on the aftermath of not doing what you love

I’ve been at my job for 17 years. It’s not the job I wanted — a civil servant is not something I ever dreamed of being — and this is certainly not where I envisioned myself at 52 years old. I took this job as a temporary fix, something to get me through a rough financial time in my life. “I’ll save up some money then get back on track with my dreams,” I thought. “This is just a brief detour.”

17 years later, my dreams derailed, my hopes for myself dashed, I often find myself laying awake at night imagining what my life would be like if I just threw caution to the wind and pursued my dreams.

I was already 36 when I took that job. To be honest, my dreams were derailed before then by unexpected life circumstances, suspect choices and bad, if well meaning, advice. I was always told to go with what’s safe. To look for a job with benefits and a retirement plan, to think about the future. I was discouraged from pursuing writing as a career because it entailed none of those things I was tasked to find in employment. I listened to the misguided advice because our elders know best, right? I put aside what I wanted, what I needed, what I dreamed about and took what was handed me in my 30s because I couldn’t make my own version of reality work in my 20s.

Looking back, I can see where I went wrong, where I gave up and turned the car around looking for a different, more suitable to my needs exit. I hated to leave that road, the one that took me back to college, the one that saw me motivated and hopeful for the future. I didn’t just leave that road. I drove off a cliff. I left a good university to to work full time because my life situation demanded it. I had 18 credits to go. I never went back. I got married. I had two kids. I got divorced. I found myself managing a restaurant and I liked it enough until the owner decided to retire and close the place. I was at a crossroads. What do I do now? Where do I go? I dreamed of finishing my degree and pursuing a career in sports writing. I’d work on my novel on the side. But I needed money and the civil service job was dropped in my lap. Temporary, I thought. Temporary.

Seventeen years later. I’ve written some freelance pieces. I publish a little magazine of very short stories every other week that people seem to like. I’m at the editing stage of the novel I’ve been working on for ten years. But it’s not what I want. Not what I dreamed. My full time job is not something I love and that fills me with a sense of dread.

People wonder why I have told my daughter, now 25, to follow her dreams. Why I encouraged her to quit her job at town hall before it was too late and she’d find herself there seventeen years later, wondering if she blew her chance. She’s teaching yoga now. Pursuing a side career in music photography. Sure, she works at Starbucks while she’s doing these other things, but she is also doing what she loves.

I’ve been shamed for telling my daughter to pursue her dreams, as if that’s a bad thing. But I come to this with the knowledge of what it’s like to let your dreams die. My wishes for her to do what she loves are born of my own existential dread. I don’t want to see her seventeen years from now full of regret, a hollow place in her soul where fulfillment should be. I don’t want her to wake up every morning wondering how life could have been different, lumbering off to a job she didn’t want thinking about the life she doesn’t have.

The safe job isn’t always the right job. The “right” way isn’t always just that. There are definitely times to think about yourself, to put your needs first, and deciding on how your future will unfold is one of them. To be at the cusp of something exciting, to be standing at the edge of your dream and then to let it go to play it safe is not something I recommend. I’ve been told that the phrase “do what you love” is a bad thing, a push toward entitlement, a reckless thing to tell a young person.

I think it’s more reckless to do something you don’t want to be doing, when you have the chance to do what you enjoy. It’s reckless to doom yourself to a life of being wide awake at 3am, wondering if it’s too late to get yourself on track, then falling asleep only to dream about a life that never was. I speak from the experience of one who never tried her hand at doing what she loved. I never even had the chance to fail at it.

My own experience makes me want to shake you by the shoulders and scream at you to go for it. Go out there and pursue a career in something you’re passionate about. Use those skills you’re proud to have. Let your talent shine. Do not follow the path of least resistance or you’ll find yourself lost. Do what you love, or at least make the attempt to do that.

Chase your dreams. Or your dreams will chase you.