A friend with unrealistic dreams, what to do?
March 22, 2009 10:34 AM   Subscribe

How do you tell a friend that their dreams aren't realistic?

I know it's not GROOVY to be a PARTY POOPER and tell someone not to pursue their dreams. I usually tell people to do so and to work hard at it and I really mean it. But in THIS CASE, for a certain friend, I just can't get myself to do it!

I have a good ol 'mate who (after getting laid off recently from their job) is considering pursuing a childhood dream -- a field of study/work that is VERY difficult. I love this person as a good friend, but trying to be objective as possible, I just can't see that person succeeding in that field. It's a very difficult and competitive field that requires a lot of hard work, with TONS of thinking, planning, creativeness, conceptualizing, mathematics skills, etc. Problem is I'm always finding that person lacking in these very things VERY VERY MUCH and VERY VERY OFTEN!!!

This person is DEFINITELY a nice person and the last thing I want for that person is to put down a lot of resources into pursuing this dream only to fail. (Also! It's not the first time something like this has happened but in regards to other things unrelated to this and often much smaller scale. As in, having unrealistic goals, hopes, or expectations.). But really, I don't think this person has what it takes to do what they want!

I don't know how to approach this situation! I want to voice my opinion but don't want to sound like a complete assmeister because this is a childhood dream for the person and they seem to be seriously considering pursuing that dream (even though it seems they lack the qualities required to be moderately competent in that field).

posted by anonymous to Human Relations (54 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
Back off. Nothing you'll say will help do anything but end the friendship.
posted by ellF at 10:36 AM on March 22, 2009 [15 favorites]

They will find out for themselves. It's fine to think what you're thinking, but telling them anything even close to what you've said here would be a bad idea. Be as supportive as you can, and be there for them if you do turn out to be right. But you might be wrong, too.
posted by heavenstobetsy at 10:42 AM on March 22, 2009

What is more important to you - being right or saving the friendship?

If you're dead set on speaking out, put it in terms of how much effort/experience/money/whatever is required, and is the other person really sure they have access to those things?

That said, there are two times in life when you should give advice. When it's life or death, and when it's asked for.
posted by Solomon at 10:42 AM on March 22, 2009

I'm old enough to have witness my friend, who was a huge bundle of distraction and chronic pot smoker, become an engineer. My brother, who has failed grades and was always tagged as the "artist" in the family, is now graduation university with honours and about to pursue a law degree.

Think of this as an opportunity for your friend to either gain the skills you think he's lacking, or at least become aware of them. Let it be.
posted by furtive at 10:43 AM on March 22, 2009 [4 favorites]

Sometimes you have to try and fail.
posted by mail at 10:45 AM on March 22, 2009 [3 favorites]

Sounds to me that you fear their (potential) success, or are jealous of their nerve to try something very, very hard. Say nothing.
posted by nitsuj at 10:48 AM on March 22, 2009 [4 favorites]

Back off. It's not your life and it's not your business. Your business is to be supportive.
posted by gt2 at 10:52 AM on March 22, 2009

Your job is to be supportive and helpful, not to try to crush your friend's dreams. Help, or get out of the way.
posted by LastOfHisKind at 10:55 AM on March 22, 2009

Part of life is actually pursuing the dream, regardless if one realizes it. Why would you want to discourage someone on their journey?
posted by iamkimiam at 10:56 AM on March 22, 2009 [6 favorites]

Just be there for them if they don't make it. It's the only way to not be an ass (believe me, been there...done that.)
posted by Green Eyed Monster at 10:57 AM on March 22, 2009

I wouldn't negate their dream. But I might suggest saying something along the lines of, "being a rocket scientist for NASA is awesome and all, but you know what else is also awesome, and a major step towards that bigger dream? Becoming an engineer!" You know, suggesting something in line with their bigger goal that is more achievable, and a step towards what they want. Not as an "either/or" but as a "yes-- AND."

But I agree with everyone else in saying, don't tell your friend they can't achieve their heart's desire, because that's not what friends do. The rest of the cold cruel world will be more than happy to laugh in your friend's face, but you're supposed to be their ally. But that doesn't mean you have to lie and say you think it's a great idea. Be supportive in the best way you can be, even if that just means keeping your mouth shut.
posted by np312 at 10:59 AM on March 22, 2009 [1 favorite]

You seem to think you are already much more intelligent than this friend. Perhaps it is time to see if you can be more supportive as well.
posted by YoBananaBoy at 11:01 AM on March 22, 2009 [2 favorites]

A man's dreams are an index to his greatness.
- Zadok Rabinwitz
posted by watercarrier at 11:02 AM on March 22, 2009 [4 favorites]

How do you tell a friend that their dreams aren't realistic?

That's what life is for. Their failures are not your business and don't reflect on you.
posted by Ironmouth at 11:05 AM on March 22, 2009 [1 favorite]

If it's a planning or creativeness or conceptualizing problem, sometimes people have abilities to plan and be creative and conceptualize in different areas.

Mathematics is learnable.

Thinking? Well, you know what they say about 15% of every group of people.

I'd couch it in terms of 'if you want to do this thing, you've got to do these things'. Give them constructive advice and tell them what they're going to need to do without giving them your opinion.

e.g. If they want to be an engineer, which I'm assuming they want to do considering thinking, planning, creativeness, conceptualizing, and mathematics skills are required in this, I'd tell them:

1) You've got to study a lot and be self-disciplined.
2) You've got to be able to plan and solve problems creatively.
3) You've got to be able to conceptualize in your preferred medium, whether it's AutoCAD or an electronics assembly or a chemical system.
4) You need to know more math than just calculus.
5) You need to know how to buckle down and get things done.
posted by kldickson at 11:05 AM on March 22, 2009

I dunno… I'm going to give anon. the benefit of the doubt and assume their concerns aren't somehow selfishly motivated—otherwise why care in the first place?

To answer the q.: I think your primary concern should be with your friend's happiness. If you're afraid that, in the pursuit of accomplishing their dreams, your friend might somehow hurt themselves (financially, for instance, or physically) then I think it is your responsibility to tell them, "feelings" be damned.

But otherwise? Yeah, what everyone else said.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 11:15 AM on March 22, 2009

Seconding kidickson somewhat, but I'd word it more something like, "Okay, this dream you have requires you to be very good at _____. I'd be happy to help you with _____." That way it's less like "Here are these things standing in the way of your dream" and more "How can I help you address the challenges your dream poses?" In my mind, that's the best way to support a friend with ambitious dreams.

If you really do feel that this is a mistake, what I would do is avoid providing significant resource support. For example, if you think s/he will fail, don't lend money or spend significant amounts of time doing things that are counterproductive to your friendship.

And above all, do not do any of their work for them. They should own the failure or the success of this endeavor. You are there for support, advice, and insight, not to be the engine that drags them along.
posted by Deathalicious at 11:17 AM on March 22, 2009

Yeah, we have our parents to tell us to play it safe and constantly underestimate us. Our friends, at least usually, know that they don't know us and what we might be capable of.
posted by amtho at 11:18 AM on March 22, 2009

You think his goal is unrealistic? Well, then you don't need to discourage him — just expose him to reality.

Push him to take a class in DREAM SUBJECT — one where he'll have to plan and create and do the math to get an A. If classes aren't an option, push him to do an internship or some volunteer work or something in the field. If he doesn't have what it takes, he'll figure it out for himself pretty damn quick. And who knows, maybe he'll surprise you and rise to the challenge. Either way, he'll have a real sense of the work involved, and it won't just be an idle fantasy anymore, which is what it sounds like you're aiming for here.
posted by nebulawindphone at 11:19 AM on March 22, 2009


even though it seems they lack the qualities required to be moderately competent in that field

So what if they suck at their job? Think of it this way: in every profession, there are going to be some people who are in the top 20% of their profession, and others who are in the bottom 20%. If they are in the bottom 20% but love what they are doing, that's way better than being in a career that they don't like.
posted by Deathalicious at 11:19 AM on March 22, 2009 [3 favorites]

Given the hyper way your question is written, I'm going to assume you are fairly young, and that your friend is too. Your friend may yet locate hidden reserves of concentration and seriousness that you had no idea were there. If not, they will realize it soon enough and abandon their dreams. Don't rush them.
posted by CunningLinguist at 11:23 AM on March 22, 2009 [2 favorites]

Sometimes it really is necessary for people to find things out for themselves through experience. I have a friend like this. He'll get an idea in his head. I'll say something along the lines of, "You will need to do x in order to do this," or "How are you going to balance doing "y" and "z" in order to get the results you want?" He'll scoff at this and claim he doesn't need "x", or that he'll just give up doing "y" in order to concentrate on "z". Then he tries it. Then he comes back to me and says, "Man, I need to do"x" and it's not worth it", or "I can't do both "y" and "z", and "y" is too important to give up." It's happened over and over. I've learned that he doesn't mind being asked questions about how he'll do things, but he doesn't at all like being told he can't do them, even when I'm right. Which is probably a good universal rule of interacting with people who are planning things, either realistically or unrealistically.

So what I suggest is that you support your friend, but that you do it in a constructive and realistic way. Suppose your friend's dream is to open a "naughty bakery". Okay, so you say to your friend, "Well, you need to learn how to bake. How are you going to do that?" and "You need to rent a shop and buy equipment. How are you going to get the capital for that?" and "You'll need some kind of inspection and permit from the city. Have you arranged for that?" and "Have you come up with some really good designs for ménage à trois cookies?"

Your friend will then start thinking about how to do these things, and either do them or realize at some point that they are too much effort or impossible or whatever. Do a little research on the side yourself if you need to in order to make sure you know what you're talking about in terms of what your friend will need to do in order to succeed.

But otherwise, try not to worry about it. Your friend is presumably an adult and people have to live their own lives and make their own mistakes or successes. And, you know, you could be wrong, and you don't want to be the one who tries to stop a friend from being successful.
posted by orange swan at 11:24 AM on March 22, 2009 [3 favorites]

The path will yield many things, new dreams may overtake your friend and that may be the point.
posted by thinkpiece at 11:27 AM on March 22, 2009

So it looks like I'm gonna buck the trend here. Surprise, surprise.

Dreams are great and all, but friends do tell friends when they're about to make a mistake. "Being supportive" is not the same thing as "keeping your mouth shut." On the contrary, "Faithful are the wounds of a friend, but the kisses of an enemy are deceitful." In other words, if you are truly friends with someone, you should be able to say things to each other that hurt, because we need to hear those things a lot of the time, and if our friends can't say them, who can? How are you ever supposed to grow if no one can say hard things to you? If you know someone is truly for you, that they're on your side no matter what, you should listen to what they have to say, whether or not you like what you hear. In any event, just because someone thinks they want to do something does not mean that 1) they can, or 2) their desires should be pandered to. Sometimes you just gotta tell someone that they ain't gonna make it, and letting people down gently is a lot better for everyone than encouraging impossibilities.

Still, since hard things like this are, well, hard to hear, consider the possibility that they don't need to be said in this case. What's the worst that could happen? If it's merely a few years not really getting anywhere but not leaving them any worse off than they are now, maybe you don't need to say anything. A few years back, a good friend of mine was pretty excited about going to law school. I knew they wouldn't be a good fit and that they didn't really have the chops for it, but I also knew that I didn't really need to say anything, because their odds of getting in anywhere reasonable were pretty minimal. Sure enough, they bombed the LSAT, and that was the end of that particular dream. As the worst that could have happened was them blowing $150 on the LSAT, letting them find out the hard way was a lot easier for everyone than trying to explain that they aren't cut out for it. This friend is about to graduate from a nursing program, having done very well there, so it all worked out in the end.

If you do believe that something needs to be said, np312 is on to something towards the end of his answer. Simply saying "You don't have the chops for that" without suggesting a viable alternative is not as helpful as you probably want to be. Without knowing more details about the situation it's impossible to make concrete suggestions, but try to be positive about your friend's strengths and think about how they could emphasize those in moving forward. Not only is this kinder than simply saying they're dumb, but it makes them more likely to hear what you have to say.
posted by valkyryn at 11:27 AM on March 22, 2009 [2 favorites]

The rule my very close friends and I have:

If friend A asks friend B, in a serious manner, for their honest opinion, friend B will give a very honest (yet kind and loving) answer. Once. And then drop it.

Any other time this topic comes up, friend B will be fully supportive of friend A and, if they can't in good conscience be supportive of the plan/partner/job, they will make an even better effort to be supportive of the person and choose their words carefully as to avoid criticizing the plan.

If no one is asked for an honest opinion, honest opinion is withheld. Lies are not told ("I think that's a great idea!"), but plan is not criticized ("You're a very resourceful person, and I'm always excited to see the things you take on. What a creative idea!").

People need to find things out for themselves. Often times, playing around with one (ultimately bad) idea is the path to finding a better one. This doesn't mean that friends can't give an honest opinion, but I believe it's important to do so only when asked outright.

So, in this situation, I'd ask myself:
Is this a very close friend?
Are we sometimes brutally honest with each other?
Have they seriously asked for my honest opinion on this specific plan?

If so, state your reservations in the most loving way possible, without criticizing the person (i.e. "In my opinion, your greatest strengths lie elsewhere, strengths such as ..."). Once.

If the answer is 'no' to any of those questions, keep the criticism to yourself.
posted by neznamy at 11:42 AM on March 22, 2009 [11 favorites]

The only way to demolish someone's dreams (And lets be clear, that's what you're asking for here) is to put it into practice, make it real.

So lets say Bob want's be an astronaut. Get the astronaut job application and show it to him over a pint. Go over it and make a plan of action for every way he doesn't qualify. Is he thin and strong enough? No, well then you're going to knock on his door every day at 6 am to go for a run. Not enough education? Well then good thing you've got the catalogs from a couple local colleges here so he can apply and register for the schooling he needs. Ah, college will take money, so lets break out the financial aid forms and fill those out. Oh, and you need to be good at communicating and working in groups, so join Toastmasters and take him to a book store and find him some good books on the subjects. Make up a full plan of attack on how to be successful at this dream. Set milestones, a full timeline and hold weekly progress meetings. Constantly give him little gifts like books on orbital mechanics and other things that only someone studying to be an astronaut would enjoy. Rub his nose in it, hold him accountable to his dream. Trust me, in a couple weeks he'll never mention it again.

Note: I think this is a horrible idea and a good way to loose a friend. There's a good chance that he won't abandon the dream, he'll just make damn sure to never tell you his hopes and dreams ever again. Read most of the posts above for much better ideas.
posted by Ookseer at 11:47 AM on March 22, 2009

It really all comes down to what makes you really think you know better than they do? You haven't provided any information that implies you do. So I wouldn't say anything unless asked.
posted by Silvertree at 11:55 AM on March 22, 2009

Another voice saying you really don't have to tell them that their dreams, ambition, etc. are not withing grasp. No reason to kill something they want to do, and even if they don't succeed at this, they might find something else which makes them happy along the way. No reason to strike them down.
posted by kellyblah at 11:56 AM on March 22, 2009 [1 favorite]

Heh. Sounds like every single one of my friends ever. Seriously, I seem to attract these people like moths to a flame. Anyways, in my experience there's nothing you can say or do to change your friend's mind. Nothing.

What I found works best: State your opinion once or twice, calmly and without judgment, so they don't come back to you later saying "But you SAID I could do it...". And then just be supportive, it's their dream and as a friend you should help them out. If they fail, well, that's life. If they succeed, awesome! Take them out for a few drinks and apologize for ever doubting them.
posted by wsp at 11:58 AM on March 22, 2009 [1 favorite]

If your opinion is not solicited, say nothing. Not your job. Once this person takes some first concrete steps to said dream, there will be plenty of admissions officers, teachers, employers, will be more than happy to do the Straight Talk bit.

On the optimists' side - If this person is recently laid off, well, in this economy, he she they have the perfect storm of time on his her their hands and the mind concentrating effect of imminent economic execution. Plenty of surprising talents in people who get a chance to do what they think they would love.

Then there's the "Better to have lived and loved" line. Maybe he she they blow it, but at least he she they will not look back in forty years and regret not having tried.

Finally, if he she it fails, so what? Tell him her them move to America, assuming he she they are not already here. Patton notwithstanding, Americans don't care about a failure or two. We admire enthusiasm, which this person seems to have.

(How clueless and delusional is the person? And how old? And what is the field? Not that it matters, I'm just rudely curious.)
posted by IndigoJones at 12:20 PM on March 22, 2009

I'm just wondering what makes you so certain that they will fail. You can't know what this person is really capable of, no matter how well you think you know them. I'd suggest keeping your mouth shut and growing up a little. Real friends don't shit on each other's dreams just because they can.
posted by balls at 12:38 PM on March 22, 2009 [1 favorite]

neznamy put into words the way it works in my friends circle as well. Unless you're asked a direct question ("do you really think I should put a lot of time into become a neurologist? am I just being crazy to think this will work out?"), just be supportive.
posted by salvia at 12:39 PM on March 22, 2009

there's not really a need to tell them that you've determined that their dreams are unrealistic.

As a datapoint: long ago a friend informed me that enrolling in a technical program involving math, physics etc, was a bad idea for me because i would need to be organized, think logically, already be good at math etc. all traits that I seemed not to have.
I'm so glad I did not heed this advice as I became an excellent student, got a useful degree and worked for years in a really interesting field. Along the way, I discovered an area even more interesting , got a second degree (CS) and continued along doing something challenging, creative and rewarding.
I'd never have been positioned to do any of it were it not for the pursuit of my initial interest (however unsuitable this course of action would appear to anyone but me)

Support the dream!
posted by The_Auditor at 12:44 PM on March 22, 2009 [1 favorite]

Listen --- you don't have enough information to determine whether your friend has what it takes to be successful in a given field.

I have looked down on people before --- thinking they were mediocre at best --- and then they pursued some elevated area of study or work (foolishly, I thought), and what do you know, something in them clicked, and their lives "took off," and they succeeded, to my astonishment.

Often, it is the people who objectively seem least equipped to succeed in a field, who find an opening and a niche because they are less threatening to the gatekeepers than other candidates, and oddly, the field makes a place for them.

Nobody knows who is going to be a success in any field. Don't so arrogant and foolish to think you do.
posted by jayder at 12:49 PM on March 22, 2009 [1 favorite]

In the past, I've had friends talk about pursuing wild ambitions, and I've dismissed their ideas as being silly because I thought they lacked either the drive to follow through or the talent to be successful.

More often than not, they proved me wrong.

If you feel you must discourage your friend's dreams, there's nothing wrong with phrasing it in terms of "that's a really difficult field and they only accept X amount of people, so it might be wise to have a backup plan" but certainly not "you're just not going to be able to hack it." No one wants to hear that, and anyway you don't know that for sure.

You don't say much about your own situation, anonymous, but if you've never tried (and failed at) something impractical yourself, it might be a good idea. Even when people don't make it, they often come out of the experience all the wiser.
posted by Metroid Baby at 12:51 PM on March 22, 2009

I had to chuckle a little bit on my way down the page, it truly is as if Anonymous had conjured up the spirits of Shat-upon Dreams.

Don't discourage your friends from their lofty goals...as truly spoken above, life will do that to them soon enough and without any grace.

Also, remember that when people are told they can't do something, it often spurs them to prove you wrong.
posted by Grlnxtdr at 1:29 PM on March 22, 2009 [1 favorite]

I had to chuckle a little bit on my way down the page, it truly is as if Anonymous had conjured up the spirits of Shat-upon Dreams.

Yes, people are being so harsh in this thread. I love the irony in the fact that although they claim never to offer unsolicited advice and to be such paragons of good friendship and minding their own business, they're spending a great deal of time on an advice site where advice is solicited and being very hardline and absolute about the advice they offer. If that's your idea of how to give advice, people, it's no wonder you believe in keeping your mouth shut most of the time.

I know when I undertake a new endeavour I appreciate getting informed and sensible feedback from my friends. My friends seem to appreciate it too. I do think there are things the poster can do to gently advise and inform his or her friend and ways in which she or he can help the person make good choices. It just takes tact and real concern and an informed judgment. And there is some really good advice in this thread about how to approach the matter with a friend without being all "YOU CAN'T DO IT SO DON'T EVEN TRY, YOU IDIOT" about it. Good luck, OP. Just think carefully and proceed with caution.
posted by orange swan at 1:51 PM on March 22, 2009 [1 favorite]

A) If you're right, let them figure it out for themselves.

B) You might not be right.
posted by hermitosis at 1:52 PM on March 22, 2009 [2 favorites]

If you feel you must discourage your friend's dreams, there's nothing wrong with phrasing it in terms of "that's a really difficult field and they only accept X amount of people, so it might be wise to have a backup plan"

Seconding Metroid Baby's advice. If you really feel called upon to say something, be gentle. Don't say "you can't" but rather, "this may be a long shot, what are your step-by-step plans for putting this into place?"

You do not want to humiliate your friend if he doesn't succeed by being in a position to say "I told you so!" Nor do you want to squander your credibility if your friend DOES succeed, which may be more likely than you think. People who are really motivated can succeed against surprisingly tough odds.
posted by Rosie M. Banks at 2:00 PM on March 22, 2009

I think Anon should thank the good people of AskMetaFilter for a rousing rendition of their stereotype: of course you shouldn't shit on somebody's dreams...how dare you think you're better than them...support only, never question..etc etc. I think they all missed the part where you explained that you know you ought to support people's goals, and that is what you normally do. They also ignored that you consider this person to have a history of unrealistic dreams, and don't want to see them waste resources pursuing something entirely unrealistic.

It's hard to know exactly what to say, especially without knowing what the field is, or more about their particular history of unrealistic dreams. But then, we're not here to judge the ability of your friend to do X or Y, as we have to answer in good faith that you really do know this person will be wasting their time.

So, first off, be sure that they're wasting their time, this is an absolute must. And also be sure that it's not simply a question of you not wanting them to succeed, for whatever reason.

Perhaps then you can help manage their expectations/goals: accept that they want to go into this field, but help them by finding other openings or situations in the same area that require less skill or possible waste of resources. Examples might be related occupations, or if possible, taking it up as a hobby. This way, they can still follow their dream if they are successful, but not take a hard fall when they fail.

If this isn't possible, then make them aware of what it's going to take, as per other people's suggestions. You can't change their mind, but you can at least allow them to have as much information as possible in the hope they come to their own realisation. But, as you know, if they still want to go for it, you've got to support them as a friend would. Though maybe being recently laid off is a good as opportunity as any to pursue this dream even if it is unworkable? At least this way their not losing anything but a few months unemployment.

PS I think you're a good friend. You're looking out for them, and I think you have their best interests at heart.
posted by Sova at 2:10 PM on March 22, 2009 [2 favorites]

A person who believes they can do something they cannot because they haven't though through what is really necessary can be gently exposed to the facts ("are you worried about all the math you will have to learn to become an engineer? I remember how frustrating you found it to have to repeat basic algebra five times"). A person who is genuinely deluded about their abilities ("hey, I may be pushing 40, overweight, and honestly I've never been particularly athletic... but I know I'll pitch in the major leagues because I've got SO MUCH HEART!") is probably immune to your realism. Feel free to introduce the former, gently, but as others are saying, shooting higher than one's apparent level isn't necessarily a bad thing, and one may very well, in the exploration of something one is very much attracted to but incapable of, discover the kernel of a more apt calling.
posted by nanojath at 2:19 PM on March 22, 2009

I'm totally with you about being realistic about what you can do and wanting to stop a friend from investing too much $ and time into something that might not work. HOWEVER, saying that to them straight out will result in (probably) losing the friendship. So as others said it, try saying "this sounds like it would make you happy, and should be worth all the hard work." Don't ever show your friend that you're feeling negative about it all, otherwise the friend won't ever open up to you about it. But if you come off as supportive and you can have regular conversations with the friend about it all, then this is your chance to ask in detail about how (s)he is going to learn A, practice B, get in touch with C, if (s)he thinks (s)he'll be good at D, etc etc. Try to suggest that the friend doesn't quit the current job, doesn't put all his/her eggs in one basket (if this applies at all). Offer suggestions and your help, but the more you have these conversations the more the friend might be able to see that (s)he is over his/her head with this. And then be there for the friend if they fail. Or, with your pointing out everything that needs to be done your friend might actually approach this the right way actually succeed.
posted by KateHasQuestions at 3:03 PM on March 22, 2009

The worst that can happen is they will fail. The best that can happen is they won't fail, and that's pretty awesome. And honestly, sometimes people surprise you. Someone who tries very hard can often get further than you'd initially give them credit for. Even people who have a habit of flitting from thing to thing and failing sometimes land on something good. You can't predict the future. Even if your friend wants to be a rocket scientist and they're terrible at math right now, they might find a better teacher or method that works for them and take off from there. Even if your friend seems disorganized and uncreative right now, they might be very organized and creative when motivated by something they care about.

So whenever my friends tell me they want to try something that seems outside the realm of their particular talents, I'm encouraging. If they aren't cut out for it, they will find that out on their own, and the lessons they will have learned will be helpful. A far worse thing, I think, is to tell someone you don't believe they can do something. In either case they might not succeed, but when you tell them they can't, they might not even try, they might not learn anything, and they will probably feel badly about themselves and wonder why they don't have more supportive friends. So I really can't imagine telling someone that they can't do something.

In short, if one of your friends wants to do something difficult, be happy for them and supportive of them. That doesn't mean go lending them money for things that will possibly go poorly, but you should try to be moral support. Instead of all these negative feelings you feel when your friend talks about these things, you could try stopping and thinking, "Why not? If they put in the work, why couldn't they do it?"
posted by Nattie at 3:05 PM on March 22, 2009

Stay engaged enough to keep him from doing something which physically harms him or from getting scammed by someone exploiting an unrealistic expectation. (Although I can't think of many people who would exploit a wannabe mathematician the way one might exploit a wannabe athlete or artist.)

All of this assumes he doesn't have family responsibilities. The ethical burden that falls on you if he has family responsibilities are more complicated...
posted by MattD at 4:09 PM on March 22, 2009

Wow, I think you are getting a bit of undeserved vitriol in this thread. I don't think you are threatened by your friend's possible future success. I can understand wanting to help shield them from some repercussions.

Let's pretend that they came up to you yesterday and said, "Anon, I'm following my true calling! I'm going to be an architect and one day, mark my words, I will build a skyscraper!"

Your job, as a friend, is to say something like, "Wow! An architect! I know that you have been into architecture since forever! That's great!"

If they bring it up to you again (and it's possible that they have changed their mind, who knows?), you can be enthusiastic and interested and ask some questions that may help them realize what kind of work will be necessary to be successful. For the aforementioned example, you could say "so have you looked into any schools yet?" or "Do you think you can use any of your undergrad calculus classes?".

If it's not something that requires school and rather more of a go-getter attitude, ask them some things about how they're preparing to start out. Always ask in a curious tone rather than a judgmental one.

And if they do get off the ground with their plan, it would be very nice of you to help every so often. If they're struggling with schoolwork, offer to quiz them, for example. Don't ever let on that you think they'll never achieve their dreams - they'll learn one way or another soon enough.
posted by amicamentis at 4:17 PM on March 22, 2009

I just can't see that person succeeding in that field. It's a very difficult and competitive field that requires a lot of hard work, with TONS of thinking, planning, creativeness, conceptualizing, mathematics skills, etc. Problem is I'm always finding that person lacking in these very things VERY VERY MUCH and VERY VERY OFTEN!!!

Good thing for your friend that you are VERY VERY unable to predict his/her future!!!
posted by sickinthehead at 4:31 PM on March 22, 2009

Your friend will probably only be discouraged if it is obvious that he has failed. If your fear is that this may happen very late in the game at great cost to your friend, you can help by asking your friend to set up some near term goals. Your over-confident friend will enthusiastically come up with ambitious goals, and then (if you are right) would fail to reach those goals. You can then point this out to your friend, which then *may* lead to him to drop his plans earlier than he would have done otherwise. I doubt you can do any more than this.
posted by Hediot at 4:59 PM on March 22, 2009

I can very much relate to this feeling. I've been on both sides.

First, keep this principle in mind: If you have dreams and passions and don't pursue them, you will always regret it. So, knowing that, it's better for your friend to fail—and fail hard—pursuing his dreams, rather than have the kind of regret that pops up later in mid-life crises.

Second, try to give charitable criticism. Instead of telling your friend your perspective, try to walk with him through the process of thinking. Don't ask him questions that are leading, like, "So, did you make a plan yet? hmmm?" Instead try to think of questions that you would ask if you were his fan. "So what are you up to next?" You know, actually be curious.

Be open to a 50-50 chance that he could reveal something about where he's going that you just didn't have any idea about.

That's what it means to be charitable. And charitable friends are ones everybody should have. And through the process of talking it out and having a soundboard, there's theoretically a 50% chance he'll see the error of his ways anyway, and reform. But more often than not, if done right, you'll maybe help him refine his goals a little and your opinion of him will change a lot.
posted by philosophistry at 5:03 PM on March 22, 2009

It depends on how unrealistic the dream is AND how blockheaded/easily offended your friend is. Most people who don't have the chops will flake out somewhere around step A, B, or C and stop on their own without you having to be the Dream Killer.

Then again, I have a friend that for the last 10 years has been trying to get admitted into something that she does not, at all, have the qualifications for. Hers are middling and she would have to have beyond stellar to get in. She could try to go into an easier field, but nooooo, the whole point for her is the prestige and bragging rights. She is also very blockheaded about letting go of things and isn't going to listen to me if I point out that uh, you've been trying this for 10 years now and no dice. Frankly, she's not going to hear it (or learn the hard way, apparently) if she's continuing to ignore logic, it's a waste of my time to tell her, and if she wants to waste her time and money trying again for year 11, well, that's her decision.

So, bottom line: I wouldn't really bother unless (a) they specifically ask you and then you can point out why it would be hard, and (b) they are the sort who would listen to someone else's opinion. Generally speaking, this is one of those "learn the hard way" areas of life.
posted by jenfullmoon at 5:47 PM on March 22, 2009

I'd been following this thread throughout the afternoon, and didn't think I had anything to add, but I just remembered something that might be relevant to your situation. A friend of mine suddenly decided to pursue a grad program and career far more ambitious than her undergrad studies. I had serious doubts about her ability to follow and complete her new plans, so did a mutual friend of ours. The mutual friend started asking this girl "You know [the hard grad program] is hard, right? Have you really thought this through?" and similar questions that, while technically only practical questions, translated roughly as "Uh, you know you're not smart enough for this, right?" In truth, I had the same thoughts, but decided to hold my tongue (having learned my lesson RE: un-asked-for advice a few time over through mistakes my friends have graciously forgiven me for). My friend never asked me directly if I thought it was a good idea, so I never volunteered that I thought it wasn't. Ultimately, my friend wasn't admitted to the grad program and decided to make new career plans. She rebounded fine and is in a grad program she loves, we're still friends. There was lasting damage to her relationship with our mutual friend, though, because of that friend's insistence that she knew better than my friend whether or not she was smart enough for her intended career--and, more bluntly, it really hurts to be called stupid by a friend.

All that's by way of saying, the comments saying life and time will show this friend of yours whether or not s/he is capable of succeeding in this ambitious career are correct. I know how hard it is to see someone do something when you think you know better, and you think you can spare them some wasted time/effort/money by just opening their eyes to the fact that they're mistaken. It's really hard. It makes you cringe every time the person says "When I'm a neurosurgeon..." but you just have to cringe and wait until they actually ask you for advice.
posted by Meg_Murry at 7:56 PM on March 22, 2009

With determination, people are capable of doing all sorts of things. No matter how well you think you know this friend, there is a lot you do not know. Keep your opinion to yourself. Instilling doubt will only help ensure he or she is unable to attain his or her desires. It can't hurt to help suggest plausible plan Bs and Cs, but really, don't do this. I've had friends do it to me, and I always end up resenting and hating them. It does more harm than good.
posted by faeuboulanger at 9:44 PM on March 22, 2009

Once a friend of a friend was trying to help me find a job. "What do you want to do?" he asked.

"I'd like to do something involving writing," I said.

"Yes, but what do you really want to do?" he asked. "I mean realistically."

I ended up taking a sales job that I held for exactly one week -- and I took it because people kept telling me I couldn't do what I wanted. My next job? Writer. Job after that? Writer. You get the idea.

That's all I'm saying.

Also: Consider that if you think you're being an assmeister, maybe there is no way to say what you're thinking without becoming an actual assmeister.
posted by brina at 10:49 PM on March 22, 2009 [1 favorite]

Feels at least hard to address this seriously without more information. Are we talking about a formidable challenge, something more one-in-a-zillion or something worrisome along the lines of someone with no racing experience declaring that they will win the Indy 500 in two years?

Also, no guess about the person's finances/income any amount of (financial) responsibility for/commitment to other people s/he has and how pursuing the dream would impact that.

Also don't know if there is some history of caring candor among you two, one or both ways.

Assuming it's not a ludicrous dream with ruinous potential, I like the thoughts about being a friend and talking to the person about it from a genuinely interested, supportive perspective, maybe get the person a book with insights about how to forge a path in their desired direction.
posted by ambient2 at 11:02 PM on March 22, 2009

1. Be really, really tactful about their big, wild dream.

2. Figure out the babystep action they could take, with a lower investment, that you CAN be wildly supportive about them doing, and that would also give the both of you a realistic gauge about whether they can succeed in this. They want to quit their job and become an artist, despite no practical experience, aesthetic talent? Become wildly enthusiastic about them taking group art classes while working, and then selling some work while working. Best case scenario?
They surprise you, and kick ass!

3. If they aren't taking a babystep, and about to just blow a large initial investment on a plan you don't think would work. Try harder to find that babystep, and encourage them to take it.

There have been studies showing, that until you achieve a limited degree of competency in a field, you don't have enough compentency or experience to realise that you are really bad at it. People incompetent in particular areas, usually think they are average, or even really good!

See the Dunning-Kruger effect- the theory goes:
1. Incompetent individuals tend to overestimate their own level of skill.
2. Incompetent individuals fail to recognize genuine skill in others.
3. Incompetent individuals fail to recognize the extremity of their inadequacy.
4. If they can be trained to substantially improve their own skill level, these individuals can recognize and acknowledge their own previous lack of skill.

You want to help your friend achieve objective 4. Encourage them to explore their interest and skill level, including experiencing realistic comparison with others.

Good luck!
posted by Elysum at 6:13 PM on March 24, 2009

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