Hot Topic Tuesday: Dream Squishers, Backup Plans, and Other Things That Ruin Your Life

When I Grow Up...

I've wanted to be a writer since I first learned how to read, but the only reason I'm an author today is that four years ago, after I came home crying from a hellish workday and my MBA night class, my husband looked me in the eyes and said, in his gentle but no-B.S.-allowed way:

"You're a writer. And even though I know you'll kick ass in your MBA program and any career you follow, you're still a writer. You keep trying to run away from it, but you won't be truly happy unless you put your energy and time into finishing your book."

Well, duh. Sounds pretty simple, but after listening for decades to teachers, guidance counselors, parents, friends, and society about the importance of following "the right career path," I was pretty brainwashed. My husband's words were a mega wakeup call. I dropped out of grad school and devoted the next few months to finishing my neglected writing project, a.k.a. Twenty Boy Summer. A few months later, I sold the book, and long story short... now I get to write stories for teens every single day and work from home in my PJs. :-)

But this post isn't about my awesome husband who encouraged me to follow my dream. It's about the people who encouraged me not to -- people that many teens have or will encounter as they start thinking about their own dreams, career and otherwise.

Congratulations! Your Career Match is...

All through junior high and high school, whenever I took a "life assessment" -- those Cosmo-quiz like assignments they handed out on career day that were supposed to determine your ideal career based on whether you liked people or traveling or cooking or watching grass grow -- my answer was always the same: commercial artist or writer. Which was super cool, because back then, not only did I write reams of horrible poetry and pointless short stories loosely based on my own life, I drew all the time, too. I did at-home research projects for fun on Disney, Hanna-Barbera, and the history of animation, and I secretly imagined myself drawing cartoons for Disney Studios. A creative life that blended my inherent passion for art with my supposed career-day-approved skill set? Sounds like a match, right?

That's Nice, Dear. But What About...

Apparently, not everyone in my life thought a creative career was a good plan. In fact, whenever I'd start talking about the possibility of pursuing writing or art for a living, people would respond with things like:
  • Writers and artists don't make any money.
  • You should really have a backup plan, just in case it doesn't work out.
  • Be serious. Writing and drawing are a hobbies, not careers.
  • Don't you want to be like [insert name of wealthy, "successful" relative who is not an artist or writer]?
Fast forward fifteen to twenty years. Despite the fact that I'd shoved my creative urges into the closet and taken a very "traditional" career path that landed me in a job eerily similar to the movie Office Space, I still managed to write and sell a YA novel. How? Well, like my husband said, dreams have a way of catching up to you, no matter how hard -- and for how long -- you try to outrun them. But even after I'd done it -- followed and achieved my life's dream -- people still responded to the news with things like:
  • You probably won't make any real money writing, so you'd better not quit your day job.
  • Nobody reads anymore, so you can't make a serious career out of writing books.
  • Why don't you finish your MBA and just "do your writing" on the side?
  • I realize [insert name of wealthy, "successful" relative who is not an artist or writer] is now divorced because he spent his whole life working and neglecting his family, and now he never gets to see his grown kids, but at least he has a nice house and a lot of money.
It was the exact same naysaying rhetoric I'd heard as a teen, and now it was coming from all angles: family, friends, and even total strangers! And despite the fact that I now write full time, get paid to do what I love, and yes, sell books to people who supposedly don't read (magic, right?), I still hear some variation on the "why don't you do X instead" theme all the time. I'm not kidding.

Why Do People Hate On Dreams?

I think part of it is that some people -- even well-meaning people who love us and truly believe they have our best interests at heart -- can get so stuck in their own modes that they can't imagine a life where someone makes different (i.e., non-traditional) choices, and makes those choices work. And instead of asking questions and learning about it, or just being encouraging and supportive, or just plain STFU-ing, they become dream squishers. They try to talk us out of it, or put down the successes we've already earned (and by "successes," I mean whatever goals or achievements we set for ourselves, which often have nothing to do with money or promotions or levels or anything like that). They insist we need backup plans, because that's what they were taught. Because that's the smart, logical, successful thing to do.

But you know what I say about that?

Screw Backup Plans!

When it comes to following your dreams, screw backup plans. If you love something, and you want to spend your life pursuing it, then you must. No matter what other people say or think. If it's in your heart to do it, you have to find a way to make it happen. Don't "plan B" your dreams! And don't let other people tell you how something is or how it will be (even me, with this blog post). Find out for yourself by exploring, trying, learning, asking questions, venturing, tasting, experiencing, and maybe even screwing up a few times. When you let other people talk you out of something you haven't even tried yet, you let them eliminate your options and make your choices for you.

And when you do that, the rest of us lose out, because we don't get to experience the unique, special gifts you have to offer, whether those gifts involve writing, drawing, medicine, acting, inventing things, flying planes, designing buildings, raising children, starting a business, running for president, dancing, singing, making cupcakes, growing crops, playing football, painting houses, teaching someone to read, or any of the gazillion other things people dream about.

And that's just not cool!

Your Turn!

What about you? Have you encountered dream squishers (even well-meaning ones)? Do you have a backup plan (or feel like you should have one) for your dream? Have you ever made a choice about your education, career, or other important decision based on someone else's "warning" that your plan might not work out? Tell us about it in the comments!


jenniferpickrell said...

Blogger is my naysayer, it just ate my last comment :(

I'll sum up my long ramble from before:

I work from home (in a non-writing job) and mostly I get the well-intentioned, "Won't you be glad when the economy improves and you can get a REAL job?"

"Real" meaning I wake up early, commute an hour each way, sit in a cubicle, and get home so late that I don't have time to write.

If that's reality, I'm glad I'm in my parallel dimension :)

Artemis Grey said...

My immediate family totally supports my writing, although they're often in a state of frustration because I'M in a state of frustration as I try to break into the commercial side of writing.

Outside the very immediate family, most of my friends and family think it's nice, and that I have talent, but they don't think I'll ever be able to make a living at it. Just like horses (I've been riding 20+ years, and have at a farm job for 12) they figure I'll have to give it up some time and get a 'real' job. Although they're kind to me, they reason that I can't be 'that good' or I'd have gotten an agent by now. And since I've been getting requests, but requests that always seem to end in good feedback and 'almost' or 'spot on, but not for me' they tend to think that all the agents are trying to gently tell me 'give it up.' My BFF on the other hand, introduces me as her best friend the writer :)

Your hubby is the cat's meow for pushing you and being so reasonable about it. That's the way my best friend is. She just shrugs and says 'It's who you are, not what you're trying to be' Which makes everything better, no matter what's waiting in my inbox for me.

Lisa Schroeder said...

Sing it sister!!!!!

I majored in business because I had been told - you can do lots of things with a business degree and more importantly, you can earn good money.

We put too much emphasis on money and not enough emphasis on finding something that brings JOY. Go where the joy is, that's what I say!

Brodi Ashton said...

That is such a great post! My parents always told me everybody who achieved their dream had someone in their life telling them they were stupid. That's how you know you're going for something awesome.

Thanks for the reminder!

Kierah Jane Reilly said...

My parents forced me to go to college and get a practical degree. Well, it was the only way I could get out of the house (and party for free). I've always wanted to be a writer, but never even considered it as a career. Now that I have support from my husband (emotional, financial) my biggest dream squisher is myself and my self-doubt. And really, I'm harsher on myself than anyone else has ever been!

Sarvenaz Tash said...

Thanks for this awesome post! You have no idea how much I needed to read it right now.

Lance C. said...

I've been creative ever since I can remember. I was writing stories in sixth grade. I enjoyed building things, theater, movie-making.

I also realized early on that I had to live in the real world, no one was going to be my sugar momma, and that the whole "do what you love, the money will follow" thing doesn't work for 99.999995% of the people who try it.

So I got a practical education and a real job and in my off time pursued my writing and worked in theater and film. I got the best of both worlds -- I had a paycheck that allowed me to travel, read, build sets, write, and have a real life and real experiences. That experience, that travel, that reading now provides me with the background I need to write the kind of novels I enjoy. Had I tried the unemployed-writer thing when I was 22, I would've been poor, unhappy, unworldly and probably a terrible writer.

If you have indulgent parents or an indulgent spouse or you win the lottery, you can afford to shuck the working world and be whatever you want. Most of us don't have that luxury. When you're young, you're not necessarily tuned into the realities of daily living. Perhaps those older heads telling you to have a backup plan really do have your best interests in mind, so when your dreams of being a writer or artist or pro skateboarder crash and burn, you don't end up working at a job you'll really hate because you have no other skills or prospects.

Tamara said...

My parents, as well meaning as they were, started telling me I couldn't be a writer when I was seven (due to the lack of money writers made), and kept it up right until a few years ago.

Now my mum says I'm a good writer, but she doesn't think I'll be published. (!)

Damn, sometimes I just write so I can one day prove them wrong. I love them to pieces, but they are SO not going in the acknowledgements!

Jenn said...

*bows to you*

It's like you know me personally! But then again, judging from all the comments, I think we all feel this way. At the moment, I'm looking for a job just to pay the bills as I write. I keep hoping my inbox will bring me that magical email that will solve all my problems, but nada so far.

And seeing as my family's full of doctors (two), pharmacists (four), dentist, accountants, and laywers, they think my wanting to be a writer is a bit odd. They're supportive, but until the paychecks come in it's not a real job.

Ivan said...

Excellent post. You told a story that we need to hear more often.

After my first year of studying acting in college, I went home and told me folks I would 'double major' in acting and business, just so I'd have a 'back-up plan.' My folks were blue collar people, raised in The Bronx and Astoria, New York, yet they somehow knew a 'double major' would be nothing more to me than a distraction. They flat out refused to let me split my attention. I booked my first acting job less than six months later, acting with Johnny Depp and Paulina Porizkova in 'Arizona Dream,' and I've never looked back.

Go for the gold.

Lesli Muir Lytle said...

Three years after I opened my own flower shop, I realized I'd done it to prove to my mother that I was a success.

A week later, I closed my doors so I could write, part time at least. I have been very happy since, have landed an agent, and now write full time.

Do you suppose writers become hermits just so they don't have to listen to those dream squishers anymore? It makes me want to stop talking to anyone but other writers...

Sarah Ockler said...

Thanks everyone for your comments!

I do want to add, especially after reading Lance's thoughts above (because others might be wondering this as well):

I'm not saying following your dreams is (or should be) easy. But you have to believe that there are ways to make it happen -- ways that don't involve an indulgent parent, spouse, or lotto ticket. :-) I've never had any of those personally, and I don't really know anyone who has. When I say "find a way to make it happen," that way may be doing another job for a while to supplement your income, or to save up for that dream vacation, or that dream school, or whatever it is. This is definitely NOT about looking for the easy way out!

There are almost always sacrifices, financial and otherwise, but following your dream does *not* equate to shucking the working world (though a lot of people have that misperception about those who work for themselves). Honestly, I work harder now than I ever have in my life, even when I had the 70-hr/week corporate gig. The difference is, I'm doing work that I love, and I'm doing it for me and my husband.

So... whether you're dreaming about a career, a school activity, a travel destination, an adventure, or anything at all -- don't let someone tell you it's not "real" or worthwhile. Find a way to learn about it and experience it for yourself, and make your own assessments.

Keep the comments coming, all! And thanks for weighing in!

Courtney Koschel said...

I've been writing since I could write. When you asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up I always replied, "an author." My parents thought it was cute...When I went to college, I majored in journalism, but focused on feature writing because I loved to tell stories. I was constantly asked/told:

"Are you sure you want to take a paper bag lunch to work for the rest of your life?"

"You won't make any money unless you hit it big, and you know what your chances are.."

And I listened. I quickly chose a minor in biology so I could do scientific/technical writing which got me a good paying job. Guess what? NO creativity in that job. Then when the economy tanked I felt pressured to further my degree and I've completed my masters in environmental sciences. I now have a great job with the potential to make good I happy, though? Somedays.

I've decided to take back control. I write on my lunch hour, every night, and take classes (Sarah's YA class is the best class EVER). I CAN have both, and I'm willing to put in the work because I want it that badly. Am I tired? Yes. But am I happy? Definitely.

Sometimes (well oftentimes) I kick myself for not listening to my heart, but I'm not giving up on my dreams =)

EXCELLENT post. Thank you!

heidi said...

Dream squishers lurk everywhere, and you have to be so strong in your conviction.

I remember when I sold Sea, I felt so vindicated for all my efforts, when I should have just felt elated you know?

Also. "Do your writing" is the most annoying term ever. Especially when your mother in law says it.

Karen Strong said...

Excellent post Sarah! :)

Like you, I was raised to earn and "real" education to make a "good living."

But you're so right. The dreams always catch up with you in the long run. If you have someone who supports you --- then I always say go for it!

But sometimes you have to be realistic and do what you gotta do. It can still happen.

I still have my "Plan B" going on, but I also am pursuing my writing dream as well. In my world, I still have to eat (and buy shoes, LOL).

However, I also stash away half my check and live a little below my means so that I can eventually start working part-time and pursue my writing more fully. It's a long term plan, but I think a realistic one.

Bottom line is this: If you want it, you can still make it happen.

Aisha said...

Hi, I said this already in my tweet to you but I love this article. I quit my job to pursue writing full-time. I am fortunate my husband was supportive enough to make this a reality. I got an agent, and I'm in the process of shopping my second novel, and there's always the fear that "what if this doesn't work out" and this is all for nought- but your post reminds me you have to sometimes take a step to believe in yourself- sometimes that's all it takes.

Carradee said...

Yeah, I know exactly what you mean. I've had tried a few "real" day jobs. Considering I've been laid off twice and pressured into quitting at another job in the past 3 years, I don't get the presumed stability of day jobs.

One of the bosses who had to lay me off asked me recently how I was doing. I told her I was freelancing and had some steady clients—and she reacted as if I'd told her I was unemployed and unable to find work.

I think the naysaying arises from people not being comfortable with the downsides to the "dream" jobs so they can't imagine anyone else being willing to put up with them, and from people being so used to certain downsides of their "real" jobs that they don't even realize it's possible to have jobs without those downsides.

Ronni said...

My back up plan is my current day job. It's crushing my soul AND eating up any free time I have to write. But I need to eat, so alas. *sigh*

Carrie said...

Great post. My "backup plan" to writing ended up being working in theater.
But I heard a lot of the same things throughout my life, I even had a boss at my job at in high school tell me not to go pursue writing. He even offered to upgrade me from hostess to waitress.
Fortunately my mom followed her heart into a career in nursing instead of finance/business like her parents and siblings so she is supportive and proud of everything I write.

tamarapaulin said...

I'm ashamed to say I've dream-squished others when I thought they were wasting their time.

It's hard sometimes to distinguish between good advice and unwanted advice, but now I have a simple guide: are they asking for my advice? Until someone explicitly says "what do you think?" I try to keep my opinion to myself.

Guess how often people say "what do you think?" I'll give you a clue. Never!

bradrtorgersen said...

Great post! Only reason I became published is because in 2005 my wife put her finger in my face and said, "Look bub, this writing dream can't wait forever. You have to work, yes, but you have to write too! How long has it been since you decided you wanted to be a writer?"

It was a wake-up, to be sure. 1992 was the year I decided I wanted to be a writer, and from 1992 to 2005 I'd done a lot of flailing, accrued a lot of rejection slips, and come very, very close to letting the dream fall apart completely.

My wife was basically saying, you're not getting any younger, and your stories and books won't write themselves. So I dug my heels in and I got back to work on my writing. Still got a lot of rejections, yes, but by 2009 I'd broken in, and I haven't looked back since.

Now I have three jobs: day job, Army Reserve job, and my "night" job as a writer. And I make money at all three. Hopefully the "night" job becomes the "day" job at some stage, but for right now, I am happy to be selling and seeing the checks come in.

Claire Dawn said...

My mother is my biggest dream-squisher. When I told her I want to an MFA in writing or Drama, she said, " Well, you're just determined not to ever make any money!" lol!

valleyofthemuse said...

This has been on my mind a lot lately and you've articulated why Dream Squishers and other so-called-realists can be so damaging.

I tried to do real life as well but it took me a decade to realize just how much it was destroying me. I realize that there are people who are very creative and capable who choose to pursue stable 9-5 type jobs. My husband is one of them, and he's happy with his life choices. For me though, it's my worst nightmare. Now I'm freelancing and consulting, just so that I can pursue being a published author. And while he sees my struggles and long work-hours as futile, I feel freer and more like myself than I have in decades.

Adeeva Afsheen said...

Banned complain !! Complaining only causes life and mind become more severe. Enjoy the rhythm of the problems faced. No matter ga life, not a problem not learn, so enjoy it :)

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