Why it’s never too late to chase your dreams

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Marisa Bate
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Do you still dream of winning an Oscar, or a Booker, or a Nobel? Women of all ages won our Remarkable Women Awards, but many of us give up on our grand ambitions as we get older. So what would happen if we continued daring to dream?

At this year’s Academy Awards, Olivia Colman tearfully clutched her Oscar and reminded the world that dreams can, and do, come true. While working as a cleaner in the Nineties, she’d daydreamed of that moment and dedicated her award to “all the little girls practising their speech in front of the telly”. Inspiring, much?

But consider what could, arguably, be the world’s saddest headline: “Half the world’s women have given up on their dreams”. It appeared in 2016 when the first ever Global Dreams Index revealed that, from a survey of women from 14 countries, one in two of us don’t pursue our dreams. Then there was a 2014 study from academic journal Social Forces that showed only 6% of adults end up in careers they dreamt about as kids. And a Barclays survey from 2012 found that just two in five adults in the UK meet their expectations of what adult life would be like. 

Where did the big dreams we had as children go? Did they fade into the routine and responsibility of everyday life? And does it have to be that way?

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Colman’s success reminds us we have time to keep dreaming. After all, looking at demographic trends, we’ll be living and working for longer. Olivia Colman is 45. Richard E Grant made himself everyone’s favourite Oscar nominee by delightfully, cheerfully basking in the glory of his dream (almost) coming true. Grant is 61. The performance artist Marina Abramovic was 59 when her Seven Easy Pieces show at New York’s Guggenheim made her famous outside of the art world. 

With the plethora of 30 Under 30 lists, we can feel over the hill if we haven’t become a CEO or made a million by the time we’re 29. Ageism and sexism collide and we know young women are celebrated more than older ones, even though older women generally have more experience, wisdom and self-belief. It’s a tragedy and a waste that we’ve been taught dreaming is just a pastime of the young.

As children we are actively rewarded for having big, bold dreams, such as becoming an astronaut, a prima ballerina or an archaeologist. When I was little, I had two fairly different ambitions: to be Kylie Minogue and to be a librarian. (One might sound more exciting than the other but I think that’s subjective.) Both dreams spoke to my passions and, at the time, I never considered that I may not succeed in becoming either of those things. I had a supportive mother and the world’s gendered messaging of doubt and disbelief hadn’t quite got to me yet. 

kylie minogue

“When I was little, I had two fairly different ambitions: to be Kylie Minogue and to be a librarian”

So where do our dreams go? For many of us, they begin to seem fanciful as we pursue what we’ve been told we should and what reality can demand – a steady income, a life partner, responsibilities to others, a pattern of living not so different from our parents or peers. For Shahroo Izadi, psychologist and author of The Kindness Method, however, it’s not just routine that stops us. Doubt creeps in earlier than we might realise. 

“We take on self-limiting beliefs as we grow up. From a young age, we’re told this sort of person achieves this sort of success and we start taking ourselves out of the running. Whether we notice it or not, we start questioning the likelihood of ending up in a place like that, either based on socio-economic factors or aesthetics or the way we sound or speak.” And even if you don’t start sitting out of your dreams, others might expect you to. 

“In your formative years, you’re looking at the world to tell you who you are and what you’re good at,” says Izadi. “And that power is often in the hands of people feeding you self-limiting beliefs, not necessarily from a bad place, but a practical one.” When a friend of mine told her dad that she was moving to Berlin to study art in her early 30s, her loving and supportive father told her to “stop running away from life”. As we enter adulthood, dreams can be perceived as reckless, even selfish.

But research conducted by psychologists David Feldman and Diane Dreher showed that daydreaming can make us more productive. In a study of people with “rich habits” Thomas C Corley found the dreamers were the wealthiest group he spoke to. When was the last time you daydreamed? Our spare time on buses, trains, waiting for an appointment, in the queue at Waitrose, is used scrolling on our phones, looking at the dream lives other people are living. In my mid-20s, overwhelmed by realities of a busy London job, I emailed a friend saying, “But when do I have time just to look outside the window and listen to Taylor Swift?” Perhaps not my most philosophical moment, it has become a private meme that speaks to the loss of something – not just spare time, but specifically time to let our minds creatively wander. If we have stopped dreaming in our 30s, with the potential of another 50 years to make the most of life, how do we start again?

Forget goals, have dreams 

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Kristina Karlsson, founder of kikki.K, the stationery brand with global sales of £46 million and author of Your Dream Starts Here, says that we should focus on dreams, not goals. “The thing about goals,” she says, on a phone from an airport lounge jetting off to Tokyo, “is you might look at where you are today and push yourself a bit, but if you’re starting with dreams, you’re completely removing reality for a moment. Ask yourself questions like, ‘What would I do if I had all the money, resources, knowledge and energy that I need?’ Really contemplate that for a moment and see what comes up. We are so focused on where we are today, we can’t always think out of the square.” Karlsson has had her own dreams come true but doesn’t plan on stopping. “It is like meditation and yoga; the more you do, the more it comes naturally.”

Be confident in your own ability 

“The two most common issues in my 16 years of being a life coach are confidence and clarity,” says Carole Ann Rice of The Real Coach Co. “Above all else, if you know what you want, you’re more likely to get it. And it’s an internal journey. You start by asking, how do you know yourself? And the answer is: by being confident. Confident people know what they want, they know how to get it, they know how to speak up, they know how to do those things, therefore, they have clarity. And it’s about how we talk to ourselves that makes us confident. A confident person says, ‘I can do this’, while underconfident brains say, ‘They won’t like me, I will fail, people don’t want me.’ Underconfident people listen to their fears; confident people trust in dreams.”

Pay attention to your actual dreams

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Alice Robb, journalist at New York Magazine’s Science Of Us and author of Why We Dream: The Transformative Power Of Our Nightly Journey, believes dreaming can “show you things you might not have thought of”. Night dreaming, she says, “is a far more intensive experience than daydreaming, and is a time when you can be shown, in a way that feels emotionally profound, alternate visions of your life.” And while she believes it’s not about blindly trusting them, it’s about paying attention to them. “We’re dreaming three, four, five times a night and on average we only remember one or two a week. Keep a dream journal or speak dreams into your phone,” Robb recommends.

She also talks about the power of lucid dreaming – the experience of knowing you are dreaming in your dream, and being able to control some aspects of it. “It’s a layer of consciousness that we’re still learning about which scientists call a ‘hybrid state of consciousness’.” And it can be very helpful in your waking life in getting closer to obtaining dreams. “If you have to give a big speech, you can incubate a lucid dream, do a great job, wake up and feel more confident.” One study she mentions saw participants throw a coin into a cup and then take a nap. Those who had a lucid dream about the task performed better the next time they did it, and in some cases, better than those who hadn’t napped and practised the task in waking life.

Make a vision board 

As someone naturally averse to both Pinterest and crafts (a Blue Peter badge was no dream of mine) a vision board initially sounded a step too far for me. And then a friend sent me a picture of hers and I was surprisingly moved. Torn out images and words spoke to a mood of who she wanted to be and what she wanted her life to look like with striking honesty. These were her wildest dreams. Like daydreaming, Rice calls it Cosmic Ordering: “You have to know what you want and go after it. If you see that on a vision board every day you start to look for the signs of how to get it. Dreams love company: if you start to put the word out there, the signs come to you and you start to spot them, but without that, you’re just walking into a fog.” And, importantly, she warns, don’t get hung up on the how. “The ‘how’ normally frightens people,” she says. “‘I haven’t got the money, the skills etc’. The ‘how’ is simply: take one step a time.” We bet Colman agrees.

The late bloomers

Be inspired by these eight women who achieved their dreams later in life…

Viola Davis, actor

viola davis
Viola Davis: “There’s not enough opportunities out there to bring that unknown, faceless Black actress to the ranks of the known.”

While Davis received a master’s degree from New York’s prestigious performing arts school Juilliard, she didn’t break out as an actor until she was 43. Her role in 2008’s Doubt alongside Meryl Streep was Oscar-nominated; eight years later she won an Oscar for Fences at the age of 51.

Janet Rowley, scientist 

Rowley studied medicine and spent her early career working at a baby clinic while raising her sons. It wasn’t until 1972, at 47, that she made the ground-breaking discovery that cancer is a genetic disease. In 2009, aged 84, she was awarded the US Presidential Medal of Freedom.

Betty Boothroyd, politician

It wasn’t until 1992, at 62, that Boothroyd made history as the first female Speaker of the House of Commons in its 700-year history. Previously Labour MP for West Bromwich, she won by a 134-vote majority. She is now a baroness.

Vera Wang, fashion designer 

Wang is a globally celebrated fashion designer, but she didn’t produce her first collection until she was 40 after leaving her career as a fashion journalist to launch a bridal line. In 2013, she was awarded the CFDA Lifetime Achievement Award.

Ava Duvernay, director 

DuVernay didn’t even pick up a camera until she was 32. Her first milestone film Selma premiered when she was 42. She has since been nominated for an Oscar and her 2018 movie A Wrinkle In Time made her the first black female director behind a film grossing over $100 million.

Ruth Westminster, sex therapist

Better known as Dr Ruth, Westheimer is possibly the world’s most famous sex therapist. She has hosted five TV shows on the subject and written 40 books. She was 51 when her radio show Sexually Speaking first aired in New York.

Nina Zagat, food expert 

The Zagat Restaurant Survey is one of the biggest food guides in the world and was bought by Google for £125 million in 2011. Zagat quit her job as a corporate attorney at the age of 51 to make the restaurant reviewing hobby she shared with her husband into a full-time enterprise.

Nigella Lawson, cook and food writer

At 35, Nigella Lawson was a food writer who’d just been sacked from Talk Radio. Three years later, she published her best-selling cookbook How To Eat, closely followed by her successful TV show Nigella Bites, and transformed her career.

Images: Rex, Getty, Unsplash


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