Freelancer’s Survival Guide: Goals and Dreams

Freelancer's Survival Guide On Writing

The Freelancer’s Survival Guide: Goals and Dreams

Kristine Kathryn Rusch

Last week, I discussed the two kinds of business plans—the kind you draw up for a financial reason (such as trying to get a loan or to lure investors), and the kind you draw up for yourself.  If you haven’t read this post, I suggest you do so, not just because it will help you understand this post, but because it will help you with your business.

In that post, I mentioned that I’d be discussing the differences between goals and dreams this week.  It actually surprises me that I haven’t done so sooner.

As I said when I started the Guide, I’m writing it out of order, partially in response to reader comments and partially in response to life itself.  As things happen around me, I put them in the Guide.  I gave myself the freedom to write out of order, even though I hadn’t initially planned to do so, because writing out of order is my normal writing method.

I rarely write anything in a linear fashion.

However, I usually finish whatever I write before I publish it.  So publishing the Guide in my normal out-of-order manner feels a bit odd to me.

At this point in the writing process, I’d go back to the first time I mentioned either “goals” or “dreams,” and I’d stick this post there.  Because it’s an important post.

I touch on goals and dreams in a lot of posts.  The post on failure, the posts on success, and the post on postponing your dreams, just to name a few.  But I never explained the difference between goals and dreams.

We use the words interchangeably. We achieve our goals, pursue our dreams.  We pursue our goals, achieve our dreams.  But goals and dreams are very different.  A shorthand way of thinking about this comes from football.

That weird little H-shaped thingie sticking out of the end zone?  It’s called a goalpost, not a dreampost.  I think football would be an entirely different game if it had a dreampost.  Hockey would be different too, if the players tried to get the puck past the dreamer.

In fact, the difference between a goalie and a dreamer are as illustrative as the difference between goalpost and dreampost.  As I go on here, playing with words, you’re starting to get an inkling of what I’m talking about.

Goals, simply put, are something you achieve.  My Encarta World English Dictionary gives me five definitions of “goal.”  Four are connected to sports, including number five, which is “the end of a race.” Number four is the only non-sports related definition of the word: “something that somebody wants to achieve.”

Achieve.  We achieve our goals.  Goals are an end product.  The other definitions include phrases like “a successful attempt at…” or “the score gained…”

There are no words like “successful” or “gained” in the definition of dream.  Nor does the definition of dream include the word “achieve.”

The same dictionary gives the noun “dream” six definitions, and most of them involve sleep or inattention or thoughts.  First, of course, the dictionary discusses those visions our mind serves up when we’re sleeping.  It also discusses the daydream.

The two definitions that concern us are the third and the fourth.  I’m going to start with the fourth: “an idea or hope that is impractical or unlikely to ever be realized.”   If that were the definition of goal, then every single sports team in the world would be in trouble.  (Of course, I’ve known a few football teams bad enough to make a win an impractical hope.)

The third definition is a little more upbeat: “Something that somebody hopes, longs, or is ambitious for, usually something difficult to attain or far removed from the present circumstances.”

Ah, now we’re getting somewhere. And since I try to be very practical in the Guide, and you all seem to recognize that, you probably think I’m going to tell you to abandon your dreams and set goals.


Both dreams and goals are necessary for success.  You just have to understand the difference between them.

Deep down understand it.

I don’t think a freelancer can survive long without a dream.  I think the more impossible the dream the better.  See those posts on success.  If you don’t set that impossible dream high enough, you’ll achieve your dream, and stop striving.

When students apply for the Master Class that Dean and I teach (along with four other established professional writers), we ask those students what their goals are and what their secret, most impossible dream is.  The only students we take for the Master Class are those with either a professional career that has stalled (for some reason) or those with a strong work ethic who are having trouble breaking into publishing (and have excellent, professional level skills).

We look at the goals and the secret dream more than any other part of the application.  Because if the goals and the secret dream are non-existent, we have learned that the writers often don’t have the capability to survive the Master Class, let alone the business of writing itself.

What does an impossible dream add to a career?  Purpose.  Plain and simple. That dream is like the shining city on a hill, the one you can see in the distance, and you might never reach.  But until your dying day, you’ll head for that hill.

The other thing that the impossible dream adds is a sense of hope.  As long as you have something grand to strive for, you also have something grand to hope for.  Hope gets us through the dark times better than anything else.

When hope disappears, so too does drive.

Which is why it’s so hard to succeed on a long-term level if you have easily achieved dreams.  If you lack that one huge impossible dream. Because you might reach that city on the hill within the first few years of your professional career.  And then what will you do?  What will you hope for?  What will you daydream about?

I think the daydream part is also essential.  You need something to entertain your imagination while you’re working day to day.  If you’re an actor, you might spend time every day studying fancy gowns for your trip down the red carpet for your tenth Oscar nomination.  Not your first, not your fifth, your tenth.  Your impossible dream might be to have more Oscar nominations than Meryl Streep.

But if your impossible dream as an actor is to have a small part in a film—well, you might achieve that dream the day you sign up as an extra in a large crowd scene. That’s a dream you can attain in my tiny town on the Oregon Coast.  Dozens of movies have filmed here since I’ve lived here, and lots of locals have had their mugs on the screen, if only for a few seconds.  A few of the locals actually had small speaking parts.  Heck, my husband’s best friend—an attorney—had a speaking role in a commercial, filmed in Idaho.  Because of that thirty seconds on the nation’s television screens, our attorney friend is one of Idaho’s members in the Screen Actors Guild.

Had his lifelong dream been to become an actor—someone who qualified for the Screen Actors Guild—then he did so in a single outing with a single commercial. But if his lifelong dream had been to become a famous star of stage and screen, someone who had not just an Oscar, but an Emmy and a Tony, someone who had a lead role on Broadway, as well as starring roles in hit movies or hit TV shows—well, then he has a long, long way to go.

See the difference?  Even those things I listed above might not be enough for that impossible dream.  An actor might want to be considered the greatest actor of his generation.  A writer might want to have the bestselling book of all time.  A store owner might want to create the largest store franchise in the world.

And because these are dreams, not goals, it’s okay to noodle on them, to see them as a shining light in the distance, as something to work toward, but not something to count on.

Goals, on the other hand, are stepping stones.  Goals must be achievable.  Goals should build on each other.

Go back to the football analogy.  A football game in which a score is just a dream would be the dullest thing on the planet.  In fact, football players wouldn’t even have to face off. They could sit on the field, if they wanted, and imagine the score.  Of course, no one would come to the game—because there wouldn’t be a game.  Just a dream of a game.

But football is a game of inches.  It is built on phrases like “first and goal.”  The game itself sets up tiny goals that lead to a touchdown. And if the team fails in one tiny goal, then the ball goes to the other team, which then tries to achieve a series of small goals to get to the larger one.

The dream for football players isn’t to win one game.  A lot of players achieve that as early as the age of eight or ten, in a Pee-Wee Football League.  Or they have the game-winning run (or the game-winning pass) as early as the first game of their high school career.

The dream for football players is to play in the Super Bowl.  Or to win the Super Bowl. Or to be the Super Bowl’s Most Valuable Player—not once, but several times throughout their career.

That’s a dream that can’t be achieved without a lot of goals—small and large.  From getting on the varsity team in high school, to playing well enough to stay, to winning game after game, to play in college, to play well enough to get drafted into the National Football League, to play in the NFL (not sit on the bench), to be a part of a very good team, to win games inch by inch, yard by yard, year-in-year-out, to win a division, and to go to the big game, and then, to win it.  More than once.  Not-so-tiny goals, all leading to the big dream.

Not every professional football player makes the playoffs.  A professional football player can have a successful—a highly successful—career without ever once playing in the Super Bowl.  But if that player retires before he gets the chance to play in the biggest game of all, he will know he never did quite achieve his dream.  (I think this is why so many players try to become coaches.  They might not get to the big game as a player, but they want to try as a coach.)

A goal is “something somebody wants to achieve.”  It’s “the end of a race.”  Goals, in some ways, are the opposite of dreams.  If you set your goals too high, you’ll get discouraged and quit.  If you set your dreams too low, you’ll get discouraged and quit.

So how to do you set goals? You start with easily achievable ones.  The best diet programs are set up this way.  They don’t put you on a starvation diet of 800 calories per day.  If you’ve been eating 4,000 calories per day, the diet will reduce your intake to 3500 calories per day.  Most people can easily cut 500 calories from their diet.  That’s one giant soda or one huge specialty coffee drink or one piece of pie with ice cream. As time goes on, the calorie count goes down incrementally.  And the dieter achieves other goals—losing a pound here, fitting into her “skinny” jeans for the first time in years, getting compliments from friends on how good she looks.

However, you can’t stop with the small goals.  When you achieve a goal, another needs to take its place.  Each goal should be  a little more difficult than the last.  It’s like running a marathon:  No one can walk out the front door and run 26.2 miles without training.  No one, not even the best athletes in the world.

Most people have to walk before they run, and some people can’t even walk an entire block without getting winded.  Yet within two years, they’re able to run 26.2 miles.  They didn’t increase their distance every day.  They walked for a block until they weren’t winded. Then they walked for two. Then three.  Eventually, they walked for a few blocks and ran for 100 feet.  And on and on.

The other key to following goals is to write them down.  First you need to write down what the goal is. Then you need to keep a log, one that records your struggles to achieve that goal.  You will fail.  Be honest about those failures. Then get back up and try again, until you achieve the goal.

Sometimes the failures tell you that the early goals are too hard.  If so, cut the effort in half, and try again.

The other thing you need is a timetable.  Give yourself a realistic amount of time to achieve a goal.  Once that goal is achieved, have the next goal ready to go, along with its timetable.  This is why I tell you to have daily, weekly, monthly, and yearly goals.

Throw in five-year and ten-year goals as well.

Then, revamp them often.  Preferably on a monthly basis.  As you strive to achieve those goals, you will learn what is realistic for you.  No excuses.  You need to be one hundred percent honest about what you’re trying to do.

If you’re an underachiever, pay attention to how hard you work.  Make sure you’re putting in some real effort and not just slacking off.

If you’re an overachiever, make sure you don’t work too hard.

That last piece of advice comes from me, the woman who now runs about fifteen miles per week. When I started out, I didn’t pay attention to my limits (yes, overachiever), and I achieved…a stress fracture in my foot. Which would have only been a sore foot if I hadn’t been so focused on trying to keep up to the impossible goals I had set myself.  It would have become a permanently damaged foot if my husband, the former professional athlete, hadn’t had a long talk with me about knowing my own limitations (and who also dragged me to the doctor).

It’s hard to find a balance between working too hard on your goals and not working hard enough.  Which is why I tell you to reassess often.  And to be honest with yourself.  Because you’re the only who is going to know if you’re trying too hard or not trying hard enough.

The goals are stepping stones to that impossible dream. They’re the trail through the murk that will lead you to the city on the hill.

They’re also the reality check. Because the farther you get down the road, the more you should reassess.  You might not want to go to that city on the hill.  You might want to jettison your impossible dream because it’s not something you want to do any longer.

If that’s the case, then you need to find a new dream, or you will stop striving.

I know, I know, I’m speaking in metaphor here.  Let me be concrete.  One of my early impossible writing goals was to have a career like that of Nora Roberts.  But the deeper I got into the writing profession, the more I realized that Nora Roberts and I are very different writers.  I would love to have that many bestsellers and all the perks that go with it.

But Nora, for the most part, has stayed within the same genre.  She writes all aspects of that genre—romantic suspense, paranormal romance, contemporary romance, even science fiction mystery romance.  But the books all center on a couple, either falling in love or striving to maintain their love.

I have a hummingbird brain.  I can’t even read one genre for longer than a week. Asking me to write in one genre for the rest of my life would actually be a hardship.

As soon as I realized that, I had to look for a new impossible dream. Which was harder than it sounds.  Not many writers write in more than one genre.  I had to refine the dream to be something that suited me.  I’ve refined several times since then.  I still have impossible dreams—but none of them entail writing in the same genre book after book after book.

I reassessed.

If I had wanted a career similar to Nora Roberts’s career, I would have had to change my goals. I would have had to write novels in only one genre (although I could’ve branched into all the subgenres), and I would have had to have had small goals along the way—writing a contemporary, writing a paranormal (oh, I’ve done that), writing a romantic suspense novel (I’ve done that too!), writing a historical….

You get the picture.  My imagination is too dark to sustain a happily ever after ending book after book.  My sense of whimsy is too powerful to write dark novels book after book.  My mind sees too many future possibilities to keep me out of science fiction for too long.  But I love to dig deeply into the modern world as well.

I’m not suited for the first city on the hill that I headed toward.  However, I’ve found others that suit me better.

If you think of goals as markers along the way toward your impossible dream, then you’ve got the right philosophy.  If you confuse goals with dreams, then you’re going to get stuck.

Imagine something grand for yourself.

Then figure out how to achieve it.  If achieving it takes only hard work—if there isn’t a little bit of luck and timing involved—then you haven’t found your impossible dream yet. Because an impossible dream should have an element of the impossible to it.  An element of being in the right place at the right time.

Know too, that you might never achieve that dream—and that’s okay. Because you’re going to be disappointed when you get to that city.  It’ll never ever measure up to your imagination.  So as you’re on the final road toward your dream, make sure there’s a new one waiting in the wings.

And then plan those stepping stones that will get you to your next city on the hill.  Set your goals.

Goals are the only thing that will lead to your dream.  All of your dreams.

Even those that might never come true.

“Freelancer Writer’s Survival Guide: Goals and Dreams” copyright 2010 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch.

You can now order either an e-book copy of the Guide or a trade paper copy of the Guide. It’s in slightly different format and has been organized, so that related topics are in an easily accessible place.

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28 thoughts on “Freelancer’s Survival Guide: Goals and Dreams

  1. I think we may believe much the same thing, but my phrasing would be somewhat different.

    I’m not sure I believe in truly impossible dreams. Very hard to achieve goals, yes. Goals I may never acheive, yes, but not truly impossible dreams. I need to know that if I do my part, the dream is possible, if unlikely. So I do set very difficult goals for myself, but I always have a plan, a roadmap, that stands a reasonable chance of eventually leading me to that goal.

    Paul R Kovatch said, “The difference between a goal and a dream is a plan.”

    Harvey Mackay added just a bit to this. “The difference between a goal and a plan is a plan and a deadline.”

    I want to write a bestselling novel is a dream.

    I’m going to read and study every bestselling novel that matches my style and reading interest for the nest three months. I’m also going to study writing techniques, and read all the advice I can from bestselling writer. Then I’m going to sit down from eight until ten each evening, six days per week, without fail, until the novel is finished, is a goal.

    This doesn’t mean I’ll achieve the goal, but it does mean I’m giving myself the best chance of success.

    This applies to all walks of life, for me. “I want to own a beach house in Hawaii” is a dream.

    I’m going to continue educating myself, I’g going to study the finacial success of this wealthy person and that wealthy person, I’m going to make myself a person who is infinitely employable in a high paying area, I’m going to keep my credit clear, I’m going to work one more hour than anyone else at my place of employment, and I will for ten years, put back ten percent of my income for teh day I want to buy that house, is a goal.

    I have very few independent goals. Each is direct link in the chain leading to the ultimate goal, the “impossible” dream.

    When one impossible dream has been achieved, I find another, and set a detailed list of goals, build a new chain, to get me to that next impossible dream.

    And as you mention with Nora Roberts, sometimes you have to know when to give up one dream for another. There’s no shame in say, “Well, that didn’t work. What else can I do with my life?”

  2. I get that “big” should equal “I want” and even seem impossible, but I wonder if fear is a necessary universal motivator. I, personally, crave a lot more carrots than sticks right now.

    In any case, thanks for making me think. I posted my new mission statement to my goal-setting group with my addendum, “Saving the world, one story at a time.” That might be sufficiently large.

    1. I think if you think you can achieve your dream, you’re not dreaming big enough, Melissa. So that dream must make you nervous or worried or fearful. Not that you’re afraid of the dream, but you’re afraid you might not achieve it. I think it has to be so big you have trouble wrapping your brain around it. The carrots and sticks come from the goals, not the dream. That’s the difference. I like your motto, though.

  3. This post is incredible. I set lots of goals: some I reach, most I don’t. But I rarely give myself permission to dream. Reading this made me finally see the distinction, see how I undermine my goals (and life) by not aiming toward those scarily impossible dreams.

    I already donated once for this Guide, back when you started it. After today’s post, I felt compelled to donate again; but instead, I went to Borders and bought a copy of Diving into the Wreck.

    Thank you so much for writing this.

  4. Fascinating. Thank you, Kris. I’m now thinking I should apply the dreams/goals mentality to other areas of my life, in addition to writing. Yes, overachiever. 😉

    I’m also curious about other people’s big writing dreams AND goals, if they care to share them. I’ve never had a good handle on “dream big.” I want to write what I love, get paid well for it, enjoy widespread fan love, and connect with people, places, and opportunities that excite me. Is that “big”? I don’t know.

    1. All I know about big, Melissa, is that it should scare you and it should feel impossible. So whatever works for you, I think, so long as you get that scared/impossible/I want hit from it.

  5. My dream? My ultimate writing dream goes like this. That I write a smashing series of novels that positively go into orbit, run the table on the bestseller lists, gets picked by a major studio who backs a solid production run of movies, and that I get to be a mega-millionaire author who travels the world with his wife and daughter, enjoying our wealth and independence without (hopefully) sacrificing too much of our blessed anonymity.

    (ahem) Now then, my goals are still very high-minded and ambitious goals. (click here to see) But they don’t include movies, or even bestseller lists. Not awards either. My goals are structured around what I believe I can nominally achieve through persistence and hard work, given a lifetime of effort. And nothing more.

    If I never get to have my dream, I am okay with it because having my dream is almost entirely out of my control.

    Goals? I work towards those ever day, and if I slack on them at any point, I get angry with myself because I know I am letting myself down.

  6. Holy cow, I just realized the terrific Kris & Dean Show that you and Dean taught last September focused mostly on “pivot skills”–i.e. those skills that have the most impact (with the least effort) in triggering a cascade of learning in new writers. Fascinating.

  7. FYI — I called it the “cascade effect” when choosing skill goals with the most impact, but the formal term in applied behavioral analysis is “pivotal response treatment (PRT).” It was developed by Dr. Roger Koegel and Dr. Lynn Koegel at the Autism Research Center at UCSB. They’re finding their techniques work with many kids and adults with disabilities, not just autism.

    If anyone needs to learn more about PRT, here’s the Koegel’s website:

  8. My local RWA chapter just had a presentation on goals from Debbie Macomber.

    It definitely isn’t just about writing goals for her. If my notes are correct, she had 69 achievable goals that she set for herself either this year or last or every year. (I’m horrible at taking notes)

    She taught her kids setting goals and even though they are grown, she still calls them every year to make sure they have set their goals for the year.

    She took us through an exercise of writing career goals, family goals, recreational goals, financial goals, physical goals, and spiritual goals.

    It’s amazing to think about.

    I was reading an article the other day about how today’s “Helicopter” parents are raising kids who don’t know how to set goals because their parents are always there planning and setting goals for them. Made me think I want to take Debbie’s approach with my son and make him set goals for himself.

    Another great post, Kris!

  9. Thanks, Kris. Very stimulating distinctions between goals and dreams. As someone who’s done tons of goal and dream setting in my life, it’s fascinating to me how confusing the two has led to some of my worst disappointments. (It’s happening too slowly! I have to do more! I should be there by now!)

    On the other hand, the zen of life, of beauty and steady, small achievements, is a beautiful thing. Hence that balancing act between loving what you have and what you’re doing in the moment vs. being forever caught in a current or creative dissatisfaction.

    And LMM, thanks for sharing your story. Inspiring by itself, I found the idea of the “cascade effect” got me thinking hard about selecting which goals should demand the most attention.

  10. Back in the 80’s I got a fortune cookie that read, “Without dreams you have no future.” I taped it to the top of my typewriter.

  11. I think this post is critical, not just for freelancers, but for any endeavor. It really hits the bull’s eye on the difference between dreams and goals. I hope everyone reads it and thinks hard about it.

    I can say this from harsh experience, because I’m the parent of a kid with autism. Each day I use the dream (my son living an independent life as an adult in a career he loves) to put together the goals (daily, weekly, yearly, 5 years, 10 years). And day by day, month by month, he becomes more independent. At about three when he was diagnosed with autism, he seemed mute and trapped inside his own brain. Now at nine his symptoms are those of Asperger’s.

    The change happened because we set big goals (with the help of autism therapists), and from those created tiny reachable weekly goals. Over time those tiny critical changes helped him work around his disability to speak and learn on his own.

    And I love the football analogy, because I think it expresses just how exhausting and intense the goals can be in pursuit of a dream. There have been times I’ve had to take a “time-out,” whether for a day or a week, where I stop struggling and fighting. I rest and gather up my strength, and then go back into the game recharged and ready to tackle things from a new angle.

    One handy technique I learned from helping my son is what I nicknamed the “rule of three.” Sometimes a dream has so many required goals that it can seem overwhelming to know what to start with.

    I find it helpful to write all the key goals and subgoals down, and then ask myself, “Which three should I tackle first that will have the most impact and are feasible right now?” I like to look for goals that will result in a cascade effect–i.e. will have a positive impact on several areas at once.

    For example, teaching our three-year-old son the concept of humans using language with each other was a critical goal that had a cascade effect for him. Once he “got it,” we were able to teach him a few simple nouns. Then a few simple verbs. Then how to ask a question, “What is it?” Once he learned how to ask a question, he asked it non-stop for months; his knowledge of language blossomed once he could initiate learning.

    This took nearly a year to do. It didn’t happen overnight, and it wasn’t easy. But like a snowball rolling down a mountain, over time it’s picked up momentum of its own and now people can’t tell he didn’t know how to talk or listen until he was nearly four.

    If you can find a goal that has that kind of cascade effect, go after it ASAP.

  12. Thank you so much for writing this. I absolutely needed that. Even though I have another novel coming out in April with another in the series scheduled for 2011, I’d been accepting that “just getting them published was good enough.”

    My nonfiction writing career is very goal oriented and I used to have the high dreams for the fiction career, but in recent years I’d been scaling them back. But I think you’re right. Dream big. Be inspired.

    Thank you.

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