Well, looks like Miley Cyrus really did save the day…over 500 hits yesterday! Of 7 billion people in the world .00000007 of them visited my blog yesterday. I actually have no idea if this math is right because it actually looks a little high…but I’ll take it. I guess I’ll have to keep writing about semi-naked, controversial and mildly talented pop stars if I want to keep the hits coming.
But today, I thought I’d write about another (non-Miley Cyrus-related) search term that gets viewers to my blog, this being Why don’t more people follow their dreams? I think I get this search term a lot because of a blog post I wrote on a bus from D.C to New York City a few months ago. During that bus ride, I spent the better part of four hours trying to figure out why some people accomplish just about everything they set out to do while others only visit vague notions of “in a dream world” scenarios from their cubicles or nice suburban townhouses, without any real intent of making any of these ideal scenarios reality. I have this tendency to associate cubicles and the suburbs with unrealized potential and forgotten dreams and I don’t know why I do this. In tenth grade I wrote a short story about this middle-aged guy who’s having a mid-life crisis because he looks around and although he has this great house, a nice family, disposable income and a decent job, he feels unfulfilled, like he hasn’t really accomplished what he was supposed to accomplish. When I got the story back, my English teacher wrote only six words at the bottom of my story: “Not everybody bottoms out at mediocrity.” For some reason those words have stayed with me for almost 15 years and I’ve even used them in some of my blog entries. Not everybody bottoms out at mediocrity. It’s so true. So many people live these extraordinary, ordinary lives. Some people know how to live, how to enjoy the present and live these great, fulfilling lives and others don’t. I think I’ve gotten better, but I’m still trying to learn to live in the present and make the most of every moment.
But even though I know that “not everybody bottoms out at mediocrity” because a well-lived life is anything but mediocre, I can’t help wondering: How many people end up doing exactly what they’ve always wanted to do? How many people have you heard say “I wish I could live in New York?” Often, it’s people with great educations and decent job prospects; people who might very well thrive in an urban environment; people who could, in theory, live in New York with a little planning and risk-taking. But this is almost always followed by “If only it weren’t so expensive.” There is some truth to this. New York is expensive. It’s the most expensive city in the world. But other people make it work. Why not you? I sometimes wonder if I’m too literal; maybe, when people say things like “I’d love to live in New York” they are expressing a fleeting, wishful thought rather than a deep-seated desire. I really don’t know.
My objective, fleeting or deep-seated, isn’t New York, but when I was a kid, my first dream was to be a farmer. My farm was pretty much going to be the most amazing farm in the world. My sister was going to be the ice-skater in residence (because I felt every great farm needed an ice-skater). She was going to wear those beautiful, sequined outfits and put on these great shows in winter and it was going to be one of the main attractions of my farm. My childhood best friend, Kim, was going to be my gardener. According to me, it was her job to make sure my lawn was free of weeds – and to plant and harvest all the crops. I was a kid. I had no comprehension of space or proportion; in my mind, a farm was no more than two beautifully illustrated pictures in a children’s book and it was perfectly feasible that my best friend — who demonstrated no interest in farming whatsoever – would happily plant, harvest and weed my farm. I was also going to have all these really cool exotic animals like alligators and ostriches and I was going to give away baby chicks and baby pigs so that they wouldn’t be slaughtered for food. This was a humanitarian farm, after all. Obviously, I didn’t quite understand the concept of how a farm makes money. I thought my sister’s ice-skating would bring in enough money to sustain the farm and we could sell some corn and tomatoes from time to time. Every morning, I would wake up to milk the cows and feed the chickens and I would have a bright red barn on a hill and there would be flowers, streams and trails everywhere. A long dirt road dotted by apple trees would lead up to the farm and for miles around, all you would be able to see was green rolling hills, ponds, white picket fences and blue skies. In my farmtastic vision, the barn doubled as my house; my sister, my best friend and I slept on the second level of the barn on mattresses made of hay, one next to the other, because I couldn’t stand the thought of sleeping without my animals. So as you can imagine, this would pretty much be the most amazing place ever.
Well, things didn’t really work out that way. My sister never actually took an ice-skating class so the likelihood of her becoming the ice-skater in residence of my farm never really panned out. And I’m sure my friend Kim decided somewhere along the line that picking weeds for a living while being bossed around by me wasn’t exactly the ideal life. As for me, I discovered around age nine that 1.) I didn’t actually like manual labor 2.) Giving away baby animals for free doesn’t exactly lead to an economically sustainable farm, 3.) Living on the second level of a barn and sleeping on a bed of hay would probably be a smelly ordeal, 4.) Milking cows and feeding chickens would probably get old pretty quickly and 5.) I wanted to live in a children’s picture book, not the real world. So I gave up that dream about halfway through third grade.
After that, I wanted to be a writer. Not just a “write for fun” kind of writer; I wanted fame and glory. I wanted to write for National Geographic or become a big-name journalist or at the very least, write a book or two. At 10 or 11, this seemed much more feasible that a carnivalesque farm at the end of a long, dusty road in some bucolic, untouched-by-time place that only ever existed in my imagination (and children’s picture books). But now, less than a month away from my 29th birthday, I can’t help but wonder where all those lofty ambitions went. I wouldn’t say I’m a failure (though my six-year-old future-farmer self might disagree); I have a college degree, a decent job with the local government, a great family, several close, meaningful friendships and a blog that gets a decent amount of hits when I write about Snooki, Kim Kardashian, Colombian men or Miley Cyrus. So I own a dog and I have a blogging habit…I suppose you could call that a (very) mildly successful fusion of my farm-writer dream. I have hobbies I enjoy; I read, I explore roads, towns and cities when I can, I go on long walks and hikes, I give myself plenty of time to think and analyze, I have good conversations with people I care about and I have Google at my disposal 24 hours a day, wherever I am, for whatever investigative need I might have at that moment.
But I couldn’t really say I’m living my dream. If I were living my dream I would have an old farmhouse on a hill (minus actual farm animals) near a nice small town and I’d be a semi-hermit writing and maybe illustrating children’s books or blogging all day. I’ve been thinking about this question — of why so many people aren’t living their dreams — a lot lately. But even using the word “dreams” sounds ridiculous; I think for the most part this word has been replaced by the more practical “goals” nowadays. But anyway, I think for most of the world the answer is simple: Lack of money, lack of education, lack of family support, illness…the list goes on and on. But for those of us lucky enough to be born into a world where we have the luxury of (even a little) disposable income, a high-quality education, family support, health and most importantly, choice, why is that we end up working a mid-level government jobs instead of throwing caution to the wind in pursuit of our dreams? For me, I think a lot of it comes down to comfort. I’m comfortable right now. And comfort, I think, is one of the greatest obstacles to achieving your potential. And the longer you are comfortable, the more difficult it is to be uncomfortable, to change things up or to give up some of that comfort in pursuit of something that could perhaps, in the long run, make you happier, but in the short run, make you feel lonely and uncomfortable. And then you get older and you have these things called responsibilities; loan payments, mortgage payments, car payments, credit card debt and maybe a family – a husband or wife and a couple of kids — and the probability of any kind of free-spirited life lessens.
But I sometimes wonder if these things are sometimes clutches. Is it easier to say, “I chose to work a mid-level position with the local government because of X, Y and Z (the student loan, the car payment, family expectations) than to say “I’m afraid of failing, I’m afraid I won’t live up to the expectations I have for myself?” I suppose that if I really, really wanted to, I could leave my job behind; I could move to some rural, inexpensive town or some small, less competitive city, take on an easier job and spend my time and energies writing. I suppose that on some level, it’s comforting to say things like “I could have been a great writer, athlete, actress, doctor, firefighter – or whatever your ultimate fantasy might be — if it hadn’t been for X, Y or Z. Because that externalizes the reasons why you’re not doing what you want to be doing; it’s not you; you’re not the one getting in your way; it’s the rest of the world. At the very least, it takes the burden of our shortcomings off of ourselves.
And there’s the whole “realistic” thing. The truth is, only a very miniscule percentage of people who start out wanting to be writers, actors, firefighters, doctors, New Yorkers – actually end up achieving these goals. Failure is the most probable result and the majority of us are realistic enough to recognize that our fantasy life is just that – a fantasy life — and keep these imaginings in some deep recess of our brain. We might revisit them from time to time, but for the most part, we are well aware that the world needs more accountants, engineers and human resources personnel than children’s picture book farmers.
So how do people balance these things? Is it all about adaptability, about being flexible and constantly trading in dreams for something more feasible and comfortable? Do most people feel like they are doing exactly what they should be doing and I’m in the minority? I really don’t know. But I like to think, judging from my Google search term hits, that there are other people in the world who also wonder if there is more they could or should be doing.