It’s Time to Stop Following Your Dreams

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I followed my dreams for years.

I followed them into loud bars with flashing lights and crowds of interesting people. I followed them to foreign lands, stately museums, and dark forests. To thin, ancient streets late at night. Sometimes I even followed them to the keyboard to peck out a few words, but who wants to sit at a screen when there are bars, forests, and thin, ancient streets to explore?

I followed them secure in the belief that surely, somewhere I would find the idea, the inspiration, the story that would enthrall my soul. Then I’d drift back to the keyboard and the hours of writing would fly by as pleasantly and magically as my other adventures.

Many of these journeys I do not regret. Yet even the best of these explorations got me no closer to where I wanted to be.

Why? Because “follow your dreams” is a terrible metaphor. It’s an awful blueprint for accomplishing any worthwhile goal, and one that I’m here to banish from your vocabulary forever.

To show you how terrible this phrase is, I’m going to break down word-by-word why “follow your dreams” is such a harmful idea.

Follow

This verb is the most seductive word in this insidious aphorism.  Following is easy. Anyone can follow. You find something – a light, a path, a butterfly fluttering across a meadow – and you amble after it. Following requires no thought, no agency, no effort beyond walking with your hands in your pockets and whispering a sweet tune.

Your

Sure, certain paths exist in real life. Good grades-college-job-promotion-promotion-vacation home-retirement-death is the most dominant, but there are others. Yet none of them lead people where they really want to go. The paths to true happiness vary by individual, can be traveled only in darkness, and are hacked out of dense underbrush with dull machetes. They are not presented to you; they are created by you. There is no road to follow.

Dreams

Have you ever had a dream that made sense? One that wasn’t full of impossibilities and internal contradictions? One that adhered to the physical laws of the waking world? Me neither.

Yes, I know that the more precise meaning of “dream” in this phrase would be “a cherished aspiration, ambition, or ideal.”  But a lot of people place a surprising amount of importance on the random firings of their neurons while they sleep. And even the more precise sense of the word is vague. Rarely do these cherished ambitions come into the sharp resolution required to make them achievable.

So what’s a better metaphor?

Forge your life.

That’s the one I’m using right now. At least until I think of something better.

To forge a piece of metal, the furnace must be fueled and maintained. The iron will only bend after repeated, consistent striking. Forging is active, difficult, and creative. It requires both skill and endurance.

I’m trying to apply this approach to my whole life, not just my dream of becoming a successful writer, because people often attain a goal only to find that it hasn’t made them happy. So I have imagined the life I want in its entirety. I sat down one day and wrote it all out. What am I aiming for? Not just with my writing, but with my family, my health, my friendships. I saw that so much of this life is already formed and shining up at me from the anvil.

And the parts that aren’t? I’m maintaining the furnace. I’m embracing the heat. And I’m hammering away.

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