Bad Advice: Stop Chasing Your Dreams


Submit your questions about friendship, relationships, careers, family, or life decisions to [email protected] or leave a question in the comments section, and I’ll answer it in Bad Advice, PJ Lifestyle’s new advice column every Wednesday!

Dear Bad Advice,

For about as long as I remember, being a graphic designer or artist of some kind has been my dream. I’ve always been really creative, and I even took a few classes in college, but you know how you get on a career track and you kinda get swept past the thing you want to do and into the thing that pays your bills.

I have an okay job and lots of fun things to do all the time, but I have to admit that sometimes I see other people I knew from art classes going on and making their art into a career and I get jealous. I never really gave it a shot, and now I feel like my chance has passed. I want to get into art again, but I need more classes in order to get a real job doing design, and I don’t have any time for classes. I need more software too, and a more powerful computer and a bunch of other accessories too, and that all adds up. I wish I could hit pause on my life (and my bills!) for just a little while to have the money and time to set myself up to follow this dream, but it just doesn’t seem possible and that makes me really sad. Is there any hope?

– Despairing Designer

This is going to sound like bad advice, but quit chasing your dream.

When you see your friends follow their creative passions and you feel trapped in your own circumstances, unable to follow your dream, that’s exactly what you’re having — a dream. I’m going to guess that part of your envy of those friends is based on the perception that it was somehow easier for them to follow their creative ambition than it was for you — even if it was easier just because they started earlier and took those classes back in college. But starting earlier is also hard work — it’s sometimes a more direct path into a creative career, but not an easier one. And that’s what makes your creative dream a dream right now, instead of a reality: you have to give up the dream that anything about that life is going to be easy, even if you could hit pause on all the other obligations in your life to focus on being an artist.

If a millionaire walked up to you tomorrow, handed you $100,000, a new computer loaded with programs, a course schedule, and a leave of absence from your job, becoming a graphic designer would still not be easy. Part of being a good artist is finding the time and resources to devote to it. The other part is putting in the hard work to actually get good at it. You have a double challenge ahead of you: carving out the time and money to pursue your creative goals, and then finding the inner strength, courage, and determination to work hard to refine your skills, chase down leads, and improve yourself independently of any teacher or employer.

I have to admit, I’m one of the lucky ones. My overwhelming passion in life, my artistic ambition and nonstop obsession, is writing. Writing is free: it doesn’t require loads of expensive equipment or training. It just requires practice, and (at the very lowest end of the budget) a pen and a pad of paper. There aren’t really any external barriers to doing it, just the ones in your own head.

Guess what? The same is true with graphic design, and virtually any other creative pursuit. It’s just easier to imagine something external holding you back when the product of your creative process is more tangible than words on a page. I won’t deny that better computer programs, more training, and some extra free time would make it easier to get started. But the lack of those is not a reason to delay. Some of my favorite webcomics started on MS Paint, or even as stick-figure doodles on graphing paper that the artist scanned and uploaded online. Use your creativity to think of low-budget ways to get started in pursuing your passion, even if they’re a little unconventional. When I train people on complex video equipment and editing software (I have a second life as a videographer), I advise them to start practicing with very simple, cheap, no-frills equipment and work up from there, because then they won’t be distracted by all the neat features of their tools, and instead they’ll focus on the fundamental principles of recording and editing. This has the added advantage of letting you experiment for a while, without laying down a ton of money, to find out in practice just how serious you are about the art form you’re interested in.

If you want to stop dreaming and make a creative life your reality, start planning. The first step is to determine just how much you’re willing to sacrifice to follow this passion. Are you willing to live at a drastically lower income level? Are you willing to give up job stability? Are you willing to endure the host of petty irritations that come with creative professions? There is no such thing as a “dream job” free of irritation, and when you go into creative work you have to be prepared for your work irritation to get much more personal, because you’ll be more sensitive to criticisms of your creative output. That means freelance clients who are impossible to please, others who will try to cheat you out of your fee, bosses who will critique your work unfairly, and people who will ask you to do impossible things like photoshop a picture to reveal what was “behind” one of the people in it when it was taken. Take a long walk through Clients from Hell before you decide this is the life you want.

Then, once you’ve figured out what your boundaries are in terms of how you’ll live with your creative addiction, you have to test the boundaries of how hard you’re willing to work on yourself. Can you be an honest critic of your own work and do the difficult work of revising and improving it? Give up some of those fun social activities to make the time to practice your art, because that time will never walk up and present itself to you. Do what I tell my video students to do, and focus on technique rather than equipment — work on it every day for weeks, a month, or two months, and then reevaluate how you feel about throwing your entire life into this pursuit. There’s no shame in realizing that you might simply enjoy art as a hobby. Even artists need hobbies, and they can enrich your life and bring you some of the satisfaction and creative outlet that you feel you’re lacking now. My hobby is music. I play my guitar when I’m in the mood for it, and I know I’ll never put in the time or effort to get good enough to perform professionally, but just playing for myself is enough for me.

But if you stick with it and you find it only feeds your passion and determination, guess what? Now you have the plan in front of you. You’ve trained yourself to make sacrifices in order to devote more time and resources to your craft. And you’ve mapped out the boundaries of how much money you’re willing to spend or give up to follow this passion. Suddenly those friends who went into creative fields won’t appear to be following a far-away, mysterious and forbidden path. The road will be right there, in front of your feet.

Then you’re not chasing a dream. You’re grasping it and making it real.

Submit your questions about friendship, relationships, careers, family, or life decisions to [email protected] or leave a question in the comments section, and I’ll answer it in Bad Advice, PJ Lifestyle’s new advice column every Wednesday!