Why “follow your dreams” is terrible advice

By October 6, 2017 No Comments

I think we can all agree that one of the most common pieces of conventional wisdom is that we should pursue our dreams.

When I was in my 30s, I was seduced into this way of thinking and quit my PhD to pursue my dream of building a global technology company. I wanted to be one of the super entrepreneurs like Elon Musk and Richard Branson.

I had a big dream – to organize the world’s collective intelligence – and created a Pinterest-like social network for everyone to share their ideas. This felt pretty big to me.

We achieved success early on, and got some high profile support along the way. Richard Branson even invited me to Necker Island so he could find out more about Ideapod.

He didn’t love my NASA uniform. Then again, I wasn’t a fan of his red lipstick.

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The evidence showed me that the conventional wisdom was right. All you had to do was commit to your dreams and let them come true.

Then something happened. Reality caught up.

I found out the hard way that I was living in my dreams and ignoring reality.

The brilliant rapper Tupac Shakur once said, “Reality is wrong. Dreams are for real.”

I learned that for me, actually, reality is always right. It’s all there is. Dreams are a figment of the imagination and manipulated me into ignoring reality and living in a world that didn’t serve me or the people around me.

I learned to give up on my dreams, and it’s the best thing I ever did.

Here’s why.

Research says that to be successful you have to be good at something

What I didn’t realize when I quit my PhD was that research shows that to be successful, it’s not enough to just have passion. You must also have talent and expertise.

Gallup recently interviewed more than two million people in the business world and found that the most successful people don’t only love what they do. They’re also really good at what they do.

I had to face up to the fact that I wasn’t very good at building a technology company. I didn’t enjoy constantly pitching investors and building a team of developers. I felt like what we were building was disconnected from how people were really using our platform.

I realized that I had become addicted to living in my dreams. Nothing we did was ever good enough for me. It never lived up to the vision I held for how things could be in the future.

A Harvard Business Review article promotes the idea that sometimes you need to give up on old ideas when they’re not working.

I had to give up on the idea that I could be a super entrepreneur like Musk or Branson, creating businesses that would change the world.

By letting go of this idea, things started to change.

I gave up on my dreams and my life started to change

By letting go of the dream of being a super entrepreneur, I started to see reality around me. It became apparent that a small part of what we were doing was outperforming everything else.

While our social network is still being used every day by a passionate community, our blog was firing. I could see reality for what it was. We weren’t a global technology company, but rather had the beginnings of a digital media platform.

Now, we have over 5 million monthly readers and a pretty decent social media following. It may not be as big as I originally envisaged when I quit my PhD, but it’s real and is creating value in a lot of people’s lives.

What did I learn from giving up my dreams?

I found that my irrelevant and unattainable dreams were restricting me. Deep down in my subconscious, I knew the dream of being a super entrepreneur didn’t really suit me.

The stories of entrepreneurial greatness assume that there’s a big event that defines success. It may be selling your company or raising a big round of financing. If you’re a writer, it could mean publishing a bestseller.

When I was living in my dreams, these “success” events mattered more to me than what I was actually doing. The destination mattered more to me than the journey itself.

Giving up on my dreams meant I was able to be clear headed about what I wanted. I committed to getting better at how we were already creating value.

My dreams were making my life complicated. Now, everything is so much simpler. And I’m enjoying the journey.

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Justin Brown

Justin Brown

I'm the CEO and co-founder of Ideapod, a platform for people to connect around ideas. I'm passionate about people thinking for themselves, especially in an age of information overload.