Unrealistic dreams can get in the way of your success in life.

In today’s culture of “have it all,” the very notion of giving up on something can seem like heresy. But sticking with a vision that isn’t working won’t provide you with anything but pain. Sometimes the right path starts with giving up what you thought was your goal and starting again with a fresh one.

Giving up seems like the opposite of getting what you want out of life, but that can be misleading—even dangerous. It’s easy to become so attached to the wrong version of what you’re looking for that the only way to get a good result is to start by walking away.

There’s often an important difference between your idea—your mental image—of some life goal and the goal itself. If you become too attached to the idea, it may get in the way of the real goal, drawing you aside to pursue appearance rather than reality.

When good dreams go bad

Suppose you have a dream of becoming eminent in your professional field. Stop for a moment and consider exactly what that means. Does it mean earning the respect of your peers and colleagues, and demonstrating outstanding ability? Or having a job with a specific title, a specific salary level, certain perks, and a key to the executive washroom? Or becoming known as an expert whose views are automatically sought on just about all important decisions.

Sometimes the two will go together, but not always. The political maneuvers, ethical compromises, and competitive ruses needed to secure that fancy salary and job title might destroy the peer respect you claim that you want. At the very least, the extra pressure and demands might destroy any enjoyment you could have had in your achievement.

Some actors become so obsessed with celebrity that they do things that compromise the acting skill that produced it. Their dream—to reach a pinnacle of fame—takes over and leads them into a lifestyle that gives fame, but at the cost of their health, their physical and mental well-being, and their ability to do their job. Some end in jail. Many end in rehab. Their focus on a failing dream destroys any pleasure in their craft and undermines their ability to justify their celebrity status.

Certain sports stars are so afraid of slipping down the rankings that they begin to try too hard, hastening the process of decline into mediocrity. Many business executives try to trade on past glories to justify their position, though their former skills are now obsolete (have even have been lost) and people snicker behind their backs.

Losing the dream, gaining the reality

If you’re willing to give up the idea—the false but seductive dream—of becoming someone or achieving a particular goal, you may well increase your chances of doing it for real. That dream may have no longer have anything to do with the reality it mimics. After all, you probably formed it long ago, when you had almost no idea of what reaching your goal would take—or what it would be like when you got there. The reality is what you need to aim for; the dream is mostly compounded of fantasy and ignorance.

How often have you seen someone drop out entirely when they come to believe that they aren’t going to “make it” to their dream? Were they unable to reach any level of achievement? Or was it just that old, fantasy-based dream that they could not attain? Surely it would be better to reach where you can and enjoy the results, rather than walk away in dejection because you couldn’t reach something that may have been largely imaginary anyway?

If success becomes an obsession based on goals that exist only inside your head, is it worth the anxiety and fear of failure?

The major source of stress and burnout for many people is their own inflated, ego-driven expectations. Drop those and the reality might be a more successful and enjoyable life, based on real goals in place of fantastic, twisted dreams. The fear of not living up to an imagined—and likely impossible—level of perfection has probably destroyed more genuinely able artists, writers, scientists, and sports champions than any other setback.

Giving up in this way isn’t quitting. It isn’t simply walking away and admitting defeat. It’s standing back and accepting a new, more realistic goal, based on what you will enjoy and be able to achieve in ways that preserve your health and happiness. It’s letting go of false dreams and images based on ignorance and wishful thinking.

Above all, it’s coming to terms with who you are and what really matters to you. And that, believe me, can be the very highest achievement of all.

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