Selling Out or Funding Your Dream?
Sometimes it’s hard to tell the difference
There’s a nice fantasy we have about people who risk it all to achieve their dreams. It generally goes something like this: tortured artist gives up money, relationships, mental health, and a generally normal existence to devote every ounce of energy they have toward making their dream come true. After hitting rock bottom and almost giving up, their persistence pays off when they are rewarded with critical acclaim, money, fame, and success at the eleventh hour. Just before they would have become a complete loser.
We also punish those people who decide early on that making money is necessary for continuing to follow their hearts and chase their dreams. We call them sell-outs for writing commercially viable songs or books. We chastise them for taking the easy way out, for not suffering for their art enough.
It seems that these are the only two narratives we have for pursuing creative work: Give up everything for your art and subsist on side hustles and service industry work until you make it or sell out and make the dough up front then spend the rest of your life doing what you want while deflecting the criticism of the masses.
But there is a third way. You can work a full-time professional job while still pursuing your dream on the side. This way is harder in some aspects (exhaustion, focus, time constraints) and easier in others (regular paycheck, insurance, paid time off). The most dangerous part of the third way is losing sight of your dream altogether, especially if you are particularly successful and talented in your day job.
Nearly three years ago, when I lost my job and decided to use my money and time to chase my dream of becoming a published author, it seemed that the best way to do it would be to forgo regular employment and dedicate my time to honing my writing skills while (hopefully) earning money from my writing, and completing a book. I have realized a portion of that dream. I am making a small monthly income from my writing and one of my three completed manuscripts is currently being considered for publication.
However, the freedom of not working a regular job while I write has come at a price, especially since my pandemic divorce has forced me to spend a good portion of my savings on buying a new car, putting a roof over my head, and tackling all the household bills myself.
I am now having to face financial reality — I can no longer hold out hope that my divorce settlement will solve all my money problems because it probably won’t. With two kids who need health insurance if my ex decides to make good on his promise to quit his job, I just can’t take that chance.
So I’ve started applying for jobs again, even though I am deathly afraid that if I land a full-time position that pays enough to replenish my bank account and provides benefits for my family, that I will have effectively put an end to my writing career. I am afraid that I won’t have the time and energy to devote to my writing. I am afraid of selling out. I am afraid of giving up on my dream in order to put food on the table.
Which brings me to the question, when is making money selling out and when is it simply a means to continue your dream? When is it smart rather than sleazy? When is it necessary? How can we tell the difference? Most importantly, how can we truly continue to follow our dreams while working another full-time job?
I think the answers to this dilemma lie more in our mindset than in our external circumstances. Looking back on my life to people I have known who have managed to continue following their dreams despite the challenges, I have identified three very important aspects of their mindset: Intention, identity and focus.
What is your true intention in seeking full-time employment? Is it really to just pay the bills and obtain health insurance or are you looking for some relief from the constant striving to become a success in your creative endeavors? Sometimes the lure of a regular paycheck and paid vacations sounds like heaven. Sometimes you long for someone else to tell you what to do instead of making all the decisions for yourself. Nothing is wrong with either of these things, but if you aren’t clear about your intentions, you can waste years telling yourself that once you get the cash together, then you’ll follow your dreams.
It rarely works that way. A dream deferred is a dream killed. You have to keep working on your dream even while working a nine to five if you want to succeed. Sometimes we tell other people we are seeking employment as a way to fund our dreams when we know deep down that we are giving up because it was just getting too hard to keep going.
So what do you do? The answer to that question is a dead giveaway about your priorities and your comfort level with living your dream. I landed my first managerial job when I was in my late twenties. I would come in before every one else and stay until after midnight. I was getting almost no sleep, losing weight, and was generally miserable just trying to turn around the ailing business.
One of my employees, a man nearing forty, promptly clocked out every day, often when he could have received overtime pay if he had stayed, in order to pursue his true dream as a singer/songwriter/musician. I was insanely jealous of his life and his drive to keep working at what he loved while I toiled away each day at a job I hated just for the paycheck.
If you asked him what he did, he replied he was a musician, despite the fact that the majority of his income came from working for me. But that wasn’t who he was, in his mind. He was a musician who happened to work another job. Identifying yourself by your dream makes it real and lets the world know exactly what’s important to you. It can also keep you going when you feel like a failure and it would be easier just to say to hell with the whole thing. Identity is important.
What do you do each day as soon as you wake up? What do you do last thing before you go to bed? How do you spend your weekends? Your lunch hour? Immediately when coming home from the office?
If you truly want to succeed at your dreams, they have to remain in the forefront of your mind despite the demands of your paying job and your personal life. You have to find a way to carve out time to think about and execute your creative plans. You have to remain focused on your goal and keep your eyes on the prize.
It is easy to tell yourself that you are too tired to write that chapter after working all day. It is understandable that getting up two hours early to practice your guitar will make it more difficult to stay awake during that 2:00 p.m. meeting. No one will blame you if your priorities for the weekend include lying in bed til noon and playing with your kids. But then again, most people are sleepwalking through life and not trying to live their dreams. You can’t let your need to pay the bills take your focus away from your creative work. Running on autopilot has never led to greatness.
So, I’m going to do whatever I have to do to keep myself afloat financially during this time of adversity, but I’m not going to forget who I am and what I want out of life. I am a writer, I want people everywhere to read my work, and I will continue following my path no matter how I spend the hours between nine and five.
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