What happens when you outgrow your dreams?

From the time I was about 13, I had my mind made up that I was going to be a lawyer one day. I think this dream might have germinated around the time that I was curling up with my mum to enjoy Ally McBeal with a bowl of popcorn each Monday night. I have a strong argumentative streak, and I lost count of the number of friends and family members who drily told me, “you should be a lawyer,” when I’d try to argue my way out of something. During career days in high school, I didn’t even bother to look into other potential pathways, because I was so certain that becoming a lawyer was the right thing for me. I studied my butt off and got into university to study law, and for the first few years everything was great.

Sometime around my penultimate year at university, I started feeling some doubts. Many of my friends had taken casual jobs at law firms, helping with copying and typing tasks. All of them were so eager to be a part of that world, and when they began getting offers for long-term placements they were stoked. I halfheartedly submitted applications for graduate positions, and was secretly relieved each time I opened a rejection letter. Initially I thought I was just anxious, just having some jitters about starting a new job and kicking off my career.

In my final year at university I took part in a placement program at a community legal centre. It was precisely the kind of work I had always dreamed of doing, providing legal assistance to vulnerable people in the community. As the weeks ticked by and I got deeper into the work, a truth kept resurfacing that eventually I couldn’t ignore: I hated it. It wasn’t simply that I was nervous or unsure, I was deeply unhappy doing that work. I watched as my classmates lit up talking about their placements and the clients that they were seeing, and all I wanted to do was bury my head and hide. It took a long time to admit that the dream I’d clung to for so long simply wasn’t right for me anymore. I was terrified of telling my parents and friends, and even admitting to myself that I wasn’t happy walking this path any longer. I felt completely lost.

In hindsight, I’m very pleased that I was honest with myself and didn’t pursue a career in law. As hard as I’d worked, and as much as I thought I wanted it, it wasn’t the right choice for me. I think if I’d continued working in that field, I probably would have burned out early on. It was an incredibly tough decision to make, and took a lot of agonizing to get there. Looking back, here is the advice that I would have given my younger self when I began to have an inkling that I’d outgrown my dream.

Are you fatigued or is this really not for you?

The first thing I’d do is check in with myself to make sure that what I was feeling wasn’t simply fatigue, anxiety or insecurity. Sometimes when I’ve worked towards one goal for a long time, there’s a moment of “I just don’t want to do this anymore” because I’m burned out. I am also a very anxious person, so I do occasionally get overwhelmed with worries that I’m not capable of achieving that goal, or that I won’t be satisfied with the outcome. It’s really important to check in with yourself and be honest about whether this feeling is being fueled by weariness or worry, or if you genuinely feel like your goals just aren’t a good fit anymore.

You can always go back again

I vivdly remember feeling a sense of urgency that the months immediately after university were my only shot if I wanted to start a legal career. That if I was indeed going to follow this path, I simply couldn’t afford to take any detours. I felt like I had to make a decision straight away, and if I decided not to continue then that road would be closed to me forever. It’s rarely the case that we can’t go back and try again in the months or years that follow. It might not be as straightforward, but there will almost always be a way to circle back if you feel you’ve made a mistake. If you’re feeling uncertain, it can be so valuable to walk away, to take the time to try something else and see how that makes you feel. If after a while you want to go back and have another go, it’s highly likely that you’ll be able to.

You don’t necessarily need a replacement dream

One of the biggest stumbling blocks for me moving on from my dream of being a lawyer was the fact that I didn’t know what I wanted to do instead. I felt that I couldn’t abandon my dream unless I had a concrete plan for what I was going to pursue in its’ place. And while it would have been great to have a clear idea of what I actually wanted, I learned that it wasn’t a prerequisite. I didn’t have to continue working towards that goal, knowing that I was miserable, just because I felt stuck. It’s perfectly ok to decide “I’m not sure what the right thing is, but I know that this isn’t it”. Sometimes, letting go of the old dream frees up some space in your life for the right thing to emerge.

Your time and energies haven’t been wasted

I felt a tremendous amount of guilt when I was considering abandoning my career as a lawyer. I kept obsessing about the years of study, all the hard work I’d put in to get into university, all the years I’d been chasing this goal. It felt like such a huge waste to simply walk away at that point. I was worried that making that choice would mean that I’d failed. When I thought carefully about it, I realised that I’d committed that time and energy in the genuine belief that I was doing the right thing. I made the best choices I could with the information I’d had at the time. It was only through hands-on experience in the field that helped me to realise that my dream was no longer the right fit for me, and I couldn’t beat myself up for not seeing that sooner. Even though I might not have gained a legal career out of my years of study, I did acquire a host of other important things. I honed my writing and research skills, I learned to think critically and manage my time effectively. And I met some of my best friends during my time at university. So even though I didn’t get to where I thought I was going, I didn’t walk away from the experience empty-handed. Those years weren’t a waste, and it was really helpful to see the value in what I gained from the experience.

Acknowledge, let go and move forward boldly

It’s so hard to let go of a dream that you’ve held onto for a long time. It can become woven into your identity, a very part of the fabric of You. It feels impossible to admit to yourself that you were wrong, that this thing you’ve been working towards just no longer brings you fulfilment. It’s like acknowledging that you’ve grown out of your favourite dress. But as difficult at it is, I found that once I was honest with myself it became easier to let go. If you’re discovering that you’ve outgrown your dream, be kind to yourself. Acknowledge the work you put in, admit that you’re no longer feeling fulfilled by the prospect of achieving that dream, and gently let it go.

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