How Fear Kills the Dream You Want to Protect

What are you afraid of?

If you live and breathe and think and strive, this is a question you have asked yourself…and it’s a good thing, too. Until we identify our fear, we can’t address it or move on from it.

What are you afraid of?

I’ve been working on the answer to this question for months, and I’ve finally found a shocking answer.

Picture of sliced onions
Peeling an onion, like peeling back layers of fear, can produce tears. Photo by Xiaojung Deng.

Today is my birthday, and in reviewing the year, I find significant accomplishments, heartbreaking setbacks, and bouts of anger, depression, chronic procrastination, and compulsive screwing up—all things that (I have learned) are signs of fear.

But fear of what?

In peeling back the onion of fear, I’ve found the usual suspects: fear of failure, fear of success, fear of change, fear of being unworthy or selfish or ridiculous. Each time I pulled back a layer, I got closer to my real fear. Several times I was sure I had reached the core, only to find another fear taking over. Now, I think I’ve finally figured it out.

What am I afraid of? I’m deathly afraid of damaging my dream.

My dream is my escape, my imaginary future—the place I can live an ideal life. I won’t go into the details—my dream is probably a lot like yours.

If you’re like me, the failure to take action, the procrastination, the unnecessary drama…it is all there to protect the dream from the damage and erosion that contact with reality can cause (click to Tweet). It’s there to allow the dream to continue to exist as that magical, and oh-so-close future.

But once a dream becomes substantive enough to leave your head and become real, you have to put it in danger or it will suffer the most cruel death imaginable.

A dream protected too long dies a slow death. We’ve all seen the movie hero tell the villain, “Why should I tell you anything? You are going to kill me anyway.” To which the villain replies, “Yes, but I can kill you quickly, or I can kill you slowly.”

We, the audience, know that there are good ways to die, bad ways to die, and horrible ways to die. We also know that there is a fate worse than death. We love our dreams and don’t want to see them suffer. If your dream can’t survive reality, best to make it as quick and painless as possible.

A dream protected too long can kill other dreams. Sometimes the movie villain tells the hero, “Yes, I will kill you; but you can still save your family.”

A dream that we won’t let die prevents other dreams from living. As long as you are focused on protecting (and occasionally taking small actions around) your dream of creating a wildly successful project that will allow you to quit your job and take your family on an around-the-world sailing adventure, you are not going to be able to give life to other dreams that are potentially even better.

Dreams protected too long inflict collateral damage. Obsessing on a dream that won’t survive reality hurts your relationships. Those kids you want to take sailing around the world are gonna describe you to their friends and therapists as that guy who was always dreaming, always promising adventure, and never delivering. You will have no credibility if you only dream and never do.

So what is the answer?

Dream and dream big! Make dreams that inspire you to action:

Make no little plans; they have no magic to stir men’s blood and probably themselves will not be realized. — Daniel Burnham

Develop the strength to do bold things, not the strength to suffer. — Niccolo Machiavelli

Then, after your dreams are framed, formed and fleshed out, and you are excited to see them become reality, get them out of your head and into the real world. They will either suffer a noble and worthy death, or go on to a glorious life.

You never know until you try.

Now here is a question for you: What dream are you nursing? What will it take to test it against reality?

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4 thoughts on “How Fear Kills the Dream You Want to Protect

  1. Hey Kwin,

    I am impressed with your discovery process in finding what you truly fear (damaging your dream).

    If your solution is to dream big, then do you oppose efforts like starting a small business on the side, like Monthly1K (where I first saw your post)? I’m interested in hearing your take or elaboration on the solution. I could be misinterpreting what “dream big” means. Thanks for sharing!

    1. “Dream Big” is important because it motivates to action, while “Start Small” is important for all the reasons Noah talks about. “Start Small” is also important because small steps are generally ones that are entirely in your control–allowing you to get the dream out of your head and smash it against reality to see if it holds up. Disclaimer: I am working through this all in real time and currently struggling with this very issue. I think there may be a key in the difference between the dream and the steps, tools, whatever, that make the dream possible.

      Still noodling on this question (but not noodling to much…I’ve got action to take).

  2. Hey Kwin,

    This is a great discovery! I think this may be one of my core fear too. I build the dream in my head perfectly and don’t want to hurt it with my imperfect actions which I know it’s impossible to being perfect.

    Also I’d like to know what kind of behavior changes have you been attempted after realizing this?

    thanks for sharing your insights 🙂

    1. Ok, so the vision is to create a business that will retire my debt and double (or replace) my employee income. The (current!) dream is a product in the dental space that–in my dream–has the potential to do that. What I did most of January was protect the dream by not asking dentists direct questions, by creating draft information packs, by obsessing over strategy, etc. I only came to this realization in the last few days, but since realizing this fear I have 1) constantly reminded myself that this fear cannot stand, 2) I walked into a few dentist offices in my neighborhood, explained the product and asked direct questions about its viability, and 3) today I will post my dream product on a forum that has very frank and occasionally harsh criticism from dentists and ask for a sale.

      It’s a new mindset and I’m still working through the ramifications, but the floodgates are open and I am out to make this dream nobly meet its fate. (I am also working on the hope that when and if it is killed, another idea will rise to take its place!)

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