What happens to a dream unheard?

Harlem (1951)
by Langston Hughes

What happens to a dream deferred?

Does it dry up
like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore–
And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over–
like a syrupy sweet?

Maybe it just sags
like a heavy load.

Or does it explode?

Lately it seems everyone I know wants to be an entrepreneur. I don’t know if it’s my age or my geographical location, but everyone is talking about their business plans.

But I have yet to see an actual business plan.

One girl told me yesterday that she wants to start a nonprofit, buy an existing business, and take on a part-time job (this is in addition to her full-time job), all while finishing grad school. Oh, and she and her husband want to start a family. He, too, is either about to change jobs or start his own business, they aren’t sure which.

I’m not saying it can’t be done… I’m just wondering how much of it is bullshit.

More than likely, most people are just voicing their unfiltered dreams. Everyone has an idea for a business that would fill a need, or a charity that would cure a cause célèbre. I am currently Founder/CEO of three separate imaginary businesses, and just picked a location for a fourth. That location is in my head, which is where most of these ideas should probably stay.

I do understand the appeal of talking things through with people, and I am well aware that collaboration is a sort of human sorcery that creates ideas stronger than the sum of their parts. And I don’t mind having discussions about a friend’s ambitions, provided my input is actually welcomed and he is not just using me as an echo chamber. These businesses are rarely presented as ideas, though. They’re presented as sort of self-validation, like the person is using these imaginary enterprises to establish their own personal brand, without having done any of the actual work.

I once listened to someone spend three years telling everyone she knew that she was starting a nonprofit. I was in a nonprofit training course at the time and tried to be of assistance. She eventually gave up on those plans when she learned that nonprofits… do… not… make… profits. Nonprofit: it does exactly what it says on the tin. She hadn’t realized she would be assigned a salary. “I want to make bank,” she told me, and we never heard about the nonprofit again. I swear this actually happened. I’m not making it up.

What I always fear is, if you do this often enough, you unintentionally market yourself in a negative fashion. You’re more likely to be seen as a person who never follows through on anything. Ideas are easy, guys. They are. What’s rare is the grit and gumption to see ideas through to fruition, and that’s really all that matters.

Another friend told me, just this morning, “I only like the start of things. I should be a venture capitalist.” And I see the temptation, I really do. I would much rather be an “idea man” or a “big picture person.” But I wind up doing a lot of legwork for idea (wo)men, and usually all it does is make me lose respect for them. I get the value of learning how to actually run things, and more often than not, the people who matter–the higher-ups, the team members, the end user–are perfectly capable of seeing who is really taking care of business.

If you’re an idea man who doesn’t have the luxury of letting someone else do the legwork for you, your dream will never even leave your head. How painful that must be, for you and everyone around you. I’m reading A Raisin in the Sun for work right now, and just happened to see on my calendar that yesterday was Lorraine Hansberry’s birthday. I saw a production of the play in London about 15 years ago, but I’ve never actually read it, and there’s this interesting side note about “the rat scene” that doesn’t exist in the original text. I found the 1961 Sidney Poitier movie last night as well, but I’ll wait until I finish reading.

I used to identify with Beneatha, but I’m a little older now (and weary) so Ruth is the one that gets my sympathy. She’s married to one of these people, the ones with the dreams deferred:

RUTH (Wearily). Honey, you never say nothing new. I listen to you every day, every night and every morning, and you never say nothing new. (Shrugging) So you would rather be Mr. Arnold than be his chauffeur. So–I would rather be living in Buckingham Palace.

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