Don’t Follow Your Dreams

Posted on 13 September 2012

The world is full of adages that we accept because we want them to be true. Some adages, if you use them as a guide for your life, can potentially lead you astray until you are caught in a sad little corner.

The adage that concerns me the most for people in the arts is “follow your dream”.

When someone dreams of becoming the best hairdresser in their town, that’s do-able. People need haircuts. You open your own salon or you get yourself hired by one. You work hard, you constantly make efforts to improve, you keep yourself aware of what other hairdressers are doing, and eventually you become at least one of the best hairdressers in town.

When someone dreams of becoming a famous rock star, the dynamic is different. You aren’t offering anything that is concretely necessary. You practise your instrument, you learn how to express yourself, you keep yourself aware of other rock musicians doing similar material to your own, you find venues in which to perform and regularly put yourself in front of an audience.

You have to cope with intangibles such as talent, inspiration, and the current zeitgeist of your audience. You will be playing for free much of the time. You will need to luck out with a music producer or luck out in finding someone with genuine film talent who can help you find success on your own through YouTube. And even if your indie video goes viral, you will then need to understand how to manage that popularity so that it equals dollars you can keep.

It’s all a lot more work than people realise and with no guarantees.

So you get some people who say their dream is to be a rock star, when what they mean is they want to be rich, popular, and important. They may have no real love for music at all. Sometimes people say their dream is to be an author, when what they mean is they want to please their parents by doing something their parents will respect.

The problem with these sorts of dreams is that if you attain them, you don’t actually end up having a happy life. You end up being stuck doing something that will feel grueling and meaningless.

Following your dreams is not a guarantee of a happily ever after. The world is full of stories about artists who die in penniless obscurity. Most artists are going to have to look at the world more broadly than just working at their greatest passion.

You will be working at jobs that pay the rent. You will have to face questions about whether or not working at certain jobs will compromise your integrity or drain you of creative energy. These extra jobs will add to your box of experiences which can be used in creative endeavours. Nevertheless, you will have to regularly check in with yourself to make sure some part of you isn’t dying. I know, heavy stuff. Regularly check in for when certain things make you feel at ease as well, follow those experiences to your everyday work. Perhaps you feel happy after a day of successful programming. It’s not your passion, but it’s an easy way for you to put bread on the table.

Don’t follow your dreams. Follow what creates a sense of well-being within yourself.

If you have a great love of getting people to laugh for instance, always make time to tell a friend or colleague a joke every day, every week spend one night doing open mic. It’s neither useful nor appropriate to your well-being to squash these sources of personal joy. Don’t get tangled up in whether or not they are making you money. Do your best, enjoy yourself, and let it go. If fame comes, it comes, and it will be a pleasant extra gift.

It’s fine to set a goal of making a living at your art, but you will need to hold that goal lightly enough that it doesn’t drag you down when things take time.

The two regrets most people express at the end of their lives according to medical practitioners is that 1) they didn’t spend enough time with their friends and family and 2) they didn’t take more chances following their heart’s desire. To follow your heart’s desire you have to first know your heart—know it enough to treat it with kindness and respect. Your heart’s desire and your ego’s desire are two different things. “Follow your heart” is a better adage than “follow your dream”. It requires a deeper committment. It’s about caring and results in a life rich in love and experience.

Peace and kindness,


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