• Stop following your dreams! (or why Joss Whedon & Adam WarRock were depressed)

“Follow your dreams.” 

A mental picture immediately arises at this phrase.  Maybe it sits in your brain somewhere next to rainbows & unicorns.  Or maybe your mind goes to those American Idol-ish kids who want SO bad to be a singer, but they are vocally & socially terrible at it.

The phrase “follow your dreams” has an air of UN-reality to it.  I mean, dreams aren’t real right?  They are things we WAKE UP FROM, born in our imagination.  Things that get in the way of “real life.”  It’s something lazy people do when they don’t want to get a real job, right?

But I don’t think “following your dreams” is an accurate description of what that phrase really implies when people use it.

I think a more accurate phrase is FULFILLING WHAT YOU WERE MEANT TO DO. 

Whether we believe in a divine creator or not, I don’t think it’s a far stretch for us to believe that we were put on this earth for a reason.  That our life has a PURPOSE.

Riki Lindhome recently had a fantastic interview with Joss Whedon (Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Firefly, the Avengers) on her Making It podcast.  Riki talks with Whedon about a particularly dark period of his writing career and she asks him if he wrote every day during this time.  His response:

“You know, not every day.  Sometimes I’d go weeks without writing and then I’d be depressed and I wouldn’t be able to figure out why.  It’d be like ‘I don’t know why I’m depressed!’  And then I’d be like ‘Oh, I’m not writing.  So stupid.’  Like, every time I’d forget.”

Anyone who connects with the phrase “fulfilling what you were meant to do” can relate to what he’s saying here.  For Whedon, his decision to be a writer is not a choice.  It’s not a “dream.”  It’s not a cop-out.  It’s WHO HE IS.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve found myself in the very same position, sitting around, being bummed out, but not understanding why.  Circumstances may be in my favor on any given week, but if I’m not writing, I don’t feel alive.

Eugene Ahn, the pop-culture hip hop artist better known as Adam WarRock, recently posted his inspiring story over at youoffendmeyouoffendmyfamily and it’s totally an amazing read.

Being drawn to hip hop in college, Ahn nevertheless put his head down, graduated and became a lawyer.  He talks about this difficult period is his life:

“For four years, I stopped making music, and really doing anything creative. When you’re in school, you can put your head down and focus. You have goals. You have stuff to get done, whether you like it or not. When you have a job, you come home at the end of the day and just sit there. You wait for the next day of work. It took me about four months to realize I had fallen into a deep depression. I was drinking by myself, a lot. I was refusing to go out, I was always tired. One of my best friends, a former hobbyist rapper himself, pulled me out of the mire and told me that I needed to make music again… I reluctantly agreed, and suddenly everything cleared away. Suddenly I was making music every night again.”

“When I first stepped on stage to perform, I could’ve made myself throw up if I just let a different stomach muscle flex in a weird way. But when I start performing, I lose all sense of self awareness. I lose inhibition. I don’t feel scared, I don’t feel insecure, I don’t feel anxiety. I just feel like I’m the person I should be.”

This to me doesn’t sound like someone who is “following his dreams.”  It’s not some random desire that pops into Ahn’s brain.  He is empty without making music.  It makes him who he is.  Being on stage is like being at home.  And I know most of us can relate to that feeling.  This is what it means to fulfill what you were meant to do.

Another important difference between the two phrases is that “following your dreams” implies that one day you magically arrive at your dreams, whereas “fulfilling what you were meant to do” is more immediate.  It’s something you can wake up and do every day.  Success really has nothing to do with it.  That period of time that Joss Whedon references above – none of his scripts were getting made.  Yet, just the very act of writing fulfilled his purpose.  I believe 100% in setting goals and achieving them, but we don’t need to find “success” in order to fulfill our purpose.

So lets leave the fruity “follow your dreams” talk at the door…  What’s inside of you dying to get out?  What are you built to do?  What gives you energy?  What inspires you?  What makes you feel like you’re at home?  What pulls you out of those moments of depression?  What gets you up in the morning?

What were you meant to do? 

And the answer to that should leave no question as to where you should be spending your time and energy.

  1. Des said:

    I love this point of view. How interesting. But what happens if you don’t know what you were meant to do? That is the
    quarterlife crisis question. Well, for me, it’s been dragging on really. Having had two careers by 25 I had had enough of both of them and felt like a change. And that’s where my momentum stopped. Hoping to find it soon.

    • Hey Des! Well the wonderful thing about being 25 is you’ve got more time and energy than you’ll ever have again. I’m on my 4th passion right now. I started out working with youth, then played in a band, had a successful design career, and now I’m writing. And each one of those fulfilled me… until they didn’t.

      Find something that makes you happy and do it until it no longer does. A good way of finding out “what’s next” is observing the things you really loved about your first two careers and see if there’s a 3rd that merges all that.

      • Des said:

        Totally. On my way to that I’m sure. I look forward to reading more of your blog, keep up the good work !

  2. THIS THIS THIS! I’m 50 and trying to figure out a career change for the same reasons that Joss and Eugene describe. The ‘follow your dreams’ idea doesn’t resonate with me (I have neither the talent nor the determination to be a cafe singer) but this doing what you were meant to do thing is a perfect way to think about it.

    • Thanks Kathleen! Glad it connected with you as much as it did with me.

  3. Rad post man. I saw that Joss Whedon article yesterday, but didn’t read it. I’m glad you did!

    I remember a few years back I was making a good bit of money, but was miserable. It wasn’t until I was asked to write for a website for free that I realized that I had forgot about my passion.

    I struggled financially for a while after I quit one of my jobs to pursue writing, but there’s never been a question of whether it was worth it or not.

  4. Very well said. “Follow your dreams” is a phrase that has always rankled. Translating to “fulfilling what you were meant to do” is within reach. It is achievable.

    • Thank you! It’s nice to know there are others out there with the same mindset.

  5. simonjbward said:

    Really dug this post man – for a long time it’s bugged me when people say I’m “following my dream”, even when they mean it in a supportive way – and you’ve neatly described exactly why.

  6. Excellent piece. Very thought provoking. I’m struggling to be a professional comic book writer but I’m already a writer. It’s innately who I am. Yet sometimes I use the wrong measuring stick for success and whether or not I’m fulfilling my purpose. Good to know I’m not alone. Thanks for writing this. :-)

    • Absolutely. It can be a long, frustrating process. The best measuring sticks are the things you can actually control – like productivity, level of enjoyment, and pride in your work – not putting your success in the hands of others. It’s nice to hear there are others out there that can relate.

  7. MisterHessu said:

    Great post. Great blog too. I’m currently 20 and I have multiple passions that I like to do.. I can’t pick one right now – so that’s a bit of a problem. This posted still resonated with me a lot, and fits with what I believe. One thing I found myself worrying today is the fact I want to be something sometime. Or more like: I want to do something. Something important. I guess time will tell what it is. I love creative work, and graphic design and writing are the biggest things for me. Maybe one of those is what I really want to focus on.

    • MisterHessu said:

      *post, haha.

    • Thanks man! I was the same way when I was 20 and it took a lot of trying and failing to finally land on what makes me happy. It’s tempting to want to try and accomplish all your life’s work before you’re 30, but that kind of thinking is just begging for a disappointing 30th birthday. You’ve got the time to figure it out.

      Meanwhile I’m setting a more realistic goal of accomplishing my life’s work before I turn 1000.

      • MisterHessu said:

        Haha, exactly. Great blog btw. I’ve found every post to have interesting points, and they are great reads. I also love the positive approach you have to things. There is way too much negativity in this world. Especially in Finnish blogs.. Man, I can’t stand the whiny, everything-is-horrible attitude of so many Finnish people online. Got to love straight-on positivity and hope, especially when they are presented in a fashion that makes those things justified! You seem like a very wise man. I’ll be keeping an eye on your blog for sure, and I need to read all the old posts as well. Keep up the good work!

  8. MisterHessu said:

    Reblogged this on The Ultimate DC Project and commented:
    Fulfilling what you were meant to do.. That’s what it’s all about!

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