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What Happens When You Realize Your Dream Isn’t Your Dream Anymore?

March 28, 2013
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Nellie and I were talking about turning 30 as we finished up a delightful dinner with girlfriends last night. I can’t remember exactly how the conversation went because I have one just like it twice a week these days (though, no convo tops a Nellie convo), but I remember it turned to the idea of following your dreams. Nellie is an actress – among so many other things – and I am finally (according to my 2012 taxes!!!) a writer. 

We were both talking about how long we’ve followed our two specific dreams, and how engrained that idea of “following a dream” was in our upbringing. This was a lucky thing – no – a blessed thing, we agreed. There are kids without the means, guidance or support to follow a dream. There are adults in that same boat.

“But what happens if you realize your dream isn’t your dream anymore?” Nellie said.

She was speaking mostly figuratively. Nellie, more so than almost anyone I know, has maintained a steady focus on her acting while still pursuing other work (for income) and passions (for joy). But you don’t have to be freaked about your future to ask that difficult question. What if, after never allowing yourself a back-up plan, you realize plan A isn’t the goal anymore? It could happen to either one of us.

This is a high class problem, both Nellie and I acknowledged that off the bat. You have to be lucky/brave/etc. enough to try and make a dream a reality in the first place. But forget all that. That doesn’t change the fact that you might decide you don’t actually want to live the life you’ve set yourself up to live. Then what?

We weren’t sure. We both said things like, “you re-group,” and, “you put one foot in front of the next,” and, “you realize that life is not only about the way you make your money.” What I wasn’t willing to say out loud was that I’d be totally and completely devastated. Even thinking about it makes me nervous. What would I do? Who would I be?? Where would I go???

Our generation is, “dream oriented,” Nellie and I both agreed. That’s good because we both pursued dreams despite the odds against them becoming a reality (technically the odds are still against it, and we’re both almost 30). But I think those among our generation who maintain some semblance of sanity despite all these big questions were raised with a duel narrative. “Follow your dreams, but remember that your life’s happiness can’t be tied directly to those dreams.”

That seems harsh. Maybe it’s, “follow your dreams, but be prepared to live a life that’s about way more than just those dreams?”

That feels more reasonable.

If tomorrow I decided I no longer want to be a writer, I would freak out. Nellie might have that same reaction if she decided that her days of pursing acting should end. But then the next day we would make a list of all the things we like to do. Both of us are pretty type A, so we’d probably make another list of all the things we’re good at doing, and then ven diagram the hell out of it until we had a few ideas of where to turn next. It would be really hard and really scary, but the family and friends who love us would help. Nellie would turn to her yoga practice to help center herself. I would probably go on a lot of long walks and watch late ’80s television that somehow relates to my struggle. We’d probably both read a self help book or two.

But we are more than just our dreams. That feels weird to say because when you’re climbing to achieve them, it feels like you and your dreams are one. You are not a person, you are an actress/writer/whatever. I think it’s good to be that way – to a certain degree – when you’re a 20-something. Focus is important – unbridled passion, even more so. But there comes a time when I think it’s safer, healthier and more fulfilling to look at life from a place beyond your dreams. That doesn’t mean they go away. It just means they get in line with a whole host of other dreams that have nothing to do with the blank space you fill in on your tax returns. 


  1. A number of years ago I had an interesting conversation with my brother, who was, long ago, an Olympic athlete. He began training at age thirteen. He said, to my surprise, that it is not very possible to retain “passion” forever. At a certain point, the athlete thing becomes a “job” similar to other jobs. You get up in the morning and put in the necessary hours. I expressed dismay that he no longer felt the level of passion he had begun with. He laughed at me. He said if you don’t become a professional putting one foot in front of the other, you can’t last. You burn out. An interesting perspective, and not what we usually hear.

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