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Want to follow your dreams? Here’s what I’ve learned from an experimental year.

[ 4 ] January 28, 2012 |
Birds fly in front of a gorgeous sunrise

Image by Steve-h on Flickr. Creative Commons License.

A lot of people are unsatisfied with their lives. The big question is: can we really change our lives, and will it really be any better if we do?

Over the past year, my life has been a grand experiment to answer this question. This time last year, I had a “normal” life. I went to work every day in a beige office, did what I was told, went home with a boredom headache, and wondered if there wasn’t more to life than this. And then felt guilty for not appreciating my job when so many people are unemployed.

As I watched my days remaining tick down, I felt increasing panic that I was wasting my life. I’m normally very risk-averse and control-freakish, but something had to change, and playing within the system wasn’t working.

I took a major leap and signed up for business coaching right around this time last year. I commenced to work my butt off building my business. Looking back, it was a crazy whirlwind.

I don’t know if I’ve ever worked so hard in my life. Finishing my PhD, maybe, but definitely not any other time.

What made this difficult for me is how uncharted the course was. When I started, I had no idea what I was doing or whether I could do it. I had major doubts as to whether it would work at all. In that way, it was far more difficult than the PhD. (School, I know I can do.)

On the other hand, it’s definitely been my most satisfying year to date. I, formerly Miss Goody Two-Shoes Scaredy-Pants, made the sharp turn away from convention and started building my own ideal life. That’s something I’ll always be proud of. I didn’t think I could do it, but I did, and I am.

My greatest desire is for everyone in the 17000 Days community to live our ultimate lives. What I mean by that is you love your life so much, even if you won the lottery or were diagnosed with a terminal disease, you wouldn’t change a thing. It seems like, when all else fails, those two events spring people into action to change their lives. I figure, why wait?

It may not be feasible to make all of the changes you want right this second, but if you know what they are, you can start working toward them. Ultimate Life takes different forms for everyone–some people want to quit their jobs and make art, some people love their jobs but want more time for their families, some people just want to surf in Costa Rica. Sometimes, even when we get what we think we want, it turns out we were wrong and we have to try again. That’s ok, too. Whatever your Ultimate Life looks like, I want it for you.

It can seem impossible to bridge the distance between your current life and your Ultimate Life. That’s certainly how it seemed to me! But it may be closer than you think. Here are a few things the past year has shown me.

  • A to-quit list is a great place to start.

    The first time I heard the concept of the to-quit list, a blogger was talking about taking a Sharpie to his to-do list and axing everything that made him feel “blecky”–dozens of items. Envy filled me with a bubble of rage. My life at the time was packed with things I would have loved to quit but thought I couldn’t. The idea never left me, though, and over the next few years, I quit every one, including my job.

    Even if you feel you can’t do anything about these things immediately, facing reality and admitting to yourself that you want to quit them is the first step. It puts you on the lookout for how you can make it happen, so you can recognize opportunities when they come along.

  • Once you know what you don’t want, figure out what you do want.

    A fulfilling life isn’t built just by not doing things you hate. It requires love and meaning, not just the absence of stuff you don’t like. It can be hard to know what would make you happy–as a species, we’re notoriously bad at predicting that. If you’ve tried a lot of other things in the past and not had them last or be what you wanted, you may be afraid to try again. Why bother, right?

    As someone who defines “forever” as three years, and predictably stays in each house, career, hobby, and relationship just that long, I had a really hard time taking myself seriously in wanting to run my own business and write. After all, I felt the same way about the yarn business and a ton of other stuff before it. What made me think this would last when nothing else has?

    I struggled with that for awhile, but I finally decided to go for it anyway. I’d regret not trying much more than trying and being wrong. Meanwhile, I’m going to enjoy it until I don’t. One thing this experience is teaching me is to enjoy the journey. Usually I’m more of a destination gal, but if you enjoy every day, then who cares where you end up? It’s a different mindset, but I like it.

  • There really is more to life.

    I always wondered whether I wasn’t being unrealistic in my expectations. Maybe I would never be happier or more fulfilled, and I should just enjoy my cushy cubicle and shut up. Maybe there really was nothing better out there, and tons of people had it much worse.

    Well, I’ve been to the other side, and there is definitely better out there. You don’t have to feel guilty for not having it worse or for not appreciating something that’s not for you.

  • On the other hand, you don’t have to fight against your current life until you get everything the way you want it.

    During many of my last months at my job, I spent a lot of energy hating my situation. Looking back, there was a lot that was boring, pointless, or ill-managed, but not enough to really warrant the level of emotional investment I was making. I think what was really going on was I was afraid if I wasn’t really miserable there, I’d never leave. So I made sure I kept the fires stoked.

    It is true that we tend not to change until the pain of staying is greater than the pain of leaving, but it’s better to motivate yourself with desire than suffering. It’s not only more pleasant, it’s more effective in the long run.

These have been the most important things for me about getting started. This post is getting way too long, so in part 2, I’ll talk more about what I’ve learned from pursuing my dream for the past six months.

Meanwhile, if you have a dream similar to mine, you may be interested in this free video by my awesome coach, Jonathan Mead. Without him, I would still be sitting in my office at my old job, longing to be where I am now.

About Cara Stein: I'm a writer and dreamer with a PhD in self-reinvention. (Or was that computer science?) Whether you're stuck, lost, or just looking to enjoy your life more, I want to help because I've been there!

Comments (4)

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  1. What an inspiring post, it gave me a lot of hope because I feel like I’m in a similar situation to what you were in. I’m a fairly new reader so I’m gonna go read more of your blog :)

  2. Beti Spangel says:

    I really enjoyed the points you made here, especially as someone who has just made the grand canyonesque (for me) leap of working full-time to part-time. I’m trying to keep cognizant of my feelings and thought processes as I make this transition, because I went part-time for a reason (to write more and get more done on the homestead), not to stare off into space for an hour and then take a nap. Fortunately, I have the friendship and support of numerous people who believe in me and inspire me with their own accomplishments, so I’m in good company.

    Last weekend, myself (the writer) and three friends (life coach, yoga instructor, and chef)held our first Women’s Empowerment Retreat. It was a full weekend and we worked our butts off putting it together. We spent a lot of time going back and forth between “this is going to be awesome!” to “we don’t know what the hell we’re doing!” Not only did it sell out, but the participants LOVED it and we got rave reviews! Talk about validating! Just as things finally came together for you at the right time, I am now experiencing a similar shift. Course, let’s not underestimate the value of actually getting off your ass and doing the work.

    I’m with you on the journey part. I, too, am a planner and destination-focused gal. I’m finally seeing that getting there is half the fun.

    Can’t wait to reat Part II of this post!

    • Cara Stein says:

      Beti, I’m so happy for you! It sounds like you’re rocking your new life. Congratulations on the retreat going so great–that is awesome!

      Part II is up as of this morning–I hope you enjoy it, too. :)

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