Never Feel Guilty for Following Your Dreams

A while back, A.J. O’Connell left a comment on a post (“The Way Things Are Isn’t The Way Things Have to Be”) that really got me thinking. She wrote:

“I still feel like since my comrades at the newspaper (and most people I know and love) are trudging along, meeting society’s expectations and suffering for it, so sometimes I feel like I’m not carrying my fair share.”

Her words struck me because this is something I’d secretly been feeling, too, but I didn’t fully realize it until she pointed it out.

When I tell people my plan to quit my job, the response I most dread hearing isn’t “You’re crazy” or “That’s impossible.” (I’m perfectly fine with those responses, because I know they’re entirely mistaken.) The response I dread hearing is “Well, wouldn’t that be nice?”

I hate, hate, HATE that phrase.

First and foremost, because it’s a form of the completely unattractive woe-is-me-ing I can’t stand hearing other people say. If you’re unhappy with something, change it. If it can’t be changed, learn to deal. Complaining and resenting do nothing but make you and everyone around you miserable. Rant concluded. Proceed with normal post.

I also hate that phrase because it makes me feel selfish for not trudging along with everyone else. It implies I’m trying to get away with something that isn’t fair, that I think I’m better than everyone else, or that I’m somehow harming other people by following my dreams. I’m not, I don’t, and I’m not, but that phrase still leaves me feeling like I’ve been punched in the gut.

It’s funny (or really, kind of sad) how thoroughly one person’s bitterness can undercut you.


Bad Vibes, Deconstructed

Guilt-trippers, like naysayers, are 100% worthless and to be ignored at all costs. But this particular guilt trip is tough for me to shake off because I’ve had similar guilty thoughts of my own since making my decision to escape the 9-to-5.

If you’re trying to do anything that’s a little out of the ordinary — or that other people secretly wish they could do too (but aren’t) — chances are you’ve felt some pangs of guilt yourself.

The good news is, you’ve got nothing to feel guilty about. The “wouldn’t that be nice” jab (like any other weapon in the guilt-tripper’s or naysayer’s arsenal) is faulty to the Nth. Let’s take a look at how well it really holds up:


Guilt Inducer #1: You’re trying to get away with something that isn’t fair

It’s unfair if you follow your dreams, and someone else follows their dreams, and you both put in the same amount of work and faith and passion… but in the end, you achieve your dream by some random fluke of luck and the other person fails by another, crappier fluke. (Not your fault, incidentally, but still universally unfair crappy.)

It’s unfair if you steal someone else’s dream away from them, cheat them out of their dream, or if your dream somehow infringes on the achievement of theirs. (Your fault, and also crappy.)

It’s unfair if you can only achieve your dream by hurting, lying to, stealing from, or taking advantage of someone else. (Your fault again. And shame on you!)

If someone else isn’t following their dream and you are following yours, that’s not unfair. That’s their fault for not following their dream.  (And don’t let them start telling you all the reasons why they’re not going after what they want. They’re not. End of argument.)


Guilt Inducer #2: You think you’re better than everyone else

The truth is, we’re all way too good for a subpar existence, and we all deserve better. But you can’t live anyone else’s life for them. You can try to motivate, or inspire, or give helpful pushes, but in the end, yours is the only dream you can bring into existence.

Downplaying your own dreams to make someone else feel better about not following theirs is stupid. (Tweet, tweet!) Sorry to be mean, but that’s the brutal truth.

You owe it to yourself and the world to live the best life you can. Period.


Guilt Inducer #3: You’re somehow harming other people by following your dreams

There’s nothing “take one for the team” about trudging along just because everyone else is.

We have to live our own lives the best way we can, and there’s nothing noble or self-sacrificing about resigning yourself to being miserable just because everyone else is doing it.  If anything, you owe it to those around you to go for your dreams just to prove it can be done.

Would I have locked step with the office drone lifestyle if I’d known, out of college, that it was completely feasible to live a minimalist, location-independent life and spend my days sitting in coffee shops writing things and being awesome? Hell to the Yes. But I didn’t even know such a lifestyle existed, let alone that it was possible. All I saw were people locking step, so I did the same, even though I felt kind of icky even as I was doing it. Had I found back then one fraction of the bloggers I currently follow, things could have been so very different.

There will always be people content to trudge along for a paycheck and live their lives quietly or desperately on the weekends. You’re not depriving the world of anything it won’t miss by being one rogue out of the horde of mindless drones. If anything, you owe it to people to show them there’s an alternative.


So, What Do You Say?

The next time someone throws the “wouldn’t that be nice” grenade your way — explicitly or implicitly — what do you do? How do you handle it?

I, for one, aim simply to nod, as Zen guru-like as possible, and say, “Yes, I think it would be.” And then I will go along and keep striving for what I am striving for.

Hopefully, the person will start to think I might be on to something.

*Cordelia postscript: Having made my impossible dream happen, I can tell you from experience that it is quite nice. 🙂

What guilt-trips have you been letting get you down, and how will you punch them squarely in the gut? Share your triumphs and tribulations in the comments!

Image: Flickr

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  • Yay!! I love it. Keep following Cordelia!

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  • “Yes, I think it would be.”

    This is pure awesomeness.

    It took me so long to realize that there’s a difference between selfishness and being a jerk. They do go together sometimes, but taking care of yourself and getting what you want and need is GOOD. I wish everybody in the entire world would realize that. I mean, how crazy is it that the flight attendants have to tell everyone that if there’s a wreck, put on your own oxygen mask first? Seriously!

  • Clericsdaughter

    Bitter and/or cynical people criticize others who dream in order to bring some sort of virtue to their own misery (“I may be unhappy, but at least I’m clever enough to know it, not like that naive doe-eyed bint over there!”). It’s a natural impulse, I suppose, but that doesn’t make it excusable to act like a dick. Good for you for ignoring it in person, and for calling them out on it here.

  • Yes! Nailed it, Kelly. NAILED. IT.

    There goes all my guilt. Like. Poof. Gone.

  • As always, spoken well.

    Here’s the underlying issue — life isn’t a zero-sum game. If I hit the best-seller list (yes, it’s going to happen, dammit!), does that mean your book won’t? Maybe not at the very same time, but a month or a year later? If I disappear for a month in Paris, why is this even any of your business?!

    People LOVE to have others at their level or, preferably, below. Then they feel secure.

    You just need to keep finding and surrounding yourself with the many, many people who dream large and are working hard to get there. When I meet someone with a big fat dream, yes, I can feel a twinge of envy — but it also inspires me to get off my ass and go after my own.

    When we see someone truly committed to a cool goal, it forces us all to ask: Where’s mine and how fast (if at all) am I moving toward mine?

    Their discomfort is not your problem.

    • Cordelia

      “You just need to keep finding and surrounding yourself with the many, many people who dream large and are working hard to get there. When I meet someone with a big fat dream, yes, I can feel a twinge of envy — but it also inspires me to get off my ass and go after my own.”

      Exactly! I can’t tell you how much it helps me to read other bloggers following their dreams, or to read the comments of my excellent readers, when it comes to encouraging and inspiring me to pursue my own goals. The people you surround yourself with really do set the tone for your days. One of my goals this year is to connect more with like-minded people and build a new community for myself of can-doers and dreamers. 🙂

  • Kristine

    When I first found your blog, that’s what I immediately thought, that you were on to something. When I hear or read great stories like these, I will admit, I am often thinking “how nice for them, wish I could afford to do that,” but then I have to smack myself and come to terms with the fact that I can afford to do that. If I put forth the effort and am willing to take that risk. Instead of just aspiring to be like you, I hope that reading your experiences will INspire me to take my own steps to quitting this lifestyle. So thanks for being so brave.

    Love this post!

    • Cordelia

      You can do it! 🙂

  • Wonderful post. If your circle of friends and family members do not want you to succeed (crabs in a barrel mentality), you need to quickly get out of that particular circle.

  • Loved this post. As always, thanks for the insight.

  • cordelia’s mom

    Go for it. Accomplish your dream and never look back. You can do it, and I support you all the way.

    (Oh, and then maybe some day you can support your dear old mom, but only if you want to, of course.)

    • Cordelia

      I don’t think blogging/writing will ever enable me to achieve the “support others” stage (wouldn’t it be nice if it did?), but the husband IS finally applying for some of those game shows he’s always said he wanted to apply to. With his massive trivia/pop culture knowledge, let’s hope he gets on and wins us enough to support us AND get you & Dad that house in the country you’ve always wanted.

      Hey, as long as a girl is dreaming, right…?

      • cordelia’s mom

        Aw. {slight teardrop in corner of eye}

  • My husband and I have a lived an unconventional life for a long time because we always wanted to have a parent available for our kids at home. I would like to go even more unconventional, but we need to provide health insurance for our kids. I still only work about 30 hours at one job, and a few more at a “fun” job. Many people look at me and wonder how we get by. We drive an old car, we have a very small house, we almost never buy new clothes (only new to us) and other compromises, but we live a full life. What people don’t realize is that every decision no matter how small influences other things in your life. A choice to leave a traditional job may leave you open to other things: less material things, less stability. These are trade offs that others are not willing to make. Why should you feel bad for their choices?
    Continue what you are doing, I enjoy watching you challenge convention and re-design your life. It helps me to find blind spots in my life.

    • Cordelia

      I completely agree with your line of thinking. Unconventional lifestyles may seem “impossible” to some people because they’re not willing to give up the little luxuries they enjoy so much. But I’m personally with you–I’d much rather have a simpler lifestyle, but have it be MY life, exactly the way I want to live it.

      Congrats to you and your husband for living on your own terms! I love hearing from people who’ve made it happen.

  • Wow, Cordelia! First of all, I’m happy to have sparked this post. You’ve addressed this worry better than I ever could, and you’ve diminished my guilt.

    Because you’re right – life doesn’t have to be a long hard slog. This isn’t the fable of the Grasshopper and the Ants. We (hopefully) are not standing on the backs of other people in order to live out our dreams. Thanks for writing this post. Keep up the good work.

  • I really like your response to that question. The one I’ve been getting lately, as I lament working sometimes 18-hr days getting my freelancing up off the ground (ok, it’s currently on the basement stairs…) is: “Well that’s what you’ve got to do.”

    Let me rephrase. It annoys the hell out of me when I talk to friends who bitch about having to work 10 minutes over 8 hrs and THEN tell me that this is “what I have to do.”

    Of COURSE it’s what I have to do, and I’m doing it. Yes, sometimes begrudgingly, but still plugging along and doing it. So don’t tell me “it’s what I have to do” when it totally isn’t something you are doing yourself.

    (Note – My friends who have their own businesses, work crazy hours or don’t say the phrase with that acerbic air of condemnation do not bother me as much…) 🙂

    • Cordelia

      It’s so much easier to comment on the way other people are living their lives than to think about how you’re living yours, isn’t it? I wonder if it’s almost a kind of “serves you right” commentary–i.e., “Well, you wanted to be a fancy freelancer, so you’re just gonna have to work so much harder than those of us in the ‘Real World.'”

      Fie on the commentators. Hurrah to the doers. 😀

  • I think your posts really relate to people and I like that. I myself relate to these posts about particularly about career paths and am encouraged by your plans, determination and persistence (I’m sure many others feel the same way). Please keep up the posts! =)

    • Cordelia

      Thank you so much for the kind words. I’m so glad they’ve encouraged you!!

  • Humpty Dumpty

    I started to get somewhat adicted to read your posts everyday. When I read your post this morning, it felt like it’s the right motivation at the wrong timing. I had this thought of resigning from my current job a year ago but something happened in the family that mad me putting my life on hold until it is settled (hopefully by end of this month, fingers crossed for that). I do admire people like you who have dreams and work for it, as I am like a daydreamer craving for out-of-this-world fantasies to happen in my life and never had a concrete, achievable goal in life to start with. Now I think since I can’t live achieving big goals, let’s start with smaller ones. Leaving a comment on one of your many life-inspiring posts is one of it. (I finally did it, hooray for that! Wink.)

    • Cordelia

      Hooray! The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. 🙂

      There’s nothing at all wrong with out-of-this-world fantasies. They tell us what we’re really longing for and give us ideas that there are possibilities beyond the current way we’re living. I’m sorry to hear your plans got sidetracked, but just the fact that you’ve got them and you’re on your way is already a step in the right direction. All the best for your future goals!

  • Ralphster

    Thank you! You summed up exactly everything I’ve been thinking for the past year or so.

  • Paul Furman

    The one I always get is: “You’re so lucky to live in San Francisco” -well, it’s not luck, I moved here by choice, and it’s expensive so I only have a small apartment.

    • Exactly!  Sometimes I feel guilty because I have a well-paying, somewhat “flexible” job that’s allowed me to pursue my side hustle.  But you know what?  I worked my *tail* off to prove myself and climb the ranks until I got the position I’m in.  Luck has very little to do with it–dedication, decision, and hard work do.

  • Joann

    Thank you for this post! I’ve been feeling guilty since the last 2 weeks for ditching an opportunity just to follow my dream. The people who have told me that I wasted it are the same ones who told me yesterday that I am so fortunate to be able to do it.

    • You are SO welcome! Isn’t it ironic that the people who are first to tell us how reckless we’re being in chasing our dreams are also the same who are probably secretly jealous that they didn’t have a little “recklessness” in them too to chase THEIRS?

      Good for you for taking the leap. And who knows, maybe those haters will start to consider what they might do in light of your good example?

      Wishing you all the best on your new journey!!

  • I’m doing research for a blog post of my own on the topic of feeling guilty for following your dreams. I honestly didn’t think I was going to find as many bloggers echoing these sentiments. It’s relieving this is normal.

    For myself, guilt also comes from the fact that my fiancé, at the moment, is the breadwinner. I’ve only finished my first year of freelance writing & blogging and it can take some time to make any real money from it. He’s encouraging and can see I’m much happier than in office life, but it’s a hard feeling to shake!

    • Oh, I feel you on the partner-related guilt. My husband stopped working the same month I decided to go into freelancing full-time (he’s applying for disability, which means he’ll never really work again). He has been nothing but supportive about my decision, because (as you say) he knows I was miserable in the 9-to-5 and this is so much better for both of us. But I still feel a sense of guilt (self-created) that everything’s on me and I could give us a “steadier” income if I were a traditional employee.

      But you know what? Being a good fiance/spouse is about more than bringing home the bacon, which I think both of our awesome guys understand. It’s about creating a happy life together that fulfills you both, and there are lots of ways to make that happen. Don’t be too hard on yourself. You’re doing you, which in the end will work out best for all involved. 🙂

  • Becky Netley

    I really relate to this post, but you’ve explained it so much better than I ever could have! I always feel guilty when people have asked what I’ve been doing that day, it sounds like I just take it easy and sit on the internet. But I know that even though I do enjoy it, I also work very hard, and as long as Im doing what is right for me than I shouldn’t worry about what others think. Thank you for the post!

    • Precisely! Anyone who’s willing to judge your work without any idea what you actually do doesn’t have an opinion worth counting. As long as you feel productive, fulfilled and content, then you’re doing it right. 🙂

  • toochill

    me and a friend had the same dream, we tried to reach it together and it didn’t work, I went and did my own thing. I got as close as I’ve ever been, but still no cigar. Said that to say when the friend and others find out I got so, so close they call names talk down about me saying I’m not good at said dream/goal, I’m disloyal, etc. Made/makes me feel so guilty for even having the desire to dream, to want what I want out of life. I pray for the day I don’t care what others think.