At 16, I was a little girl in Vietnam, daydreaming about moving abroad and imagining who I would be, what I would do, and where I would live by the time I entered the adult world.
The list I made for my 22-year-old self included things like graduating from an Oxbridge university, working for a prestigious company, earning big bucks, getting married by age 25, and so on.
The reason why I had those goals was simple.
As a young child, I had a big role model: my elder sister. She was praised by many and on track to achieve all the things on my list (She did graduate from Cambridge University with two Economics degrees and is climbing the corporate ladder), so I believed becoming someone like her would make me a success. It would make my parents proud, and it would make me happy.
So I made my goal list and called it a dream. I internalised that dream and turned it into my value system.
As time passed, I tried my best to turn that dream into my everyday reality as if it was the only definition of success.
Well, I struggled every step of the way. It was like making a fish climb a tree — I never stopped to consider that my sister’s goals might not be what I personally wanted or was even good at.
The worst part is that whenever I achieved something that was not exactly the same as what I’d initially aspired to, I would think of myself as a failure.
For example, I didn’t get into Cambridge doing Economics like my sister.
I ended up at Bristol with a Psychology degree. It was a great university, but the hung-up part of me felt disappointed. Realising that the minimum requirements for a local student to attend Bristol weren’t that high, I lost the motivation to be a hardcore academic achiever. Regardless, I tried to stay positive and not screw up whatever was left on that dream list.
Soon enough, I immersed myself in the university life. As one of the Russell Group universities, Bristol constantly had big banks come to the campus to sell students the corporate dream. Many of my peers were dead set on becoming investment bankers, traders, and the likes. They were all busy attending events and making connections. Meanwhile, I had no idea what I wanted anymore. I looked around and was conditioned to think a banking career was desirable.
Before I knew it, I wanted to get into banking for all the wrong reasons. I wanted to have an impressive corporate title, work in the financial district, wear designer outfits, and network like a pro. I wanted to be rich because, in my mind, being rich would equate to being loved and happy. I wanted to have prestigious names on my resume because I thought that was how I’d be respected. I was naive. I dreamt a dream that wasn’t mine.
Where It All Went Wrong
When I envisioned my path at 16 or even during my university years, I knew little about myself and I had little self-esteem to embrace and pursue what I truly loved. I was fed ideals by family and society, but I had little to zero self-knowledge.
The dream that my younger self was fixated on was a borrowed dream — someone else’s aspirations, someone else’s interests. In hindsight, it was a promising remedy for my low self-esteem issues and undefined identity back then. I just wanted to like and respect myself a little more.
The invaluable self-knowledge came to me later when I was left to my own devices: I stepped outside of my comfort zone, seized unanticipated opportunities, made new connections, did things that went beyond my imagination, pushed my own limits, fell in love with the wrong people and got hurt so bad that I had to live my life differently.
Throughout this process, I still kept that shiny banking dream in my mind and felt anxious that nothing seemed to be happening but, the more I grew into my true self, the less it made sense to me. The outcome that it promised also became less appealing and my motivation to achieve it diminished, especially when I was no longer surrounded by my money-and-prestige-obsessed peers.
Honestly, I was rubbish at that dream and I just couldn’t be arsed.
Most importantly, I looked at the people who are supposedly living that dream and, more often than not, I saw cracks: mental health issues, dysfunctionalities, superficial values, unfulfilled relationships.
I saw little that I wanted for myself.
I also realised that the fundamental reason I ever wanted that dream in the first place was because I wanted to like and respect myself. I thought becoming someone who’s seen as rich, important, and powerful by society is the solution, but it wasn’t.
I was the solution. Finding myself was the solution.
Chasing The “Right Dream”
For a long time, I was chasing the wrong dream. I was trying in vain to achieve other people’s definitions of success.
Now, I’m happy and content. I’m grateful for the life I’ve built for myself. I’m doing things that add real value to myself and others — not things that boost my ego or band-aid my unresolved psychological issues.
Here are the things that I’ve done to get here:
constantly questioned why I was doing what I was doing and faced my issues head-on
stopped letting society define success for me
reclaimed my power and built enough self-esteem to validate my own feelings, wants, and needs
let go of restrictive labels and all the deadlines I’d imposed on myself for my achievements
identified my core values and exercised them on a daily basis
surrounded myself with the people who shared the same values as mine
focused on doing what I truly love and adding real value
Then I threw away all unfounded ideals and defined my own dream instead.
Actually, you know what — screw dreams.
I have a list of goals that are set based on who I am and where I’m at in life. They’re realistic and don’t make me anxious. They work for me and bring joy into my life.
I’m also open to improvising them as I go. Nothing is fixed.
It’s because I’ve learned that many things in my life —my jobs, my interests, my relationships, my opportunities, and my surroundings —can change, and I will change along with them. And I’m prepared for it.
I won’t squeeze my precious feet into a shoe that no longer fits.
Today, I know — no matter how different my life is from what I’d initially envisioned — I’m not failing. I’m just getting to know my true self better. And it’s wonderful.
The Key Takeaway
If you’re not living your dream, chances are that you’re chasing the wrong dream. Here’s how you can make sure you’re on the right path:
Use the 5 Whys technique to discover why you truly want what you are wanting, i.e. keep asking yourself “Why?” until you get to the bottom of it
If the fundamental reason has little to do with who you are and your current life — or if it doesn’t add real value to anyone — re-evaluate your dream now.
Identify your own values, interests, strengths, and weaknesses
Make a vision board of your dream life based on step 3
Make a list of goals that help you move towards your dream life
Prepare yourself for whatever changes (mental, emotional, logistical) might happen along the way.
Embrace each new experience with an open mind, and allow it to change your goals and long-term plans
Give yourself the credit for having gone this far
Celebrate every achievement — no matter how big or small
When a new experience deviates you from your dream life, repeat the steps.
As long as you don’t give up on yourself, you’re doing fine.
Keep moving forward with an open mind and deep attention to your true wants and needs.
Everything is going to work itself out when you keep your heart and mind in dialogue with each other — maybe not the way you imagine, but where’s the joy in life without a little surprise?