We are too often told to follow our dreams.
We are told this by our many idols: athletes, artists, and cultural demigods among them. I’ve been told this by two of my personal heroes. By Thoreau: Go confidently in the direction of your dreams. Live the life you have imagined; and by Bradbury: Love what you do and do what you love. Don’t listen to anyone else who tells you not to do it. You do what you want, what you love. Imagination should be the center of your life.
But my favorite of the ways I’ve been told to follow my dreams is a lecture by the late philosopher Alan Watts, the essence of which is encapsulated in his central question: What would you do if money were no object? I encourage you to read the entirety of his message, because he states concisely and elegantly what all successful dreamers try to convey.
We should follow our dreams because, inherently, the pursuit will make us happy. And if we are sufficiently passionate, sufficiently dedicated, sufficiently patient, we will attain not just success, but the best kind of success, one that is gilted by the knowledge that we did not have to sacrifice our happiness, that we did not have to spend late nights in the office, that we did, and can continue to do, something we love, something that gives us pleasure of the highest, purest form.
Ideally, a dream is nothing less than a calling––a higher calling, even––the fulfillment of which is both sufficient and necessary to validate our existence. Our dreams mean something; they are what we were born to do, what we were designed to do, what we are destined to do
So why not follow your dreams? Why not do something you love?
We’ve been told this enough times to make us believe that dreams are worth pursuing. But we don’t. Because, sooner or later, it becomes apparent that most of the world doesn’t follow their dreams. We need only take a look around us to realize that our neighbors, our classmates, our coworkers, and our friends aren’t out there chasing what they love.
Life presents us with obstacles to be sure, but it is more than the simple mundanities of everyday existence that get in our way of accomplishing our dreams. Some time ago, I read an article of The New York Times titled The Juilliard Effect: Ten Years Later. Aptly titled, the story chronicles the lives of dozens of Juilliard students ten years after their graduations, documenting their many successes and failures. The Juilliard School is a rigorous institution that accepts only top talent, with the goal of shaping that talent into world-class musicians. Is it surprising, then, that so many of its graduates, with a degree from the most prestigious music conservatory in the nation, fail their auditions, and struggle financially to a degree that forces them to sell their instruments?
This world doesn’t need as many classical musicians as Juilliard produces––there are only so many symphony orchestras, and among them only so many vacant positions. But Juilliard produces its world-class musicians regardless, because a few are destined to have extraordinary careers and become the idols who tell the rest of the world to follow their dreams. The rest will look for day jobs, possibly disillusioned, likely finding nothing close to what they’d envisioned in youth, their search harshened by the preciseness of their education. In the same way, the world doesn’t need as many dreams fulfilled as there are dreamers to dream them. The potential to fail––the inevitability of failure for all but the smallest minority––is a powerful deterrent.
I have a dream, too. My dream is to become a novelist, which, after a time, I realized is different than being a writer. Naturally, I’ve enjoyed writing since grade school, but the desire to write a novel didn’t take me until a year ago. It began with an itch, a nagging, fleeting sensation that slowly festered like an illness. Some days, I’d be cured of the feeling completely––the thought of writing absent from my mind for sometimes weeks on end. But once I made the conscious decision to write my novel, the desire became a dream, and the itch became an obsession.
I realized that, until then, I wasn’t truly passionate about anything. Of course, I had my ambitions, the attainment of which gave me elation, and the forfeit of which brought disappointment. But it’s entirely different when the thing you want becomes the only thing you value, when it becomes the reason you can stomach your own existence. It’s entirely different when you can’t tell others about your dream, because it’s too emotionally complex to put into words. It’s something else when the thought of writing keeps you awake late into the night, so that you’re diagnosed with insomnia, and when the desire to write suddenly overtakes you at various points in the day.
At the same time, I realized that dreams aren’t wonderful things. They aren’t plump, red strawberries waiting to be picked; they aren’t the light at the end of a dark tunnel leading to some magical paradise. They are elusive wisps of smoke, a flower obscured by a bed of thorns, ready to wither at the slightest disturbance. From my efforts thus far, I know that writing this novel will be a formidable task. It will be excruciating. I will struggle with writer’s block, my own deficiencies, and the general inflexibility of life. It will bleed me dry.
Those are the certainties. They are the only certainties for dreamers everywhere, for every aspiring filmmaker, for every hopeful ballet dancer, for every endeavoring scientist, for every graduate of Juilliard or wherever.
I often wonder how many people have felt as I’ve felt, only to relinquish their dreams. Sometimes, I see myself doing exactly that. There’s a logic there that’s difficult to ignore. I’m almost graduated from school. I’m about to have a day job. I have a future, even if it’s not the one that keeps me up at night.
Perhaps we aren’t supposed to follow our dreams. Perhaps that’s simply the nature of dreaming: to conceive a vision so outlandish that we couldn’t possibly convince ourselves to make it reality. And yet, we continue to dream. We need to dream. Because, no matter how infeasible they are, it is within dreams that the great works of the world reside, in the hearts and minds of the truly insane who reject reason to follow the spark.
And we get the Fifth Symphony, we get the Sistine Chapel, we get Hamlet, Moby Dick, and War and Peace.
But for every Beethoven, every Da Vinci, every Shakespeare, Melville, and Tolstoy, remember the countless others who failed, who drowned in obscurity, who perhaps lived miserable lives and died miserable deaths, only because they put everything into the pursuit of their dreams and received nothing back. Those lives, those vanquished hopes––that is the cost of a Mona Lisa, of a Ninth Symphony. That is the cost of dreaming.