You know, I get lot of “follow-your-dreams” style questions around here. Should I or shouldn’t I? Usually there’s a money issue involved; otherwise, why wouldn’t you follow your dreams?
Unfortunately, it seems few of us “dream” of jobs that pay a truckload of money, are easy to get and easy to do. I guess that’s because there aren’t any. That leaves us with three basic types of “dream job”:
1) Those that pay big bucks and are very rewarding, but require LOTS of advanced knowledge and study that you may or may not be able to hack. You know, brain surgery, rocket science, heart surgery, inventing the cure for cancer — that type of thing.
2) Those that pay big bucks and are lots of fun, and DON’T require any advanced knowledge per the above — and because of that are so overcrowded with competition that any one person’s odds of making it are very slim. Here, I’m talking about actors, models, rock stars, rappers, etc.
3) Those that are extremely enjoyable, satisfying and fulfilling, but pay shit. This is the biggest group. I’m sure we could put our heads together and list thousands of these, but let’s stick with: teaching, religion, writing, art, dance, community service. Basically, most things that involve foregoing a profit motive in order to directly help people who need it — poor people, sick people, kids, etc. If you want to do any of that stuff, big bucks are probably not in your future (although there are exceptions, and I hope you’re one of them).
A lot of the advice you hear on this site (sometimes from me, but more often from the community of commenters) is to follow those dreams, whatever they are. Sometimes doing so pays off, but other times, it just leads to a lot of — well, broken dreams. And when Adrian wrote me the note below, that got me to thinking: Is the whole “follow your dreams” thing a good idea to preach, or is it just setting you up for pain and disillusionment later on? First, though, I’ll let Adrian talk:
First of all, I really appreciate your daily advice. Here’s my situation. I want to become a medical missionary, maybe through getting a master’s degree in public health.
Cool. You could probably be a medical missionary without that degree, too, if you wanted. Just sayin’, if cost is a factor.
However, my real passion lies in music composition and recording. My grandma tells me that pursuing music isn’t practical, though, and that to make a living I need to pursue something else (she’s also against me becoming a missionary).
Grandma sounds like a real downer, although I get where she’s coming from. She doesn’t want to see you starve. Parents and grandparents have been telling their kids that music isn’t practical for eons. Then again, if everyone listened, there’d be no rock, metal, hip-hop, jazz, blues, country, electronica, or — well, you get the picture.
My grandparents have convinced me that I should try to save up enough money to pay for school without falling into debt. So right now I’m trying to find work in medical coding and billing, which, by their suggestion, I became certified in through a couple correspondence courses (through the U.S. Career Institute).
If you’re even a semi-regular around this site, you know that I’m all about keeping student loan debt to a minimum. But it’s a rare person who can get through an entire college education with ZERO debt. Like most double-edged swords in life, if you must use debt, moderation is the key. Should you rack up $120,000 in loans for a private school’s Master’s in Public Health program? Probably not. But should you turn down any opportunity for educational advancement because you don’t have the full tuition bill sitting in your checking account right now? No, that’s even worse, I think.
So far I haven’t had much luck, even with offering my services as just a volunteer. I’m sure part of it is in the fact that I live in a part of Oregon that (at least a few months ago) had the second highest unemployment rate in the nation and the fact that we’re in a recession. Even if I do find work, it seems like it would take me forever to earn enough to pay for school.
Well, if medical coding is a skill that you can’t even give away for free, then it’s not a good fallback for you. You’re better off waiting tables or working at McDonald’s, because even in ridiculously high-tax, economically-ravaged Oregon, people still have to eat. And you still need money!
So I’m stuck between avoiding student debts and being stuck potentially at getting by with a minimum wage job. I’m honing my music skills in my free time, learning what I need to know to do what I have a passion for. I’m itching to go back to college (I’ve already done some general study) where I can be a college student again, but don’t want to fall into debt, but don’t want to have to wait forever to earn enough money to avoid the debt, even if I can get a job where I can save up that much money.
Adrian : )
Without much more than minimum-wage skills, you’ll never be able to save the money a person would need to pre-pay for college. That’s just not going to happen. My best advice to you on the schooling front is to enter a community college and start knocking out your general-education requirements. Community college is a great place to do that for the lowest possible price. (You may also find fellow musicians, fans, potential groupies, etc., there).
I do think you probably need to choose, though, whether your top priority is the medical missionary work or music (and just for the record, what specifically are we talking about with regard to music? Composing? Electric-guitar shredding? Managing up-and-coming Pacific Northwestern rappers?). Not that you can’t work toward both of them, but educationally speaking, they’re divergent paths.
While you’re figuring that out, keep your debt load as low as possible by doing general courses at a community college and working. That’ll probably take you a year or two, and by then, you’ll have had time to look into the possibilities for medical missionary-ing or whatever your music interests are, and take the next steps are toward them.
Yeah, so back to the whole issue of whether telling someone to follow his/her dreams is B.S. You know, it seems obvious to me that there’s a superior answer to this question 95% of the time, and it goes like this:
Follow your dreams, but have a backup plan. Surely someone’s told you this along the line, right? If not, then your trusted advisors have done you wrong.
The backup plan is key. Failing to emphasize a practical backup career and instead blindly telling people to follow their dreams at all costs and “everything will work itself out” is the worst kind of malpractice from anyone in a trusted-advisor role (and I’m specifically talking about counselors, parents, grandparents, etc.). It’s what people say who are too lazy to help you think through your real options, and in that case, you need to find new advisors.
Now, if the person who tells you that has a secret stash of millions waiting to bail you out if you fall flat on your face after investing your life in your dream career.
But seriously, I have very little patience for people who abuse their roles as trusted advisors by glossing over the sometimes-harsh realities of life. For instance, you may decide to study dance, become a dancer, then come home to your old hometown and open a successful dance studio that makes you very happy and satisfied, which is exactly what my friend Andrea Muehl did in my town.
Or, you may decide to study dance, incur a lot of student loans to get your dance degree, not get many dancing gigs, decide it’s too hard, and end up working at a Nordstrom makeup counter your whole life to make your ungodly student loan payments, regretting what might’ve been had you made different choices.
Both of these things are entirely possible. Your advisors owe it to you to present you with both scenarios before you make up your mind. You are a big boy/girl. You can handle it.
If you’re going to chase your dreams, you also should realize as EARLY as possible the things you may have to give up in order to achieve them. To stick with the dancing example, don’t confuse “realizing my dream as a professional dancer” with “realizing my dream as a professional dancer AND having every material possession and freedom that all of my other friends with better-paying and more-flexible jobs have.” They are not the same thing, trust me.
Long story short: you may have to give up a lot of things that other people take for granted in order to live the dream. Are you willing to do it? Are you willing to rent a shabby apartment in a rough neighborhood while your friends are buying their first (or maybe even second) home? Are you willing to drive a 14-year-old car long after your friends with a steady salary have new ones? Are you willing to finish a hard day of work at the job you love — to go work another 5 hours at a part-time job you hate, just to pay the bills?
These are the REAL questions you have to ask yourself before jumping off the “follow your dreams” cliff. If you’re willing to tackle those risks and consequences, then you’re ready to follow your dreams. If not, you may want to re-think them.
Having said all that, you need to hear this true story:
There was a dude who went to the same school as I did, the University of Missouri School of Journalism, a few years before I did. He was a good student, apparently, but get this — THREE WEEKS before graduation, he decided to ditch his education, packed up everything and moved to Hollywood to try acting. I’m serious. Three weeks before graduation.
If that guy wrote me today, I’d have told him that he was beyond lunacy. What difference would three weeks make? If he could make it in Hollywood right now, he could make it three weeks from now, right? Right.
Turns out that dude was Brad Pitt. And despite him completely ignoring the advice I would’ve given him, he’s done OK for himself. 🙂
Take all that for what it’s worth, and let me know what you think in the comments section below.