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An experiment in dream-following, part 2

[ 0 ] January 30, 2012 |
A child and an adult play in the ocean

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

I’ve spent the past year in a life experiment. Usually I play it safe; this time, I decided to follow my dreams. This is a follow-up to an earlier post talking about how the year has gone. This one covers more of what I’ve learned. Everyone’s experiences are different, but if you have a dream you’re considering pursuing, I hope this will give you some useful perspective.

Here are some things I’ve learned.

  • Consider advice, but do it your way.

    When I first quit my job, I was incredibly excited. I felt like I was flying. Free at last!

    I didn’t want to mess it up or burn myself out, though, so I started reading all this advice about how to work for yourself. I felt weird and off balance in the beginning: bittersweet, tired, and nervous, where I expected only elation. All the advice seemed to think my problem was too little structure, so I tried to create structure for myself. I hated it, though. Every time I set up a schedule or a plan for myself, I had broken it within three days.

    Finally, the ever-awesome Molly Mahar of Stratejoy told me it was ok to work any way I want. I had been following all of these external rules about what’s “sustainable,” but they were making me nuts. Once I quit all that and started following my own way, things got a lot better.

  • Don’t be surprised if it doesn’t go as you expect.

    When I quit my job to work for myself, I knew it would be a ton of work. That was no surprise. Other people told me that I’d have a hard time motivating myself to get anything done, or that I’d have a hard time resisting the siren song of my computer 24 hours a day. Neither of those was true for me, either.

    I had a long list of things I wanted to do. I was very motivated by the work–no temptation to sit around watching soap operas and eating bonbons all day. But I also strongly desired to rest, walk in the woods, and just space out. For me, the problem was not a difficulty in walking past the computer without getting sucked into more work. It was more a problem of getting up from my office chair in the first place.

    Looking back, I realize I assumed that I’d be infinitely productive once I didn’t have my job in the way. I knew how much I could get done when I took a week or two off work: I had written two books that way. I was completely immersed, and everything flowed. I’ve never been happier. So I thought all of being self-employed would be like that.

    The distinction I missed was that for two special weeks of vacation time, you can blow off everything else and just work like mad to write your book. When you’re self-employed, you still have to cook, do housework, pay the bills, run errands, get the car fixed… all that stuff has to be done sometime, and it adds up.

    I never accounted for that, so I was perpetually setting unrealistic deadlines for myself and then feeling rushed and behind schedule. So then, of course, I skipped the most dispensable thing: taking care of myself. Bad plan!

    I think a lot of entrepreneurs do this, especially when we first start. There’s so much to set up and get established, and the clock is always ticking. If it takes me an extra month to launch a product, that means I need to come up with the money for another month’s living expenses. Faster is clearly better, and there’s also a certain macho ethos to live up to. Everybody knows entrepreneurs work their brains out and never sleep! If you stop to take a walk every day when you could be working, what kind of entrepreneur are you?

    Maybe that works for some people, but it definitely doesn’t work for me. I can work myself to death for a few months, but after that I’m useless. Meanwhile, doing it that way was sucking all the fun out. I had to start putting myself first, even if that meant blowing off work for an hour or two every afternoon for a walk in the woods. It seemed foolish at first, but it was the best investment I could make.

  • Don’t compare your insides to their outsides.

    I have a lot of blogging friends, and I rejoice in their successes. At least, I intend to. I know there’s plenty of success out there for everyone, but I have to admit that when my friends mention achievements that make them seem way ahead of where I am, it’s sometimes hard to be happy for them.

    What I didn’t realize until I talked to my successful friends is that some of them feel the same way about me. I’m thinking, “what? But I’m just little old me, struggling my ass off over here! I have so far to go!”

    The secret is that’s the way almost everyone feels about themselves. We see all of our suffering, insecurities, failings, embarrassing moments, and how very far short we are of our goals and expectations. But for everyone else, we see only the shiny happy outcome. It’s not a fair comparison. When you realize that, it’s easier to see that we’re all in this together. (Credit Karen Walrond for this insight.)

  • Get by with a little help from your friends.

    I’ve always prided myself on being totally independent. That can work when you’re not doing anything big, but when you follow your dreams, you’re probably going to need some help.

    I was surprised to discover that people are really nice and generally willing to help, and as long as nobody is doing things out of a feeling of guilt or obligation, everyone feels great as a result. You can’t expect everyone to say yes all the time, but it’s worth learning to ask for help.

  • Even following your dreams sucks occasionally.

    It seems obvious that life wouldn’t be perfect all the time just because I was working for myself, but I think I still had that expectation somewhere in the back of my mind. It’s hard not to get carried away with the rose coloring when you’re visualizing your utopia.

    Here’s reality: some days you wake up with a pain and think, “God, is that appendicitis? I don’t have $4000 to cover the out-of-pocket max on my medical insurance, let alone pay myself while I’m recovering!” Some days it’s raining and your car is broken and all you want to do is go back to bed. Some days, every time you get into the flow with what you’re doing, the damn phone rings again. Some days a boring task you expect to take an hour ends up taking five.

    No matter how much you love the meat of what you do, there will always be other stuff you don’t like much, but it has to be done to make everything work.

    You won’t love every minute. But that’s ok. As long as you remember why you’re doing everything, it all has meaning and purpose. You don’t have to be happy every second to be happy overall.

  • Chill.

    This has been the hardest and most necessary lesson of all for me. I’ve always been an aggressive worrier and tried to do everything possible to control my life and make sure it came out right.

    Being self-employed has really shattered my illusions of control. I make plans and mess them up. I establish deadlines and miss them. I set goals and fall short of them. All this, even when I was trying my best and working as hard as I possibly could!

    Life is like this. Things we do don’t always work.

    For me, the hardest thing to let go of was worrying about money, but actually, I’m trying to quit worrying about anything. I still feel unable to quit cold turkey on freaking out and worrying, but I’ve found that I can trick myself into eliminating a ton of it by deferring it. Somehow, if I’ve agreed to worry about something later, that seems to let me off the hook for worrying about it now. Among the things I’ve deferred worrying about: carbs, weight lifting, doing the impossible, money, and days which are not today.

    That last one seems to be the key. Everything is fine right now; it’s always the future I’m worried about. There’s a mistaken idea in my head that it’s irresponsible not to worry about things that may happen in the future, but worrying never really solves anything. It distracts me from getting stuff done that would actually prevent the things I’m worried about. Meanwhile, it brings the hypothetical unpleasantness, which may never even happen in real life, into my current reality, where I get a head start on suffering from it. What a waste!

    Worrying isn’t an easy habit to break, but I’m working on it.

There are many different dreams to follow, and many ways to do it. If you’ve taken a risk to follow a dream of yours, please share what you learned in the comments!

Also, if you happen to have a dream like mine–supporting yourself with a passion business–you may be interested in a free webinar Tuesday, Jan. 31, at 9 pm Eastern. The speaker is Jonathan Mead, the awesome coach who has helped me make my dream a reality. Hope to see you there!

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!

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