, but easily lost sight of (I find, at least).

Thanks for a read that was not just interesting, but helpful.

This should be taught in school. Seriously.

Recognizing the difference between a dream and a goal and then working on the goal is not intuitive. It takes work, like you said. Having that skill before leaving school would save a lot of heartbreak and confusion.

I like to work out things like this. A goal has steps for achieving it that I can control or contribute to achieving in a viable manner. And they can be listed in a reasonable way. A dream has fuzzy bits I don’t control at all and can’t do much about, generally don’t feel like they involve work and are immune to step-listing. It works to keep me on track every time.

Thanks for the great post, Hugh. Such an awesome pat on the back and kick in the pants all in the same post!

Love this. Thank you, Hugh! Exactly what I needed to hear today.

Wonderful! Puts everything in perspective. :)

Kristine Kathryn Rusch and Dean Wesley Smith have taught this for years and you nailed it once again. Beautifully said, and I think you’ve already inspired writers to set those goals and dream big, and you will continue to inspire them. Follow those dreams.

If you ever give a commencement speech, read this. I just read this to my HS-aged daughter and she didn’t even roll her eyes!!

Dang, you’re inspirational. Thanks for this post~

What a great post! I think this applies to every area of life actually. It’s great to dream big but plan for reality. Then you’re in the position to take advantage of it if/when lightning strikes.

Very true! It’s so important to have realistic goals, to celebrate achieving those goals, and still have dreams to reach the stars.

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Thanks!

Another great post! So I know I’m forever late in commenting, but I had to chime in. I’ve worked in sales on and off for almost two decades and I can’t recommend it enough as a day job for writers as it instills necessary skills. I dream of selling all the product every day I work and winning all the prizes and the bonuses every week. Alas, that’s just not possible. Some weeks have holidays in them, some weeks I spend time talking with customers who turn out to have no money, some weeks I’m exhausted from spending my time outside of work writing and I’m not the sharpest salesman I could be. There are a number of factors I can’t control, so I focus on the ones I can. I reach out to the same number of people and give them the same sales pitch and though some weeks are better than others, at the end of the month I provide a living for my family.

For a while, my book sales were dead in the water. This didn’t bother me. I never expected them to take off. My goal in publishing was to create a book I could be proud of and to take the first step of a however-long journey to who knows where. But I learned from the few readers I did have some mistakes I’d made. I changed my key words, changed my cover, and polished my description. My sales picked up some, I did a little promotion, and then I got busy on the next book and published a short story.

Now my sales have picked up a lot. Couldn’t tell you why, except word of mouth has been strong. It’s the same book, but I’m selling more copies per day than I used to sell in a month and actual, worth-paying-attention to money is being deposited into my account. It’s nice, but I’m not counting on that money as it could stop tomorrow. I know from dutifully reading Author Earnings that there’s room for my sales to increase and it sure would be swell if they did–I might even spend some money on promotion. But my sales could just as easily stop tomorrow. I don’t know why they started so I don’t know how to prevent them from stopping. Steven Spielberg could decide to make my book into a movie or some nasty people could decide to make fun of it on multiple websites (no such thing as bad press, right). It’s not up to me what readers do with my book and in a sense what they do with the story they’ve paid money for isn’t any of my business.

So what I’m doing is focusing on getting two more books out by the end of this year. I’m going to continue polishing them until I’m satisfied they’re products I would pay for, then I’m going to publish them and start on next year’s books (okay, I’ve already started on them). For me, a quality book I’m proud of is the end goal. I’m pleased to have my name on the front of both my current stories, so I’ve accomplished my goal of producing quality art.

In an ideal world, I’ll have enough readers to pay for book covers and diapers and the readers I have will feel like they got their money’s worth. I sometimes dream of being a famous author, but in the dream version everything goes just the way I hope, which is probably not the reality. It isn’t a goal of mine to be Hugh Howey famous as that looks like a lot of work and responsibility (you’re handling it well, though).

You just sold another copy of Pizza Delivery. I don’t expect to get any sleep tonight.

Richard Gleaves

I remember the story of an Olympics swimmer who wanted to shave five seconds off his best time. Everyone thought he was trying too hard for perfection and would never get there. But he trained every day with a goal to gain 1/10th of a second with each training session. THAT was doable, and applied and accomplished consistently it meant that he gained a second of speed every 10 workouts. After fifty workouts he had gained the 5 seconds. So even our goals have to be broken down into daily sub-goals. We’re only ever living here and now today and we have to see today’s incremental achievements as pencil marks on a door jamb showing our incremental growth over long spans.

This article resonates so well with me. Just read it aloud to my wife and we recognised our own yin and yang of realist and dreamer – and, of course that we balance each other by flipping between the two.

In my moments of self-doubt my dreams are crushed and I think ‘I can’t do this’; then I get up the next day (or, often, the middle of the night!) and keep writing. I have learned to set myself goals – and, at last I am learning to stick to them. And I believe those incremental steps are leading me to a better place – certainly in my own mind – I feel I am (rapidly) becoming that happy realist. Do I need my dreams to come true? Well, no, actually – but it would be very, very nice – so I shall keep working towards them.

An inspirational article Hugh – thanks!

Rudolf Steiner talks about the need to steer or strike a balance between the influence of Lucifer (too dreamy/floaty) and Ahriman (too restricted/heavy). I feel this post is also a fine example of this principle. How true. It is certainly not always easy to balance the two but when we do, potential can turn to opportunity!

I’m going to re-read this post once a week until I finish the first novel. Thank you, Hugh.

Hugh, when you get a chance, could you add this to your “Favorite Posts for Authors” list?

What a great post: the dialectic between dreams and goals. I actually feel like I’m partially living my dream already, and I’m wondering this–does the dream, too, change by degrees, as its realized and blended with goals? Goals and dreams sublating each other. The piece reminds me that prudence, too, is more important in many situations than fervent adherence to either pole. Thanks Hugh.

This is probably the most well-formulated article on this topic…ever! Every time someone asks me why I’m so stressed out about meeting a self-imposed deadline and they suggest I just kick back and wait for “inspiration” I will force them to read this. The same goes for the people who say I’m just a “dreamer” for fantasizing about becoming a best-selling author one day and having Nikolaj Coster-Waldau play the main character in the Hollywood adaptation of my Hugo award-winning novel.