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Now Reading: What’s Stopping You From Following Your Dreams?
5 years ago
On the last day of your life, what will your greatest regret be?
Will you wish you hadn’t worked so hard? That you had stayed in better touch with your friends and family? That you’d had the courage to express your feelings?
A book called The Top Five Regrets of the Dying, recently written by a palliative care nurse, includes all of these regrets in the Top 5. However, by far the most common regret expressed by patients in their final moments was, “I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.” I wish I’d had the courage to follow my dreams.
This likely won’t be the first time you’ve come across the phrase follow your dreams. It’s an inspiration mainstay, right up there with just be yourself and everything happens for a reason on the list of all-time great cliché life advice.
Yet this book would suggest that it’s advice too many people fail to follow. So let me ask you: are you, right now, following your dreams?
When I ask that question, I’m not asking if you’ve recently been skydiving or if you’re currently sipping a cocktail on a beach somewhere in the Caribbean. While there are perhaps things we fantasise about, for most people, they are not actually our dreams.
Instead, we dream of making a real difference in the world. We dream of a career pursuing our craft – be it music, mathematics or mountaineering. We dream of living a life helping others.
For me, one of my dreams is to be a writer. I’ve always enjoyed writing, but it wasn’t until I reached university that I discovered a real love of putting words on a page. There were few things I found more enjoyable that writing words that resonated with someone; words that somehow reached into their soul and described something they were never able to articulate.
2018 has been a year of following this dream. In the past 10 months I’ve written more than I ever have, I’ve built this website from the ground up, and I’ve had my articles read by tens of thousands of people.
I’m not trying to brag – it’s been an unusual year. In many ways, the 4 years prior were the exact opposite. I was focused on succeeding in my law degree to the exclusion of all else. Despite a strong desire to write, instead I pursued extracurriculars that I knew would look better on my CV.
The past four years certainly weren’t a total waste, but following my dreams wasn’t a priority and I wish it had been. I don’t think it’s an uncommon story. We get bogged down in the demands of day-to-day life and maybe, if we work hard, we even achieve a degree of success. But we’re left with this feeling. This feeling of discontent; this feeling we aren’t living life to the full; this feeling we aren’t following our dreams.
So what stops us?
Most people have at least a vague idea of what their dreams are – whether it’s living abroad, learning a language or working in a particular industry. But no one has ever been inspired by a vague idea. If I know that someday I want to write a book, it’s unlikely this distant hope will have any impact on my day-to-day life.
Clarity is important. If I know that I want to build a life where I get to write every day, that’s a dream I can start working towards right now. I don’t know the specifics – whether I want to win a Pulitzer or just be a frequent contributor of Harry Potter fan-fiction – but it doesn’t matter. I know enough to get started.
One exercise I’ve found enormously helpful for getting greater clarity on my dreams has been the “Ten Year Plan for a Remarkable Life.” This is an exercise popularised by renowned graphic designer Debbie Milman, who describes it as “imagining what your life could be if you didn’t have any fear of failure.”
The exercise involves writing a detailed description of what your life would look like on an ordinary day, 10 years from now. If you want to do this, I’d recommend setting aside at least an hour for it. Find a quiet space, away from distraction, away from the internet, and start writing.
Imagine it is Summer 2028.
What does your life look like? What are you doing? Where are you living? Who are you living with? Do you have a significant other? Do you have children? Do you have pets?
What kind of house are you in? What does your furniture look like? What kind of clothes do you wear? What kind of hair do you have?
What about your career? What are your successes? What excites you? What are you reading? What are you making?
What does this one day look in your life, 10 years from now, look like? Start from the minute you wake up, and write until the minute you tuck yourself in at night. What is that day like for you?
Dream big and without any fear. Put your whole heart into it. And write like there is no tomorrow; write like your life depends on it. Because it does.
Once you’ve finished, Milman recommends reading the plan at least once a year. Not only does this help to maintain the clarity you get from the exercise, but as the years go by, you might be surprised how many things in your plan start coming true.
Fear has always been the biggest thing stopping me from following my dreams. Honestly, it still is. Even when we know what our dreams are, the prospect of following them can be terrifying.
Take this blog for example. I’m scared I’ll embarrass myself with typos or writing that doesn’t make sense. I’m scared of what other people will think. I’m scared that this will be just one more cliché blog post about following your dreams that gets lost in the noise of the internet. Most of all, I’m scared that I won’t be enough – that I could give my all to this dream of being a writer and never have any kind of impact.
If there’s only one thing I know for certain when it comes to following your dreams, it’s that you’ll face fear. But fear, I’ve learned, is a coward. It thrives at the edges of your mind, whispering that you’ll never be enough. The best thing you can do is tackle it head on.
Drag your fears out and confront them in the light. That fear that I’ll screw up? The truth is that it doesn’t matter if I do. There’s no better way to learn than by screwing up and then doing better next time.
That fear of what other people think? Well, there’s a lot of truth in this quote, commonly misattributed to Dr Seuss: “Be who you are and say what you feel, because those who mind don’t matter and those who matter don’t mind.”
The fear that I won’t be enough? That’s a tough one, because success isn’t guaranteed. The harsh reality is that maybe I won’t achieve everything I hope for myself. But I believe in God’s providence. If I give this my all, it will certainly be enough for whatever God has planned, and that’s all that matters.
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In the age of social media, chances are you’re following people who already appear to be living your dream. Chances are, they’re a lot better at whatever you dream of doing than you are. Hopefully they inspire you, but if you’re anything like me, their example overwhelms you a bit as well. You find yourself thinking how could I ever be as good as they are?
Too often, our desire to be great at something can stop us from even trying. We don’t want to do something unless we can do it perfectly, and because we can’t do it perfectly, we don’t do it at all.
Yet taking that initial leap is the most important part of the journey.
5 years ago, when I first started this blog and it was UGH-LY. It was originally called Hopeful Romantic, which I thought was an incredibly clever play on the cliché of being a hopeless romantic, and I wrote on the topics of love and relationships. I had a photography student take what I thought were some super edgy photos of me sitting in an alleyway for my banner photo and voila, I was in business.
If you’re willing to scroll through my post archive, you can find some of those early blog posts. They certainly aren’t perfect. In fact, the amount I draw upon authors like Jason Evert walks a fine line between shameless imitation and all-out plagiarism. But they were a start.
Two years later, the blog evolved. I changed the name to Part-Time Prophet and expanded the scope of my writing. During the rebrand, another friend, this one an amateur photoshopper, designed a new banner – this one featuring what I thought was a hilarious graphic of Moses telling people not to be jerks. In aesthetic terms, it wasn’t much of an improvement. But I was making progress and learning a lot doing it.
Fast forward to 2018 and Part-Time Prophet has just gone through another evolution. Is it the best blog on the internet? Far from it. But does it look pretty darn good? I think so. It’s certainly a whole lot better than it was when I first started.
If I’d been fixated on creating the perfect blog, none of it would have happened. There’s no doubt I’d still be stuck in the planning stage, letting perfectionism dissuade me from even trying.
When you start following a dream, you won’t be perfect. In fact, you’ll probably suck. That’s the ordinary human starting point for pretty much everything except breathing and blood circulation. You’ll make mistakes and maybe even embarrass yourself a few times. But through it all, you’ll grow.
Why aren’t you following your dreams? Because you’re too darn busy! It’s the most common dream-stopper of them all. We know what we want, maybe we even have an idea how to get there, but there’s just too much going on right now. So, we tell ourselves “I’ll get to it later.”
I wonder how many of those people, lying on their death beds, wishing they’d had the courage to follow their dreams, told themselves the same thing.
If you’re waiting for the perfect time to follow your dream, you’re going to be waiting forever. As writer, politician and all-round busy man Charles Buxton once wrote, “You will never find time for anything. If you want time, you must make it.”
It can be done. There’s a long list of people who followed their dreams while holding down run-of-the-mill day jobs.
John Grisham wrote his first book while working full-time as a lawyer with a couple of young kids at home. Every day for 3 years, Grisham would get up at 5am to write a page of what would eventually become the bestselling novel, A Time to Kill.
Actor Alan Rickman, who played Professor Snape in the Harry Potter films, supported himself working as a dresser for other actors until he got his first big break in Die Hard.
Pulitzer winner Toni Morrison worked as an editor during the day, while also juggling the demands of being a single mother. Her secret, like Grisham’s was getting up early. “Writing before dawn began as a necessity,” she told the Paris Review. “I had small children when I first began to write and I needed to use the time before they said, “Mama”—and that was always around five in the morning”
The key is making your dream a priority. If you tell yourself you’ll “get to it later”, you never will. You need to set aside regular time in your day-to-day life. For me, this means blocking out at least 30 minutes in the morning, 6 days a week, to write. It doesn’t matter how busy I am, it doesn’t matter what else is going on, I spend a little bit of time following this dream.
When you start making your dreams a priority, it’s crazy how your other priorities fall into place. Taking these small steps every day towards (hopefully) becoming an acclaimed writer fills the rest of my day with a sense of purpose. Even though it sometimes means losing a bit of extra sleep, I get to start every day doing something I love.
One problem with our dreams is that, well, they’re dreams. Chances are, the idea you have in your mind only resembles a small part of the reality. If you dream of being a musician, you dream of playing to sold out arenas, not the endless hours of practice that it takes to get there.
Figuring out what your dream is, conquering your fears, and setting aside regular time to pursue that dream are just the beginning. Now you need to confront the challenges of actually following that dream.
At a day-to-day level, often the biggest challenge is consistency. Novelty and excitement might carry you through the first few weeks or even months, but at some point in your journey, you’re going to encounter the grind. Perhaps your motivation starts to fade, things aren’t moving as quickly as you hoped, or it all just starts to feel a little bit dull.
When facing the grind, you need to know why you started following your dream in the first place. Hoping for a record deal or wanting to be Instagram famous isn’t going to motivate you during the tough times. You have to know, deep down in your soul, why this dream matters to you.
For me, I love expressing in words an idea that I’ve been wrestling with. I love the feedback I get from people telling me that my writing impacted their life in some way. I love writing something that matters (even if it only matters to me). That’s why I write and it’s this why that gets me through the challenging times.
Nothing will demand as much sacrifice on a day-to-day basis as actually following your dreams. It takes an incredible amount of time, patience and commitment. Be honest with yourself about that.
But keep reminding yourself that it’s worth it. At the end of your life, there should be only one answer you want to give to the question what stopped you from following your dreams?