There was a time when Ontario Armstrong’s dreams were as clear as the windowpane print on the pocket squares that defined his Philly-based haberdashery brand, Armstrong & Wilson.
“I had aspirations of major success," said Armstrong who cofounded Armstrong & Wilson 10 years ago. “My dream to the finish line included a multimillion-dollar men’s accessories brand and a flagship store.”
Then the pandemic hit. Travel stopped. Fabric stores closed. Factories halted production. People stopped shopping. And the department and specialty stores that carried Armstrong & Wilson — including Nordstrom — closed dozens of doors.
“Prior to COVID, I only had one journey," said Armstrong, whose ultimate goal is still retail success. "Now my vision for myself isn’t as one-dimensional as it used to be. I had to change my dream, rethink who I was. I now have a different vision for myself.”
COVID-19 didn’t just take the lives of our loved ones. It’s changed how we think about our future. We still want to live our best lives, but now many of us have to rethink our paths to getting there. Our aspirations or ultimate goals still include joy, happiness, contentment, being the best at what we do, and living a full life. But the careers, the jobs, the education, the paths we take to get there are forever changed.
For many, that’s crippling. The coronavirus has crushed our spirits as we are left wondering: Who are we now? Why should we go on? Is there anything even left to aspire to with so much uncertainty in the world?
The one thing that we can be certain of, however, is that there will be a future on the other side. And if we live to see it, we have to be prepared for it. So while our long-term goals of finding happiness will likely remain the same, it’s important that we really start working on how we get there.
The most tenacious of us have already started. Syreeta Scott, owner of the salon Duafe, still wants to be at the top of the natural hair-care game. But now her post-COVID-19 dream includes investing and developing real estate. She bought the North Philly building where her salon is housed and is committed to providing fair housing for her tenants. “My dreams for myself now include activism,” said the 45-year-old entrepreneur.
Erin Wallace, 42, still has designs on being a prodigious restaurateur. But her company, which owns Devil’s Den in South Philadelphia, is turning away from being so event-focused. Instead, her dreams include mentoring other women business owners.
And Wick Vipond, a vice president at the Philly-based advertising agency The Perception, still wants to take over the branding world. However, this 40-year-old dad’s path to happiness now includes spending more time with his kids.
“I was always very focused on operating within someone else’s rules ... I was trying to find success by playing someone’s game,” Vipond said. “But I’ve shifted perspective. I can work hard and be present. My dreams for myself reflect that now.”
The pandemic forced us all to slow down and reevaluate. And we’ve realized that our aspirations were often obtained by following someone else’s rules. Nothing illustrated this cookie-cutter idea — that we all needed the same things for ultimate happiness — more than fashion.
I covered the fashion industry for more than a dozen years. And right now, as I write this essay in yoga pants, it all seems for naught. I cringe at the industry’s overuse of the word aspirational. Too often, it was used to promote the insidious narrative that our clothing and accessories were key to helping us fulfill our personal potential. Not just our clothes: The house we lived in. The restaurants we frequented. The car we drove. These were sold as the things dreams are made of to create the lives we aspired to.
But really, what does that matter now, especially if the world as we know it is gone?
“If you are still here, you still need to dream,” said Heather Coletti, a professor of philosophy at Villanova University. “You need to have a reason to get up every morning. Basic survival doesn’t feed you. Those of us without dreams risk being physically alive, but dead inside."
So what’s the solution? We have to be willing to pivot. Detour. Give up our old dreams but and not be afraid to dream bigger. The life we aspire to depends on it.
“The people who will survive this with their ability to dream intact will be more flexible,” Coletti said. “And it’s somewhere inside that flexibility where they will be able to modify their dreams, transforming them into something new and relevant."
Sydney Grims, the director of business development at Fearless Restaurants, made a small change in her schedule to work in a friend’s stable.
“I literally rediscovered my dream of me being in the equestrian world," Grims, 29, said. “It was something I could not focus on because of my work aspirations, but this fills my tank. My therapy is being around horses."
The pivot came for Vipond early on in the pandemic, when he left his cushy position at a venerable advertising firm to join a much smaller agency.
“Life doesn’t get better by chance,” Vipond said. “It gets better by change and there is no good time for that."
As for Armstrong, he’s still rebuilding his dream career. Over the last nine months, he’s dabbled in modeling and built his social media platform.