The Case Against Dreams

Since graduation, people have increasingly been asking me what my dream jobs, dream companies, and dreams for the future are. Which is leading me to realize that I no longer have any. And I say that in the most optimistic way possible.

Dreams are made of ideas alone, floating in a weightless world with no bodies to bump up against them and shake them off course. So they go in straight lines, mostly just up.

But try to follow a dream in a world of matter, and things get far more twisted. You’ll hit walls and laws and ceilings, and have to recalculate your route to dodge, climb, or break them. When your ideas spill onto the scene and cause reactions, they’ll fizzle and change colors and explode, until you can barely recognize what you started with. You’ll collect dirt and leave a trail of elaborate curlicues as you spin your way into places you never planned to see.

And at some point, you’re likely to find that you and the dream have left each other’s sights. You might scan your surroundings, looking for another nearby dream to start your next game of obstacle-tag. It’s a game that can keep you moving for a lifetime, if that’s your thing.

Lately though, I’ve become more inclined to let those naked ideas float by as I turn my sights downward for inspiration, following the landscape of reality itself.

People say that dreams are about imagination, but when I listen to most of their dreams, the scope of possibilities is far more square and narrow than anything reality could devise. In those dreams, you know that the good guys win, and the girl marries the boy and stays that way, and success comes in windfalls and stays that way, and matter is different from energy and stays that way, and everything happens for a reason.

Some people get so caught up in those limited dream-worlds that their imaginations shrink to that scope. And with imaginations so narrow, they can’t envision the full range of reality, even as it stands right in front of them.

If you want your brain to buzz with things you never dreamed possible, try really exploring reality. Run your fingers into the crevices you used to step over, and trace the wrinkled pathways all the way out to the fringes. Look close at the frayed and jagged edges. (Truth be told, it’s all rather broken and messed-up, but so are most things worth spending time with. So are most things I love.) Now stand on the edges, and look at it from far away.

Once, I dreamed I could just spread my arms and fly. So I started running and jumping and falling and building to try and get up there. Until I was just running and jumping and falling and building to get somewhereSo far, that has been remarkably more interesting.

just say no

Okay, this is a bit extreme.

So You Think You Can Pull Yourself Up By Your Bootstraps? (A Physics Problem)

Pulling yourself up by the bootstraps: the much-praised method of advancement through hard work and individual determination alone–no outside help required.

But what does this actually mean physically?

These are bootstraps:


Now what happens if you grab them and pull?

Not much.

(Diagrams brought to you by whatever I remember from high school physics and preschool human figure drawing.)

Forces acting on the person-boot system:


F total = 0

What if you pull even harder?


F total=0

Nope, still not getting off the ground.

My diagrams may be kind of iffy, but I’m still pretty sure that a system at rest needs external force to move its center of mass.

Appropriately, when the “bootstraps” expression  was first used in the 1800s, it meant that a task was impossible and the person attempting it was delusional. It wasn’t until later that this image of unrealistic self-maneuvering came to symbolize a ideal, even an expectation, for escaping poverty or achieving success–as if tugging all by yourself could get you somewhere.

But what if some people seem to successfully pull themselves up by the bootstraps?

Maybe it’s because they rely on some external system that makes it possible to translate their efforts into actual movement.

stick fix

F total > 0

Or maybe they’re relying more on the efforts of others than they admit.


F total > 0

Camp Notes: Science Edition

Sometimes, actual science is cooler than what kids think:

I was with a group of 8-year-olds toward the end of the day, some of whom who were getting tired, commenting on how much time was left, and not moving quickly enough. So for some reason, I thought it was a good idea to bring in special relativity.

“Hey, did you know that if you move really fast you can warp time so that time in the outside world goes by quicker?”

“That’s not possible.”

“It’s true, but you have to go super fast, almost lightning speed.”

“You’re just making stuff up.”

“Actually, Einstein discovered it.”

“No way! I bet you don’t even know Einstein.”

In their defense, I had also recently told kids that I had fairies at my house, so maybe I’m not the most reliable source.

But I think I’m going to add “alleged creator of special relativity” to my resume.

Sometimes, actual science is way less cool than what kids think:

I was having a conversation with a 5-year-old about how there used to be more planets before scientists decided to get rid of Pluto. Several minutes later, he asks:

“How did they take down Pluto, again? They used rockets to blow it up, right?”

I had to explain that Pluto was still there, and the scientists just sat in a room and decided to reclassify it as a dwarf planet. The kid was not impressed.