The Lucky 15% – What does it take to achieve our dreams?

As someone who spends a lot of my time working as a career coach, I was interested to read a recent survey that revealed that just 15% of people achieve their childhood ambitions and get the job they always dreamed of.  

The survey revealed that more than one in ten men (14%) said they had wanted to become a footballer as a boy, with airline pilot (11%) and soldier (7%) the next most popular careers.

Twenty per cent of women questioned first chose nurse as their dream job, closely followed by teacher.

A Sign of the Times

Times change, and what is deemed cool as a career to a youngster, will reflect the society they are growing up in. Having said that, the one thing everyone polled agreed on was that the least desirable career is that of a politician so, perhaps, some things never change.

I remember, at the age of seven, being fascinated by the smart clothes and the air of professionalism that surrounded my father’s assistant. Thoroughly impressed by the air of confidence she exuded, I decided that I really wanted to be a secretary. I also remember that my father wasn’t particularly encouraging about my declared career path, assuring me (and himself) that I had plenty of time to think about it and to change my mind.

Cheerleaders or Dictators

I know some parents who see it as their role to dictate their child’s choice of career.  Sometimes it is to ensure that the youngster will end up on a path that will enable them to earn well and be financially independent (and able to look after their elderly parents in due course).  

Other times, it can be the route to fulfilling their own unrealised dreams.  

Sometimes too, let’s face it, some parents will strongly encourage their children towards a particular career because it’s perceived to be socially desirable and therefore – by a happy coincidence – a good reflection on the parents themselves.  

There is a fine balance between encouraging your child to fulfil their potential and becoming a stage mom or dad, pushing them into areas that hold no particular interest for them but are considered safe or prestigious.  

Actually listening to our children, instead of telling them what they can be, can give us clues and insights into why they have their particular dreams and thereby help them to understand what it takes to achieve them.  

There’s no quicker way to tell the difference between a real dream and a fruitless fantasy than by showing a young person, in stark detail, what’s needed in terms of work, study and training, to make it happen.

Factors for Success

So if 85% of us didn’t grow up to become what we had first dreamed of, what made the difference for the lucky 15%?  Were our dreams so unrealistic (being Superman was my cousin’s childhood dream) or were we just unlucky?  

While undertaking research for my book “Everyday Heroes: Learning from the Careers of Successful Black Professionals”, there were certain factors that became evident to me as I spoke to and interviewed professionals who have and are succeeding in their careers.  A combination of skills, attitudes and behaviour, as well as an element of luck, seems to have had everything to do with their personal journeys and eventual success.

What were some of these factors?

Determination/grit – recognising that it isn’t just about being inspired to do something, but having the courage to take action and retaining their self-belief in the face of criticism or a lack of support.

Encouragement – strong parental/family support and mentors or advisors that helped to navigate the tricky road to career success.

Role models – examples of people who had taken their desired path and understanding what they had to overcome in order to succeed.

Persistence – the strength to keep going even when it didn’t look like they were going to succeed.

Overcoming the fear of failure/ridicule – having a belief in the value of what they had set their heart on and knowing it was right for them.

Focus – staying on the path that would take them where they wanted to go and ignoring the distractions that surrounded them.

Talent – having the ability/gift/underlying skill and the type of character that made them suited to what they wanted to do.

Stamina – the ability to work as hard as necessary to achieve the dream.

Never too Late

There are examples of people who have finally achieved their childhood dreams, although it may have taken decades to get there. We read about it all the time; artists becoming successful in their forties, aspiring writers becoming successful authors in their fifties, Grandmothers achieving their goal to graduate in their seventies.

“If you can dream it, you can do it,” said Walt Disney.

It’s never too late to move into the 15% category, and if there are dreams that you have forgotten you ever had, perhaps this is the time to dust them off and revisit the possibilities.

As Mark Twain said: “The secret to getting ahead is getting started.” So, if you choose to take action, which dream could you now start to realise?

After all, even Superman took a while to realise what he was capable of doing.

By Frances Mensah Williams, the author of “Everyday Heroes – Learning from the Careers of Successful Black Professionals”. Available online from and on order through booksellers.