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Follow Your Heart (But Fund Your Dreams)

“Follow your heart” is such a great piece of advice…

We preach it, and we teach it, and we sing its praises, but dreams cost money, and so does survival. Out of the two the latter usually wins, which may seem unfair. At least I thought it was. Until I learned that you don’t have to choose. You can follow your heart and fund your dreams.

To make your dreams come to pass takes sacrifice. It takes time and effort and (usually) money, but it also might mean uprooting yourself, or taking a huge risk, or abandoning security for the sake of a chance and a shit-ton of “what ifs.” We dole out the notion of “do what you love” like it’s an option for everybody, and then when it isn’t, we shrug and say nothing.

What I Learned (the hard way)

I know this because I’ve done that. High on my own “quit my job, move and write” (only for it to end disastrously), I told everybody who’d listen to throw caution to the wind and to take a chance, be courageous, embrace gutsiness, and fight for what they wanted because someone else would if they did not.

I didn’t take into account what it’s like to be a parent, or to have responsibilities to family or friends, or a community, or to not live off a line of credit like I was about to do (see:  disaster). I didn’t think about past experiences or what my friends and family’s concerns were and why. And I certainly didn’t think of how I looked, standing there lecturing like a professor about as equipped as Kramer from Seinfeld, wielding a briefcase of crackers. I was all about following my heart, but didn’t consider how I would actually fund my dreams.

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We dole out the notion of “do what you love” like it’s an option for everybody, and then when it isn’t, we shrug and say nothing.

To pay for college, I had worked two jobs and lived at home. I worked at a bank and a clothing store at the mall, and my days were long and I was tired always, but it was fine. After college, I spent the first year working only at the store before deciding to quit that job and “become a writer” (despite my writing income of only about $200/month.) In short, I was an idiot. When I moved out of my parents’ house the next year, I used my line of credit as a bank account, making about $400 for every $1,200/month I was spending. What happened? I eventually landed myself right back at my parent’s home and in a shit-ton of debt.

What I Could’ve Done Instead (but was too stubborn)

But it could’ve ended differently. As I struggled to make ends meet, my friends who were in the same financial boat worked part-time jobs as servers or baristas, viewing their regular jobs as a way of funding what they really wanted to do (writing, art, music) while ensuring they could eat and pay rent. One friend described her job to me as her “dream funder.” Today, I think she was brilliant.

I don’t know what my problem was. As in, I don’t think I can narrow it down to a single issue. I was stubborn, prideful, and convinced that doing the logical thing was the “weaker” thing. I couldn’t figure out how my friends could make life work and I couldn’t, all while getting increasingly frustrated. So, I learned the hard way — I moved back home, wrote full time (whether I wanted to write or not) until I could dig myself out of the ditch I’d taken a nap in.

If someone can’t afford to do what they love, we need to know that dreams can still be pursued – because they can be funded.

Today, when I talk to teens and twenty-somethings about what they want and who they want to be, I relay the advice that I used to neglect. I tell them to follow their hearts, but to make sure they’re filling the pool — whether financial, mental, or emotional. I tell them to make sure that they’re doing something to ensure that what they’re doing isn’t taking away from the big picture.

The Pros of Not Quitting Your Day Job

And I’ll admit, there’s a certain power and freedom in having a boring day job you don’t really care about, regardless of how much you may envy friends working full-time in the field you want to be in — especially if you can just leave work at work. 5 p.m. rolls around and you owe nothing to nobody. You can freelance at night, snag company benefits, and slowly work your way into the world you want to be in at your own pace. Because I’ll be honest:  once you start doing what you love full time, it can seriously take over a huge part of your life — especially if your job revolves around the internet. Add that to the big picture.

There is no Right Way to Chase your Dreams

The bigger problem is that we believe the big picture is finite. It isn’t. Dreams vary, but unless yours is to pick up and move to Los Angeles and win an Oscar (and honestly — good luck if so), there are ways to move towards your dreams while still keeping your head above water. Do you want to write? Start a newsletter and use it as a jumping off point to pitch publications. Do you want to act? Look into drop-in classes or see what your community theatre offers. (At least to start.) Make music? If you can’t afford an instrument, play around with GarageBand or read up on the tools used by artists like Grimes (who produces her own music and is self taught). Do you want to write a book? Take an hour or two a week and write. There is no wrong way to follow your dreams. Taking your time requires patience and tenacity, it also means you’ll get to do it without wanting to scream into the night.

The bigger problem is that we believe the big picture is finite. It isn’t.

Still, maybe for you it isn’t about money. Maybe you don’t need to take small steps and can throw yourself into an industry because you’ve got the privilege of comfort. Then it’s up to you to fund your emotional and mental state. Stay sharp. Read: books, magazines, blogs. Watch the news. Listen when people who are smarter than you are talking. Soak up as much information as you can and then keep soaking it up because you have to replace what you’re expending. That’s how the best dreams are turned into reality.

Pride has no place in chasing dreams. If you love something and are sure you want to make it your life, there’s no timeframe or blueprint to follow — your dreams are on your own terms. Which means that if funding them takes a second, or sees you pause between opportunities, that’s fine. The only person who gets to dictate the terms of what you want is you. Don’t let friends stuck up on their high horses make you think otherwise.


Anne T. Donahue writes for MTV News, Refinery29, The Guardian and other publications. She is in a loving and committed relationship with Leonardo DiCaprio, even though he is not aware of that.


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