Originally written in December of 2011, the following quote from famous author and person-who-is-suddenly-quoted-about-everything Neil Gaiman is once again making the rounds online for the New Year:

I hope that in this year to come, you make mistakes.

Because if you are making mistakes, then you are making new things, trying new things, learning, living, pushing yourself, changing yourself, changing your world. You're doing things you've never done before, and more importantly, you're Doing Something.
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So that's my wish for you, and all of us, and my wish for myself. Make New Mistakes. Make glorious, amazing mistakes. Make mistakes nobody's ever made before. Don't freeze, don't stop, don't worry that it isn't good enough, or it isn't perfect, whatever it is: art, or love, or work or family or life.

Whatever it is you're scared of doing, Do it. Make your mistakes, next year and forever.

This kind of thing has always struck me as dubious advice when applied to the Big Things in life, and it's always coming from people who are in a position – professional and financial – to weather quite easily the consequences of their mistakes. Sure, it's great advice if you've always wanted to learn how to paint but have been afraid to try. But the "Go for it! Follow your dreams!" line of argument is, for all but the people who live life suspended over a giant financial cushion, almost universally a terrible one.

We all have something we'd love to be doing with our lives that we are not. The reason we are not is because our societies demand that we make some money.
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That's why we all work at jobs we almost inevitably hate – because if it was fun they wouldn't have to pay people to do it (note the preponderance of unpaid internships in fields like media, fashion, and entertainment). To the extent that we like or enjoy our jobs, 99% of us would still quit tomorrow and do something more enjoyable if we suddenly found ourselves with millions of dollars.

There's nothing wrong with any of this. It's just life. We work because we have to, and we accept that we can't all be living our dreams.
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Why not? Because many of us have very silly and impractical dreams, hence the name. Your dream to open a little used book store in an adorable, hip neighborhood (with astronomical rents) might run contrary to the fact that you could not actually make money and support yourself with such a venture. Or maybe you just aren't the kind of person who has any talent for running a business. How much tolerance for poverty do you have? I mean, you can move to Hawaii and surf all day if that's what you've always wanted to do with your life and you don't mind being homeless. I don't suspect many of us are ready for those kinds of privations, though.

Earlier this year The Guardian (UK) ran a much-discussed story about the top five regrets given by the dying in hospice care. Number one was "I wish I'd had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me." This sentiment makes perfect sense from the perspective of an older, dying person reflecting on life, but it does precious little to provide the rest of us with guidance. What people mean when they engage in this sort of hindsight is, I wish I had made different choices and they had all worked out. In other words, I would have chosen differently assuming it would have led to XYZ ideal outcome. And how often do the choices we make in life really lead to the ideal outcome? Maybe Grandpa is regretful that he spent 50 years as an accountant (the kind of responsible career "others expect of us") when he had always wanted to open a restaurant. He certainly would have been happier had he opened that restaurant…
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provided it succeeded to his satisfaction. Had he opened the restaurant and it went bankrupt (as most do), ruined him financially, and his marriage failed under the strain, would he really have been happier as a result? Or would he be 80 years old in a state-run nursing home for the poor (instead of in hospice) thinking, "I wish I had listened to Mom and stuck with accounting"?

Often we are afraid of making certain choices for the very sound and excellent reason that the odds of failure are exceptionally high and its consequences severe. You know you could quit your job, cash in the 401(k), and do whatever zany thing it is that you'd like to do with your life. You also know that you're likely to end up dead broke and facing a bleak future for you and your family if you do that. Yes, you might succeed and you'll be thrilled that you took the risk. What might happen rarely balances out what is likely to happen, though, and the classic Survivor's Bias ensures that we only hear about the Neil Gaimans who quit their job to write novels, not the thousands of others who did as he did and failed spectacularly.

42 thoughts on “HINDSIGHT”

  • This is a tricky, and touchy subject. Well done, Ed, comme d'habitude. Most of those who follow their dreams do not achieve them. But more true is that those who do not, never achieve them. Perhaps balance is the magic key.

    In my youth I was talked out of persuing what I really wanted by some very well-meaning people, and as a result squandered a good portion of my early life aimlessly, and started into a moderately lucritive career rather late. I don't hate it, but it is not what I wanted for myself. I am now over fifty. I have attained what most would consider a reasonable success: a comfortable home that I own, university-eduacated children, annual vacations to pleasant locales and a retirement plan that will sustain me. Life is good. Is it wrong that I still find it lacking?

    Two years ago, I decided to refocus my time not dedicated to family and work to my dreams. And the result, while not financially sustaining, has been very personally rewarding. I may never be able to earn a viable living doing this, but I will never stop trying.

    I guess my only point in all this self-indulgent reminiscence is that if you are young, you should persue what you really desire, unreservedly, to a reasonable limit. And then get a hair cut and get a real job. And if you are old and have a real job, dig out that dream again….and go for it.

    I wish you all the best.

  • The flipside, of course, is that taking the safe way isn't perhaps as much safer than following your dreams as it should be, or even as much safer as it used to be.

    As the logic of late capitalism wears down the good labor conditions and safety nets that once applied (at least to the "right sort" of people) we may all get to live lives as precarious as the independent bookshop owner. Even that ignores that anyone under 40 may very well see the stability of the whole global order buckle or even collapse as changing climate makes the world less easy to live in for the whole human species.

    So there's an argument for "live your dreams" but it is the pessimistic one.

  • grumpygradstudent says:

    For every tenured professor who tells a kid to go to grad school, for every writer who tells a kid to quit their day jobs, for every musician who encourages a kid to sell everything and go out on the road, for every actor who encourages a kid to drop out, move to LA, and give it a go, I wish/hope there are 10 bitter, angry failures who have told their stories on easily accessible blogs.

    That's one good thing about the internet; the failures have an outlet now.

  • Another problem our society has, as evidenced by this column, is the assumption that if we are to be successful at something the measure of that success will be financial. How about writing haikus because you fucking like haiku? Or learning to play bass, because it's fun. No one is ordering you to quite your day job, in fact, Gaimen, if I may be so bold, is telling people to look beyond their day job.

    After all, Ed. We know you've dabbled at drumming, and stand up comedy, and that you faithfully submit journal articles only to get rejection letters. Keep it up, and if I may offer my own advice, let the act be its own reward. Farting around in some airy esoteric bullshit is your birthright as a white male – enjoy it.

  • I'm all for a certain amount of ambitious living, but I'm also enough of a skeptic to ask of the hypothetical dream-chaser: "Why exactly is *this* and *only* this your dream?" Don't most of our dreams really sort of revolve around doing nothing and being rewarded for it?

    I've known a lot of people with dreams (which is to say, I was once young and knew people who shared that condition), and my experience leads me to the conclusion that the "dreams"–of acting, writing, painting, playing in the pros–were merely a means to an end of wealthy indolence. And being told by strangers that they were awesome. I know this, because when monetary remuneration was not forthcoming in any of these pursuits, they were dropped, never to be resumed, not even as a hobby.

    Do our dreams of super-stardom really entail the multiple tedious realities of such a life, or are we just pining after Money and Fame as a way of feeling better about what we don't have–namely, the ability to sleep in late every day, eat out whenever we want, and have our butts kissed by a circle of beautiful people for just being ourselves?

    I submit that most people should not chase their dreams, because most people's dreams are, once you scratch past the candy coating, little more than wanting to live the life of Jabba the Hutt.

  • First principle: know thyself. We are so tangled in obligations real and perceived, shoulds and ought-tos, that most people really have no clue what it is they really want and truly love. There is so much shame associated with self awareness that some people never try to figure themselves out. (It wrecks marriages, too.)

    An easy self-test: if you want to play guitar brilliantly but find practice boring, it's not your dream, or you wouldn't be able to keep your hands off it. You just want to excel at something cool. If you have the instrument, the time, and the means to take lessons, but you hate to practice, think for a minute about what that means. Then stop cursing the parents who stifled your true calling of being a rock god, and try out other things until you find what you couldn't stop doing if you tried.

    In the meantime, keep looking for work that pays the bills. Lots of dream jobs don't pay beans. I knew a lady who won a major writing award and still couldn't afford to quit either of her jobs. Don't demand that your day job be meaningful unless you are prepared for a marginal existence.

    As for Neil Gaiman…I can't read his stuff (unless Good Omens counts, or Sandman), but he inspires a whole bunch of people. I have to cheer for that even if I'm not on a wavelength that finds juice in it.

  • The thing about Gaiman for me is, if it's not part of a written story, what he writes doesn't quite grab me. American Gods? I'm all over that love letter to Norse mythology. So much on it. Fragile Things? Love the stories, love the retelling of Beowulf. His other stories? Love the mythic qualities.

    But then we move on to films. That Beowulf with Angelina Jolie? Much as I love me some Angelina Jolie, I can't watch it. His blog? Boring, uninteresting. Basically, I don't care what he's doing if it's not making nifty myth-stories for me to read. Put down the bees, Neil, and give me some more takes on old sagas. Give me the Volsungasaga so I can see what you do to it. And quit yammering about mistakes.

  • "For every tenured professor who tells a kid to go to grad school, for every writer who tells a kid to quit their day jobs, for every musician who encourages a kid to sell everything and go out on the road, for every actor who encourages a kid to drop out, move to LA, and give it a go"

    But see, who does this IRL? I was a straight-A college student at a pretty good school and decided to go to graduate school. My college profs were generally supportive and professional in writing my rec letters, but at least three of them told me straight-up that I was making a mistake.

    Writers? Writers, whether published or no, care a lot about money. Again, with someone who used to entertain literary aspirations as well, most of the advice I got was along the lines of "don't quit your day job."

    Actors who encourage younger people to quit and move to LA? I'm willing to bet this has literally never happened.

  • c u n d gulag says:

    "…not the thousands of others who did as he did and failed spectacularly."

    The problem here, at least in the US, is that almost all people fail quietly, in desperation and relative obscurity – and not spectacularly.

    To fail spectacularly, you have to be a CEO or some other high-level business exec, a MSM pundit, a Conservative politician, a famous athlete/coach/manager, or an actor/director/musician, among others of the wealthy, well-connected, and/or famous.
    And that failure means that you will, almost without fail – fail upwards.

    The poor schmuck who decides to quit his/her job to write the "Great American Novel," or pursue an acting career, or to start a restaurant, or a bar, or some other small business, does so knowing that he/she is walking a tightrope, with no net underneath.

    The people I listed above, are walking on well-padded sidewalks, with netting and feather pillows in every direction to cushion them, in case they fall.

    And if thye do fall, they find that the pillow's are not, in fact, filled with feathers, but with greenback's in high denominations.

    To fail like Carley Fiorina, or Karl Rove, or Dick Morris, Allen West, or Charlie Weis, etc., is to fail spectacularly – but to know that Wingnut Welfare, or some other equivalent, like another Board of Directors who want a "name," or a team or studio who likes your "brand," is going to feather your nest-egg.

    To fail like the rest of us do, is to end up with egg on our faces, and no one giving a sh*t, except family and friends.
    And, eventually, they gradually start to recede from the people who failed, afraid to be tainted with that failure.

    The key in America, is to make a name for yourself – by fair means or foul.
    And then, you can cash in on that name you made, until they bury or cremate you.
    And if you really played the game well, your name will leave a nice nest-egg, or at least a comfortable starting spot, for those people who are listed in your obituary, as "Mr./Ms./Mrs. _________, is survived by___________."

    To quote that great foreign philosopher, Yakoff Smirnoff:

  • ladiesbane pretty much says it for me. Most people's dreams are cartoons or mental snapshots, lacking detail and a real examination of what the day-to-day would be like, the demands and any necessary dark side. And then most people wouldn't feel fulfilled by a permanent vacation and need to feel useful to society in some way. So you need to take in to account the total "you" and stop bullshitting yourself about the greener grass.

    I'm living my dream of being an artist in New York, exactly the kind of artist I want to be, with work that happens to be difficult for most viewers to enjoy and most dealers to sell. The day job, which used to be college teaching, has devolved into a position as an evil landlord, which provides income with minimal expenditure of time. Most people couldn't deal with being a largely unknown artist whose work doesn't sell or even attract any press. Some people would consider what I do solipsistic, being my own best—and sometimes only—audience, but being something other than a painter—even a graphic artist related field—would have been a life of total misery for me. So, as ladiesbane said, be true to yourself, really think deeply about who you are and what you need—and, trite as it sounds, add in the fact that you've got only one shot at this life, and even at that an indeterminate number of years. The possibilities then sort themselves out.

    The regulars here know that (1) Ed hates teaching, (2) Ed is good at it, (3) Ed wants to make a difference. He also sounds like (4) a funny comic, and we know he is (5) one hell of a writer. He is banging on all cylinders, even though we know as well that (1) most colleges suck, (2) students are dumb as bricks, and smug and airheaded into the bargain, and (3) he deserves a wider audience than this blog. So there are some issues. But it sounds to me as though he's in the right place, the place he should be, at least for now.

    Where you are is the sum total of your talents and values (good), but also your fears (not necessarily good). Examine the fears. Are they real? Or merely society's way of keeping you down, in your place, under control? Or masking a sense of inadequacy instilled by your high school guidance counselor? So Gaiman's prod is intended to puncture those fears. It was trite and familiar, maybe, but good advice, generally.

    This is too long. I'll stop.

  • Whatever it is you're scared of doing, Do it.

    I'm scared of dying, but I think I'll wait a bit longer to give it a go.

    Meanwhile, I'll continue working towards my dream of the Cleveland Browns making the Superbowl.

  • Nobody (including Neil Gaiman) is saying you have to quit your day job until you're good and ready. Gaiman himself was not always a huge successful writer, as I recall he started off as a freelance journalist. This isn't a bad choice if you're a twentysomething who wants to be a writer — lousy pay and job security, but good writing practice and chances to make contacts in publishing. If you're a fortysomething with two kids and a mortgage then this isn't a good option, but all is not lost — Stephen King was an English teacher before he made it big as a novelist.

    The deathbed regret might be "I wish I had quit my job and moved to a cabin in the mountains in order to write that novel" — from someone who really just wanted to live in the mountains instead of working. But others will think, "I wish I had written that novel in my spare time, instead of watching TV" and very few will say to themselves, "I wish I had spent more time watching TV instead of writing a novel that only sold 5000 copies."

    I read the Gaiman quote as a call to turn off the TV, let go of your fear of failure, and put some effort into creative things. As such it's not terrible advice.

  • That article about the "last regrets of the dying" baffled me. When I reach the end of my life – which already contains a respectable helping of both failed and succeeded ambitions – my number one regret will be that I can't live longer. I was surprised that no one in the article mentioned this, or that the reporter chose not to write about it if they did.

  • Eh, I already have too many regrets to count, but one that I'm confident I'll retain until my last breath is that I didn't shack up at an early age with 3 gorgeous women in a wacky menage up in the mountains somewhere. What a life that would have been!

  • FWIW, most of the "entrepreneurs" I know are nickel-millionaires and emotional basket cases I'd never want to be like.

    I also wouldn't take life advice from a guy who decided to spend his alongside Amanda Palmer.

  • As a fairly contented drone in a large bureaucracy, I've clearly chosen economic security over potentially more fulfilling options–to the extent that one can achieve economic security in these times. I have, at times, considered quitting and trying to start up an independent consulting business (basically, do what I do now, but for multiple clients and with more autonomy over projects than I currently enjoy). You should hear the conversations I have with my spouse on this! I don't think I've ever "won" one of those.

    The trouble is, I know a guy who has basically done this (gone independent), and he's not the sharpest tool in the shed. It's true that his credentials are a little different than mine, and that that opens up one more income stream than I would have . . . .

    Writing this, I realize how sad it is that my "dream" is to basically do the same thing I do now, but without a boss. And I don't even dislike my boss(es). Clearly I need to be more satisfied with my life choices.

  • @Jimcat: You assume that when your "number one regret will be that [you] can't live longer" you'll be in good health. Old age often comes with debilitating conditions and pain, perhaps nature's way of saying "Death isn't such a bad thing." In any case your wish should be that you can live longer—and be in vigorous good health while you're doing it.

    Notwithstanding, watch what Woody Allen has to say about living a while longer. It's the last question he's asked.

  • When I was young I decided I wanted to write science fiction. I looked into the wages and found that at the time all writers together, including people like Stephen King, averaged out at 5k/year. That meant that the vast, VAST majority made less than they would working at Burger King.

    I made a decision. I picked s/w engineering to be my profession and writing my avocation. I have had some success at both. Consequently, I've had a few novels published, about 50 short stories. All of the money I've ever made at it would not cover one year's paycheck.

    I have a house, a wife, a son, money in the bank. I also have a body of work I can point to that has been well received. Have I achieved the level of success I would have liked? Of course not. Would I have if I had pursued my dream differently? Maybe.

    Gaiman broke in through comics– at which he was very, very talented. Opinions differ on his prose work but very few people don't think is comic work is groundbreaking and brilliant. Could I have done the same? Unlikely. Could Gaiman have had the success he's had if he hadn't chosen the path through comics? I don't think so. He had a ready made audience before he wrote word one.

    So: I chose a medium risk over a high risk and won. I suspect that is a path most can accomplish.

  • I think a lot of the problem is that people (both people like Ed, and the impressionable people he's worried about) interpret the "follow your dreams!" statement as all-or-nothing, since you very rarely hear it qualified–i.e. "follow your dreams, but make sure that you also have a fallback plan that you flesh out at the same time so you're not a 50-year-old failed novelist working at Old Navy." Nor do you hear "follow your dreams, but make sure to mitigate the inherent risk."

    For a personal example, I'm currently in the "waiting to hear back" stage of applying to law school. Within the pool of law school applicants, there are a great deal of naive young people who heard the mantra of "follow your dreams, no matter what!" and decided that they should go to law school despite having a 2.0 GPA and a 149 LSAT score, because that's the only way for them to "follow their dreams," so they go somewhere like Whittier Law School (http://www.lstscorereports.com/?school=whittier) and wind up with a quarter million dollars in debt, a one in six chance of having a job at graduation, and a degree that makes them (on paper) overqualified for many other jobs. Most of these people were not stupid (although failing to do any research before taking out enough money to buy a house in non-dischargeable debt is pretty stupid), they just believed the "follow your dreams, no matter what, and things will work out!" mantra, because it was never qualified as "follow your dreams, if you're in a position to do so and have minimized the potential downside, and have a plan in case things don't work out like you're hoping."

  • Really depends on your personal risk tolerance.

    Gaiman lives in a country where if you get sick, healthcare is free. He lives in a country where if you have no money and are starving on the street, the government will make a decent effort to keep you from starving and put a roof over your head. Maybe not a really great effort; but a decent one.

    In the United States, social services and healthcare for life's failures are quite skimpy. You probably won't starve, but that's only because food is so cheap. But once you've fallen a certain distance, there's basically no hope you'll ever recover, because there aren't any rungs that low on the ladder for you to climb.

    Especially if you have a family, it's really quite risky to "follow your dreams" in the U.S., much more risky than in countries with decent safety nets. If you quit your job and your kid gets cancer in the U.S., the kid is dead. That sucks.

  • Actually, Gaiman lives in the United States and has for many years.

    And I'll never get to live my dream of ordering the invasion of a third-world country. Damn.

  • My unfulfilled dreams are about being in shape rather than working at a different job.

    I know I *could*, for instance, do a few sit-ups NOW rather than writing this comment, but I stay prone on the sofa and write.

    Many of us could do something toward their dream with these lazy evening hours, but we don't. Why don't we?

  • I wonder, Ed, if you aren't dreaming of something you'd like to do and, with this post, are bitterly persuading yourself to stay where you are.

    What are you dreaming of doing? Perhaps we can help. You never know, there are a bunch of us in all sorts of places.

  • Andrew Laurence says:

    I have a well-paying day job that I like well enough, but it's hardly my dream. When I'm NOT at work, I can spend my time drunk and glued to the television, or I can do the things (reading, crossword puzzles, sex, board games, movies, art museums) that I really enjoy.

  • OK, Gaiman lives in the U.S., but is still a UK citizen and certainly approaches life from a UK perspective rather than an American one.

  • Let us strive to increase production through single minded unity in 2013.

    Ed's getting North Korean spam!

    Heh…well, I am one of those people who followed a dream and made it happen for as long as I could. I quit my paralegal job which was killing my soul and became a bike tour guide in Europe. But I was fortunate enough to have been in a position to do so. I lived with my mother, so didn't have rent (well, not regular rent) and also I was able to leave for six months at a time without having to worry about my accommodations. My "citizen" job was as a paralegal, something that is easy to do on a contract basis. But my days of clover dried up, though, and now I am just a wage ape like every one else. But at least I have the memories of doing what I really wanted to do for 10 years…

  • @MS: Gaiman lived in the UK when he was a penurious young writer and only moved to the USA after becoming a highly successful writer, so I think your point stands.

  • @Nick: Just so. "Follow your dreams" is your only shot at overcoming the forces of mediocrity, but it doesn't apply in all situations, any more than "find new and spectacular ways to fail" is directed at surgeons or airline pilots.

  • I'm glad to see that I'm not the only one who thinks that pursuing your dreams and having a day job don't have to be mutually exclusive. One thing that I don't think I'll ever regret is choosing a career path that (so far at least) has enabled me to live in relative security. It's much easier to do the things that fulfill your soul when you don't have to worry about where your next rent check, or your next meal, is coming from.

    Would I like more time to pursue the things I enjoy, instead of having to spend about half my working hours ensuring that the paycheck continues to come in? Of course. Who wouldn't?

    But if you didn't learn at a very young age that you can't have everything you want, then you've been deluding yourself most of your life (or else you really can have everything, in which case fuck you).

  • Ha ha… I meant to say "half my waking hours" instead of "half my working hours" above, but perhaps that was a Freudian slip.

  • There's making mistakes and then there's *making MISTAKES*!

    Using salt in an equal amount to sugar when making meringues. Now you know what not to do. Do you think meringue just happened? Trial and error.

    Driving at 100 while drunk in blizzard conditions…

    I think that Gaiman as Talisker pointed out is leaning towards the former. Few of us approach many things in our daily lives with a sense of passionate abandon.

    Even for surgeons, eg. "Something the Lord Made" on the history of heart by pass surgery. Though I have to say bring on the dogs, before they start cutting me (or mine) up on a hunch.

    We don't give ourselves enough permission to fail.

    A lot of this depends on where one sits on scale for how much leeway you get to experiment. If you're designing a revolutionary plane that will change air travel and you're at the drawing board level, go for it.
    If however you're job is to drill the holes for the bolts in the fittings and the blue print calls for a 6mm hole, but you want to put in a 7mm hole because you *like* 7… Stick to the script man, just stick to the script.

    I can say that from my own experience I've never allowed myself to fail. Once I started embracing that concept, and seeing it in terms of: Ok that didn't quite work, but I'm closer to what will. Life got so much better for me.

    As an example, my avocation is cooking. I got a bee in my bonnet about cooking a duck. This involved a boneless duck, that I had to debone myself having never done so. Talk about a laborious task.
    The first time. An unappetising god awful failure.
    The second time was better, but still not quite there.
    Now I'm known for my duck braised in cranberry and rhubarb, with cranberry risotto (using duck stock of course).


    I wonder if there's so much stagnation in the American job market has to do with lack of safety net.

    How many are like Number Three, and are in jobs past their use-by dates, and can't promote out of them, but can't leave them either because of the benefits. Causing a tremendous amount of clogging in the system, as no one's shuffling upwards or out, keeping new grads from entering the sector to gain their experience.

    Those who go out on their own, if successful, will eventually need to hire more people creating a larger job pool, etc.

    Anyone ever think about using that as a selling point for the single payer option?

  • @xynzee — I have thought about that, too — that I am blocking younger people, even some that I have hired, b/c my bosses are (rationally) risk-averse, and thus the [clients'] are used to me, and they don't get to see the junior people, and thus the junior people don't bring in business . . . . For my defense, I work very hard to build up junior people, I try to develop their skills, etc. And my sense is that junior people like to work with me. So I guess I'm doing something right. But I am clogging things, and probably will be for the next 25 years . . . .

  • whoops

    "Having felt that abyss, I basically said, ‘O.K., capitalism, I have seen your gaping maw, and I want no trouble with you.’ "

    If George fucking Saunders was almost picked off by the arbitrariness of the job-sorting process, "throw caution to the wind and follow your dreams" is almost sadistic advice.

  • Yes, xynzee, I'm self-employed, and I've heard at least a dozen people in my field regret having to go back to taking a job because of health insurance—the individual rates doubled, a family member became uninsurable because of preexisting conditions. Obamacare will help a lot of people go on their own or stay on their own, and single payer would be even better.

  • I'm with xynzee here. This is pretty humdrum, practical advice, of the sort that dates back to Plutarch. If you let fear dictate what you do, you can never truly be happy.

    And, as for following "amazing dreams" and losing everything, though Plutarch and Gaiman (and Plato, et al.) were/are independently wealthy, the ancients had no more admiration for anyone than for Diogenes, who did what he wanted and lived in a barrel. Even Alexander the Great said, "If I were not Alexander, I would be Diogenes."

  • Bitter Scribe says:

    Very good post.

    Personally, I distrust all vaguely uplifting life advice.

    When I get asked, in a corporate seminar or some such, a question like "What motivates you?" I usually answer, "Avoidance of people who ask tedious questions like that."

  • I think anotherbozo got it right – it has to do with unerstanding what you really mean by your "dream". His dream is to paint – so he studied and worked and arranged his life so that he could paint. And he does. His dream was to PAINT, not to Be A Famous Painter.

    If your dream is "to be fantastically successful and famous at X and not have to work", that may not be a worthy goal to aim for – for no other reason than that you probably will fail. Most people don't have the combination of opportunity, luck, skill, talent, and dedication that it takes to be rich and famous. Did I mention that a lot of it is luck and opportunity?

    But if your dream really is to actually play guitar – or act, or dance, or paint, or work with animals, or help kids, or whatever – you will probably find a way to do it. And if it really is your dream – and not just something you think you want because society told you it was cool and glamorous – then you probably do have some aptitude for it. You wouldn't care otherwise.

    Most of the people I know who followed real dreams are reasonably successful – not rich, but doing okay. They cared enough to work at it and figure out how to do what mattered to them, somehow or other. They aren't household names, and they work in obscurity. They teach their craft to others, they work small gigs, they make art and show it in small venues, they hang out with others with similar interests to talk about it and share ideas, etc. Often they have "day jobs", or at least some other stream of income, but they manage to survive and make time for whatever it was they wanted to do.

    They live modestly and say "yeah, this is pretty much what I wanted." They don't worry about not being rich, famous, and idle, because that was never the real dream.

  • Dan Hemmens wrote a brilliant article on the fantasy of effortless achievement: if you don't enjoy dive bars and daily practice, don't think of being a rockstar; if you don't enjoy untangling RPM hell and writing unit tests, you're not going to be a six-figure software engineer. People fantasize about the result, but you'll spend orders of magnitude more time on the process.

    I really like Zen Pencils, but this sort of thing makes me furious. I can't do the rage as well as John Cheese, who actually lived in poverty, but ugh.

    I'm lucky enough to do something I love for a living, but I don't delude myself into believing that it was due to that ridiculous "do what you love" glurge.

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