Why We Can't Always Follow Our Dreams

There’s a common misconception surrounding the idea of ‘following your dreams’ and “pursuing your passions”. It is a rhetoric that is thinly veiled beneath the hegemonic ideas of privilege and social elitism, where creatives cannot always attainably “follow their dreams” or “pursue their passions” in the same facet of others in their industry. The sad reality is that for many creatives, artists, and young adults alike, we do not always have the means, class privilege, or resource to exclusively follow our own dreams.

Photography by Kayla Mendez for Mad Sounds Issue 27 - The Dreamer's Issue

While creative careers can be challenging to obtain in their own right, it is more often the dichotomy between race, gender, and class-based privilege that distinguishes the creative ‘haves’ from the ‘have-nots’, so to speak; it is the factor which primarily defines one’s ability to take on an unpaid internship, to accept uncompensated work for publication, to connect or self-promote to more ‘elite’ networks, and to obtain higher education of one’s craft in order to more effectively turn one’s dream into a reality. Unfortunately, it is more often the marginalized and underprivileged communities of creatives who cannot afford to compete for the same dreams that so many others encourage them to chase.

Forbes contributor, J. Maureen Henderson, examines this representation of privilege within creative industries and explains that class and financial disparity commonly lead to disproportionate/unequal ability to pursue opportunities in creative work. Henderson notes: “If you aren’t financially able to shoulder the cost of working for free, you face a greater struggle when it comes to breaking into journalism, fashion and the publishing or music industries among others. And privilege runs downhill, because it’s often your educational background that opens the door to landing those coveted entry-level unpaid gigs” (Henderson, Forbes.com) With the prevalent discussion of unpaid internships at hand recently, it seems to highlight the distinct connection between privilege and accessibility in the pursuit of one’s dreams. It begs the question: what particular class or demographic does the creative industry ultimately exclude when following your dreams is only made possible through predominantly classist opportunities?

Now, the idea of “following your dreams” in order to live a more happy, meaningful life is not an inherently problematic notion in itself. It is an admirable feat to encourage young audiences to live passionately, creatively, and with the fervor to do what they love. But the inherent problem in the messaging of “following your dreams” often lies within the implicit suggestion that not following your dreams creates a comparably less happy, less fulfilling quality of life. It perpetuates the privileged ideology that taking on a '9 to 5' or an occupation that is used to make ends meet is therefore less glamorous, less desirable, or less fulfilling than the alternative. And this mentality is incredibly harmful to those who do not have the ability to pursue their dreams in this same way.

I see this discourse within many art publications and media sites that often preach a similar message—it is often a good intentioned, yet shallowly demonstrated sentiment of what pursuing your dream actually looks like for most creatives. Expressions like: “do what you love”, “follow your passions”, and “chase your dreams” are highly romanticized but oversaturated idealizations that traverse the social media sphere without any actualized meaning to follow. This idle encouragement seldom offers substantial guidance, resource, or intersectional advice on how to truly ‘make it’ in a creative field, and is only adorned by ideas of what a “fulfilled” or “meaningful” life will look like if you have the preexisting privilege to follow said ‘dreams’. This ideology fails to recognize the very real classist, gendered, and racial barriers that impede many creatives from pursuing their passions in the first place, and unconsciously undermines these social dichotomies as a result.

The sentiment of simply “following your dreams” is then reduced down to the idealistic notion that living your passion is as simple and attainable as the grammatical structure that it follows: “do what you love”, “follow your passion”: verb, subject, noun.

Photography by Kayla Mendez for Mad Sounds Issue 27 - The Dreamer's Issue

I admit to being complicit in the narrative that surrounds the many attitudes towards pursuing your passion or chasing a creative career. As a self-proclaimed writer, editor, and content creator who commonly pushes the optimistic notion of “dreaming big”, (I mean, I did an entire issue of Mad Sounds called "The Dreamer's Issue"), I am certainly not guiltless of feeding into the idea that dreams can be made through willful passion or determination. However, to not acknowledge the complexities and privileges within creative dreams or industries is to be ignorant of the social hierarchies that complicate the process of being able to do what you love or loving what you do. We simply cannot always follow our dreams, and we need to be okay with the idea of willfully accepting other opportunities as equally valuable and equally important. As a community of creatives, we need to encourage the decision to make a sometimes “safe”, “practical”, or “necessary” choice, just as vehemently as we encourage its highly romantic counterpart.

Finally, there is a crucial need for a far more intersectional, inclusive definition of the term “dreaming” and “following your dreams”. Although our dreams may not all manifest in the same, rose-colored lens, the decision to do what you must do rather than what you want should also be held in a place of honor and admiration—and this reality does not make one’s life any less fulfilling or courageous than if you can actively pursue your dream.

With this conversation in mind, I want to try to redefine our current understanding of what it means to follow our dreams and to live our best, happiest, and most ‘fulfilling’ lives as people who all appreciate creativity and art. It is largely to the benefit of ourselves and to marginalized groups that we make concerted efforts to destigmatize the belief that 'not' doing what you love is equivalent to not living a happy or fulfilled life—that the only “ideal” option in life is to follow your dreams and do exactly what you are passionate about, exactly when you want to. Every day that we are able to persevere and trek onward is yet another day closer to our own personal goals. And any form of joy, happiness, and passion that you can find in each day is an act worth celebrating.

You are doing great, and you are doing what you can. So for now, let’s keep on keeping on.