Amanda Kusek recently inspired me all the way from her garden in New York to my own grotty London lockdown setup, when she conveyed a thought I’d been nursing privately for a while.
“This year my theme is DREAM BIGGER,” Kusek posted under a photo of herself in a jumper with FUCK OFF written right across it. “I noticed over the past couple of years my goals have become too reasonable,” the 33-year-old account manager wrote. “So, for 2021, I’m done being reasonable.”
Now, I’d love to write an article that didn’t mention the pandemic, but let’s face it, if ever big dreams were having a rough ride, it’s right now. Unsure what’s happening tomorrow, next week or next month, we are living in a state of infinite present. And this low-level stress means most of us are struggling to make plans for dinner, let alone our lives.
“Dreaming big may seem distant and unrealistic given our environment,” says psychologist Dr Jill Bond. But for Kusek, the pandemic had the opposite effect.
“I was forced to slow down and reflect in a way that I have typically avoided,” she tells me. “This experience shifted my thinking heading into the new year and I wanted to try setting a theme.” It also made her realise how much much her perspective had changed since childhood. “I recalled memories of great big, beautiful dreams I had as a child and I missed that feeling. Realistic dreams aren’t dreams – they’re a to-do list!”
Pandemic or no pandemic (let it soon be the latter!), losing the ability to “dream big” is a feeling I can relate to. As more of my friends settle down into families and develop stronger personal ties, I’ve been left wondering what my version of life looks like if it’s different to theirs and I’m not the only one having a rethink.
When Thuva Amuthan’s final medical exams were halted by the pandemic last year, the stress gave him pause for thought and the 29-year-old doctor from Birmingham began pondering if his big dreams were even the right ones. “Do I really want to neglect my health in my best years working crazy hours relentlessly, only to play catch-up later, if that is even possible?” he asked.
Looking more closely at the cost – financial and emotional – of his current commitments and how they affected his work-life balance, Amuthan realised the setback was a chance to “really unpick my priorities and what I want from life”.
Given the right headspace, could this pandemic actually be a good time not only to think about, but potentially action, our biggest hopes and dreams?
Jessica Chivers is a coaching psychologist and founder of Comeback Community, a digital resource for people returning from any sort of leave – parental, sickness, bereavement. She agrees that going through a stressful period can sometimes help people work out what really matters to them.
While differences in our individual make-up mean this isn’t going to work for everyone, some people find themselves fuelled by uncertainty, she says. “Putting one person in a state of distress, not able to attain the things that they usually have, can generate huge feelings of, ‘Right, I’ve got to solve this, let’s get creative and think big,’” Chivers explains. “We hear many entrepreneurial stories coming from really difficult situations.”
Amuthan, who arrived in the UK as a refugee in childhood, believes that encountering difficult situations in the past has only spurred him along.
“Growing up in a council house and leading a single parent household at a young age, adversity has never fazed me,” he says. “I have particularly enjoyed proving wrong those who say, ‘Ooh that’s impossible/mad!’ – from getting into medical school to many of the other things I have achieved.” Perhaps it’s no surprise how he’s responded to these latest obstacles, then, no matter whether he ends up doubling down on his medical dreams – or finding new ones.
Some shifts are smaller, but no less significant. For Amber Leach, 39, a wedding photographer based in Devon, the past year has triggered a fight or flight response that’s reset her priorities while also focusing her ambitions.
“I was in a rut, hoping things would get better within the wedding industry and then I realised I couldn’t keep hoping and waiting,” says Leach. With weddings off, Leach started “dreaming in a different direction”. The pandemic showed her she had been overworking. “I realised my family is the most important thing to me in the world! Nothing comes in the way of my time with them,” she says.
Now, while weddings still aren’t possible, she’s still developing her career by working on elements of growth that are within her control. “I have spent my extra time rebranding my business, building a new website and working on my marketing strategy. The current climate has given me courage to try completely new ideas that I would never have had the time to do,” she says.
For me, the big dreams aren’t professional so much as personal and a matter of geography. I can’t stop thinking how I’d like to move abroad, but I’d also get into a relationship. The weirdness of lockdown ennui has definitely spurred both trains of thought on. I count myself lucky as someone predisposed to thinking beyond the end of the day, but that’s not to say I find those days any less hard.
There are people, of course, for whom dreaming big is blocked by the very real struggles of getting food on the table, caring for children or other dependents, and stabilising their own mental health in hugely challenging times like these.
And even for those of us with the relative freedom to daydream, the flights of fancy can be irregular and unpredictable. Pandemic preoccupations easily take over. As Leach says of her current headspace: “It is pretty tough. I am usually a goal setter and planner but I am finding it hard to plan long term.”
So, how can we get our “big dream” juice flowing? If nothing else, the pandemic has offered us time for introspection, good or bad. “This is not quick fix territory; this is thinking about things over the longer term,” warns Chivers, who suggests setting some time aside to work out, in the truest sense, what you really want.
“Sometimes big questions need to sit and marinade at the back of our minds,” she expands. “And when I say the back of our minds, we’ve kind of put them there. That thought won’t rise up unless we’ve said, ‘I want to consider this question, I want to think about this.’”
Positive external stimuli can be a good way to arouse your intrigue if you aren’t in natural dreaming/planning mode during lockdown. “Listen to stories of how other people have achieved something, how other people have overcome difficulties,” says Chivers, who recommends the podcasts How I Built This and Conversations of Inspiration. Time away from Zoom, phone calls and other day-to-day stresses, whether that’s paid work or emotional labour, is key, she adds – “not carrying a cognitive workload so your mind has the ability to be free.”
Remember there is light at the end of a vaccine vial. “We can see the global pandemic will have an end at some point in the future so it will be possible to gain more control back over your life and your destiny,” reflects Dr Bond of dreaming big. “For people who have lost a lot at this time, these ideas may help them to rethink things and some may even re-evaluate their failures.” Dreaming big can mean “failing time after time”, she adds. “It is a cliché, but often, as a result, people come back stronger and more able to see their real dreams.”
Ultimately, whichever camp you’re in – forced into new ways of living by the pandemic or crying out for change, somehow, without knowing how to get at it – finding ways to think truthfully through what we want will help us escape our current confinement. So, there you have it: don’t beat yourself up if you want to think further than the end of the day right now, but aren’t able to. The first step to being able to dream big might just be overcoming ourselves.