On Dreaming, and On Staying Ambitious

by Brenna Holeman

Brenna in Prague

In Prague, Czechia

I’ve been really tired these days. Between a full-time job that has recently gotten a lot more demanding, to maintaining my duties to fulfil the requirements for my Graduate Entrepreneur Visa in the UK, to freelance work, to running this blog and its social media, to social events, to, oh yeah, travelling, I find myself constantly wanting a nap and constantly wanting someone to crack my back for me (it feels so damn good). Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m not complaining about these things; I’m learning a lot, earning a little, and still seeing the world and getting to hang out with some of my favourite people in it. My life at the moment, while busy and stressful, is a pretty great one.

But I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t making plans for the future, too.

My entire life, since I was a little girl, I’ve written huge lists of all of my life goals. Things as grand as “learn to speak French” and “travel the world” and things as innocuous as “buy a shelf that holds all of my records” and “learn how to make really good muffins”. I once even made a video of this in response to a friend of mine doing the same thing, which I’ll embed here, but please note this is a) five years old b) totally and utterly materialistic/superficial in many ways c) filled with jokes that fall very flat and d) weirdly critical of Nepal (or at least its water and its bugs) even though I had an amazing time there. Also, no, I don’t know how I functioned with that much jewellery on, either.

p.s. I also cringe at the way I say, “To live in Paris”. You’re not alone.

But what’s interesting about that video is that, five years later, I’ve actually achieved quite a few of those things, despite initially saying that the list was unrealistic – 28 of the 92, in fact, and if you’re interested in knowing which ones, you can check out the description in the video. And watching it back, I don’t think that many of them are unrealistic after all (except the yoga thing, dear lord I just cannot get into yoga). I would also change a few of them *cough having kids cough*… and I laughed out loud when I remembered that I wanted “a massive DVD collection”. Yeah, that one has obviously changed as well, because… it’s the future.

But all of this leads me to dreaming, or to staying ambitious. A dreamer is often thought of as someone with her head in the clouds, someone who has many lofty ideas but perhaps doesn’t follow through on them; the word ambitious is much more linked to practicality and hard work, the person who climbs the corporate ladder or who barely sleeps so that she can launch another business venture. I personally think that dreaming and ambition go hand in hand – that perhaps ambition can’t exist without the act of dreaming, the act of letting the mind wander.

Because at the end of the day, to be ambitious is to want more. And to dream – that is to want more as well. To want to travel somewhere. To want to do something. To want to add to your life in some way, whether that’s as grand as exploring the world or as simple as baking muffins.

Hiking to Tiger's Nest Bhutan - 22 of 34

Number 10 on that list – to return to Nepal and visit Bhutan

I grew up in a family of ambitious people, only I didn’t realise it until I was much older. Each of us in our own way has always been striving for something, enriching our lives and attempting to enrich the lives of those around us, whether that’s learning a new language (my sister is multi-lingual), writing another book (my mum is an author), creating another song (my brother is a very talented musician), or even learning tennis (my father, now retired, plays regularly). Growing up, we were encouraged to try new things and dream big; no idea was ridiculed or scoffed at. Again – I didn’t realise how incredible this was until I was much older, nor did I see how privileged I was to even be able to have those thoughts and imagine accomplishing them. And now I realise the importance of all of those dreams and those goals, even if they were lofty or even if a lot of them fell through… because before we can walk the walk, we do need to talk the talk. We need to let those dreams float around in our brains for a while, growing them slowly but ever so surely, until one day we realise that, hey, we might actually be able to do this, therefore spring-boarding our ambition into action.

Dreaming led me to those 92 things in the first place, and being ambitious drove me to accomplish some of them, even though I constantly worry that I’m not doing enough, or accomplishing enough, or living my life to the fullest. And, funnily enough, those ambitious family members of mine often talk about having the same thoughts. We’re not mistaking this with unhappiness… we’re just realising that we want to keep doing more. I think there’s nothing wrong with that; almost every success, big or small, started with that hint of drive, with that spark of intent, with somebody saying, “I want to do something differently.”

I think that many people who travel – if not all – are dreamers, and ipso facto ambitious. From that first wisp of wanderlust to the moment you step on the airplane, your life was filled first with the dreams of doing it to the act of making it happen. So much of my life is consumed by travelling (either dreaming of it, planning it, writing about it, or actually doing it) that I sometimes forget that not everyone’s life is fuelled by this same dream, by these same ambitions. Instead of looking down on people who don’t want to travel, it has dawned on me over the past few years that they may simply be focusing their dreams in another way. I wrote about this idea in The Danger of Someone Else’s Dream – that maybe some ambitions are as simple as baking muffins, but that that doesn’t make them any less real or important.

Little Corn Nicaragua 2

Looking all moody while making future plans (on Little Corn, Nicaragua)

Am I rambling? Possibly. I write all of this in a state of flux, because my three year anniversary of living in London is around the corner, and my ten year anniversary of travelling solo and living abroad has come and gone a few months ago (a blog post on that coming soon). My UK visa is up in five months, though I do have the option to renew another year. But because I will forever be that girl who makes lists, and who always lies in bed at night thinking of future plans, I’m currently filling notebooks full of dreams. I want to go spend some time in Indonesia. I want to grow this blog into something great. I want to scuba dive more. I want to travel through the Balkans. I want to go to Antarctica, and East Africa, and Central Asia. I want to move to New Zealand, or Germany, or Mexico, or maybe even back to Canada. And maybe some of those things will happen, maybe none of them will happen. But I think it’s so important to keep dreaming, to stay ambitious, to imagine – for ever and ever – that the world is your oyster.

Coming soon… I’m going to write a post on following through on those dreams, and how to actually walk the walk when it comes to your ambition. On how to take that oyster and find a beautiful pearl.

Brenna in Turkey

Always writing out dreams (in Istanbul, Turkey)

What are your dreams? Do you consider yourself an ambitious person?

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Katie August 22, 2016 - 3:39 pm

1. I am officially convinced that you need to try the Yoga with Adriene videos on YouTube. Start with her “Yoga for Beginners” videos. She is the only teacher so far that’s been able to get me into it, and I can’t even tell you how beneficial it’s been — on multiple levels. Her practices aren’t rigid and I’ve finally experienced what it really feels like to stretch and make space. (What convinced me it’s for you is the fact that she constantly interrupts herself to laugh at her “squeaky old floors.” Ha!)

2. I love the connection between dreaming and ambition. I’ve been feeling down on myself because I haven’t accomplished any of my “big” dreams, and I look forward to reading what you have to say on getting them accomplished because I *feel* like I’m ambitious, but I’ve yet to see anything through.

3. Is your family interested in adopting? 😉

Brenna Holeman August 23, 2016 - 2:51 pm

Thank you for the yoga tip, Katie! I would really love to try to get into it, but I can never seem to find the right way to do it.

And I’ll try to write the other post as soon as I can… depending on how ambitious I’m feeling. 😉

By the way, you are welcome to visit my family anytime! xo

Ella August 22, 2016 - 5:43 pm

I can definitely relate to this. I’ve always been a very ambitious person and I’m proud of myself for never really compromising or apologizing for my ambitions, even when others mocked me or told me that I was being unrealistic. I have so many goals, dreams and ambitions that I really want to achieve, that I have to remind myself that I can’t achieve them all at once and some may not pan out. But thankfully, that doesn’t stop me from trying if it’s a dream that I really want to make into reality. To me, that’s the point of a dream. The idea that your future can be even better and even more aligned with what you want than your present, and to work so that you get to enjoy your dream in your reality and not just in your head.

Brenna Holeman August 23, 2016 - 2:53 pm

That’s a great attitude, Ella! I agree – and I think I have to keep reminding myself that the only way my future will be better is if I do something about it. It sounds silly, but sometimes I feel like I’m waiting for something… what, I’m not sure, but I need to quit that waiting and just get on with it. Thanks for your comment!

Mary B August 22, 2016 - 5:44 pm

I think you’re totally right that dreaming and ambition go hand in hand – or, at least, that’s when they work best. Dreams without some ambition will likely go unrealized, and ambition without a dream – well, I imagine that’s how a lot of people wind up unhappy. Just moving up a ladder or doing things because you should, but not because they inspire you or make you happy.

Like you, I’ve also always been a list-maker of dreams. In some ways, I feel like writing them down takes them out of the clouds and turns them into goals (although certainly, many of them still are never realized). I’ve never really considered myself ambitious, because to me that term tends to refer to people climbing a career ladder or something like that. But I’ve climbed mountains, seen amazing places, visited friends all over the world, saved up enough to take a career break… I guess I’m pretty ambitious after all! I just have to be working toward a goal that inspires me.

Brenna Holeman August 23, 2016 - 3:08 pm

Hi Mary, thank you so much for your comment. I love when you say, “Dreams without some ambition will likely go unrealized, and ambition without a dream – well, I imagine that’s how a lot of people wind up unhappy. Just moving up a ladder or doing things because you should, but not because they inspire you or make you happy.” YES!

And yes, it sounds like you’re INCREDIBLY ambitious if you ask me. 🙂

Danny August 22, 2016 - 6:51 pm

This is preciously what I needed to hear, Brenna. I’ve been doing a bit of soul-searching recently, and it dawned on me this weekend after a long conversation with a good friend that I need to dream again. To think big. To make a list of ambitions and goals. Perhaps your post, which comes one day after this conversation, is a sign to pick up the pen and start writing things out. 🙂

Brenna Holeman August 23, 2016 - 2:56 pm

I’m really glad that you related to the post, Danny! Yes, pick up that pen and start planning, it’s really helpful and really fun. Good luck!!

Paige August 22, 2016 - 11:58 pm

I also associate “dreamer” with the kind of “head-in-the-clouds” frame of mind and ambitious with the career go-getters–interesting how language works. I have definitely always considered myself in the dreamer camp, though I guess in many ways my adult life has been ambitious too. I feel like I’m at this interesting point in life because I have achieved some major milestones that kind of dictated everything up until this point (first, I felt I needed to graduate summa cum laude from college, which I did, then get my MFA for fiction, which I did, then find a full time job in Boston and move to the city, which I did). I’ve never been so stabile or independent before, and I’m about to hit 25 while feels milestone-y, and while I am so happy to have achieved the things I have and generally loving this stage of life, I am very afraid of the “forevers” and have the whole “fear of missing out” thing bad, especially after my two great weeks on the road. I guess right now I want to dedicate myself to writing (oh, how I have neglected it since i finished my MFA thesis), spending time with the family and friends I love and care about, and, oh yes, figuring out how my travel dreams are going to fit into my often-changing long-term plan. When I was traveling I was so good about writing my thoughts in my journal every night–maybe that’s a good goal for home too!

Brenna Holeman August 23, 2016 - 3:47 pm

First of all, you’ve accomplished so much already… how amazing! And yes, I think that it’s really helpful to write down your thoughts, even when you’re seemingly not doing very much. I find it’s often in those times of respite and routine that I figure out what I really want to do. Best of luck, I’m sure you’re going to plan some incredible things!

Karlie August 23, 2016 - 3:05 am

This was really good for me to read. In my family, I remember always being told that I could do anything that I wanted to do, go to any school I wanted to go to. Well, I got reality-checked when starting college in that I couldn’t go to the one I wanted to go to because it was too expensive (which, I think, turned out better for me in the end). But, I’ve fallen into an area of non-ambition, where I don’t know what I want to do or what goals I want to have. This has helped inspire me to dream a little bigger and it’s okay to have those dreams be not so serious.

Good post!

Brenna Holeman August 23, 2016 - 2:55 pm

I’m really glad that you liked the post, Karlie! And yes, I think it’s totally fine to dream big… and why not start to imagine that those dreams will turn into reality, too? You never know… 😀

Elizabeth August 25, 2016 - 5:29 pm

Such a great point of view. Depending on how you define ambition, I’m definitely ambitious about traveling. My list is endless and always evolving (Rwanda anyone??), and although I haven’t traveled quite as much as you have, I’ve been on trips I never dreamed would really happen, and I can’t wait for more. I’m ambitious about becoming a parent-my wife and I have worked incredibly hard on the process of adoption (we’re waiting parents). And apparently I have an ambition to own more dresses than anyone else in the world 😉 I’ve always seen corporate goals as the definition of ambition, but you’re right that there are so many other ways to have ambition.

It looks like you’re considering Germany as a place to live and I LOVED living there. I taught business English to adults there for four years, so if you move to Germany, send me a message and I can introduce you to my friends there. It’s still my second home. And it’s pretty easy to get a visa to live there as an American/Canadian. But maybe you’ll end up in Mexico (much better weather!!).

Amy August 27, 2016 - 10:12 am

I also write lists, all the time, of things I want to do in the future and I don’t think I’d get anywhere if I didn’t. You’re so right, before you actually do anything you need to dream about, mull it over, want it enough to make it happen. I used to think that at some point I’d get to the point where my list would almost be empty but instead it is always changing and getting longer!

Zalie September 13, 2016 - 3:33 am

I think it is a very important ( and healthy) thing to dream, no matter how big or how small, and I loved how you addressed this in your post! For some reason I couldn’t load your video but I will keep on trying 😉

Brenna Holeman September 13, 2016 - 10:51 am

I think it’s really important, too! Can’t wait to talk about all of our dreams this week 😀

Nina Lee: World into Words September 27, 2016 - 1:22 pm

I cannot bring myself to do yoga for the life of me either 🙂 As beneficial as it would be!

I’m in the middle of having just accomplished my dream of moving back to Spain, as I just arrived in Madrid. I’m a bit wrapped up in the excitement of it to remember my other dreams, but every day I’m constantly telling myself to write them down, because, as you said, it’s so important to keep dreaming, even when you’ve accomplished or in the process of accomplishing others. Sometimes though, I feel a bit selfish for the things that I dream for and ask for, so my constant daily reminder is to be grateful and repay my debt of gratitude for being able to pursue my dreams freely.


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