The Problem With Following Your Dreams


It’s everywhere. In books. At the end of commencement speeches. On posters in classrooms. In the acceptance speeches for winners of Oscars and Grammys and Golden Globes. Always saying the same thing.

Follow your dreams.

It’s become commonplace for us to hear this phrase. It’s almost become meaningless. It’s become something you sometimes don’t even hear or mentally process. Like when you say hello to someone and they say, “Hi, how are you?” and you just nod back and don’t respond. You’re not even thinking about the fact that they’re literally asking a question – how are you doing? You’re just acknowledging that it’s a typical greeting and a common phrase heard in your everyday life.

Follow your dreams is the same thing. It’s well-meaning, intended to be inspiring and encouraging and heartening. But oftentimes, we don’t hear that. To us, follow your dreams just seems like a cute, admirable phrase. But something that’s way too scary and intimidating to actually do in real life.

We’ve become numb to hearing people tell us to pursue our dreams. Explore our passions. Follow our instincts. It’s our form of self-preservation, because stepping outside the well-drawn lines and borders that have been created for us is frightening. Refusing to show up to a stale, mindless 9-5 job every day would be freeing. But it would also be incredibly scary and pressure-filled, because no one would be there to tell us where to go and what to do and how to do it.

But possibly the most overwhelming part of following your dreams is knowing that everyone else is following you while you do it. Basically your every move is documented. Everyone knows what you’re doing. Everybody knows when you’ve done something good, but everyone also knows when you’ve failed or screwed up.

Following your dreams is not like it was thirty or twenty or even ten years ago, when you just made the decision and then went for it, only having to worry about the opinions of your family and friends and those in your social circle with whom you maintained regular contact. They were the only ones who knew what was going on with you. They were the only ones who knew when you failed or messed up, or even just when your life was mediocre.

But now it feels like everyone knows. Everybody has access to everyone. You can pull out your phone and within twenty seconds can form a fairly good idea about someone  you’ve never met before.

The problem with following your dreams today is that the risk seems so much bigger. Moving away from the norm and choosing to pursue your passions involves making some difficult and scary choices. And if something goes wrong or it doesn’t work out, it feels like you have so many more people to face besides yourself. The worst part is that they’re invisible. They blend together and you just see them as dozens or hundreds of faceless people, while you sit there fretting over what they think of you and how you appear to them. It’s like looking into a crowd but not focusing on one single face – just seeing hundreds of tiny, indistinguishable faces, silently making decisions about the person that you are.

It’s hard to follow your dreams when all you can think about is everyone else following you. It’s hard to forget about those invisible faces and focus on what it is that you really want to do. But at the end of the day, I guess it’s better to be the one on stage, instead of one of the hundreds of indistinguishable faces sitting in the crowd.