I read an article about a nurse who worked with the dying. Over the years she heard many last regrets, and she eventually decided to write about them.

She said the #1 complaint she heard was that people hadn't led a life true to themselves. For example, children dream of growing up to become astronauts, mountain climbers or ballerinas. But most instead wind up working on assembly lines or as checkout clerks in grocery stores.

Is there a philosophical term for this situation? For example, "Sophie's dreams of being a ballerina ended with a dead-end job in a warehouse. She never achieved her ______."

EDIT: I asked a rather confusing question. The answers have given me a lot of food for thought. In fact, I think I should have asked my question a different way.

In particular, someone pointed out that we can't all be ballerinas (or the #1 mountain climber). This might be thought of as being true to yourself in an occupational sense.

But think about all the people whose very minds appear to be "stuck in the matrix." It may be inevitable that they should wind up with a dead-end job, but most people won't even make the tiniest effort to change their lot. You might say they go through life as apathetic cowards.

  • 2
    If working in a warehouse is not "true to themselves", then to whom is it true?, If we start to introduce the concept that there is something wrong with having to adapt one's personal desires to better fit the role society requires of you, we could end up with a very selfish outlook. We can't all be astronauts, someone's got to stack the shelves.
    – Isaacson
    Aug 4 '17 at 6:33
  • True. But there's another dimension: People who aren't true to themselves in a socio-political context. For example, think of the millions of people stuck in dead-end jobs who never lift a finger to fight for something better. Many are mired in apathy, while those who claim to care seldom do their homework. Aug 4 '17 at 12:19
  • Closely related to this are the concepts of bad faith and authenticity which are well known in existentialist philosophy. Aug 4 '17 at 12:42

I would phrase it this way: "she never realised her own capacity for self-development (or self-actualisation)" ... I encountered this idea in Terry Eagleton's chapter on Marx in "The Great Philosophers", edited by Ray Monk and Frederic Raphael. In it, Eagleton describes how Marx was concerned with an idea of individual freedom in which the value of the products of her labour would not be alienated from her own enjoyment; the idea is that the value of the products of our labour should not be instrumentalised, as they are today, against some standard of contributing to the economy or society - rather, we should be free to realise our own talents, on an individual level ... to share in the profit of our own talents, as determined by us at a small scale, not at the level of contributing to the economy or society. At least, this is what I am taking away from what I read, and with the stimulus of your question


I'm not sure about the term but I think the problem here is mainly psychological, not philosophical. Cognitive Dissonance may be appropriate, where one's beliefs about themselves do not match the reality.

To elaborate a bit, dreams are easy, but achievements are hard. Any given person has the capacity to imagine themselves in any particular role, or even believe themselves to be capable of any given role, but in practice their life does have objective limits.

On the other hand, not 'living a life true to oneself' may be a bit more subtle than this. It doesn't have to be 'wanted to do [x] but ended up in [y]', but rather 'had the choice between [x] and [y] and chose [x] when I really wanted to do [y]'.

Typically, when this type of thing happens it's because a person is conforming to pre-conceived notions of what they should be doing. Not explicitly philosophical but the relevant phrase may just be: be yourself


I would consider this very closely aligned with Martin Heidegger's theory posed in "Being and Time".

"She never achieved her authentic self; Dasein."

Most people won't even make the tiniest effort to change their lot. You might say they go through life as apathetic cowards.

Heidegger would certainly agree and would argue that these people have not achieved "being" in the true sense of it.

*this answer needs expansion, and I will add later.


I read that article years ago; the main problem as I see here, is the problem of 'false consciousness', the mendacity of propaganda, as well as the economic problem, for example student debt, housing - all of which means mortgaging ones future merely to stay afloat in an inimical social, political and economic situation; if a man or a woman has to struggle merely to live, to survive, then it is not suprising that their higher hopes and dreams are suffocated, and then bequeathed to a generation behind them.

The problem then is not to attack the symptoms of the situation but it's root causes so that human flourishing can actually flourish instead of being just faked.

  • Interesting answer. I'm not sure if it really answers my question, but I uprooted it because it does offer food for thought. I definitely agree with what your comment on attacking the root cause. Aug 4 '17 at 2:21
  • @david blomstrom: I'm not sure that it is answerable in the terms that you want, simply because it's a difficult question and to ask for a philosophical concept that names it seems a little wrong-headed to me. Aug 4 '17 at 2:25
  • Thanks for the up-vote, though. Appreciated. Aug 4 '17 at 2:32

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