Follow Your Dreams? – Doing what you Love vs. Capitalism

We are constantly being fed rhetoric about “following our dreams.” But many of us struggle to reconcile the dream with reality, and then blame ourselves for “not having what it takes.” In this post I’m going to address a few reasons it is so hard to actualize a dream that is meant to fulfill an inner purpose while also making a living.

Lets think this through. Most of the time, the dream doesn’t pay the bills. Why is that? This is a very annoying and inconvenient fact that most can’t seem to overcome. Either we have enough money but feel we are not fulfilling our true purpose, or we attempt to fulfill our true purpose and find ourselves financially unfulfilled or unstable. Even if the dream does pay the bills, it usually takes exorbitant time and work to get it to that point and to sustain it. Why is it so hard to do what you love and have financial satisfaction?

Well, first of all, if our dreams could easily pay the bills, then we wouldn’t think of them as dreams. If our society nurtured intrinsic talents and encouraged people to follow their creative inspirations, fulfilling your purpose wouldn’t be a super big deal, you would just be doing it by now. It wouldn’t be a holy grail of personal accomplishment. Following your purpose would be a matter of course and there would be lots of support along the way.

But our society does not actually want you to do this, because there are a lot of undesirable (and most of them superfluous) job positions that need to be filled. But also, consider this: dreams come from the heart and soul. They often serve a creative-spiritual purpose, not a purpose of survival, acquisition, power, or status.

Our capitalistic system? Not rooted in heart and soul, not intended to mature and expand the creative-spiritual journey of our species. The capitalistic system is sort of good for taking care of practical needs, however, it fails to do the most basic thing we need which is equally distribute resources to people. We have hungry people and food waste, homeless people and empty houses–need I say more?

Meanwhile, the burden is placed on the individual to “figure things out” for themselves. This leads us to blame ourselves when we do not earn a proper living trying to do what we love (or even doing what the system wants us to do!). Then you get people saying “follow your dreams!” “Only YOU can make your dreams reality.”

One of my primary reasons for writing this is to remove the sense of inadequacy people accumulate when they fail to actualize dreams in a system that doesn’t really make it easy to do so (but pretends it really is possible…easy in fact). No, you can’t actualize your dreams if you “just believe.” The conditions need to be right too. 

When we dream, we do have to be careful. Nobody had a “dream” of creating plastic products that would ultimately pollute the atmosphere, kill animals, and litter sensitive habitats. They probably dreamed of a material that could be made into any shape, solving lots of problems. Nobody had a “dream” of displacing indigenous peoples and stealing water. They dreamed of building a “great city” that could allow people to thrive and they would do ANYTHING to make it happen (yes, I’m referring to Payahuunadu and LA. You can read about that in Miracle Country by Kendra Atleework). 

The act of dreaming, in the sense of imagining a future, should be sacred. But it too is co-opted by our acquisitive and individualistic culture. The individual is emphasized, and the web of life is de-emphasized. Personal success is key. Acquisition is encouraged even if it comes at the expense of the health of our people and our planet.

A good dream has some kind of sensitivity underpinning it, and some basis in reality. It recognizes potential ways for good intentions to cause harm, and declines to cut corners or unfold at the expense of the sacred. Getting somewhere quickly or acquiring something quickly is not a dream. A dream is not “become a millionaire” or “become president.” Those are ambitions, and they may very well involve treading on others. A dream should not really be about you. If *you* have a gift, like a beautiful voice, it could be about releasing that gift to the rest of the world.

When you proceed to actualize your dream, you probably need resources, which means you need money. But if your dream is supposed to be the source of your money, you need to realize that you are literally competing with essential resources. Money pays for everything, from food to shelter to art to advice. Again, dreams aren’t about survival. They are further up the pyramid. So you have to realize that you are competing for the same resource that gets people food, shelter, health care, water, utilities, and so on. Obviously, there is no contest. If your dream is to offer artistic mentorships, you have to accept that as rewarding as your program is going to be, it is wayyy down the list of anybody’s personal expenses.

Nobody is going to buy an artistic mentorship program at the expense of food and medicine, because they won’t even be able to do the program if they are sick or dead. Your buying population dwindles to those with disposable income who are interested in specifically you and what you are doing.

Let’s go back to the idea that dreams that make us a living are not usually meeting the same human needs that are prioritized by our capitalistic system. Dreams take us toward something other than survival. But I would say that despite the overall financial “wealth” we have, our species as a whole, like every other, is in survival mode. Except our “survival mode” is worse than that of animals, because our idea of survival is caught up with earning money, which is not a straightforward affair. Hunting prey and gathering acorns are straightforward affairs and they are basically fair. Earning money is neither straightforward nor fair, so those who lack wealth feel anguish on top of the physical discomforts and dangers of being poor.

What I’m saying is that if our species is in survival mode, even those with disposable income may find themselves reluctant to spend it to fuel your dream. It needs to be saved, put away, in case something happens. Your dream might be about rising above survival, enhancing quality of life, dare we say, thriving? Many people will decline to thrive out of fear that it will compromise their ability to survive.

Artists, musicians, and writers (common dreamer archetypes) work hard to cram their puzzle pieces into the capitalistic puzzle. We demand to be treated the way professionals in more mainstream industries are treated. We assert that we offer value, that the world would be barren without us, and demand money in exchange for our products and services. We argue that we had to pay for education and resources to produce our work, and have to earn that money back. And it’s true–if we are going to force everyone into the capitalistic system we need to do so with some kind of consistency. It’s funny how hard we will fight to be included in something we dislike and know is dysfunctional. But that’s the thing–everybody’s gotta eat.

The thing about a dream is that there’s something about it that motivates you that has nothing to do with money. Theoretically, if the money problem went away, you wouldn’t stop doing what you do (though you would likely make some adjustments so you can have a more spacious life). Because what you do is intrinsically valuable, and not just valuable in terms of money, it has some actual staying power. It is actually, actually valuable.

Dreams are not related to survival, but they enhance the quality and diversity of life.

I think everybody ultimately feels some amount of dissonance around artistic endeavors and money because we sense that these soul-community-creativity oriented activities don’t align naturally or logically with the capitalistic value system. I think largely we creators want to give our art freely. We want an audience, yes, and a great space to perform or showcase our art, and an emotional response, and a connection. But we don’t want to have to ask for money to do what were born to do–express and share our talents–and we don’t want to exclude people who cannot give us their money.

What we really want are opportunities, resources to enhance our art, relationships, and connection. I’m curious what would happen to artistic endeavors if the money problem went away. I imagine they would only be accelerated and enhanced. Whereas if you told a salesperson they could have free money, they would probably never come back to the office to make cold calls again.

Ultimately we struggle emotionally and mentally to place a dollar value on art or whatever it is that our dream is about. We (most of us) know not to put a dollar amount on a human, however many humans, including myself, place a dollar value upon their own time.

Fewer people see the dysfunction in putting dollar amounts on animals or plants. But we’ve made it pretty normal to accept that our dream purpose belongs with food and shelter and plastic toys and clothes and so on. We have basically been instructed to use our system of financial value in relation to all aspects of life and culture, whether they naturally relate to money or not, and have ultimately never had a chance to practice looking at the world outside of these financial terms. We feel weird because we’re trying to fit dynamic, living, interconnected systems of life and imagination and soul into this brittle abstract system of value we literally made up. “These are the ways you can do it” says society, and we believe it.

If you go listen to live music, or feel the river rush past your feet, or hold a child’s hand, or lock eyes with a wild animal, you understand. There is no question. You don’t need or desire to assign a dollar amount to those experiences that make our “great economic system” seem like a game of monopoly.

The problem is we are yet conditioned to evaluate real things using a framework that is really just a subjective abstraction–dollar amounts. We are conditioned to believe that the acquisition of money is an indication of success or worth. Sure, you can call it success, but it’s kind of like the success you experience from winning a board game. It is not like the success you might feel if you were able to cultivate a presence that the abused horse on the other side of the fence is comfortable enough with to risk approaching you and forming a connection. And you will be hard pressed to get someone to fund you to do something like that, though we could argue that it is infinitely more valuable than a pack of cigarettes or a plastic doll (isn’t it strange how readily GIVE money away to harm ourselves and the earth?).

The system you are trying to fit your dream into inadvertently rewards people who are willing to take shortcuts that take maximum advantage of what is real–people and the environment–in exchange for this abstraction we invented called money (money is supposed to = value, but value is subjective). Eco-friendly alternatives are always more expensive. Paying people fairly is always more expensive. Following the rules is more expensive than cheating (at least in the short term).

Capitalism is built on the idea of the individual as a single person rather than an interconnected system of life. It fails to accommodate the diversity of life circumstances that people around the world experience. It lacks the kind of checks and balances you would find in a natural ecology, where predators and prey form equilibrium.

Rather, we find that money creates ever-widening gaps between people and leads to extreme stockpiles of wealth. Interestingly, money takes on a different kind of value when it is hoarded–it is not used for essential resources but rather power and influence. After a certain amount money behaves differently–it gains an ability to endanger the owner, who could become a target of furious or acquisitive onlookers. Regardless, stockpiling money is like building a fence around the watering hole. What do you think you’re doing? How long can this tactic work for you?

So in essence our system is not highly compatible with good dreams. You have to do extra work to make the economic system fit with your beautiful dream. People who are able to actualize their good dreams usually have: considerable privilege, resources, luck, and a safety net. Yes, sometimes we celebrate individuals who made great fortune out of “nothing.” We find these people inspiring and impressive, and we say it’s because they just believed enough, or were talented enough.

First of all, incredible talent is not nothing. If you have it to an extremely level, it is possible to break through the many hurdles of capitalism, but you still need help from within that system to get connected to resources and opportunities. You need to be among the best of the best at what you do AND have enough of a network to receive recognition for it.

Why should we accept it as so rare for people rise to success without having much to start with? Our society loves elevating a select few to the top, so we can “other” them and believe their role is inaccessible and their success untouchable.

Why shouldn’t somebody with a medium level of talent have the opportunity to dream big? Should we really reserve the right to making dreams reality to the very privileged or the very talented? Doing so encourages us to say “well, I can see that they are special, so this could happen for them, but not me. I won’t bother to try.”

So if you find that your dream is very difficult to actualize, what does that actually mean? If anything, the fact that your dream is not super compatible with our capitalistic system is a sign that your dream has the right kind of roots–roots in something that is actually real and meaningful. Your inability to actualize could be a positive sign about the direction you are imagining your life.

Unfortunately, try as we might, we cannot ignore the system we find ourselves in. We have to “play the game.” The frustration of this is that it is not development of character, wisdom, or skill in your discipline that will make your dream fit into the capitalistic scheme, but rather, resignation to the way things are, and cleverness. You have to invest a large percentage of your time and energy in figuring out how this dysfunctional machine works and how to fit in to the system, which you probably don’t even agree with.

This is why big dreams take so long to actualize. You spend half the time hitting your head against the logistics of the dysfunctional system. Certainly the content of the dream itself takes time too. Skill development takes time. Relationship building takes time. Development of ideas take time. That’s the thing…your dream would already take a long time to actualize even IF there were no time wasted on other trivial but unavoidable things such as raising money or amassing an audience.

If you study the “right” things in society and are strategic and clever, you can possibly figure out how to get a lotus flower to bloom in stripped soil. Unfortunately, gaining this skill is not intrinsically fulfilling, it is more of an amusement or a hoop to jump through (not in the fun circus-y way).

My solution is to dream something that just doesn’t have to do with making a living. Other than that, I just do not have a solution. I just want to take the feelings of inadequacy away from people who think they have failed because they have not actualized their dream. Dreams are basically good, meaningful, and soul oriented. You probably KNOW how to do the good work that makes your dream impact the world. You know how to make something beautiful, or connect with people, or reveal something wonderful about the world. You know how to create hope, nurture healthy relationships, and improve the conditions for the environment. That’s the real work.

Cramming it into place in this dysfunctional machine is the shitty work you just have to do until we have all figured out and agreed on a better way.

I suppose if you want to defy the system without eschewing it altogether, the answer is to build community. Interconnectedness and prioritization of the whole ecology–not just “me myself and I”–are in direct contradiction to the values and structures of our current system. If we can weaken that, the framework might shift.

We are community creatures. We were never meant to actualize our dreams on our own. Money is a big piece of things, but relationships are right up there with it. People will connect you to resources. They will help you think. They will give you a reason to keep trying. They will believe in you. They will root for you. They will lift you off the floor and push the scaffold over to you. You will understand that it is not “your” dream, not “your” project. Then you realize it is even bigger and more important than you even thought.

And then some. It’s not just about people either. What about animals? What about plants? What about the mountain and the river? What about the air you breathe? What do they have to do with your talent, your dream? Are you thinking of them? Has money cast a spell on you to make you unable to think like this? What can happen to your thinking if you can set that idea of a dollar value aside for awhile?

Notice what the living beings around you uphold. What balances do they maintain? What landscapes are they creating? They are waiting for you to join them in a greater mind of genuine creation and participation in the web of life. Think bigger. Think deeper. Think in coordination with the incredible minds shaping the world all around you.

I would have never thought to even consider these questions if I had not taken courses with Philosopher Nikos Patedakis. Because of his guidance I have barely begun to think and practice outside my usual conditioning.

Whatever this thing is you’re going to build, it’s gonna take a bit of work. And you were never meant to imagine it or actualize it alone.