We all dream. And our dreams tell the world - and ourselves - who we really are.
Some of us dream of financial independence. Others of traveling the world. Or learning to play the piano. Retiring to the country. Raising money for cancer research. Becoming an expert on wine. Writing that novel. Learning to speak Spanish.
Of course, if you aren't pursuing your dreams, the real question is what's stopping you?
For many of us, it is a lack of specificity... and a deadline. Our thinking is too nebulous. What we need are realistic, well-articulated goals. Dreams with deadlines.
For example, "I want a comfortable retirement" is a wish. "I want to have a $1 million net worth on my 65th birthday" is a goal.
"I'd like to do something for charity" may be a heartfelt a desire. But "I want to raise $30,000 for the International Rescue Committee by December 31st" is a definite end.
Goals give your life meaning and direction. They focus your time and energy. They shape and set your priorities, giving you a reason to get up in the morning.
Without them, we tend to drift. Millions of Americans, for instance, have fallen into a largely meaningless cycle of eating, sleeping, working and watching TV. After a while, a sort of existential ennui sets in.
But when you have a goal that inspires you - whether it's traveling to all 50 states, reading the world's great books or meeting the person you want to spend the rest of your life with - you feel motivated. Goals are empowering. You know exactly what you want and the idea of attaining it energizes you.
As the English novelist Charles Kingsley observed, "We act as though comfort and luxury were the chief requirements of life, when all that we need to make us really happy is something to be enthusiastic about."
Transcendentalist Henry David Thoreau agreed. He said, "If one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with success unexpected in common hours."
Of course, setting goals and achieving them are two different things.
A few years ago, I saved an article by author Michael Masterson titled "How to Accomplish All Your Most Important Goals... Without Fail."
Here, essentially, is what he said:
1. Take out a sheet of paper. Title it "Life's Goals" (if you have no shame) or "Stuff to Do Before I Croak" (if you are afraid someone will see it).
2. Now make a list of everything you want to accomplish.
3. Narrow your list down to four main goals. Think in terms of a long-term wealth-building goal, a long-term health goal, a long-term personal-relationship goal, and a long-term personal growth and development goal. These are your top priorities, your bottom-line objectives.
4. Convert each of these into annual goals and then break them down further into manageable, bite-sized weekly objectives.
5. Once a week, spend one hour establishing your priorities for the next seven days.
6. Finally, spend about 30 minutes each morning organizing your day around them.
His approach is straightforward: Dream it. Plan it. Do it.
"It may sound like a lot," says Masterson, "but you're really spending no more than the equivalent of a few days a year to map out your strategy for achieving your long-term Life Goals.
"When I put my list down on paper, I feel powerful and confident. Here are the things I will accomplish this year. Clean and simple. I imagine how I will feel when they are completed, and that feeling is good...
"There is something about this particular system that seems to work. It works so well, in fact, that I encourage everyone who works for me to use it."
(If you're serious about achieving your most important goals, sign up for Masterson's free daily e-letter "Early to Rise." I know dozens of success-oriented individuals who consider it "required reading." To sign up, click here.)
Of course, some of us never make an honest attempt to achieve our goals for a single unspoken reason: fear of failure. Yet there is much to be gained in pursuing your dreams, whether you ultimately achieve them or not.
"The tragedy of life doesn't lie in not reaching your goal," said African-American minister Benjamin Mays. "The tragedy lies in having no goal to reach. It isn't a calamity to die with dreams unfulfilled, but it is a calamity not to dream. It isn't a disgrace not to reach the stars, but it is a disgrace to have no stars to reach for. Not failure, but low aim, is a sin."
So follow Thoreau's advice and go confidently in the direction of your dreams. Take action. Live the life that you've imagined.
As Mark Twain observed, "Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn't do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover."
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Alexander Green is the Investment Director of The Oxford Club and Chairman of Investment U, a free, internet-based research service with over 300,000 readers. (The Oxford Club's Communique, whose portfolio he directs, is ranked third in the nation for risk-adjusted returns over the past five years by the independent Hulbert Financial Digest.) Alex has been featured on "The O'Reilly Factor," and has been profiled by Forbes, Kiplinger's Personal Finance, CNBC, and Marketwatch.com, among others. He lives in central Florida with his wife Karen and their children Hannah and David.
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