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I lurk quite a bit around here, but this post called me out of lurkerdom because I have been thinking about this topic recently, specifically on the topic of writers (like me) who do not end up with the publication career they initially expected. So, great post. Keep 'em coming!

the chaplain

Thanks for a great piece. It's good to dream, it's good to reach for our dreams, it's good to know when it's time to let go and move on to something else, and it's good to appreciate and enjoy our experiences along the way.

Susan B.

There's an additional element to this, which you sort of touched on at the end: you may find that you don't actually like what you thought you wanted. Better to try engineering for a few years and discover that while you may be good at it, it's not your true passion (as I did), than to spend all your time doing something you enjoy but thinking you'd be happier doing something else. As my grandfather used to say, "Even a bad experience is good experience."

Paul Crowley

Here's the coda I want to add:

Of course it seems to you that you can achieve your dreams if you really try. Lots of people on the TV tell you that they believed in themselves and they achieved whatever it was, and you can too. The thing is, those examples are vivid to you because those people are on the TV. The millions more who tried just as hard - doubtless harder in some instances - and got nowhere are much less available; maybe they're sitting opposite you on the bus but you wouldn't know.

The other unfortunate thing about this trope is that unless you become the very best in the world at whatever you dream of, you are headed for crushing disappointment. Few dream of doing OK, of making a success of it; in the end dreams are usually of total ascendency. But since everyone can't be the best in the world, it's nice to promote other images of what it means to succeed.


Optimistic realist? Of all the silliness! Don't you know by now that atheists are hopeless, angry and amoral people? Yeah, you think you are not, but you are, because my pastor said so, and my pastor woudln't lie to me, would he?

Cryptic Philosopher

I'm reminded of the quote at the very end of the otherwise-mediocre 2003 film "Prey for Rock & Roll," starring an especially yummy Gina Gershon as the 40 year-old lead singer of an L.A. punk band. After concluding that her band, alas, will never achieve mainstream success through a record deal, she muses in a voiceover during a performance (and I'm only paraphrasing): "I may never be rich and famous, but I'm the lead singer in a rock & roll band, with the best bandmates in the world. And that's pretty fucking cool." I figure that, even if "success" never finds me, at least I'm doing what I love, and that it helps some people--it doesn't really matter if it's by the tens or the millions.

Jon Berger

"If at first you don't succeed, try again. Then quit. No use being a damn fool about it."

-- W.C. Fields

Greta Christina

I like that, Cryptic Philosopher. And now I'm trying to think of other movies/ TV shows/ bits of pop culture that run counter to this trope.

One that leaps to mind is the first "Rocky" movie. Funny, because it's so much thought of as a classic example of the trope. But in fact, the message isn't, "Stick your dreams and you'll win in the end." It's, "When faced with impossible odds, redefine success on your own terms."

Similarly with "Bull Durham." The whole movie is about somebody who's spent his whole life working hard to chase a dream, never making it... and (a) redefining success and (b) shifting his dream to one that might be achievable.

Any others come to anyone's mind?


One thing I thought you were going to say, and you didn't, was that this trope is irrefutable. "If you try hard enough, you'll succeed". If you didn't succeed -- well, that means you didn't try hard enough! It cannot be disproved, because there's always something else you could've done, and you didn't. Same thing about luck: sure it plays a role, but one might say that really determined people are those who recognize their chances and don't let them slip. This is also closed upon itself -- people could argue that if one seemingly had no luck, it just means he didn't see the opportunities that were present, or didn't know how to create them...


This is precisely the reason I liked the original ending of Dodgeball better than the release ending. There's no shame in losing, or in failing. I like that Rocky was pointed out fairly quickly here. If you try your hardest and still don't win - at least you went the distance, right? It's not about victory, it's about the will to keep going.

In the end, it's the things we never did that we regret the most.


By an odd coincidence, this seems to fit in with the last episode of The Atheist Experience. The topic was financial scams, and the presenter spent a fair amount of time talking about Amway.

Evidently one way that Amway (and Scientology) works is to convince you that you'll be successful if you try hard enough, and that only losers fail. When you've tried and tried, but success has eluded you, someone upstream of you will suggest that you spend five or ten or fifty bucks on a motivational tape or seminar or whatever, that'll help you achieve success.

In other words, people in Amway make money by convincing other people to keep pursuing their dream, instead of giving it up as unlikely to yield fruit.


This idea that you can (and should) do anything you want and make your dreams come true, as long as you try hard enough/really, really want it/never give up, gives people a nice excuse for being egotistical. Actually, two excuses: 1. If I spend all my money, energy, time and attention on trying to achieve success, I will be a star. And mediocre is just not good enough, so I can't waste my time etc. on worrying about other people's problems (i. e. everything that is not directly related to my personal success). 2. If you are not 100 % successful, if you have problems, it is your own fault for not trying hard enough. So why should I help you?


Randy Pausch "The Last Lecture" (look it up on youtube) is an inspiring look at what it means to reach for your dreams. You should check it out.


Het Greta, great post as always. This is included in Humanist Symposium 22 over on my blog.



I was so glad to hear this... it's something I've also been reflecting on lately with relation to my ambition to be an opera singer.

I entirely agree about the "double failure" idea. It's like the "you can cure your cancer if you think positively enough" meme that seems everywhere at the moment. Yes, positive thinking can do a huge amount, mostly because it encourages us to keep trying, but there has to come a time when you say "enough"!

C.S. Lewiston

Great article. Reprints of it should be posted in every high school guidance office and college admissions office in America. When I failed first at becoming an engineer then a computer programmer, I thought that my life was *over* (I wonder how many suicides the trope you wrote about has contributed to?). I totally ignored my other skills, or at least got little pleasure out of using them, seeing as I was a "failure" and all.

I also hear what you said about the singer who never gets on the radio. Bargain bins and used bins in record shops are full of excellent records and CD's by artists who made or still make great music but just never succeeded in the often arbitrary and predatory music industry.

Two more cents' worth - America runs on mediocrity. Mediocrity is the true religion of America. You only need to look at our popular culture for proof of that. Talented, ambitious, creative people get distracted, discouraged, crushed by a society that places greater value on functionaries than visionaries.

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