How to Stop Dreaming & Start Living

Get busy living, or get busy dying.
—Andy Dufresne, The Shawshank Redemption

Start LivingI called my friend Jonathan the other day. He recently started a publishing company — a dream he’s had for a number of years.

I was going to be speaking at an event for dreamers and I wanted his advice.

“What should I say?” I asked.

He had one simple piece of advice.

Stop asking, “What if?”

Jonathan used to be more of a dreamer but now was a doer. I wanted to know his secret.

At first, he was dismissive, wishing me luck and thanking God Almighty it wasn’t him speaking.

But I kept prodding and asking.

Finally, he explained when something shifted for him, what actually changed for him to start living his dream:

“It was when I stopped asking, ‘What if…?’ and started saying, ‘Let’s…'”

You have two choices

The way I see it, you have only two choices:

  1. You can spend your days dreaming of a better life.
  2. Or you can do the messy work of taking your dream to the world.

You can sit around, playing the what-if game, or you can start saying, “Let’s.”

Right now, your dream is perfect. Safe and comfortable, it’s untouched by your dirty, human hands. Stuffed in a box on a shelf, it’s tucked away — far from the world it’s supposed to change.

Here’s the truth: you’re squandering your passion. For sake of personal comfort and fear of messing up your calling, you’re robbing the world of a gift, which is your dream.

Is it worth the cost?

Start living in the tension

The next step is a messy one, so think carefully before taking it. It’s where you begin to get your hands dirty and do the hard work of living your dream.

This is where your story starts to matter, where you begin to make a difference. It’s where ideas and action meet, where we stop dreaming and start living. There is tension here. And risk is inevitable.

If we opt out, we may become bitter, disillusioned. We can grow to think that this whole dreaming process is a farce. Like Segismundo, we may get lost in our dreams, questioning when we are living and when we are merely dreaming.

For reasons that are already obvious, I want you to go for your dream. I want you to live.

And it begins with letting go.

Your ideals are useless (sorry)

Nobody gets changed by an ideal. Nothing gets shaken by a bunch of dreams.

Don’t get me wrong; I love dreams. I’m a fan of ideas. They are the fuel for change in the world.

But by themselves, they do absolutely no good.

No action = no change

As Bonhoeffer said, the ideal of a thing can kill the thing itself. In your case, your ideals are robbing you of your dream and the difference it could make.

Hanging out in coffee shops and talking about one day being a writer or missionary or entrepreneur is the worst thing you can do. It’s destructive and antagonistic to doing the work of becoming your dream.

So what do you do?

Stop talking, start doing:

  • Don’t dream of being a writer. Begin writing.
  • Don’t dream of being a missionary. Go.
  • Don’t dream of being an entrepreneur. Launch something (even something small).

Anything less is a cheap imitation of the life you were meant to live. It’s stalling. It’s a waste. It’s Resistance. And it’s killing your dream more than you realize.

You have one and only choice. I hate to put it into such macabre terms, but there’s no other way: Begin living your life, or start planning your funeral. Get busy living, or get busy dying.

Life or death. There isn’t much else.

So what’s it gonna be? Share in the comments.

109 thoughts on “How to Stop Dreaming & Start Living

  1. So, so true! Good stuff … now off to actually finish some of those blog posts instead of only thinking about them. 
    And I’m quite thrilled your friend Jonathan moved from “What if…?” to “Let’s …”  🙂

  2. Hey, what’s the reference for that Bonhoeffer quote? I love Bonhoeffer and don’t recall that one. I don’t want to forget that one. 

    1. Larry, it’s a paraphrase from Life Together. Here’s the full quote: “God hates visionary dreaming; it makes the dreamer proud and
      pretentious. The man who fashions a visionary ideal of community demands
      that it be realised by God, by others, and by himself. He enters the
      community of Christians with his demands, sets up his own law, and
      judges the brethren and God himself accordingly. He stands adamant, a
      living reproach to all others in the circle of the brethren. He acts as
      if he is the creator of the Christian community, as if his dream binds
      men together. When things do not go his way, he calls the effort a
      failure. When his ideal picture is destroyed, he sees the community
      going to smash. So he becomes, first and accuser of his brethren, then
      an accuser of God, and finally the despairing accuser of himself”

        1. yeah. it’s condemning for any dreamer. i contend with the idea that God hates dreaming, but I do think that our ideals often destroy the practical things we try to create.

          1. Hello, thanks for the incredible history!
            Im 15 now and I feel like daydreaming is really getting in the way, it avoids me from making friends and focus on school subjects, do you think this is just a time in my life or it should be taken seriously? thx for answer 😀

  3. Good stuff!  You hooked me with the Andy Dufresne quote.  Love, love LOVE that movie.  Today I blogged about a plaque hanging in my office about whining.  We spend way too much time complaining about where we wish we were and not enough time  making it happen.  Thanks for the encouragement!

  4. I was talking about this just last night with a friend. I’m at the place where I have launched my dream, I have turned my ministry into a nonprofit and have already seen us expand to another campus and it seems good. But, not is the time to either push forward or be done, and I’m struggling to do that work.

    Thanks for the push today Jeff!

  5. That is so very true Jeff- it’s almost like it’s now or never, to do or not to do. And once you do make up your mind, sticking to it, implementing it to get it done till the end is what is needed.

    Thanks for sharing 🙂

  6. Such a fantastic point. I was actually thinking about this yesterday–it’s scary to take a leap of faith and go for your dreams, but if all you do is sit back and think about them, they’ll never come true. 

    I really like what you have there about your friend moving from “What if…?” to “Let’s.” I’m definitely going to keep that one in mind. 

  7. I was driving to my day job not to long ago when suddenly a poem by Theodore Roosevelt popped into my mind.  I won’t quote it here as it is far to long, but the point of it was that life belongs to those that try, even if they try and fail they have done much more than those have been bound by fear.  I realized there in my work parking lot that the only reason I hadn’t begun writing was not because of time constraints or lack of inspiration, but fear plain and simple.

      1. “It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood, who strives valiantly; who errs and comes short again and again; because there is not effort without error and shortcomings; but who does actually strive to do the deed; who knows the great enthusiasm, the great devotion, who spends himself in a worthy cause, who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement and who at the worst, if he fails, at least he fails while daring greatly. So that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who know neither victory nor defeat.”

  8. As a visual artist, I can come up w/ lots of ideas & visions, but it’s doing the next small step that leads to amazing things – like putting my first mark on my canvas.  Big dreams are good, but by itself it can lead to paralysis or overwhelm = not good.

  9. I have been inspired by your posts over the last month and have decided I can’t ignore the call or the advice any longer. Given an unexpected window of time this afternoon I’m going to start trying to get a blog going. No more messing just doing. Everything you said today hit home. Thanks

  10. This is the part where I really agree with what you’ve written and re-decide to keep moving forward with acting on dreams, but then run into my own fear and passivity. Super. Thanks for the encouragement to move past those excuse-walls and take action, however small at first!

  11. I’m not a believer of coincidence. I needed this. I started the “Let’s” start living part just 3 short months ago. A brand new voice in the blogging world who is trying to figure this social media place out. 
    The past 2 weeks I’ve been neck deep in the messy, tension part. Often, a little self doubt or others’ opinions can serve as a motivating factor for me. Unfortunately, the past couple of weeks I have found myself feeling unable to breathe. Literally choked from the doubt which is very out of character for myself. I didn’t survive cancer to be limited by that voice. Honestly, I feel like if I don’t live out my dreams, I am being disrespectful to those who didn’t survive. And that is unacceptable to me. So all this to say, thank you. Thank you for writing about this and your impeccable timing. Because honestly,this past 2 weeks I have had 1 foot in the grave. It’s time to start digging my way back out and feeling ok with the messy parts.

  12. A great message. I think the problem might be that many people are focused on the wrong actions. I call it ‘being stuck in the bathroom’ syndrome. They are busy, busy, busy preparing, but never actually get out the door. They are stuck in the personal branding mirror and never bring their talents to the party. The power to dream is something that has been forgotten and stifled by many well meaning planners. We need to dream – but we also need to take action. It is the right actions that we need to focus on and we need guides and mentors to tell us, ‘Hey your not getting anywhere – do you think you might be stuck?’ There are those who are perpetual dreamers and those who have forgotten how to dream. We need to help both of them.

  13. The negative voices are SO LOUD.  But you’re right.  I’m reading “Quitter” right now and he made a great point…my chances of failure might be 50/50.  my chances of failing as bad as I imagine myself failing are probably closer to 1 or 2%, but my chances of failing if I never even get started?  100%. 

    “Get busy living, or get busy dying…”

  14. Thanks, Jeff, for a motivating post. I’m currently a writer and while I love what I do, I’ve been doing too much dreaming (planning) for the past 2 years about other avenues I’d like to go down with my writing. I’ve also noticed that quite a few of your past posts have been about executing the dream. It’s persistent and it’s working!

  15. This post is exceptional; it really speaks to me. I’ve been wasting time all summer pondering the what if’s of my writing life. It is, most definitely, time to move on to the “let’s…” stage of things. Thank you for writing this! 

  16. “It was when I stopped asking, ‘What if…?’ and started saying, ‘Let’s…’”

    No action = no changeJeff, I wanted to capture those quotes in Evernote, found a lot to capture, decided the whole post goes into the files. Excellent!–Tom

  17. As a writer/entrepreneur who recently launched an indie publishing & creative design company with a friend of mine, this is such an encouragement. We have both had such big dreams in our hearts for so long, we couldn’t just sit on them any more. We knew we had a choice: to die in a life that was suffocating us or to live in God’s will knowing He would guide our efforts.

    Thanks for this. It is such an encouragement.

  18. The source of the “what ifs”, is fear. Unless a dreamer decides to stare down the fear and move past it, the dream will never become reality.

    “The Dream Giver”, by Bruce Wilkinson, is a parable about a guy named Ordinary, a Nobody from the Land of Familiar, who decides to follow his dream. I HIGHLY recommend this little book to anyone who needs a kick in the arse to get moving. This book, no exaggeration, saved my life. Long story, but it spoke its message so loud and clear that I finally got up off my knees, walked through my wall of fear, and made earth shattering, life changing decisions. I acted.

    Because I acted:
    I quit my dead-end existence in one city following divorce, and moved to a new city to start a new life. I had no job or apartment, but I had my dream. People thought I was nuts. In three weeks following my move, I had a job and an apartment.
    Because I moved to Atlanta, other doors God had prepared for me opened wide:
    I started my own business.
    I met a photographer, who took my picture, which led to more pictures, which led to becoming a model, which led to being photographed by one of the best fashion photogs in the business, which led to success in Miami.
    I made North Point Community Church my church home, and because of that, my dream of traveling somewhere that required a passport became travel with a higher purpose when I embarked on my first mission trip to the war-torn country of Bosnia-Herzegovina, through NPM and GlobalX.

    Remember that photographer I met that took that first picture? He went on that mission trip too. And on the wall surrounding the ancient city of Dubrovnik, Croatia, I said I would marry him. He is not perfect, nor am I, but he is my dream husband because he loves me unconditionally.

    You can read the prequel here:

    Stand up. Take a deep breath. Walk through the wall of fear.

    1. Yes, I concur with Jeff, what a story. I will head down to your site and read more about it.

      And to you Jeff, great post and very valuable insights.
      I have a little post-it on my computer that says: “Now go do what your heart sings”.

      Thanks and In’La Kesh

  19. Jeff, this is one of THE best posts I’ve read in a long, long time…not just from you, but from anyone.  It is so encouraging and in-your-face challenging at the same time.  From one who has from time-to-time suffered from analysis paralysis, thanks for such a well-written passionate reminder of how short life is and how great it is to get to do what we’re meant to do while we’re here.  Blessings, Jeff!

  20. Whooaa… way to dish out the tough love, Jeff!

    Seriously, though.. very well said.  Simple advice is the best advice and it’s as simple as starting and getting your hands a little dirty.

  21. Jeff, if ever there was a time I chose right to read my email newsletter and not delete it, this is the time.  Are you inside my head?  I’m going to copy and paste your article so I can keep it handy.  As my son said to me about writing, “If not now, when?”  Same concept.  Thanks.

  22. I really needed to read something like this right about now in my life. There is so much that I want to do and yet I keep limiting myself. I think it’s time to make some changes!

  23. Great tip…the transition from “what if?” to “let’s…”

    This is really helpful to me as I’ve been making change in my life.  It’s a great reminder that transformation is a process and not a one-time event.

  24. Thanks for writing this Jeff! Exactly the kick/push I needed as i’m pursuing this dream of being a professional photographer & writing along with that. Thanks again!

  25. AMEN!!  This is such a great way to live!  I’ve always had trouble thinking in terms of ‘if I’ and really preferred ‘when I’ . . . it really helps working towards goals and actually meeting them.

  26. “Nobody gets changed by an ideal. Nothing gets shaken by a bunch of dreams.” – That was awesome!

    It’s when dreams begin to enter the realm of reality that ruckus begins.

  27. For many years I “enjoyed” the writing component of my jobs and assisted people with CVs and other personal writing projects.  It was only this year I moved from dreaming of writing to blogging consistently and have now had a book placed upon my heart. It’s much easier talking rather than doing but it sures is significantly more exciting to be operating in my area of passion. It is, though, still very much a daily decision.  

  28. Thank you for this.  Its like we live in a culture of people waiting for something to happen.  This is exactly what I have been changing in my life the past month or two and reading this reminds me I know I’m doing the right thing.

  29. I was right there as a dreamer a few years ago when it came to writing. I would always tell people that I wanted to write (among other things) and they would always look at me very impressed and asked if I’ve written anything lately. I, of course, hadn’t. Moving from the perfect dream to the messy reality of seeking that dream makes was a hard step to make, but a necessary one. I’m still very much so in the messiness, but at least things are moving forward. Thanks for the encouraging and prodding words!

  30. A few weeks back my husband gave me a terrific compliment.  It went something like this…”Elizabeth, you have no fear in your dreams.   Regardless of your experience, education, you just do it, you try it and you turn it into your reality.  You could apply for a job you know nothing about, and probably get the job because YOU believer you can do it and if it’s your passions it is as good as going to happen.”  My husband blessed my socks off.

  31. This made a great deal of sense and put things into stark relief. The idea of self-determinism is admirable but I also think that eventually you need someone else to believe that your dream can become a reality too. That can be a partner, investor, family member, whatever.

    Single-minded pursuit of your dreams can easily lead to bloody-mindedness if it isn’t realised with pragmatism and diplomacy in mind, IMHO.

    I also know that I have often been too impulsive in trying to make my dreams a reality, and not been patient and methodical. I’m sure a lot of young people could relate (and people who remember being young!). Sometimes reality seems to stand in the way of your dreams, or you can’t see how your dreams could take root in the world we live in. Sometimes we take arms against the “you can’ts” or “you won’ts” we may hear, and end up acting more in defiance of those things than we do just going about our work in order to respond to those sentiments with a timely “I just did”.


  32. Wow i love the way you write!
      I tend to daydream all the time!! sometimes I prefer to stay home creating new stories on my head rather than going out with my friends ,it freaks me out , I´m 18 and I hope someday i can write someday a novel.

  33. spot on my friend! Daydreams feel safer than doing. If we don’t try- it feels like we have not failed – however in the not doing we have already failed. This is my daily wrestling match. Thanks for the words to being me back to the mat – and keep at it!

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