On Giving Up the Dream

Matt sends me this heartbreaking email (I trimmed it down to the important pieces):

Like you, I’ve always dreamed of being a writer. I also majored in a completely different discipline in order to earn a strong income. Well, after several years of working, scrimping, and saving, I decided to quit that job and spend a year getting my dreams of writing off the ground. I had the money in the bank to do this and realized that if I didn’t give it a shot, I’d regret it.

Well, that year passed, and I was unable to publish a single thing. So I’m giving up that dream and going back to work with my previous employer.

You know, when I read this, I can’t help but think that this could easily be my story if only a few little things were different. I spent my college years and early professional years thinking off and on about being a writer, writing things in my spare time, sending things off to publishers and occasionally getting a nibble, and dreaming big. In the end, I did end up making a move like Matt, except that I already had a lot of writing opportunities in place before making the leap.

There were four words in Matt’s email that really broke my heart, though. Giving up that dream. Matt is walking away from something he’s wanted all of his life because he’s not seeing a high level of success from it.

One might think that perhaps Matt doesn’t “have what it takes” to be a writer, but I’d argue that even a whole year of focusing on writing full time isn’t nearly long enough to answer that question. I’d argue that Matt likely did not spend every working hour of that year simply writing, and even if he did, he still likely hasn’t had quite enough practice to be sure he’s actually found his writing voice and mastered his technique.

To Matt, and to anyone else who is thinking of giving up their dreams, I offer the following food for thought.

Following a dream doesn’t have to simply be an on-and-off switch. I followed my writing dream in my spare time for years before finally finding the opportunity – and building up the courage – to take it on full time.

So, if you’re thinking of taking the money and walking away from your dream, remember that it’s not such a dramatic choice. Work hard and earn a good income, but instead of just idling during your spare time, use that spare time to chase your dream.

Matt, consider this: when you go back to work, agree to devote at least an hour a day out of your spare time to keeping up with your dream. Put aside an hour in the evening when you might otherwise be watching television or idling and just simply write. Don’t worry about selling anything you write – just write and focus on getting better.

Instead of focusing on making money from your dream, focus instead on getting people interested in what you do. Take The Simple Dollar, for example. I can think of hundreds of ways that I could earn more money from the site – more aggressive advertising, content partnerships, and so on. If my focus were solely on squeezing money out of the site, I’d be following a lot of these opportunities.

But that’s not my focus. My focus is on the writing. My focus is on trying to reach as many people as possible with a positive message about turning around their financial lives. That often means saying no to opportunities for earning money.

What do I have instead? I have tens of thousands of visitors to my website each day. I have 44,000 people subscribed by RSS and email who receive the stuff I write each day. In other words, I have my dream right there. As a writer, I don’t dream of getting rich. I dream of reaching thousands of people with the written word.

By focusing on the writing first above all else, I’ve found readers, enough so that I can do what I want to do and only put up an ad or two to pay the bills. Once you connect with people, the money follows. The key is connecting first.

Reach out to people who are living your dream. Over the years, I’ve had the opportunity to meet several writers. Most of them were quite happy to talk to me, answer my questions, offer encouragement, and give me a few pointers. All it took was a respectful query (along with a realization that I had to set my sights on a realistic target – Stephen King isn’t going to answer those letters if he gets a thousand a day).

If you have an opportunity to build a friendship with a person who is doing what you dream of doing, put effort into building that relationship. Surrounding yourself with people who are actually doing interesting and amazing things creates an environment where it’s much easier for you to chase your dreams. You naturally begin to keep your eye on the ball more and begin to see what you need to do in a new light.

Even if things never work, don’t believe that you are a failure. One of my friends dreamed for years of being a comic book artist. He spent all of his spare time drawing amazing comic book-style art – stuff that, in my opinion, was superior to much of the art in mainstream comics.

After spending ten years trying to break in, he gave up. He convinced himself he was a failure, tossed out all of his art supplies, and spent years in something of a depressed haze, believing he was worthless.

He isn’t worthless. You’re not worthless. Quite often, when you’re chasing a dream, you do have your finger on the pulse of your natural talent. The only problem is that sometimes that talent isn’t being directed in the right way. Perhaps Matt has the perfect skill set for being a great technical writer. My friend (I believe) has an amazing skill set for being a scientific illustrator.

Getting knocked down doesn’t mean you are a failure. You only fail when you refuse to get back up, when you refuse to try something new, or when you stop reaching out and growing in what you do.

Good luck, Matt. Don’t give up the dream.

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