He gets knocked down, grits his teeth, and gets back on his feet.
My nine-year-old son Quinn is playing in his first soccer game of the season. We’re down 1-0, and he doesn’t like to lose, so he steals the ball back. Three defenders stand between him and the goal. He dribbles around two, but the last one knocks him to his knees again. Yet, again, he refuses to quit. He hooks his foot out, steals the ball back, stands, and kicks it into the corner of the net.
As his father and his coach, I’m proud of him.
But not because he scored, or because the game is now tied. I’m proud of him because he got knocked down twice, got back up twice, and kept moving forward. I’m proud of him because he had a goal and he stayed focused on it, rather than his frustration and his setbacks. I’m proud of him because, in the real world, this is what dream-chasing looks like.
Life, more often than not, will stand in the way of our dreams. It will not cooperate with our longing. It will knock us down. Over and over again. This isn’t a sign that we’re going in the wrong direction; it’s simply a sign that we’re alive. That we’re in the game. That we care about something enough to keep getting up. To keep gritting our teeth. To keep going forward.
In real life, living a dream doesn’t feel like chasing after something; it feels like clawing after something.
Even our most cutting-edge therapy approaches are beginning to acknowledge this fact. Until the last decade, traditional cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) focused on eliminating negative thoughts and emotions, so you could get on with living the good life. Unfortunately, a lot of people just put their lives on pause, waiting for perfect—but non-existent—dream-chasing conditions.
So, now, Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) is beginning to replace that old CBT approach. In ACT, instead of trying to eliminate your negative inner experiences before living your outer life, you accept that negative experiences—like frustration and disappointment and pain and sorrow and fear—will be a part of the journey, and you commit to pursuing your values and your dreams anyway.
In other words, you go for the goal, knowing you’ll be knocked down along the way. Then, you grit your teeth and get back up again, because you care enough about your dream to keep dreaming it, even when the dreaming is hard.
So, how do you choose your dream to claw after?
You don’t. It chooses you…
About thirty minutes later, the score is 2-1, and we’ve won the game. While I chat with parents, Quinn asks for my car keys. Eventually, I make my way to the parking lot and find him sitting in a sweltering car, his head in a book. I ask him why he didn’t turn the car and the air conditioning on.
He replies, matter-of-factly, “Your generation ruined the planet; my generation has to save it.”
Quinn has a passion for restoring and preserving creation—he moves worms out of the driveway, builds farms for millipedes, monitors our recycling, refuses to use paper towels…and he sits in his sweat to slow the burning of fossil fuels. He dreams of being Elon Musk when he grows up. Quinn didn’t choose this passion for the environment. He didn’t ask for it. It came with the package.
You see, we want our kids to be happy, so we tell them they can chase any dream they want. The truth is, though, while they can chase any dream they want, they had better chase a dream they are so passionate about chasing that they will grit their teeth and get up again when the chase doesn’t go as planned.
This dream is the passion we came into the world with. All of us have at least one and, if we are faithful to it, it will sustain us, while we claw.
If Quinn focuses on his passion for preserving the planet and his dream of a world restored—and if he goes after those goals like he goes after a soccer goal—he won’t become Elon Musk. He’ll probably become someone much more ordinary, but just as important, and just as valuable. He’ll become Quinn.
That is, after all, who he’s here to be.
Look in the mirror. What passions reside inside your soul? What dreams are you here to claw after? Now, go claw. Go be you.
That is, after all, who you’re here to be.
In his debut novel, Kelly weaves a page-turning, plot-twisting tale that explores the spiritual depths of identity and relationships, amidst themes of healing, grace, faith, forgiveness, and freedom.
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Dr. Kelly Flanagan is a psychologist, author, consultant, and speaker who enjoys walking with people through the three essentials of a truly satisfying life: worthiness, belonging, and purpose. His blog writings have been featured in Reader’s Digest, The Huffington Post, The 5 Love Languages, and the TODAY Show. Kelly is the author of Loveable and True Companions.