When the body says... follow your dream?

Follow your dreams, live your passion, find your bliss. Those are the mantras of the new century. The blogosphere, book stores, and the internet in general are rife with people encouraging you to do what makes you happy. Life coaching has become a new profession. You won’t succeed at what doesn’t make you happy anyway, they tell us, or you will end up a hollow shell of person on your death bed at the end of a life filled with regret. Worse (or equally bad) you will make everyone around you miserable because you are bitter because you did not follow your dreams.

Everywhere you look, the follow your dream mantra dangles in front of us, tauntingly, beguilingly.

For those of us with a dream and with some (or a lot) of existential malaise, it is always floating out there as the reason why we Are. Not. Happy. But should you follow your dream?

These mantras and beliefs are particularly pertinent to writers because for the most part writing makes us happy. Unfortunately for most of us, writing is unlikely to allow you to make a living. This has always been true and remains true. Writers in the past often lived lives of quiet poverty, or had the luxury of being writers because they had family money or a supportive benefactor. For every shining success story in the writing world, there are thousands of failures.

You have no idea how much I wish plumbing was my passion or that I got blissed out writing evaluation reports or filling cavities.

To make matters worse, those telling us to follow our dreams, live our passion and find our bliss often make their living selling courses, coaching and books exhorting us to do so. Their passion is apparently to tell us to live our passion. They get paid to tell us to quit our jobs and find what makes us happy. The other group of people telling us not to give up, that failing is far worse than not to trying, are successful actors or writers who already beat the unbelievable odds and succeeded. I opened Facebook this morning to see two commencement addresses, one from Will Ferrell and one from Jim Carrey, at the top of my newsfeed telling fresh-faced students that for them not trying would have been worse than failing. You don’t have to look much further to see similar addresses from Peter Dinklage, Neil Gaiman or J.K. Rowling. They are moving speeches. I love watching them.

But these are people who have made it.

It would be interesting to see addresses from people who have failed. Are there people who are living lives of financial instability, who have sacrificed their health, relationships and security because they followed their dreams? What advice would they have… stick with dentistry, accept the ordinary, or find the sublime in waste management?

This all makes me sound like a terrible terrible cynic and killjoy. I'm not, I swear. There are plenty of people who say the suggestion that you should follow your dream is bunk and point out that the chances of making it in competitive careers like say…. writing, are low. Timothy Caulfield’s Is Gwyneth Paltrow wrong about everything? devotes entire chapters to sharing data to prove this fact. Others just share their opinion. For example, Marty Nemko, a career coach, observes in his article Why Following Your Passion is the Worst Kind of Career Advice:

Most professional actors live a life of endless cattle-call auditions, which usually result in rejection or a bit part in which you spend most rehearsal and showtime waiting.
Mightn't you prefer a career in a field less likely to have the masses fighting with you for a job and, if you get it, just waiting for you to screw up so they can take your place?

The thing is, until reading Timothy Caulfield’s book, I actually believed that you could and should follow your dreams.

Sure, I did the safe thing. I got my PhD, built a consulting career, got married to a man who could mostly support a family. But I did this just as insurance. I still believed that eventually I would follow my dreams and succeed. When I first started writing, I actually thought that I could make it as a writer. I had talent and drive. It was just a matter of time. In the first year of writing, I thought it would just be a matter of churning out a novel. When I became a seasoned wannabe writer and realized it was a bit more difficult than that, I settled in for the long haul, but still I believed that through a combination of perseverance, luck, and ability, success would happen. After all, I’d succeeded at everything I had tried before. I was a straight A+ student through much of university. I got accepted to Harvard (but foolishly declined to go). I worked from home as a consultant by choice and my consulting work roster was always full. Why wouldn’t I succeed at being a writer?

Moreover, I did have some initial successes. Traditionally published writers at conferences seemed to think I had a chance, I got an agent, my novel was read by the big four publishers in Canada. When I went indie, I got the coveted orange bestseller ribbon on Amazon. My books got good reviews, and I was accepted for Book Bub ads. I got invited to be part of the Apocalypse Weird series and was included in anthologies, including Samuel Peralta’s Future Chronicles. When I accepted the job at which I currently work, the job that takes me from my dream, I had just done a stint of writing full time for six months and my earnings from Amazon were finally consistently over $500 per month, hardly enough to live on though, but not bad. They were on the upward trajectory.

So, why did I take the job at all?

The dream had definite costs, mostly in the form of lost income, which translated into resentment from my husband that he had to bear more of the burden of earning an income. Resentment that I got to try to follow my dream and he didn’t. It also translated into an empty-ish bank account and a slowly but surely mounting line of credit—we had more than enough money to eat, buy the basics and pay the utilities, but not much after that. The job, which was originally supposed to be twelve hours a week, was my way of trying to contribute and still stay on my dream path. A way of pursuing both what I “should” do and what I “must” do as Brad Stulberg argues in his post that The Best Way to Follow your Dreams Is by Keeping Your Day Job.

Going all in on the dream also had personal costs—it was risky. If it failed would I be able to go back to my consulting career. How would I explain the strange gap in contracts? Emotionally, when you are all in on something that could so very easily fail (will likely fail if you believe Caulfield), you do feel like you are out there with your pants down. According to Nassim Nicholas Taleb in his book Antifragile, going all in on something makes you fragile, and I did feel that way for the six months that I focused exclusively on writing.

The job was my way of being antifragile.

But few people in the work world understand wanting to work only twelve hours a week so you can write science fiction, and once you prove your worth, they want you to just help out on this project, and this one, and if you say no your overall value to the organization is in question. I know that many valiant writers have and continue to fit writing in around their day jobs and I have done so for nine years, but eventually you get tired. Flash forward to a year and a bit after taking the “twelve” hour a week job and I work every day, I’m no longer on the dream path and (thanks largely to Caulfield—I am clearly far too impressionable and logical) I’m in a pitched battle with my cynicism over the possibility of the dream.

And yet as it did once before when I was in a particularly bad contract, my body is again showing signs of the strain in a chronic and challenging condition that involves considerable pain and makes it difficult to work, not to mention write.

When Gabor Maté’s book When the Body Says No: The Hidden Costs of Stress, came out in 2011, I grasped it eagerly, feeling instinctually that I needed to read it. My mother had blamed her rare and terminal disease on lifelong stress. However Maté’s book contained little for me. It focused on how serious trauma—rape, abuse, deep poverty—manifests in addictions and chronic illnesses. I have no doubt it does, but what about the chronic garden variety stress experienced by conscientious quasi-perfectionists who have a stupid dream to write and spend a largish percentage of their lives trying to make other people happy? Where is the book on that? I tried Why Zebras Don’t get Ulcers, and found little help there either.

To say that my condition is stress related seems to trivialize it, make it seem like it is all in my head, when there is physiological evidence that it exists. But after suffering through a terrible winter with it, it was a bit surprising that it disappeared almost entirely for the entire week that my family spent in Hawaii, away from my desk, away from my job. It was absent for the three weeks following the trip when I had a slightly lighter workload than usual, but then reared its head again when I had a particularly stressful week ahead.

Humans are unique creatures in the sense that we can use our brains to override pain.

Lower-level organisms take their cues from pain. If it hurts, they steer away from it. Humans believe in short-term pain for long-term gain, and there are times when that is true, but often we are referring to the pain of disciplining ourselves to study or work out just a little harder, not actual physical pain.

In Barking up the Wrong Tree, Eric Barker talks about those students who do really well in school and university—straight-A students, like me. These students do well because they are conscientious and work harder than everyone else, because they are generalists that focus on all areas of learning not just one passion, and because they do what they are told and follow the rules. These students often become moderately successful, but rarely go on to change, impress or run the world. They are rarely top achievers in the job world. Darn it, I knew I should have partied more in university.

Hmmm... my logical mind will never allow me to go all in on writing—it is simply too rational, too logical. I am still the conscientious student, the generalist that follows the rules... But my body on the other hand... it still seems to believe in following the dream...