Recently, a friend of mine met a woman while on vacation in another country. They had immediate chemistry and decided to keep in touch after he left. As the months passed by, he became more and more enamored with her, telling me that he had never met a woman like this before. He said he hadn’t felt this way since he met his last serious ex. Apparently the feeling was mutual, as the woman continued battling through time zones to keep in touch with him as well. Soon, despite living on different continents, they conjured up plans to see each other again.
At one point, he went as far as to suggest to me that he’d be able to arrange his work-travel situation to where he could even live in her country a few months out of the year and make a relationship work. This was serious business — especially coming from a friend I knew to be particularly commitment-averse.
Eventually they found a solution. He had another upcoming trip overseas, and he could take the following week off at a beach town nearby and arrange to have her flown there to meet him with his frequent flyer points. She excitedly accepted. He arranged for a romantic room, massage trips at a local spa, walks on the beach, the whole nine yards. It was finally going to happen.
We are all beaten over the head that we should always pursue our dreams, always follow our passions, always turn reality into what we believe will make us happy. Most marketing and advertising is based on this. The majority of the self-help industry pushes this. And with the rise of Tim Ferriss and “lifestyle design” obsession of this generation, it has become a borderline religion.
To create and define one’s own life is viewed as some sort of salvation; to remain trapped within the confines of traditional society as some kind of hell.
But this isn’t necessarily rock hard capital-T truth. In fact, it’s largely a cultural belief. The entire modus operandi of United States was the idea that any person can achieve what they desire assuming they work hard enough. Individuality and originality have been successfully marketed to us the past century to the point of parody. We’re told that such-and-such shaving cream will make us “our own man” and that driving a mass-produced sports car is the best way to express ourselves.
Here’s a KFC commercial that uses chicken fingers to appeal to our individuality:
But it’s not just materialism. The “follow you dreams” mentality dominates our relationships as well. It’s only in the last couple centuries that romantic love has been championed as the sole prerequisite for a happy relationship.
Lonely? Just fall in love and then live happily ever after! Duh.
It’s reached the point where practically all of our pop culture is based upon the idea that romantic love is a justification for just about any neurotic behavior.
The underlying assumption behind all of this? You deserve your dreams. You owe it to yourself to pursue them at all costs. Achieve your dreams and they will finally make you happy once and for all.
Whether it’s a new career, being the best-dressed person at a party, reaching enlightenment, or realizing a tryst with a woman halfway around the planet, we’re told that we owe it to ourselves to go out and get it, and we’re some type of failure if we don’t. (Now buy this hemorrhoid cream for $19.95.)
The Purpose of Fantasy
In his book What Women Want, author Daniel Bergner interviewed hundreds women about their sex lives and sexual fantasies. I found One story in the book particularly interesting.
One young woman from New York City had had a recurring sexual fantasy for years. In the fantasy, she is in a restaurant and she goes to the bathroom. But before she can close the door, the waiter follows her in, pushes her up against the wall and fucks her aggressively from behind. In some fantasies, there’s a second waiter. In some fantasies, there are people watching and verbal threats. Regardless, the fantasy always ends with the waiter screaming with pleasure as he cums inside her.
On one of her birthdays, a group of her friends threw a little party for her at a small restaurant in Brooklyn. She was an artist, and so she hung out with what I suppose would be kind of a progressive and free-thinking crowd. A lot of her friends were gay men, including her best friend. Her best friend told her that he had gotten her a gift, but it was a surprise.
About halfway through the dinner, as the gay friend is teasing her about what her present is going to be and how she’s going to get it soon, the waiter comes up behind her and whispers in her ear, “You should go to the bathroom.” She freezes. She immediately knows what her “gift” is. The waiter is hot — exactly her type physically, exactly the type of man she fantasizes about. Her gay friend starts giggling wildly. “Well? Are you going to go or not?”
She gets up, heart pounding, and she enters the bathroom, and before she can close the door behind her, the waiter pushes it back open. He closes it and locks it behind him and looks her in the eyes. She’s speechless, terrified and excited and wet all at the same time. He grabs her and starts kissing her hard, grabbing her body. She kisses back, closing her eyes, falling back into her fantasy, unable to distinguish her mind from reality. The waiter undoes his pants and whips out his cock, it’s hard and ready.
He goes to grab her. She hesitates. She looks away and resists his pull. She can’t do it. He tries to move her again and she won’t. She says, “I can’t do this.” He looks confused. He says, “Yeah, you can.” And goes to grab her again. She says, “No, no, I have a boyfriend.” He looks at her for a moment confused. Finally he says, “Are you sure?” She says, “Yeah, I’m sure,” unlocks the bathroom and runs out.
If there’s any kind of dream or fantasy that deserves to not be pursued, it’s the rape fantasy. According to research, at least 30% of women fantasize about being raped at some point (and some put that as a low estimate.) Bergner and sex researchers suggest that one reason for the prevalence of aggressive fantasies isn’t so much the rape themselves, but rather the desire to feel a loss of control.
Losing control in reality is dangerous. Despite how arousing it may be, one could get hurt or killed. It’s only possible to lose control and stay safe within the confines of one’s own mind.
The reason not every fantasy should be pursued is because fantasies never have negative repercussions. Reality does. You’re able to feel fear and terror without ever actually being in danger. You can feel excitement and adrenaline without ever actually risking anything. You can experience the joy and pride of a great success without actually suffering through the hard work.
Sometimes wanting something is better than having it
For most of my adolescence and young adulthood, I fantasized about being a musician — a rock star, in particular. Any badass guitar song I heard, I would always close my eyes and envision myself up on stage playing it to the screams of the crowd, people absolutely losing their minds to my sweet finger-noodling. This fantasy could keep me occupied for hours on end.
The fantasizing continued up through college, even after I dropped out of music school and stopped playing seriously. But even then it was never a question of if I’d ever be up playing in front of screaming crowds, but when. I was biding my time until I could invest the effort into getting out there and making it work.
Even when I started my first online business, it was with an eye to cash in quick and then finally start my belated career as a musician. Even as recently as a year ago, I bought a guitar with half a mind to start practicing again and join a band in some of the locations I ended up living.
But despite fantasizing about this for over half of my life, the reality never came. And it took me a long time to figure out why.
I didn’t actually want it.
I’m in love with the result — the image of me on stage, people cheering, me rocking out, putting everything I have into what I’m playing — but I’m not in love with the process.
The daily drudgery of practicing, the logistics of finding a group and rehearsing, the pain of finding gigs and actually getting people to show up and give a shit. The broken strings, the blown tube amp, hauling 40 lbs of gear to and from rehearsals with no car. It’s a mountain of a dream and a mile-high climb to the top. And what it took me a long time to discover is that I don’t like to climb. I just want to imagine the top.
Our culture would tell me that I’ve somehow failed myself. Self-help would say that I either wasn’t courageous enough, determined enough or I didn’t believe in myself enough. Lifestyle designers would tell me that I gave in to my conventional role in society. I’d be told to do affirmations or join a mastermind group or something.
But the truth is far less interesting than that:
I thought I wanted something. But I didn’t. End of story.
I’ve since discovered that the rock star fantasy has less to do with actually rocking out on stage than simply feeling acknowledged and appreciated. It’s no coincidence that as my personal relationships improve dramatically, the fantasy slowly fades into the background. It’s a periodic mental indulgence now, not a driving need.
Reality is always messy
At the end of his brilliant album Antichrist Superstar, Marilyn Manson plays a loop of a spoken sentence, “When all of your wishes are granted, many of your dreams will be destroyed.” The line is repeated over and over as what was a dark and beautiful ballad devolves into a chaos of clustered samples and distorted noise.
Later, in his autobiography, Uncle Marilyn explained what that line meant and why he ended the album with it.
After achieving all of his goals — the fame, the fortune, the social critiques, the artistic statements, the rock star status — he was paradoxically the most miserable he had ever been in his life. Reality hadn’t lived up to his fantasies. There were stresses and pains he could have never imagined. Vices had taken hold. The character of those around him had changed.
In the book, he relates breaking down and crying into a pile of cocaine in the studio while recording the song. Because at the tender age of 27, he felt he had nothing else to look forward to in life. He had already achieved everything he had ever wanted. And the excess of it was destroying him.
In my own life, I’ve written about how the dream of living as a digital nomad — traveling the world and working online — has at times presented unpredictable challenges and downsides that you never get when you live in one place. Fellow nomad Benny Lewis recently wrote about similar issues in his life.
The truth is that pain, longing and frustration are just a fact of life. We believe that our dreams will solve all of our current problems without recognizing that they will simply create new variants of the same problems we experience now. Sure, these are often better problems to have. But sometimes they can be worse. And sometimes we’d be better off dealing with our shit in the present instead of pursuing some ideal in the future.
How do we know the difference? How do we know what’s worth pursuing? We don’t always. But here are two guidelines that can help:
- Fall in love with the process, not the result – If your job is drudgery now, then there’s no reason to suspect it won’t still be drudgery when you make partner or when you’re managing your own division. We live in a results-based society, and unfortunately this gets most of us (70% by some surveys) into the wrong pursuits and career paths.
- What’s motivating you? – Take a long, hard look at what’s really driving you. Is it some compensation for an unmet need? Or is it a genuine expression of enthusiasm and joy? The fact that I fantasized about being on stage in front of thousands of screaming fans and didn’t fantasize about writing or playing new songs is telling.
Does this mean you shouldn’t pursue your dreams? Is this some kind of nihilistic screed against how the world is shit and we should all waste away and nothing matters anyway?
I’m simply urging you to exert a little caution. We’ve all been bombarded with the message that if we’re not making ourselves special in some way, then we don’t matter. But as David Foster Wallace wrote at length about, some of the most heroic people in the world are those who toil silently through the monotony and boredom, who live lives of simple satisfaction and anonymous successes. And there’s nothing wrong with that.
When my friend informed me of his beach getaway plan with his foreign love interest, I strongly advised him against it. I went on about perceptual biases, how distance allows us to idealize others, about being blinded by infatuation, how it sets a terrible precedent for a relationship, and so on.
He said he understood. But he had never met a woman like her and that if he didn’t at least find out, he’d wonder “What if?” for the rest of his life.
Sounds reasonable, even admirable. And hey, I don’t really blame him. Although I wouldn’t have done the same. Because my point was that he actually hadn’t met this woman yet. The woman he had met who was “like nobody else” was a product of his fantasies and desires, not reality. What was reality were the dozens of women around him whom he was ignoring in favor of pursuing a romantic phantom.
The week of the getaway came. He disappeared online for a few days. When he resurfaced, his first message to me was, “Well, I know you’re going to say ‘I told you so,’ but…”
From his account, the first day was fine, if a bit awkward and distant. But then the weight of the stratospheric expectations crashed through on the second day. She couldn’t square the circle of their lifestyle differences, the living on two different continents. I imagine reality hit her like a slap in the face: she’s on some beach somewhere with a guy she only met for a few hours the year before. What the hell was she doing?
She told him that she thought they should just be friends.
Obviously, my friend was disappointed. But by the third day, the disappointment had turned into anger — and not necessarily at her, but at reality. This woman who “had everything he looks for in a woman,” and who was like “no one he had met before,” had within three days become “immature,” “entitled,” and “unappreciative.”
But the fact is that she had always been those things. Just as he had always been just a friend to her. They were just the last ones to find out.