How to chase your dreams responsibly


This is my second attempt at this post. The first time through I used the words ‘passion’ and ‘dream’ interchangeably, only to realise 800 words later they’re two completely different things.

For example:

  • Writing is a passion of mine. But my dream is to write books that change people’s lives for the better.
  • Running is another passion of mine. But my dream is to run a marathon in under three hours.

Entrepreneurship might be a passion for someone who has a lot of ideas. But their dream might be to get the funding to launch one of their ideas.

James Rhodes had a passion for playing the piano. But his dream was to be a concert pianist.

When Rhodes first wrote this post (provokingly titled Find what you love and let it kill you), many creative friends of mine shared it on Facebook as something amazingly inspirational.

But I didn’t find this very inspirational at all:

Admittedly I went a little extreme – no income for five years, six hours a day of intense practice, monthly four-day long lessons with a brilliant and psychopathic teacher in Verona, a hunger for something that was so necessary it cost me my marriage, nine months in a mental hospital, most of my dignity and about 35lbs in weight.

I’m not going to debate whether or not Rhodes should have pursued his dream given what it cost him to achieve it. The choices he made were neither unique, nor particularly rare. I know many athletes who’ve done the same, and they wouldn’t change anything for the world. But if we all pursued our passions with this level of single-mindedness, the fabric of society would explode.

So should the rest of us just lock our dreams away in a box? Or is there a more responsible way to chase them?

I believe the answer to the latter question is “Yes”.

1. Start with your spare time

I find it really weird when people think if they can’t fulfil their dream of doing their passion full-time (be it painting, golf or knitting jumpers for Cabbage Patch dolls), then there’s no point pursuing it all.

If you’re truly passionate about something, how could you not do it? Surely you would take any opportunity, no matter how tiny, to feed your soul.

So start with your spare time. Start with the two hours of TV you watch every day. Start by getting up an hour earlier each day. Start by pulling out your laptop while your child is at hockey training instead of spending that hour on twitter.

2. Secure the support of your partner

I’m going to make a dangerously large sweeping statement here: don’t actively pursue a dream without bringing your partner on board first. It will not only make things really hard for you (having to constantly battle for the time you need to pursue your big, hairy, audacious goal), it will also jeopardise your relationship.

This is as true for the girl spending 20 hours a week training for an Ironman triathlon as it is for a budding novelist or aspiring Prime Minister.

Maybe achieving your dream is worth the risk (and maybe if your partner can’t support your dream they really shouldn’t be your partner.)

But maybe it’s not.

It’s up to you to make that call.

When I decided it was “now or never” to start my design business, I wouldn’t and couldn’t have gone any further if my husband (who admittedly did go a bit pale) didn’t support me 100%.

3. Make good use of redundancies and owed leave

When my mum (the primary breadwinner, as dad had retired) decided to start her own business at 57, she did it with three months of long-service leave in the bank.

I know many people in a similar situation who’d give themselves a holiday for at least a month and then be dismayed at how quickly the next two months evaporated.

But not my mum.

She went hard from day one, letting her existing network of contacts know the kind of work she was after. She also worked very hard in those first three months to add to that network of contacts.

By the end of three months she was working enough hours to feel pretty secure, and within six months she was working the baseline hours she’d set for herself. Woo. Go Mum!

4. Have a palatable worst-case scenario/fall-back plan

When I decided to start my own business it was a risk. But while I knew we’d be totally skint if I didn’t make any money for months, my husband’s salary was enough to cover our bills and food. I also knew my previous employer would welcome me back with open arms if I decided owning a business wasn’t for me six months down the track.

So in reality the worst-case scenario for me was having to use my fall-back plan of returning to full-time employment with my tail between my legs.

I decided I could deal with that if I had to.

Fast-forward five years, my health was terrible and it was time for a new ‘dream’. One where we could keep the business, but I didn’t have to run it. This time though, instead of being DINKs with a tiny mortgage, my husband and I had a giant mortgage (spread over three properties) and a child.

Our solution was for my husband to give up his full-time teaching job to run the business, and for me to work from home on the business. This time our worst-case scenario was that the business would fail, or fail to provide two full-time salaries. Our fall-back plan involved selling the investment properties we’d worked really hard for, and hubby returning to teaching.

Once again we decided we could live with that worst-case scenario so we pressed on.

5. Don’t be afraid of the F word

Just as it can be irresponsible to follow your dreams without taking everything above into account, it can also be irresponsible to never chase a dream because you fear failure.

Anyone who’s accomplished anything in this world has failed in any number of ways before achieving success. If fear of failure is the only thing holding you back right now, you need to have a good, long talk with yourself.

What’s getting in the way of you pursuing your dreams right now?