Here’s what no one ever told me about “following my dreams:” sometimes, that dream turns out to be a complete nightmare. It’s a specific-type of disappointment, realizing that this idea you spent your days pursuing just isn’t as fulling/amazing/sustainable as you thought it would be. You were absolutely sure that becoming a scientist/professional artist/fire-swallowing hang glider was the absolute best life for you. You’ve told all your friends, convinced and double-assured your parents, taken all the AP classes, and BAM! You hate your new courses, none of your pieces come out right, and you always have a sore throat. You feel guilty, but try to tough it out because admitting the truth might make you sound flaky. Besides, who ever heard of dumping a dream?
Me! I did, when I was just a year away from graduating. In 2011, I was a plucky activist headed into a freshman year filled with Government courses and pre-law seminars. I had it all figured out: I’d finish my degree, take a year off, and then go to law school, become a lawyer, and use my hard-earned skills to fight for the voiceless. I had other passions outside of law, but I’d been informed that being super giddy about music wasn’t going to pay my Future Adult Bills. Parents, teachers, and mentors begged me to be “practical” (aka boring), so I chose to pursue another interest of mine. Political Science wasn’t my first love, but it was a “sustainable” dream, and something I could pursue in the long-term while remaining relatively happy.
Except, when I actually made it to college, I wasn’t happy. My courses were fine, and I pored over my textbooks with interest, but my extracurriculars were my real passions. By junior year, I’d launched a mini-career in marketing, and began writing about music professionally. Both experiences stoked my creativity in ways my major didn’t. Even better, I was being paid to do them (take that, Adults!). I decided to come clean to my parents, and to myself: I wasn’t going to be a lawyer. I wasn’t going to law school. My dream was no longer right for me.
If you’ve ever pursued a staunch dream only to realize that it’s just not what you want, you don’t have to feel stuck or obligated to something that doesn’t make you happy, even if you thought it would two months/three years/a decade ago. Here are some things I learned while moving on from my Poli Sci dreams and into something that made me doubly excited for my future.
1. Reconnect with your (other) passions.
Passions are simple: they make us happy. We don’t have to explain or negotiate them with anyone. They get us out of bed in the morning—even if it’s just to do them during study breaks or late into the night. A good first step is taking the time to understand and accept what excites, challenges, and inspires you. Yes, I know that painting/llama-raising/deep-sea aquatic yoga was your passion, but the good thing about being multifaceted creatures is that we always have more than one thing stewing in our heads. Take a thorough look at what you’ve been drawn to outside of school, work, or other life obligations. What have you always wanted to do when no one was around or you didn’t have to do something? What could you do for hours without end? What do you dream about at night? What did you daydream about as a kid? Give yourself time to rediscover those parts of you.
I lucked out in that writing was practically built into my major via essays and projects, so I was always researching, outlining, or editing something. It became easier to seek out writing opportunities from there; I could use the same skills, but write about subjects that fascinated me, like music and culture. Once I knew that culture writing was what I was passionate about, I doubled the energy I gave to it. I worked part-time, went to class full-time, and used the time I had left to pitch bigger publications, network within the local art and music scenes, and accept any opportunity on offer, for the sake of my portfolio. It helped that writing was something I loved, but truthfully, part of its appeal came from the fact that it felt so natural to pursue. Find that passion that feels like second nature to you, note it down, and work from there.
If you’re still having trouble figuring things out, simplify the question: Ask yourself what you can do with a smile on your face—no other requirements needed. At this point, the goal isn’t to swan dive into a brand-new life (unless you want to!), but to reacquaint yourself with the best parts of your past.
2. Craft a new game plan.
Good news: You now have your Big Dream 2.0. What is the smallest, most immediate step you can take to get started? What comes after that? And after that? (You get the point.) Once you have an idea of where you’d like to go next, it’s time to make a game plan for getting there.
Dumping your dream can be a whirlwind of emotion and anxiety, and to do so successfully takes time, patience, and a little execution. Regardless of your chosen destination—tap-dancing juggler? Interior decorator? Engineer?—you’ll likely need to better understand what that thing is, and how you’d fit into it. Don’t give yourself enough time to dwindle, talk yourself out of things, or succumb to anxiety. Ask yourself: “What actions will best prepare and inform me on what to do next?” If you’re transitioning to a new major, schedule a meeting with your current (or future) advisor. Want to switch fields? Research your future position’s duties, responsibilities, and salaries. Decided to go to art school? Time to compare some programs. Find the tiniest possible step and take it, even if it’s just opening the browser on your smartphone. Act with conviction and confidence in your choices.
Once I’d explained my new post-grad plans to my parents (basically: find a job in marketing, continue to write part-time, and try not to drown in debt), I was overwhelmed with the many possible steps I could take in the aftermath. Eventually, I chose the one that stressed me out the least: I talked to my media and marketing friends. I asked questions, dug for dirt, and studied their portfolios. They were happy to help me better understand what I wanted from the marketing sector, what I was good at, and what I wanted to avoid. As a bonus, I was able to spend more time with my friends and better bond over the goals we now shared.
3. Become a multitasker.
Quick reality check: Since it’s unlikely that you’ll be able to jump ship ASAP, you may want to find a transition that’s easy on your brain and wallet. Quitting your once dream job might make you feel better in the short-term, but your bills won’t disappear as easily. One of the skills I developed during this wild ride was learning to balance my passions with my obligations, which has saved me tons of emotional and mental yuckiness in the long run. Don’t be discouraged if things don’t move as quickly as you’d like them to; use this time to reaffirm your passions and interests, and focus on reaching stability that includes both what you love and what you need to do.
Try a tool called “non-zero days.” Any day that you attempt something, anything, that brings you closer to your goals is a non-zero day: painting for 15 minutes, rewriting your admissions essay, researching certifications in your new field, or changing one line on your resume. Do something each day that fits into your game plan, even for 30 seconds, then take a load off and give yourself a high-five.
Building consistency is key: Do something small daily, but save the big stuff for the weekends or your downtime. Not only will this keep you motivated, you’ll also have a nice little platform on which to land safely once you decide to finally take the leap. Imagine how much easier it’ll be to apply to that new program with a higher GPA, glide across the Swiss Alps with that new glider you saved up for, or apply to a gallery with all of your lovely pieces.
4. Tell people your plans.
Maybe they’ve noticed your dwindling interest in llamas, or ask about your job or grades. This is by not means compulsory, but, once you feel comfortable, you might like to let your loved ones know what’s going on with you. You can fill them in on your own time or never breathe a word of it; neither option is wrong, but rather a matter of confidence and where you are in your journey toward your new goals. Open up to fam and friends when you’re at your most comfortable. This way, you can better relay your decisions, what led you to make them, and the totally rad game plan you immediately concocted (*wink*). It’s OK to feel fear or guilt about telling them—these are natural reactions to change, and likely ones your loved ones may experience in the wake of your good news.
The first person I ever told about my change of heart was my Moot Court coach. I was terrified and pretty much embarrassed, given that she’d put in so much time to prepare me for tournaments all semester. She was incredibly encouraging, and even offered to chat with my parents if I needed extra help with breaking the news to them. It was a small gesture, but it made me feel more confident about pressing forward.
Your friends and family do understand the concept of change, just as they understand that you are human and, like all humans, you can and will change your mind. You’re allowed to dream, and you’re allowed to grow, just like they are. Loved ones will most likely have an opinion; try not to take it personally. Much like yourself, they are deeply invested in your happiness and what’s best for you—it may take them some time to accept that your new game plan contributes to both of these things. Share with them openly, but firmly reiterate that you’ve thought deeply about your decision and that, for now, this is what you want to do. Ultimately, you are the only person who has to deal with the consequences of acting or not acting. Let your loved ones be your cheerleaders or maybe even your motivation, but you’re the one in control. You get to create the best life that you can dream up.
It’s OK to mourn a lost dream; in some ways, it can feel like you’re losing a big chunk of yourself. You may not be the person you or many others thought you would be, but that doesn’t make you less you. Change is a sign of growth and experience, and limiting yourself for an idealized version of you—the big-shot lawyer, flame-defying glider, the world class whatever—is a great way to impede both. Your world isn’t ending, it’s just expanding, and offering up another new cloud to sail away on. ♦