You Can’t Have It All

Enjoy life now.“Dream big” and “work hard” are phrases often fed to kids. Kids are told if they work hard enough that their dreams will come true. They will find Mr. or Mrs. Right. They will get the dream job with the cushy salary. They’ll live the American dream.

The problem with those phrases is that they don’t match reality. Dreaming big is great and necessary, but working oneself to death is not the way to achieve those dreams. That sort of work deprives one of the joy found in life and in achieving dreams. If working hard, harder, and hardest isn’t the way to achieve dreams, though, what is?

The answer may be found in compromise and in realizing that one can’t have it all. Sacrifices have to be made to bring a dream – whatever that dream may be – to reality. Some of those sacrifices will hurt more than others. Some of them will be supported by loved ones. Some of them will not. Those compromises should not be seen as slights or failures; rather, they should be seen as a part of being human:

It’s the gravity of daily obligations and habit, the connections you have to your friends and your work, your family, your place— even the compromises that are required of you to get through this life. The compromises don’t diminish us, they humanize us—it’s the people who won’t, or who think they don’t, who end up monsters in this world. I’m not talking about dishonesty, I’m talking about having some give, sometimes letting go of things that you aren’t inclined to let go of, that you may even have attached the name of principle to, to justify your fear of bending. (Tobias Wolff, The Paris Review)

Compromise, according to this perspective, is not some atrocity. It’s a thing that makes the human being more beautiful, more grateful, and more human. It’s in the bending that the body, mind, and spirit do not break. It’s the bending, the recognition that one can’t have it all, that allows a person to experience life to the fullest.

Photo: Alex Buiter (CC BY-SA 2.0)


  1. This is a fantastic post! I talk about this all the time with my clients, the students I mentor, and my own children. I usually talk in terms of “choices” instead of “sacrifices”, but it’s basically the same point.It is impossible to have everything because everything has a price (whether it costs time, money, work, relationships, etc.), and everyone only has so much to spend. Some things require trade-offs.The key to living a fulfilled life is choosing the things that matter to YOU (and the loved ones who are part of your journey) and not the things you are “supposed” to want. Prioritzing your dreams and goals helps you choose the paths that will be most personally rewarding and to look at the paths followed by others with less envy and dissatisfaction.

    • Lauren M Hug I love your final line. It’s true – if we pursue the things we find personally rewarding, we’re less likely to become ensnared by envy and dissatisfaction.

  2. We’re lied to – flat out. My friends w/ kids, I warn them about mismanaging those expectations. I got the same ‘rainbows and kittens’ platitudes about getting good grades, school, doing a good job; mattered very little. So much more goes into ‘success’ these days. I bend so I don’t break and refuse to give into the idea that – if I watch a little TV or take a trip – I’m not working hard. You’re right about the compromises being mislabeled as failures. We’ve got odd notions of perfection or nothing, w/ no middle ground. Which factors into what we define as ‘all.’ MHO is that you can have it all – but not without compromises. You can’t have it all, not all the time; it’s a matter of degrees and taken as a whole, not just in the moment. And everyone’s mileage will vary. FWIW.