Closing the Gap Between Dreams and Reality

While sorting through reader e-mail yesterday morning, I began to detect a subtle recurring theme. People were writing because they had a goal in mind, but their present circumstances seemed to be far from their intended destination. These two points were so far apart, in fact, that my correspondents were afraid to begin moving. Because the distance seemed overwhelming, they were paralyzed.

The importance of action
I used to feel this way, too. I would look at the enormity of my debt — $20,000! $30,000! — and I would stop before I could even begin. This was, of course, completely self-defeating. The most important thing you can do to achieve your financial goals (or any goal, for that matter) is to take action. It matters little which action you take so long as you begin moving in the right direction. You might, for example:

Don't be paralyzed because you don't know the best path to take. Pick one good path and follow it. Whatever your financial goal, that first small step is the most important. It leads from inaction to action. It leads to the future.

Closing the gap
While I was thinking about this yesterday, I stumbled upon a video from This American Life‘s Ira Glass. On the surface, it seems completely unrelated to personal finance. And maybe it is. But I think that in these five minutes, Glass gets to the heart of success with any goal:

Ostensibly, Glass is speaking about story-telling. (Which is why I was actually watching this.) But what he's really talking about is the process of mastery, of building skills and achieving goals.

Glass says that when you begin any endeavor, you're a novice. You have a clear vision of what a successful person would do or be (debt-free, for example, or have a million dollars), but your own efforts aren't anywhere near what you define as success. Maybe you still spend money on videogames or on handbags. Maybe you eat out too much. Whatever the case, there's a gap between your view of success and your present abilities.

“A lot of people never get past that phase,” Glass says. “A lot of people at that point, they quit.”

But to succeed, you can't quit. To achieve your dreams, you need to keep stumbling along. Nearly anyone who is successful, says Glass, goes through a period of months or years where they can tell that what they're doing isn't as good as they want it to be:

You gotta know that's totally normal. The most important possible thing you can do is do a lot of work. Do a huge volume of work…It's only by actually going through a volume of work that you're actually going to catch up and close that gap, and the work you're making will be as good as your ambitions.

Or, translated into the language of personal finance, keep practicing frugality. Keep saving money. Keep reading about the stock market. It's only by continuing to do these things that they become habits, and it's only by developing these habits that you'll be able to meet your financial goals. Don't be discouraged if you stumble. You will make mistakes. You need to fight your way through these. “You will be fierce,” Glass says. “You will be a warrior.”

But to begin, you need to take action. You need to take that first step. You need to begin walking in the direction of your dreams.

More about...Psychology

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The Financial Philosopher
The Financial Philosopher

This post points to fundamental human behavior, which is at the root of all financial challenges…

“People have a hard time letting go of their suffering. Out of a fear of the unknown, they prefer suffering that is familiar.” Thich Nhat Hanh

“Between the conception
And the creation
Between the emotion
And the response
Falls the Shadow”
~ T.S. Elliot, The Hollow Men

Thanks for the philosophical insight…

Fish Finder
Fish Finder

To “Close the Gap Between Dreams & Reality”, first find out where you are – the reality – then realistically determine where you want to be – the dream. To get there, you MUST make a PLAN and have set goals to meet on the way. Finally, you must TAKE ACTION, step out and start the journey. You will stumble, you will fall down and you will re-evaluate where you really want to be along the way, but if you keep getting back up and pushing forward, you will probably wind up in a pretty good place. Thinking about it,… Read more »

MoneyBlogga
MoneyBlogga

A very inspirational post! I know what I need to do – I just need to move my butt and do it. Reading blogs like this one has helped me tremendously in that area.

B Smith @ Wealth and Wisdom
B Smith @ Wealth and Wisdom

JD-Great post. Anytime you set a major goal it can get frustrating. You need to set milestones and break it down to sub-goals or you don’t see any progress. This is all a goal setting program does. It alligns your daily actions with your long term vision/plan. The goals (weekly, monthly, mid term, and long term) are the necessary milestones. These milestones keep you on the right path and keep you motivated by showing progress. One of the easiest to understand examples is college. When you start, the 30-40 courses are overwhelming. After a year you look up and see… Read more »

Frugal Dad
Frugal Dad

We are in fact our worst critics, and as Glass mentions many people give up just before they enter the phase of real success because they are still dissatisfied with their “product.” It takes a ton of perseverance to push through those feelings and keep plugging away, but it really is the only path to long term success.

Thanks for including this video from Glass – very inspiring!

HollyP
HollyP

BSmith has some outstanding points. Another one is to monitor your progress on the goals subgoals. That way you can celebrate your successes, develop new strategies to address challenges, and make adjustments as necessary. It helps keep you motivated.

Sam
Sam

What helped us pay off $55,500 in debt was to break it down into very small steps. Step 1 was actually adding up our debt and learning that we had $55,500 in unsecured debt. Step 2 was coming up with a plan to pay it off, we went with Dave Ramsey debt snowball but pick whatever plan works for you. Step 3 was paying off our debt (but it included step 3A, 3B, 3C, etc.) We had monthly goals, weekly goals and sometimes daily goals to get our debt paid off. I’m a big fan of snowflaking, if you get… Read more »

David C
David C

Very timely post for me. Six months into the process, I was feeling a little down about my debt elimination program. After discovering your site last November, I decided enough was enough. I began formulating a plan to rid ourselves of debt after seeing what you had done. I have had a few stumbles, but I am still trudging down that path to freedom. It can be discouraging at times, but you have to keep your eyes on the prize. I tend to set goals that are just a little outside the attainable, so I strive harder to achieve them,… Read more »

My Daily Dollars
My Daily Dollars

Thanks for including the video. It’s so very true that it takes a very long time to master something creative, but you just have to keep trying. I like your connection to PF. . you’re right: those small steps really do add up to something big!

TosaJen
TosaJen

Thanks for the thought-provoking topic. As I was reading your entry, I was thinking about something unrelated to money that I am working hard to master myself. I assert that in order to put in the time and effort to master something, you need to have strong feelings about the goal you are pursuing. And you need to decide that the change is a priority in your life. Now, personal finance doesn’t instill a lot of passion in and of itself. You need to discover for yourself the goals that inspire you to change and keep changing. (I suppose fear… Read more »

PW
PW

This post really did speak to me. Also, thanks for all the great comments. I’ve been struggling since Jan. and it really helps to hear that it is normal. I have the big goal, but need to break down to subgoals, and that is where I get paralyzed. Thanks for everyone’s help!

Teresa A
Teresa A

How True! It isn’t that some people are particulary gifted or smarter or luckier than the rest of us. Rather, it is that they are a bit braver and a lot more determined. They don’t let fear and the unknown paralyze them. They take that first step, whether it is a baby step or a leap of faith, and then they keep going. I know from experience that once you begin to take those steps, with each and every step you take you become more empowered. You will be AMAZED at what you can do. I have found that there… Read more »

MoneyEnergy
MoneyEnergy

Well said. Gives me lots to think about of my own. Reminds me of two inspirational quotes that I’ve come across recently:
.

“Yard by yard it’s really hard; inch by inch it’s a cinch”
(a family member told me this one)

“Fear is only as deep as the mind allows.”
(Japanese proverb).

Finally Frugal
Finally Frugal

It’s true: the ‘easy road’ is to keep doing what we’ve been doing, instead of looking honestly at our present circumstances, and DOING something to change them. When I consider my credit card and 50K student loan debt, it seems overwhelming. I prefer NOT to think about it. But little by little I’m chipping away at it, and my actions—however small—inspire further action. Relevant or not, I’m thinking about Newton’s law: “Unless acted upon, a body at rest stays at rest, and a body in motion stays in motion”. Once you start acting to change your habits, it’s much more… Read more »

Red
Red

This reminds me of a reporter on NPR’s Marketplace going to a financial planner for the first time and being told it would take 9 years to save for the type of place she wanted. She panic’d on air (briefly – NINE YEARS?!?!) and then said what most people would say: “I feel like I should have been saving since I was 20, and now it’s too late”. To which the financial planner responded: “Well, the best time to start saving is 10 years ago, the second best time is now, the worst time is 10 years from now.” You… Read more »

Keith
Keith

Great post! People give up way too easily on important goals. Don’t ever give up! Success is usually just around the corner if you are persistent. It reminds me of exercise and diet. Perhaps your vision of a your best body is ripped and healthy looking. Your vision is very clear. Then you look at yourself naked in the mirror and start the process of beating yourself up. You start self-talk that undermines your determination to become your best body. You work out with minimal effort and eat too many calories or the wrong combination of good foods. After a… Read more »

Anne
Anne

Great post, thanks!

Penelope
Penelope

I *SO* needed this right now!

SJ
SJ

great great post. same goes for weight loss – after months of talking about it, my husband just joined weight watchers online – he’s lost 6 pounds in one week and has learned a TON about his food choices.

Jennifer
Jennifer

Thank you! I really am glad to come across this. I have been feeling pretty hopeless (“I’ll never get there”) about my goals lately…

kingking
kingking

Kudos, JD. Very inspiring piece. Your writing is very warm and comfortable to read, like listening to a wise family member. The advice is never condescending, unlike some other bloggers. Get Rich Slowly is the only PF site I read daily. Thanks for the strong work and valuable insight. My husband and I went through many of the same trials I read about with your younger commenters. While we’re far from monetarily wealthy now, we’re monetarily comfortable and monumentally wealthy in other regards. The advice here is sound. Put pen to paper, make a list of the things you want… Read more »

Kai Jones
Kai Jones

What reached me was seeing a poster that said: “If you forget to brush your teeth one day, do you just stop brushing forever?”

Tim
Tim

This is simply Dangerous! Ok, i agree with JD on many things, and I agree that the biggest hurdle is taking an action. however, you shouldn’t take action for the sake of taking action. It DOES indeed matter what action you take, so I completely disagree with JD on this point. You should do at the bare minimum some due diligence in understanding what you are doing before you do it, otherwise don’t do it. i know too many people who took action without understanding what they were signing up for (isn’t this what the housing and credit crisis is… Read more »

J.D.
J.D.

Ah, you have an excellent point. I’m not suggesting that people take *any* action. Not every action is good, as you say. What I’m trying to address are the people who, like me at one time, are aware of two or three or five or ten *good* actions that they might take (including those I’ve listed), but who don’t move at all for fear of not optimizing. I believe that optimization is overrated. It’s far more important to begin walking than it is to increase your speed. Plus, once you get going, I believe it’s possible to make small adjustments… Read more »

Tim
Tim

Great post, J.D. This is exactly what I was thinking about over the weekend (I even wrote a post draft about it). Dang, I guess I’ll have to wait until a week from Monday to let it fly…

Mira
Mira

Yesterday I was looking at a list of 14 financial goals I had written in 2002. On one hand, I was pleased to see that 6 years later I had achieved many of the goals. On the other hand, I was disappointed because I felt I should have achieved more. I didn’t have a plan. I just kinda floundered along the way. I agree JD that we need to take action. My issue, however, is that I wrote a list of goals years ago but didn’t write a deliberate plan. I knew some of the actions I had to take… Read more »

J.D.
J.D.

This is an awesome point, and something I’ve been thinking about in my own life. The first step to success is to set goals. The second step is to take action. But beyond that, I believe that success is ultimately dependent upon revising goals as you move along. For example, last year I created a list of 101 goals that I wanted to accomplish in 1001 days. I blew through some of the goals quickly. Some that I thought were impossible — like completing a marathon — look like they’ll be easier than I expected. Others that I thought might… Read more »

Rachel
Rachel

Breaking up goals into smaller milestones is a good way to trick your brain into making things seem easier.

Elizabeth Sue
Elizabeth Sue

Thanks for the message, good post.

shevy
shevy

Great post, JD! I wrote about taking very small baby steps towards one of my goals (on May 25th). In one way I felt almost silly. I have 3 lavender plants. Only 5,997 to go. But it was really a valuable baby step. For one thing, that first step is often the hardest. It’s the one where you actually commit to doing something about your dream. You step out of your comfort zone, out of that place where you can tell yourself how wonderful you’d be at whatever-it-is and actually take risks. Because if you don’t take the first step… Read more »

MEJ
MEJ

Your post is exactly what I needed this morning. Last night I spent several hours filling out the Motley Fool’s Get Out of Debt sheets and came face to face with my bad debt and the annual interest I pay to my credit card creditors. It was demoralizing. I suspected the bad news but now I KNOW the bad news and that I suppose is the first step. I am now working on the budget pages. Since discovering your blog I have opened an ING account and I have started baking bread again. I am dithering about cancelling the Dish… Read more »

Shanel Yang
Shanel Yang

JD – Thanks for the inspiring post! MEJ – I know what you mean about not wanting to cut the TV. It was tough for me to get rid of cable, too, because I am such a huge movie fan. But, with a handful of my favorite DVDs and a subscribtion to Netflix, it’s not that bad. You’ll find you’ve suddenly got a lot of time for reading, thinking, and the strange joy of actually having nothing to do once in a blue moon! Congrats on opening the ING account and baking bread! I recently learned how to make homemade… Read more »

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