I spend an inordinate amount of time thinking about, talking about, and asking others about their life dreams. (People who follow me on Faceboook and Twitter will find this topic familiar, as that’s where I ask a lot of my questions.)
- What’s your dream job?
- What do you want to do before you die?
- If you had the ability to hit a “reset” button and change your mind at any time, what would you do?
Surprisingly, and happily so, a number of people have told me that they are already doing some ideal thing with their lives, though most of the time, they tell me they’d like to make a tweak or two, such as earn more money doing it, or quit some other obligation so they have more time to do it.
Asking these kinds of questions of course means I’m thinking about how to answer them myself.
I don’t always try to answer the question directly, but I often end up wondering:
- Why am I not doing this?
- Why are some of my friends not pursing their dreams, or even doing anything close to it?
- When will I stop this half-assed pursuit and go at the thing 100 percent?
- Why do we hold ourselves back?
Most people probably assume the answers to these questions is fear of failure.
Fear of Failure
Fear of failure is what makes us hold back, and it can manifest as anything from fear of invisibility (“I try, but my ideas or works aren’t acknowledged or accepted, which is failure”) to fear of rejection (“My work or idea is acknowledged, then evaluated, and finally actively rejected, which is failure”).
Then there’s the fear of criticism, which is again a kind of fear of failure and is similar to rejection. It’s the fear that someone will come along and destroy the illusion you’ve been living under, that what you’re doing is good—and not just qualitatively good, but good. What if someone tells you the product you’ve created is harmful, or that the ideas you’re spreading are flawed, or the food you’re feeding people is contributing to a national health problem? What if you are doing others harm and don’t even know it or realize it until someone points it out publicly?
It can also be fear of commitment. I remember being gripped by fear of commitment to my area of study all through college, despite being a gung-ho English major, and for at least the first five years after college, despite getting a job in my field. What if I had studied something else? What if I wanted to work in a different industry? Would I be compromising what I could do later if I committed too seriously and went too far down any one path now? What if I am making sacrifices now to do this thing when a few months or years from now, they will all have been for naught? What if I’m making the wrong choice?
Losing the ability to control one’s life, which is often tied up with money, is another fear that holds us back. I’d say this is particularly true in any culture where success is measured not by happiness, but by money and things we own. Fear of not having enough money is just another way of saying fear of not measuring up to those around you, or fear of public failure, fear of being seen as a failure.
Personally speaking, on a grand scale, I am notoriously conservative and risk-averse. I cling wildly to a handful of stable and reliable elements of my life, for example, full-time employment at an established organization.
My career is in publishing, and the majority of the work I’ve done has been in the technology sector, because that’s where the full-time, paying, sustainable jobs have been in the last 10 years. I’m an editor for a couple of print and online publications at a technology-focused membership organization. The kinds of things I read and occasionally write about are fairly dry. I jazz them up if I can, but it’s never a shock to anyone when they learn that my heart isn’t in the subject matter.
Luckily, I’ve found that the communities who read about these topics and contribute to the publications are extremely bright, insightful, and affable, so although I am not invested in the topics, I am invested in the readers.
Still, it’s more than just a job. It’s predictable income, health insurance, a 9-to-5weekday routine, predictable time off allowances and downtime. It’s structure, certainty, and stability.
The Dream of Giving It All Up
I dream all the time about three things:
1) giving up editing to write full time,
2) remaining a full-time editor (I do love being an editor) but refusing to take any position unless it covers food, wine, and dining
3) owning a food business.
To go for that lifestyle, though, I would have to take a number of risks. I would have to temporarily give up all those security nets that come with the full-time job I have now. And if I didn’t succeed, then I wouldn’t be giving up those things temporarily, but permanently—and then, I worry, wouldn’t it be even more difficult to go back into another full-time editing position, with a two-year stretch of unsuccessful self-employment on my resume?
The thought of it sends me into a panic. My fear of not having security is what keeps me from giving it my all.
That’s not to say I do nothing. For one, I keep this blog. I started it as a means to practice writing about food more regularly. Second, I have worked as a food editor, though in a capacity and work environment that was to me unacceptable and unsustainable. In other words, I am experienced; but when I had to change jobs, I valued having a full-time job and all the security that comes with it as a higher priority than having a food-related one. Third, I write freelance about food when I can. But it’s tough to cultivate writing assignments, see them through, and watch your own bookkeeping, while staying focused on a 40-hour-per-week job.
Identifying What You Want To Do
My mom and I were talking about these big questions not long ago, the “What do you want to do” questions, and she said that now that her children are grown, she feels like she can do whatever she wants; “But I don’t know what I want!” she said. “I can do anything in the world, and I don’t know what to do!”
Her youngest daughter, my sister, asked my mom about the path she took after she graduated from Ithaca College in the 1970s. My mom said she drove to Eugene, Oregon, because she thought she was going to study park design and planning at the university there. Then, when she drove back to the east coast, she stopped in State College, Pennsylvania, met my father, and the next thing she knew, she was married and had three kids. “I kind of thought that I was putting that other part of my life on hold. But now that the kids and marriage part is over, I feel like I could pick up where I left off.”
And yet, she doesn’t know what she wants to do.
The hardest part of any long-term plan is starting it. As much as technology and this interconnected world we live in enables us to do at any moment, I see it as tending to steer us toward the short-term achievables. Why write a conscientiously thought-out book when you can cobble together a blog in a few half-hour sessions a month? Why enroll in a matriculated degree program for photography when you can watch a couple of tutorials on YouTube, discuss lighting techniques with other photographers on a forum, and continue plodding along as an amateur-hobbyist?
This is an argument I have been thinking about in terms of learning in general, how technology is often put at the center of learning rather than being used an auxiliary component to enhance or enable it. It’s the difference between training a skill and teaching someone how to think and analyze deeply.
On the other hand, if we ask ourselves why we have the goals and dream we do, to what end, then perhaps the small, cobbled, dip-in-dip-out, technology-driven moments fulfill us. If my goal of wanting to be a full-time writer or food editor were to share with others what I know about food and how I think about it, then maybe this blog is enough. However, if my goal is to lead a life that has considered deeply and thoroughly (and daily) what our relationship to food means and why it’s worthy of such deep contemplation, then a more complete and dedicated approach is absolutely and unequivocally the route.
And again, the hardest part, after admitting what your deepest aspirations are, is starting.
Come to think of it, admitting it and thinking it through is pretty hard, too. But I for one am going to try.
What is it that I dream of doing?
a. being a real, full-time, food writer
b. traveling the world
c. owning and operating a small food business
d. living abroad again
e. writing full-length books or having a “real” journalism job centered on writing rather than editing.
Why am I so afraid to do any of these things?
a. fear of striking out on my own and leaving the defined and controlled world of working for someone else; not being accepted as someone who can do the work; not succeeding financially and thus not having the stable and reliable elements of my life to help get me through (income, health insurance, housing or a “home-base” of some kind)
b. fear of prioritizing time and money irresponsibly; fear of putting myself in dangerous situations (I have half-refused to go to about 50 percent of the world based on safety concerns); fear of commitment, as extensive travel does require tradeoffs
c. fear of ROI, meaning I fear I would have to put everything into it, and if it failed, I would have nothing left and nothing to show for it; fear of making a fool of myself; fear of leaving a the safe and established work world of someone else’s organization
d. fear of commitment: fear of having made a bad choice that I will have to live with for a set amount of time or fear of making sacrifices that I will regret; fear of giving up what I have now, which I am very happy with, and getting in return something less
e. fear that my writing is not interesting; although I am not afraid of people disagreeing with my ideas or of criticism, I am afraid of ‘invisibility” or being passed over entirely
To put it more generally,
I am afraid that I will not be in control of my life.
I am afraid that something bad will happen.
I am afraid of loss.
I am afraid of irreversible things.
I am afraid that I will never be respected for what I know or what I think.
I think the real fear that drives it all is a fear of living. I’m not about to run out and buy any self-motivational books or feel-good “Hang in there, kitty” posters. Everything I’ve ever done successfully in life has required a great deal of build up, as well as a huge amount of telling others beforehand, by way of announcing that I intend to do something; I feel motivated most when I tell others, as a sort of self-imposed fear of failure (“I’ve told them, so now I have to do it”).
So now then, where is the beginning?
Related Content: A talk given by Wine Library TV's Gary Vaynerchuk in September 2008, titled "Do What You Love."