Anyone Chasing A Dream Needs To Hear This
When I think now about what I thought when I was just starting out in my career, I definitely have a palm to forehead moment. I was so naïve. I was so oblivious. I was so blind and unrealistic. But, you know what? That’s also exactly how I was supposed to be. You sort of need that completely unrealistic hope and those impossibly high expectations in the beginning of your career just to fuel you to get off your butt and take that first step. If someone were to explain to me what things would actually look like for the ensuing five to ten years, there would be no way I would have even began.
That’s not to say I don’t like the way the last five to ten years of my career have gone. I’ve loved them. But I love them in retrospect, and, as they were occurring, I felt all sorts of things. I felt confused, excited, disappointed, surprised, and challenged—so very, very challenged. I went through growing pains, but they were the type of growing pains that felt good. But, imagine telling someone young, just starting to chase her dreams, that that’s what she was in for? It doesn’t sound very appealing.
We have to have some absolutely unrealistic, higher-than-the-sky vision of what our career will be like if we’re just going to get started. So, if I could go back in time, I wouldn’t tell 22-year-old me to think any differently. There are, however, some things I wish others had told me about that would have helped me know that, at the times I felt everything was failing, I was actually right on track. There are some elements of chasing a dream that can make you feel like you’re doing something wrong, but are really just part of the process.
In the beginning, you might be bad
Whatever it is you’d like to do—become a novelist, become a musician, become a comedian, become a publicist—in the beginning, you will likely be, well, bad. You’ll eagerly put your work out to the world, thinking it’s the best thing ever, and be totally shattered when people come back at you with some criticism. Some will be gentle, and some will be quite harsh. But the thing is nobody is great at what they do on day one. You have to start somewhere.
Okay, in the beginning, you’ll be bad
Alright I was dancing around it before. The truth is that in the beginning you’ll probably be quite bad. In your head, you will expect the world to applaud your work and ask, “Where have you been all along?” You may think that your industry will see you as some prodigy—that you will be the one who is great from the start, with no practice, and no experience. That simply won’t be the case. There are no such cases. And that is okay.
But, all the greats were
All the greats were bad in the beginning. Really. Think of someone you admire. Think of a few people you see as extremely successful. Read their memoirs. Interview them if you can. I bet you’ll hear stories of people telling them they’d never make it in that industry and they should quit right there and then. They’ll tell you horror stories of falling flat on their faces. It’s good to know this so you can see that, even those who hold great potential struggle in the beginning.
You’ll feel left out of the club
You will feel that there is a club of “cool kids” in your industry, who all seem to know each other, and who all seem to leave you out. You try to participate in their conversations, but they just give you polite nods, and mostly talk amongst each other. It can feel intimidating, and it can even feel a little mean-spirited.
They’ve just been around forever
Try to understand that the “cool kids” are probably just those who have been at this thing—working on the same goals you are—for a long time. They seem to know each other because they do. They have history. They’ve been through good times and bad together. They also know how many people try to do what they do, and then quit within a year or two. They can’t really invest in every brand new person because there are just so many brand new people.
So befriend your “graduating class”
Forget those who have been at this five to 10 years longer than you have. Find your “graduating class.” If you think of it like high school, these are the individuals who are starting out on this path around the same time you are. They’re learning all the same things you are, at the same time. They’re facing the same hurdles as you, right now. They understand you. They relate to you. And in five years, you and they will be the cool kids with the history and the camaraderie.
Just focus on the work
In the beginning, just focus on the work. Focus on getting good—not on recognition. This is not the time to necessarily submit your work, enter competitions, try to get industry leaders to meet with you, or publicize everything you’re doing. This is the time that you should quietly, discreetly get good. This is skill-acquisition time.
For…a very long time
Now the next thing that may be hard to hear but what I really wish someone had told me was that getting good at something can and will take five to 10 years. For some prodigies, it can happen in three-ish years. But, typically speaking, it will take at least five years. At year five, you’ll be serviceable at what you do, and no longer be considered a beginner. And between years five and 10, you’ll hone what you do, and really find your particular voice in it.
Make sure you love the work
You may have picked up by now on the fact that there will just be a lot of work. It will be work, work, work, work, work. You’ll put your head down, and just put in the work for a long time before anybody says, “Hey, do you want some fame/money/a great job/publicity?” So, make sure you love the work. Make sure you’re in this because you love the craft and the industry at large. If you’re only in it for outside recognition, you’ll lose steam quickly. And you won’t be able to keep your head up during those long gaps of time when no recognition comes—of which there will be many throughout your career.
Skill and achievement won’t go hand in hand
It’s not like the moment you become excellent at something, all the industry leaders and powers at be step out of the woodwork and say, “We’ve been watching you all along. You’re ready. Here is a key to the city. You’re famous now.” First, you get good. And then you have to stay good, and go show ‘em what you got for a few years before any real outside circumstances change.
Find someone to mentor you
I know I said to stay away from those who aren’t in your “Graduating class” but there’s an exception—identify one person who you think really knows what she’s doing, has been at this for a while, clearly has industry respect, and is nice to you. And ask if she’d show you the ropes. She can keep you from making the big embarrassing mistakes she made at your stage.
Listen to your mentor
Now, listen to your mentor. You may not like what she has to say, but if she has what you want in her career, she must know what she’s talking about. So if you’re chomping at the bit to submit your short story to the most prestigious publication, or you think you’re ready to take a meeting with a hugely powerful individual because someone is able to get you said meeting…but your mentor says you aren’t read…listen.
You won’t always get the support you want
Your friends and family may not always show you the support you’d hoped for. You may call them to tell them that this little victory happened—one you know is a big victory—and they may not respond the way you want them to. Try to understand that very few people outside of your industry will understand the struggle and how much those little victories mean. And sometimes, they may even suggest you quit just because they hate seeing you struggle.
So build your own support group
Because of that last issue, finding your “Graduating class” is particularly important. They’ll get it. When you tell them that you’re the backup for the backup to the guitarist in this band at this tiny venue, they’ll get why that’s such a big deal, and celebrate with you accordingly. And when those disappointments happen too—the ones outsiders don’t understand—your peers will understand those as well.
Be ready for a life-long relationship
This won’t be very different from a marriage. It will require daily work. It will require doing things you don’t feel like doing, but you know the payoff will be worth it. It will require sacrifice and diplomacy. It will involve huge disappointments, setbacks, and heartache, and feelings of how will I ever move on from this? But if the love is there, you will always move on.