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Tuesday, 5 April 2016

Never mind your dreams

"Will you stop telling my child to follow her dreams!" my friend snapped while telling me about the umpteenth animated film he had sat through with his hatchling.

He wasn’t exhorting me, he was exhorting the makers of the film for once again mining such an unimaginative seam for their central moral message. He had no argument from me, I understood. It’s not just that the message is somewhat overdone and obvious, clich├ęd and glib, it’s that the incessant drilling of such un-moderated aspirational spaff as "follow your dreams" is possibly damaging.

What? Damaging? Did I just say that? What kind of shrivelled, bitter old cynic am I? It’s a bit like saying "Yeah, love and understanding is over-rated", "Hugs are for losers" or "That Hitler guy was alright, y’know?"; but hold your Twitter-style backlash for just one sock-darning minute. It is not my intention at all to play the cynical curmudgeon here (for once) – in fact quite the opposite. I promise you, in my own perverse way, I will be working towards an arguably positive, touchy-feely message of a different sort by the time we are done here.

But first we have to wade through some hard-nosed realism, at least in a vague, cursory way, so shush and buckle up.

Side-bowl of sh*t

Young people especially tend to look at one with horror when one sneers at the "follow your dreams" mantra, and it’s very difficult to explain oneself. Because, I suppose, my position is a response to age, to having been about a bit and seen the outcome of dream-following - or otherwise - in oneself and others.

When you get to the point in your life where there is no doubt various ships have sailed, possibilities have narrowed and binding responsibilities have abounded, it really does all look a bit different, not to mention that you learn about the rather more shoddy, chaotic and still-oft-mundane reality of even the most high-powered and glamorous positions. So many "dreams" are simple fantasy and mirage – like an American tourist arriving in Peckham when they expected Britain to all be fairytale castles, bowler hats and tea. Other "dreams" come with a slew of unpalatable personal requirements and nature-of-the-beast necessities, making demands on your time, energy and integrity, that go a long way to taking the shine off. But if you’re not prepared to stomach that side-bowl of sh*t than you can’t reasonably say you "I could have been this or I could have been that".

It’s not just personal experience I'm grumbling from, I know friends and contemporaries of all permutations: Those who have followed whims and passions or those who have trod a safe, tried and tested path; those who have jumped careers multiple times and those who have stayed in the same one since early adulthood; those who have moved towns or even countries and those who still live where they grew up; those who are deeply entrenched in the corporate rat race and those who have maintained a little more independence; those who have made good money and a name for themselves and those who, well, haven’t so much...

Not one of them has an easy, uncomplicated life without compromise, stress, relationship issues, health issues, worries about "What’s it all about?", "Where’s it all going?", "Was it all worth it?", "Should I have lived my life differently?" – not one of them would say they have arrived at exactly where they wanted to be, or is vastly happier than everyone else. From the outside you may get envious looking at others, but when you talk to them properly about their problems, you quickly realise "Oh, yeah, they have their 'stuff' to deal with too." I couldn’t honestly say I’d trade places.

Every "could have" is an unknown

Because reality simply isn’t like TV, in fact TV has always done a terrible job of actually conveying what any job is actually, really, actually like, on a day-to-day basis – because it would be terribly tedious and impenetrable in its minutiae. The world of work is always infused with a little (or a lot of) strife, stress and struggle, negotiations and cut-corners, a million little petty problems to sort and demands to meet, often from unreasonable people who just don’t quite understand what is involved. This tends to be the case no matter what it is you’re doing, it turns out - even in so-called "glamour" jobs. That’s what getting things done and dealing with people is – it’s how the world muddles along.

Contrast that with the oh-so-simple dichotomy we feed our younglings with, of "follow your dreams" vs "settle for a safe and dull life". Bah! I say. Bah. For a start, I'm not even sure which I have done - I've followed some dreams up to point, I've given up and waved others on their way; I've settled at some times in some places, I've not settled at others in others...

And as if "dream vs settle" was really the only issue: What about "Is the reality of your dream what you think it is?", "Do you actually know what your dream involves?", "Are you prepared to put in the work or make the sacrifices to get there and maintain it once you do?", "If you got there are you sure you wouldn't want something else?", "How much compromise will you put up with?" and "At what point will you be able to say you’ve arrived?".

I’ve said it before – every "yes" to one thing is a "no" to something else. There will always be things you could have done otherwise, opportunities you had to let go in taking a particular path. But every "could have" is an unknown – and would come with its own unforeseen complications. And the contents of the world’s maximum security prisons are testament that it’s not always "Better to have regretted something you did than something you didn’t do".

Chronic failure issues

So here’s this black board in New York where people are asked to write up their biggest regret. And they do, and the result is rather humbling as passer-by after passer-by reveals they too have unfulfilled yearnings and missed opportunities.

But Ah! say the filmmakers, ah! (it’s actually a viral marketing vid for a university, of course, not an open-ended social experiment) – "Ah! What they all have in common is their regrets are all about not doing something." So the take-away message is supposed to be "Every passing day is another chance to turn it all around" - or to put it another way "It’s never too late to FOLLOW YOUR DREAMS! (enroll now)".

That is not the message I took away from this exercise, dear reader. No. What I took away was this: There is a whole generation of people out there with chronic failure issues because they’ve been sold the idea that life should be AMAZING all the time and everyone should be doing AMAZING things, fulfilling every ounce of potential they were ever given. If you’re not a rock star, high-powered lawyer, beach-dwelling, sky-diving scuba instructor or Steve-bloody-Jobs then, man alive, what have you been doing with your life? Haven’t you heard? YOLO, bitch! YOLO!

My God. It’s exhausting. If there is a solution to all this Sisyphean dream-chasing, it is certainly not, for my money, to renew the pressure and say "It’s not too late people, get back on the dream wagon!" I know people who do this, constantly raking over what could have been, what they haven’t got, what they couldn’t or didn’t do in the past and how it could have been different; and it's more misery-making than it is inspiring.

Stop.

My gut response is “STOP”. Stop beating yourself up about it. Life is tough and complicated and always has been. If you didn’t pursue something in the past there is probably more than good reason, even if you don't quite recall the full details – perhaps the opportunity was an illusion and never really there; perhaps you didn’t really want to do it on balance at the time; or perhaps there was just too much else going on, as life is simply not that simple.

Stop it. Sure, if you really want to try again and can try again, then bloody well do it - but if it's too much or just not possible then shrug and go "meh", and divert your attention and energy elsewhere. There is nothing you were "supposed" to be. Instead of agonising over where you "should" be or what you "should" have, start enjoying what you do have; striving for what is possible and within reach now, not ten years in the future; making the most of where you are and the people you are with; finding ways to do what you enjoy and enjoy what you do in the life you have. Start living that life, this life, not the imaginary one hanging over you like an albatross. Please.

If there is one "take-away message" from this video, it is that everyone has the same issues in their own way, so it’s normal and ok. Take comfort – most people also feel they missed opportunities, perhaps didn’t quite find their niche, perhaps don't have everything in their life as they'd like it, even if they seem to have it sorted to you, from the outside. Regrets are normal and fine. There is always more work to be done.

Not every square peg finds a square hole, and that’s ok – life would be dull and predictable if they did, and nothing would ever change. 

Moby Dick *spoilers*

Of course, I would never tell anyone not to "follow their dreams" – everyone’s dreams are too personal and deep-rooted for us to really understand from the outside, and it’s not for anyone else to say what any individual should do with them. But as general life advice, "follow your dreams" is just too simple and too ill-defined for me to whole-heartedly endorse; it has to be tempered with self-awareness, worldly wisdom and strategy – especially as it can be massively destructive and dysfunctional to pursue some things beyond a certain point. After all, it basically is the plot of Moby Dick, and that didn’t end well.

But while to me the urge to "follow my dreams" looks increasingly irrelevant with age, a less ambitious but related urge only seems to be increasing – the need to take time to appreciate things and recognise, seek out and do the things that give me joy, however small or seemingly trivial. Never mind high-powered ambition, it's following my passions in spite of the requirements of the day-to-day world that has become important to me, as a matter of maintaining robust mental heath and wellbeing - making room in my life for the continued presence of the things I enjoy and am interested in, whether it gets me anywhere in particular or not – it’s doing these things that make life better, here and now, not chasing any fantasy goal to attain somewhere in the future.

See, told you it would get touchy-feely.