When I was nine years old, I told my parents I wanted to be a writer.
Loving and supportive and deeply pragmatic as they were, my parents patted my tiny, third-grade hand and said, “That’s great! Maybe you should get another job and write at night. See how that goes first?”
And while I resented their advice even at that young age, I followed it. For years, I taught ESL at a non-profit, coming in early and leaving late so I could write on my work computer.
For two years, I spent every 45-minute lunch break leaving comments on other blogs. I learned to live on, like, $2 because I was saving money to leap into self-employment.
While all this sounds a bit hard-assed and dire in retrospect, I’ve discovered that it’s not unique. Nearly every dream-chaser and goal-achiever I know has a similar story! Last month, Rêve Consulting invited five dream-pursuers and me to speak about what we’ve learned by chasing big, audacious ambitions. I was amazed that so many of us shared similar epiphanies!
Below, you’ll find some of my personal revelations as well as those of Tricia Khutoretsky, founder and curator of the Public Functionary art gallery, Jamie Millard co-executive director of Pollen Midwest, and my husband Dr. Kenny Blumenfeld, senior climatologist for the state of Minnesota.
12 things you learn while chasing your dreams
1. Talent’s important (but it’s not the only thing)
Let’s file this one under the heading of “simultaneously depressing and reassuring.” Being a talented, naturally gifted writer/photographer/designer/visionary is certainly helpful and it will give you a head start in any industry.
But there are a jillion things that are just as – or more – important than talent.
a watertight work ethic
connecting with people
keeping up with changes and developments in your field
good client and customer service
The talent part? That’s just one tiny sliver of the juicy, dream-pursing pie.
2. Sometimes you’ll win the race because everyone else is dropping out
There are lots of components to success but one that nobody talks about? Continuing to show up. Even when it’s hard and inconvenient and you’re not particularly inspired.
And while I mean this in a metaphorical, philosophical sense, I also mean it in the literal sense. I’ve been posting on this blog multiple times a week for seven years; 75% of bloggers quit blogging after three months. As much as I’d like to credit my success to good ideas and writing skills, the reality is part of the reason I can blog full time is because most people quit.
And this doesn’t just apply to blogging! 2.9 billion dollars of federal grant money was left unclaimed in 2014 because college students failed to fill out their FAFSA. 83% of employers struggle with hiring because they don’t have enough applicants. It’s cliché, but it’s true: most of success is just showing up.
3. Do what you say you’re going to do
A good friend of mine is a magazine editor who spends hours every day reading pitches and corralling freelancers. When asked about who she hires repeatedly, she said:
“If I have to choose between an amazing, genius writer who turns things in late and a decent writer who’s always on time and follows directions, I will hire the decent writer every single time.”
Let this be a lesson to all of us.
4. Your dream might look different than you imagined
Back 1988 when I initially announced my professional goals, I imagined that I’d make my living penning books about a family of mice who fought crime.
This has not panned out.
Instead, I write blog posts and magazine articles; I ghostwrite books for major publishers. I didn’t even know these options existed in third grade!
I imagine the same goes for you. The end game of working as an artist or designer or scientist might look different than you expected. Technology is constantly evolving and so are you. Don’t turn down opportunities just because they’re not dressed quite the way you thought they’d be. You never know where you’ll end up!
5. Surround yourself with awesome people who are strong where you are weak
Real talk: I’m not good at everything. And unless you’re Beyoncé, I’m guessing the same goes for you. I’m a good writer and idea-haver, I’m less skilled at design work, SEO, or anything involving code. So I hire those tasks out or swap with friends who are clever where I’m all “what now?”
And this isn’t just about tasks and logistics. If you’re a glass-half-empty type, do you have people in your life who can point out the silver lining? If you really, really struggle with self-promotion do you know people who will gently nudge you to talk more about your work? If you’re a late adopter, do you have a tribe of iPhone 6s plus-ers who will tell you all about Periscope?
A rising tide lifts all boats. Surround yourself with people who lift the tide and be sure you lift the tide for others as well!
6. Don’t publicize your self-doubt
A very wise friend recently pointed out that “no one will notice you’ve gained five pounds unless you go out of your way to tell them” – and I think that holds true for just about everything.
You write your own story and you get to choose how you talk about things. If you’re hosting your first gallery show, there is little benefit to telling everyone “I hate how it turned out! I can’t believe I thought those colors worked! The gallery is in such an uncool neighborhood!”
How can you expect people to believe in you and your work if it sounds like you don’t believe in it? Of course, all of us struggle with insecurities but it’s probably best to save those for deep-and-meaningfuls with your BFF, not the launch of your new product.
7. Lack of resources is not an excuse
When my friend Tricia wanted to repaint a wall in her gallery to accentuate a new piece of art, she realized that the budget couldn’t accommodate several fresh cans of Benjamin Moore.
The gallery didn’t have money for new paint, but they did have two old cans of blue paint and half a can of grey. Mix ‘em together = problem solved.
If it’s important you’ll find a way, if it’s not you’ll find an excuse. You can shoot amazing photos with your phone. You can write your blog on your work computer, after hours (I did this for two years!). You can beg, borrow, swap. Really and truly, if there’s a will, there’s a way
8. Trust the process
Are you doing everything you should be doing? Are you working hard, showing up, and connecting with people? Are you trying new things? Are you sharing your work?
If you are, it’s pretty damn likely that you’re (eventually) going to get where you want to go. It won’t happen overnight and it probably won’t even happen this year, but have faith in yourself and your hard work. If you’re doing the work, it’ll probably work out. Click To Tweet
9. And then find a way to enjoy the process
At the risk of sounding cheesy, chasing a dream is generally a journey, not a destination.
It is usually a loooong process and while there may be milestones – becoming gainfully self-employed, landing the job you always wanted, getting a book deal – few of us ever truly feel like we’ve ‘arrived.’
So find a way to make your dream-chasing sustainable and enjoyable. Make sure you take breaks and vacations. Get enough sleep, water, and movement in your daily life. Talk to people who are pursuing similar dreams. Celebrate the little wins. Be honest with yourself about the amount of time and energy you’ll need to pursue this dream and either adjust your other obligations accordingly or put yourself on a slower, gentler, more realistic calendar.
As a side note: if you can’t find a way to enjoy the process you should, perhaps, reconsider why you’re doing it. Because it’s pretty much all process.
10. Celebrate the little wins as much as the big ones
When you’re spending months – and even years – going hard out on your dream, it’s easy to let celebration and commemoration fall by the wayside. Or you might be saving that bottle of champers for your first five-figure month or landing your first corporate client.
Friend, pop that cork and commit to celebrating the little wins. Pull out a notebook and write down some super doable goals and when you reach them – celebrate them. 1,000 Twitter followers? Cocktails at that fancy bar that has ‘artisan ice.’ Hiring a part-time VA and actually delegating some of your day-to-day tasks? Pedicure with rhinestones. Finally getting your email list auto-responder situation figured out? SPA DAY.
11. If something’s taking you in the direction of your dream, do more of it. If it’s not, do less of it.
Do you dream of creating art for a living? Then, yes! Snap up that opportunity to be featured in the art show your friend curated!
Is it your dream to spend all your free time on Pinterest and all your disposable income at Forever 21? No? Then maybe do less of that.
When you’re presented with an opportunity, an invitation, an idea or a request, ask yourself “Is this moving me closer to or further away from my dream?” If the answer is the latter, I think you know what to do.The choices you make pave the road to your dream. Pay attention to the stepping stones you’re laying down. Click To Tweet
12. To get love, you have to give love
That’s sweet, isn’t it? I mean this in the larger sense, of course, but also in the pragmatic, business sense. Be kind to the people in your life, celebrate birthdays and big wins. Tell people you appreciate them.
In the professional realm, support work that inspires you; promote people and organizations who are doing work you believe in. Share your knowledge. When you make a mistake and learn from it, tell us about it so we can avoid that same trap. Go to that book launch or gallery opening. Tweet about your friend’s new product.
When you inevitably need support or insight or promotional tweets, all those people you’ve loved will love you back.
So tell me! Are you actively pursuing a dream? If you are, what have you learned along the way?
P.S. Want 1-on-1, customized support chasing your dreams? I do that!
11. IF SOMETHING’S TAKING YOU IN THE DIRECTION OF YOUR DREAM, DO MORE OF IT. IF IT’S NOT, DO LESS OF IT.
Yes! Great reading this today. Printing that quote out and tacking it on the bulletin board!
It’s both oddly easy and oddly hard, isn’t it? 😉
Loved reading this! Sticking to it, really is SO important.. even when you want to flip a table haha!
I love your quotation, “most of success is just showing up.” I’m writing that in my journal for sure. Thank you for your wise words in this blog. You’ve given me more courage to continue to #daretodream.
Get it, girl! Showing up is one of the most underused ‘tactics’ in success!
Awesome post, Sarah! I normally just read all your posts via Feedly, but I just had to pop over to the site to tell you how much I loved this. As a current college student, it’s reassuring to hear a few tips to help make it as a writer without collapsing under the weight of it all. Stay awesome!
Thanks so much for popping over Kendall! I read in Feedly too and I know how rare it is that click over! 😉
Girl, I needed this. I sway from “Hell yes I can do this” to “I’m a failure where is my life going” constantly. I’m pursuing my dream to be a self employed wedding and portrait photographer 🙂 this was awesome thank you!
You can doooo iiitttt! <3
What if your dream IS to actually Pin all day? 😉
I really loved this post! I’m having one of those weeks where my dreams seem so far out of reach and reading this makes me realise I just need to keep at it. Also, how awesome that you knew from such a young age what you wanted to do in life! <3
Pinning for a living! That’s probably a thing! 😉
So glad you enjoyed it – thanks for commenting!
I have pinned for cash… It’s a thing!
Oh wow, please tell me how to do this thing.
Sarah, I absolutely love this post! It strikes the perfect balance between reassurance and realism on one hand, and encouragement to aim higher, on the other hand. I’ll definitely be sharing this one…
So glad you liked it, Julie!
Thank you thank you! Making plans to go back to school (!) in January for a career in healthcare and I am totally nervous- chemistry and math, hello!! Why am I giving up a job with health insurance again? I’ve worked two jobs for two and a half years – your advice about showing up gives me courage that I can do hard things! What uncanny timing, Sarah.
<3 <3 Best of luck at school, Ashley!
This makes me really happy to read, Sarah. Yay you! And as someone who started a blog to make a real go of it as a writer too, I can confirm everything above is true… Instead of pony books I may be doing scripts and websites but the joy is still there.
Yes! Yes. High five, us! <3
Your passion for your work, and for helping people, really shines through – well, in everything you write, but especially this time. Though (as a “not only is the glass half empty, but I’ll probably end up spilling it, and I’m too lazy to put it in the sink” type), this post makes me wonder: is it sad that I’ve never wanted anything badly enough to put the work in? Does that mean I’m satisfied with my life, or just lazy? (And, as the aforesaid lazy pessimist, am I harshing all y’all optimists’ mellow commenting here?)
1. Thank you! That compliment really means a lot <3
2. I agree with Katie below. I'd guess that your life might already be awesome or you just haven't found your thing yet!
3. There are pleeeeenty of things (re: abs) that I kind of want but am not really willing to work for. So, you're not totally alone 😉
You are such a sweetheart! Thanks for brightening my day.
I so appreciate BUN’s post because I have a chronic illness that sometimes makes my only dream be Netflix, and I can’t throw myself toward my dreams and make sacrifices like some other people. But I don’t think that’s what the comment was getting at. I think it’s only sad if it makes you sad. Do you accidentally have all the things in your life already that make you happy? Then that is kick-ass awesome. If not, and you’re not sick, then you probably just haven’t found that thing yet that would excite you. That was still accidentally optimist, blech, sorry.
Super well said, Katie!
Thank you Katie! I too have a chronic illness, though I’m lucky in that mine is mostly a nuisance – but I know that feeling when you’re just too tired to get up off the couch and do STUFF. And I’m pretty happy with my life – for all that I’m usually a “type A personality” (just ask my co-workers how many times I’ve threatened to go downtown and throw rocks at a vendor’s building until they give me the data I need), I’m not terribly ambitious – I’m one of those weird people who loves their work and I’m not even a “creative”. So I think I’ll tell myself that it’s because my life is pretty great, rather than me being a lazy lump (I mean, I am, but my life is great too 🙂 ). I feel better now thanks to you and Sarah. Y’all did your good deed for the day 😀
So good to hear, thank you Bun!
This is such a great list. #6 really got me! I thought that being transparent about the highs and lows was important but maybe you’re right, focusing/ publicizing the good allows others to do the same. Thank you!
— Melody // http://www.marevoli.com
I love this! And basically everything you write, I’ve been following your blog on and off over the years and really admire what you are doing 🙂 I’m following my dream to be a full time writer and I’m stoked to say I’m getting there bit by bit! I suppose one thing I’m really struck by when I look back over the last few years is that my work and success has a pretty natural upward curve, and I’ve got to both respect and trust it. I’ve been working hard for years, but I’ve come to learn that I can’t force it to move faster than it is. It’s also very comforting to remind myself “It’s worked out in the past, why shouldn’t it work out now? Something will come up”.
Another fun, unrelated mantra I enjoy is “If you like it and it feels good, keep doing it”.
Oh, thanks so much Anna! It always makes my day to hear someone’s a long-time reader!
And you’re totally right. If it’s worked out in the past, it’ll probably work out in the future. Last year, I was trying to lose a few pounds and had been really systematically tracking calories and exercise and felt really frustrated that the things weren’t happening faster.
My husband reminded me that this stuff isn’t magic. If you do the work – in this case, eating less and moving more – what you want will happen. Like, it’d be weird if it didn’t. I’m not going to be the exception to the rule that fewer calories and more exercise DOESN’T equal weight loss. (And if it really doesn’t, there are probably larger issues at play, you know?)
It’s a weird parallel to draw, but I think you see what I’m saying 😉
Can we still read the story about the crime fighting mouse family? I have a feeling it would be epic! 😉
YES. Crime fighting mice would definitely be my jam (see “The Great Mouse Detective”/Basil of Baker Street) so you should definitely do that.
This was just what I needed to read today. Thank you. Some days just turning up is all I can manage, it’s good to hear that it’s worthwhile.
Argh! Yay! Gag! Whoop!
Yep, just making some noises as I read this article and reflect on the pitch I just maybe failed/ maybe succeeded at making to an Entrepreneurs Incubator Program here in Bristol. Leading my start-up and coaching my team and my company through this roller-coaster world is the biggest challenge I’ve ever undertaken. Your message here couldn’t hits my little “pie-in-the-sky” heart like Cupid’s fiery arrow right now. Guess what’s on my list of little successes today? *Finally* reading a full “Yes and Yes” post. And guess what today is, which I almost forgot to celebrate? My Birthversary (the anniversary of my birthday).
Thanks for your help.
<3 <3 Emily
Oops! Couldn’t hits = hits! Do I mention I’m on my iPhone on a train? #expatproblems
THIS WAS WONDERFUL.
Excellent post. The only thing I would suggest is to know the Five Stages of Performing (even if you aren’t a performer they are built in to our brains). The article refers to several of them, but needs to add #3 Integration: without taking the time to literally review your vision, you start feeling like things aren’t all together, and undermines your confidence. Also add #5 Evaluation: Working hard on your goals without checking once in a while on how you’re doing and whether you’re getting closer to your goal, creates a feeling of flailing .
Oooh! I’ve never heard of that – thanks for the head’s up, Michael!
“If you can’t find a way to enjoy the process you should, perhaps, reconsider why you’re doing it. Because it’s pretty much all process.” I love this! Thank you for such a helpful/comforting/grounding article.
This really hit home for me! Thank you for writing such truthful words!