Updated Jan 17, 2023
This post was inspired by a career cliche, and to be honest, I just had to take it on.
As a kid, I remember being told, “Follow your dreams.” In fact, it kind of feels like a bad bumper sticker or one of those cheesy motivational posters from the 90s.
Well, if you’re along for the ride into the world of cliches, I want to tell you why I think following your dreams is actually really important. I’m going to tell you why I gave up on my dream, and to be honest, why I still regret it even today. And I’m going to tell you why I still believe in following your dreams.
So here we go.
1. Success comes from purpose
I was reading a study this week that was really interesting. Basically, the psychologists operating this study were doing something they call “sense of purpose” research. They took a group of high school kids, many of which were not performing well academically, and they didn’t tutor them. They started to work with them and help them to articulate a purpose and to understand a growth mindset. The kids had to choose a life goal outside of themselves and get really invested in it.
Those kids’ success rates jumped by almost 6.4% overall. The problem wasn’t that they weren’t applying themselves to school. The problem was that they didn’t have a sense of purpose they could connect that learning to.
As William Damon wrote in his book on the subject, we suck at teaching kids about a sense of purpose—our schools don’t do it.
I mean, did you ever think about this? Do you know why learning trigonometry was so soul-destroying?
It’s because you knew that you would never use it again. It wasn’t connected to any purpose. It was, quite literally, a waste of your time. But someone decided that you had to learn it, and penalized you when you struggled to focus.
When I was a teaching assistant on some university courses, I had the privilege of having some adult learners in my classes. These were adults who were training for a second career and came back to school.
Not surprisingly, they were by far my best students. Even if not the most intellectually gifted, they were always the hardest workers.
It’s not really difficult to guess why. They had experienced what life looks like without that degree. And, unlike the kids who were just there because their parents told them they had to study something, those adult learners had a deeply ingrained sense of purpose that was directing them. Maybe it was a better job. Maybe it was a symbolic transformation, like the housewife who stayed home to raise four kids and now wanted a chance to build a life on her terms and follow dreams that she had given up on years ago.
Each of them had a reason to pursue education that was connected to their larger sense of purpose.
So, by all means, you absolutely should follow your dreams. Because if you are chasing purpose, if you are chasing a bigger vision for your life, you will work harder, be happier, and be driven in a way that people just aren’t.
2. Dreams change, but they have truth in them
I wanted to be a rock star when I was a kid. The irony, even as an adult, is that I have always regretted not chasing that dream harder. Especially now, when I am entering an age of living in my dreams, I’m disappointed in my younger self that I let that one go.
Do you know why I did?
Because nobody around me got it. I had an enormous dream, but I was surrounded by people who couldn’t understand.
I shrunk my dreams and started thinking about adulting and mortgages instead.
If I had chased that dream, would I be a rock star today? Who knows. Maybe I wasn’t good enough. But the what-if will haunt me forever.
What was the big audacious dream you had as a kid?
You know, there’s truth in that. Whatever it is.
In being a rock star, I wanted to impact people and create art. It’s a double whammy that I didn’t find anywhere else until I started blogging. All of a sudden, I realized that I was both impacting people and creating, sort of a sweet spot for a creative guy like me.
So, if your Broadway dancing career is unlikely to ever happen, what was it about that thing that made you come alive? Was it dance? Was it the ability to watch people smile as you performed? Maybe it’s time to audition for some community theater. Or maybe you really do need to go and figure out a way to audition for Broadway. I don’t know.
I get that seems like an impossible dream, but who am I to tell you that you can’t do it?
In your lifelong dream, there is something that is true about your purpose. See if you can pull it out and find ways to chase it.
3. Society teaches us to think small
I think about this all the time, because I’m a parent. As parents, we don’t want our kids to get hurt. We want their life to be easy, and we want them to be successful, but we don’t want them to get hurt.
The problem with trying to achieve great things and following your dreams, is that you will get hurt every time. It’s a guarantee.
If you’re going to step out and follow your dreams, you’re going to face opposition.
First of all, it will probably come from the people who love you the most who are worried about you getting hurt.
I love the story of when Sara Blakely founded Spanx. A lot of people she loved would tell her, “Honey, if it was such a good idea somebody would already be doing it.”
Because of that, she waited a year to even tell anybody that she was doing it. Because she knew they would discourage her.
People you love can be the people who damage your dream the most. It’s not their fault. They want to protect you, for the most part. They don’t want to see you get hurt.
But the reality is, if you want to be great, you need to get hurt sometimes.
Then, of course, there are also the people who will discourage you from following your dreams because of what it represents to them. They never had the courage to follow their dreams, so they see their inadequacy reflected in your greatness. Your hunger shows them their mediocrity. Your success equals their failure.
And that’s a hard thing for human psychology to grasp. Dealing with what other people tell you, people who haven’t dealt with their own shit, is a difficult waystation on the road to success.
I think it’s these two people, those who mean well and those who are threatened by you, who stop most people from following their dreams. And these two people are the reason why so many humans are unfulfilled. As Les Brown says, “We are governed by our habits, our fears, and the opinions of others.”
4. Education kills our dreams
We have a societal religion, and it’s education.
Education for the sake of education.
Education because your parents said you need it.
Education without any idea where it will take you.
Education as an end in itself.
I spent 15 years in education, so I feel particularly entitled to say this. Education is a waste of time if there is no vision attached to it. If education helps you get towards something you’re dreaming about, go. If not, don’t. Many of the most important lessons in life don’t come from education.
If you have an enormous vision for the world and education is helping you chase that, you will do great things. If you are just in education because Mom and Dad said you have to, or because you didn’t know what else to do, you will just be stuck when you leave. And that’s what I see with most students.
Little Jimmy has a dream to go and draw. And instead, mommy and daddy tell Jimmy to be a dentist. The result is Jimmy who hates his job and is waiting for a way out. Mommy and daddy never realized that Jimmy could make good cash as a creator. So instead of letting him be successful at the thing he actually wants to do, they encourage him to get a degree — because it’s what makes sense to them.
Most of us don’t have an idea of where we’re going, and education is the answer instead of the pathway to the answer.
5. People who follow their dreams do the coolest stuff
Who inspires you? If you had to make a list of the people who inspire you the most, who would they be?
Contrary to all the naysayers out there, the people who inspire us the most are literally the people who have followed their dreams. I’m inspired by Oprah, Brené Brown, and Tom Bilyeu. I’m inspired by Beyonce, Barack Obama, and The Rock. These are all people who created enormous dreams and chased them.
I don’t know if my legacy is going to be as big as any of the people on this list, but I’m sure as Hell going to try. I’m not going to go out for lack of trying.
The next time somebody tells you to be realistic, tell them to f*** off. Or, if you want to be polite, smile and nod.
6. Dreams will change the world and launch us forward
If you are beaten down and worn out.
If you feel like you have nothing left to give.
If you are lost, stuck, and come to the end of your rope.
There’s only one thing to do.
Create a big, fucking amazing dream to change the world. That’s what we need! We need dreams outside of ourselves to push us forward. We need visions that are huge and borderline impossible to dedicate ourselves to.
That’s what creates the sweet spot in this life.
So there’s no doubt that telling people to follow their dreams is a cliché. But that doesn’t take the truth away.
When we’re little kids, we nurture these enormous dreams for greatness. Then we become adults and it gets crushed out of us.
Don’t be afraid to follow your dreams. And don’t apologize.
Because you’ll change the world.
 Paunesku, David, Gregory M. Walton, Carissa Romero, Eric N. Smith, David S. Yeager, and Carol S. Dweck. “Mind-Set Interventions Are a Scalable Treatment for Academic Underachievement.” Psychological Science 26, no. 6 (June 2015): 784–93. https://doi.org/10.1177/0956797615571017.
 Damon, William. The Path to Purpose: How Young People Find Their Calling in Life. Simon and Schuster, 2009.
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