When Is It Time to Give Up on a Professional Dream?

Marie Claire's resident career coach answers the tough questions.

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Every month, career coach Liz Bentley will be answering your candid questions about work, so you never have to stress about the office.

When is it time to give up on a professional dream if you've been pursuing it for years without success?

This is a great question and one that many people ponder. First, I would say it is important to dream and continue to evolve your dreams your entire life both personally and professionally. And while your dreams need to line up with your reality, they also should stretch you to strive to be the best version of yourself. Career dreams are no exception to this rule of thumb, so here’s how to gain more clarity around your professional aspirations.

Make Sure You Have the Right Dream

Before you decide whether to give up or push forward, ask yourself these 3 questions:

  1. Why is this my dream and what is the true reason I want this?
  2. Does this dream reflect my values and my abilities?
  3. What will I gain when this dream is realized? And what will potentially be sacrificed?

This exercise alone may shift your thinking. Dreams worth pursuing are ones that truly align with your belief system and push you to be your best. Many people get lost in their dreams and lose sight of their truth. Sometimes their dreams are not about themselves at all but about someone else’s wishes for them. For example, your parents may have encouraged you to become a doctor your whole life because of your talent in science and math. And subconsciously you may have taken it on as your own dream when all along it has been your parents' not yours. This is normal as we are all influenced by people around us. Sometimes it is hard to find our real truth and see what it is that we really want for ourselves only. That is not to say that your dreams will not impact others in a positive way. The key is that they should truly reflect your own desires not someone else’s.

If you do decide to abandon your dream, take heart knowing that you will be able to find something more fulfilling in its place. Keep yourself open to the possibilities of where your talent and drive can lead you.

Figure Out How to Pursue Your Dream

If you’ve confirmed that your dream is the right one, it’s time to get more focused on it.

First, you have to realize that dreams are not like goals; they are not always tangible and can take on any form you like–that's why they're called dreams. They are a part of your imagination that you would like to see come to life. Dreams can be short-term or long, big picture or small. Some dreams can be a life-long fulfillment like being a great parent and raising a loving family or can be short-term like running a marathon. But what most dreams have in common is that they are hard to achieve. Therefore, to figure out how to chase any dream, you must align your dream with your reality and see your truths. That translates to seeing the truth of your skills, your position, the market, your team, your company, your age, your experience–whatever it takes to see where you are today. By doing this, you will find your place on the map from which you can chart a course toward your dream.

In most cases, the road ahead is not direct and there are many steps and levels that will likely change on your journey and be unknown. So look to the next step or two knowing that you may not be able to see the whole staircase. As you achieve each level, you will see what needs to happen next and adjust accordingly.

Know When to Evolve Your Dream

As you rise, you will naturally struggle. Both expected and unexpected challenges will get in your way and attempt to block your success. Some of these challenges will be in your control such as improving your skills with more practice and effort, and others will not such as an industry changing that makes your work no longer relevant. For this reason, you have to be ready to evolve and adapt yourself. If you thoroughly answered the three questions above, you will find that your dreams are more connected to your values and beliefs and therefore transferable to a lot of different tangible scenarios. For example, if your dream was to become a professional soccer player because you love competition, playing the sport and being on a team, you can transfer those skills and passions to many places in your life. You could become a coach, a trainer or even a business person on a competitive team using many of the same values that drove your athletic ambitions.

I would suggest that with hard work and diligence, most any dream is achievable if you are committed and have decided it’s worth the sacrifice. And it’s important to remember that with big dreams come big sacrifices. But if it’s your true desire, you can make it come true. However, don’t be afraid to change, for as you grow and evolve you may choose to shift your dreams for many good reasons. This does not mean you are quitting, just adjusting and evolving appropriately. The right dreams will never disappear; they’ll just shift with you as you grow.

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Liz Bentley

Liz Bentley is the founder of Liz Bentley Associates, a consulting firm specializing in leadership development programs for individuals and companies. Drawing upon her background in psychology, previous experience in sales and management, and a lifetime of experience in competitive sports, Liz has a unique appreciation of mindset and the power it has to change patterns of behavior. Liz received her BA in Psychology from the University of Virginia and her coaching certification from New York University.