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 to battle through time zones to keep in touch with him. Soon, despite living on different continents, they conjured up plans to ‘follow their dreams’ and 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.
Following Your Dreams Isn’t Always the Answer
We are all beaten over the head that we should always follow our dreams, always pursue 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 “lifestyle design” and “self-improvement” 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 the 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 an Audi commercial that tries to tell you that you’re being unique by buying a $39,000 car:
But it’s not just materialism. The “follow your 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 to follow 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.)
What the Hell Are You Doing with Your Life?
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 result1 – 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, even if we find our ‘dream job’.2
- 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?3,4 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.
‘Follow Your Dreams’ Comes Crashing Down
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 cognitive biases, how long distance relationships allow 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. In reality, he ignored dozens of real women directly around him to pursue a romantic phantom.
The week of the getaway came. He disappeared 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. What the hell was she doing on a beach somewhere with some guy she only met for a few hours a year ago?
She told him that she thought they should just be friends.
Obviously, my friend was disappointed. He had followed his dreams, and it didn’t work out. But by the third day, the disappointment had turned into anger—and not necessarily at her, but at reality. This woman “had everything he looks for in a woman,” and was like “no one he had met before.” And within three days, she became “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.
- Dweck, C., & Leggett, E. (1988). A Social–Cognitive Approach to Motivation and Personality. Psychological Review, 95(2), 256–273.↵
- Kenyon, G. (2016, November 25). It’s not unusual to get your dream job—And then hate it. BBC.↵
- Studies of motivation often show we are way more motivated if we are excited, joyful, or enthusiastic. See: Patrick, B. C., Hisley, J., & Kempler, T. (2000). “What’s Everybody so Excited about?”: The Effects of Teacher Enthusiasm on Student Intrinsic Motivation and Vitality. The Journal of Experimental Education, 68(3), 217–236.↵
- Intrinsic (internal) motivation has been linked with higher achievement and well-being in a number of fields. See: Ryan, RM & Deci, EL 2008, ‘A self-determination theory approach to psychotherapy: The motivational basis for effective change.’, Canadian Psychology/Psychologie canadienne, vol. 49, no. 3, pp. 186–193.↵