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Photo by Hector Mata/AFP, photoshopped by Prianka Jain
Confessions

Maybe Your Big Dream Is Making You Unhappy

We're told to never give up. But what if that's not working?
22 May 2020, 2:06am

Confessions is a series of essays on personal experiences, many of which have been kept secret for a long time. By sharing these previously confidential accounts, we explore our own mental health without judgment and in the hope that it makes it a little lighter of a burden for us to carry. It's also a reminder that no matter how odd or unique these experiences can be, there's always someone who can relate – and none of us are alone.

Most people don’t achieve their dreams. I know this is true because the world doesn’t have millions of astronauts, singers, and movie stars. Instead, the world has millions of people who realised that becoming an astronaut, singer or movie star is really hard and exhausting, so they became something else.

Then there’s a second, much smaller group of people: the ones who followed all the inspirational quotes and clung doggedly to their goals, year in, year out, until finally they got a record deal or got drafted to the team or got promoted to CEO, and we praised them for their self-belief and drive. And we love these stories. We obsessively recite these modern fables. But in doing so we overlook a third, less glamorous group of people.

This third group of people are just as ambitious and just as committed, but far less successful. They’re reading all the inspirational books and listening to all the inspirational podcasts but for whatever reason they can’t get a foothold. You might know someone like this. These are the guys in your Instagram feed who post two or three videos daily of themselves playing guitar in a cowboy hat with a caption like so many awesome memories from this gig! or join me on facey this friday for a few classics as well as some new ones!

I know it sounds like I’m advocating a dichotomy of winners and losers, but I’m not. I’m just saying our cultural obsession with rags-to-riches narratives is misleading. We’re told that great success is a direct descendant of great struggle. But I don’t buy it. I think there’s a lot of people with goals that oustrip their talents, and people whose talents are better suited to other goals. And the universe is telling them this. A lukewarm response, a rejection, or an outright failure can signal that the direction is wrong, or even the dream, but we’re told to ignore the signs and trudge on blindly.

We remind ourselves that J.K. Rowling was rejected by 12 publishers before someone picked up Harry Potter. Or that, while alive, Vincent van Gogh never sold a painting. But we never talk about that guy on your Instagram with the guitar, or the tens of thousands just like him who annually gravitate to Los Angeles for a few deeply disappointing auditions before they finally drift home again.

But the thing is, if you’re a person with a big dream, how do you differentiate brave tenacity from pig-headedness? Is it possible that everyone with a master plan is just a stubborn idiot until they get lucky?

I’m 33 years old and I feel like I’ve been working on my big dream for about 13 of those, without getting very far. Of course, I should preface that by saying I get paid actual money to write first-person stories for the Internet, so I’ve got it pretty good, but I still don’t have the dream.

Admitting to a dream is embarrassing, but this article won’t make a lot of sense unless I do, so here goes: I want to make a film or a podcast or write a book that becomes a household name. That’s it. That’s the ultimate dream. The problem is that my dream is stupidly ambitious and relies on a whole lot of things that are out of my control. But I also feel like I don’t have a choice but to try, which is the other aspect of having a big dream. It’s a journey that might be a long, frustrating struggle from the middle all the way to the middle, but it’s also more a compulsion than a choice.

When I was a kid I wanted to be an actor. And not just any actor, but Macaulay Culkin. I used to cut out photos of Macaulay Culkin from gossip magazines and carefully paste them into a scrapbook. And one day I remember my mum finding my scrapbook and asking me some determinedly open-minded questions about what I was doing.

“What… how does… how do you feel when you’re working on this book?” she asked.

“Famous,” I replied.

Mum was obviously fishing for information about my sexual identity, but when I didn’t give her the secret she expected she left me alone. Apparently she didn’t realise she’d found a different kind of secret.

Wanting to be famous is uncool, but I didn’t know that as a kid. I used to tell people I wanted to be a famous actor, until, as a teenager, I realised that the only people who admit to craving fame are exclusively reality TV contestants and Americans. So I stopped talking about wanting to be an actor and shifted my gaze to directing. “I want to be a film director,” I told people, and then I’d talk about my “love of the craft” instead of my love of attention.

If you’re the kind of person who enjoys attention, you learn to obfuscate your passion with a variety of socially acceptable phrases. Saying that you want to be “accomplished” is a good way of saying you want to be noticed, without actually saying that. As is saying you want to be “respected by your peers.” But these phrases are lies. When it comes to filmmaking and acting, it’s about attention and recognition. That’s the fuel that drives the engine.

When I left school I embarked on a career of filmmaking, which I wasn’t very good at. I made a bunch of shorts in film school that for some reason all began with a grumpy guy getting woken up by an alarm clock and reluctantly getting out of bed. And all the women in my class made films about women in bridal dresses submerged in bathtubs. So as you can imagine, a lot of us realised film making wasn’t our thing and decided to go and do something else.

But not me. I was stuck on the dream. I graduated in 2010 determined that if I couldn’t direct, maybe I could write scripts.

Sadly, I wasn’t much good at screenwriting either. I did about three years of internships and observerships (whatever they are) while working on my own scripts for shorts and features. I eventually showed my most polished feature script to a director at a production company who kindly took the time to read it, then told me the script had no discernible plot nor character development and seemed to be a series of disconnected car chases.

By that point it was 2013 and I’d been trying to write screenplays for three years and apparently still couldn’t write one with a discernible plot. You might think I gave up too soon. But I think that three years is long enough to take the hint.

That was the first time I really wondered whether my dream was stupid. Not only was my desire to craft films making me unhappy, but it wasn’t making anyone else happy either. It’s not like I was creating a new medication for cancer, or designing equipment to purify third-world drinking water. Instead, my dream was just a highly romanticised exercise in narcissism while I lived at home with my parents, smoked too much weed, and thought about myself far too much. But I realised I couldn’t stop—the thought of pursuing something more realistic seemed pointless. There was no meaning to a job unless it was creative and somehow attention-grabbing.

I want to take a detour here for a moment, to dissect what it is I find so compelling about the attention of strangers. This is an odd kind of argument, but bear with me. What I want to talk about is space. You know those documentaries about the universe, and how big it all is? They’re just like: Everything in space is so large that your brain can’t even understand it. Everything in space will kill you. Nothing in space cares about you or even about itself. Chaos is the only constant in space.

I find those documentaries hard to watch. They remind me how we’re just on a little rock in space and how everything we value is tiny and insignificant, and the only antidote I can think of to all that cosmic irrelevance is an illustrious career. It sounds ridiculous, but the emptiness of space makes me want to leave my mark. Not for its own sake, but because irrelevance is frightening. Being noticed here on Earth feels a bit like carving my name into a large tree. It’s a way to signify: I was here, briefly.

Now, lots of people are of the opinion that raising a child is a better, less egotistical form of legacy creation, and they’re right—but also wrong. My problem with procreation is that it’s a bit easy. There’s no struggle in it. Two people can come home from the pub and accidentally make a child before they drift off to sleep. And it’s not like this faculty exists in any other realm. It’s not like you can get pissed and accidentally weave a rug, or build a new ensuite bathroom. But you can build a human being. The barrier for entry in person-creation is quite low, which is why I feel like it’s not enough.

Anyway, back to my autobiography. In 2013 I gave up on screenwriting and tried my hand at journalism, which came to me a bit more easily. Then I started hassling the editor of VICE to take my freelance pitches and somehow that worked out, and I now work at VICE, where I’ve been for about seven years. And I must say, it’s made me really happy. I no longer feel like I’m spinning my wheels through existential sludge. But one of the best things about working here—and something that might interest anyone curious about the mechanisms of mass appeal—has been getting access to VICE’s various audience tracking programs such as Google Analytics. I can now see what millions of people like and won’t they don’t like, in real time. And it’s totally changed how I feel about my chances of crafting something with mass appeal.

When I was in film school, I mostly believed that a film’s success was almost random. That different humans get excited by different things, so it was only possible to make vague generalisations about taste. I knew that people like films about love, for example, or fear, but I didn’t realise the degree to which there’s a recurring pattern to these stories.

After seven years of watching the real-time numbers on our articles across Australia and the Asia Pacific, I feel like I’ve got a roadmap to what human beings find interesting. For example, stories that involve very specific details about the weird lives of the mega-rich always traffic well. Stories about underdogs getting hilarious forms of revenge on authority figures do too. But as much as it saddens me to admit this, stories about homelessness never work, no matter how we spin them. (I’m aware this indifference could be unique to our particular readership.)

My point is, I think there’s a reason why certain films, songs, products and foods enjoy mass popularity, and it’s that human beings are wired to find similar things exciting, and similar things boring. So for the person who wants to create a film or a website or a piece of consumer technology or a clothing line or a restaurant chain that becomes a household name, I really believe there are particular notes you’ve got to hit, and thanks to my seven years of watching Google Analytics I’ve got a much better idea of what those notes are.

The bad news, however, is that luck is the omnipresent silent partner in all success.

From what I’ve seen, an audience or market’s collective interests are always on the move. Humans might always find particular stories exciting, but how we want them packaged is constantly shifting. We often run stories that no one reads, only to tweak the headline and suddenly the same story becomes a viral hit.

Imagine how these mechanics operate across the globe through all sorts of products and services. Would Michael Jackson have been popular in the 1960s? Would the iPhone have been a world-altering success in the 1990s? (The answer is no). Can you predict how a certain product released at a certain time in a certain way will perform in a certain market? Yes, sort of, but with a giant margin for random luck.

One of my favourite podcasts is a show called How I Built This, which is a series of interviews with founders of big companies. At the end of each episode, the show’s host, Guy Raz, asks the interviewee what percentage of their success they attribute to luck. In every episode I’ve listened to, over several years, everyone from a co-founder of Airbnb to a co-founder of Instagram, has said the single most important component of their success was luck.

So where does that leave me? And where does it leave you? Chasing a dream is a lonely and often disappointing activity, and it’s frustrating to think that so much of the outcome is a byproduct of chance. But as I said earlier, I can’t stop. Trying makes me more comfortable with mortality, so I guess I’ll keep at it.

But there is one thing that I’ve promised to do, and that’s to support other creatives, dreamers, and general idiots such as myself. When I read a book or see a film I like, I’m really enjoying tweeting at people and letting them know. Same with my friends who write poetry, make yoga videos, bake sourdough, or play guitar in a cowboy hat on Facebook. I think it's a nice gesture to engage with people’s stuff, as it makes me happy when people engage with mine. So keep trying, and I’ll do the same. And maybe one of us will win, some day, somehow, maybe.

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