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The Fastest Way To Bankrupt Your Dream. (And How To Avoid It.)
I showed up at Yale with two crammed suitcases, two bright eyes, and two main goals: Learn everything I could, and fill my passport with stamps as soon as humanly possible.
This was back when I thought world travel was expensive, complicated, and not do-able alone. I assumed that the only way I could afford it and pull it off would be to join a traveling extracurricular of some kind.
So I looked around for the first thing that would take me across an ocean. I snatched up a flyer advertising the Yale Glee Club, an undergraduate choir, which usually did a foreign tour every other year. I was entranced – they had pictures of smiling choir members standing next to iconic European monuments. Perfect, I thought – I sang in choir in high school. I can do this, and it’ll get me abroad as soon as possible.
But then I looked more closely at the flyer. The hours of commitment. The performance schedule. All on top of my part time job and a packed-to-the-gills courseload? All just to spend 20 touristy minutes at the Colosseum?
Um….there had to be an easier way to see Europe.
But I was still tempted. It looked so easy. I didn’t know any other way. It couldn’t be all that bad, could it?
This experience reminds me of something I learned later – something called The Streetlight Effect:
The Streetlight Effect can be illustrated with a simple story. A policeman sees a drunk man searching for his car keys under a streetlight. He joins in the search. They can’t find the keys. The policeman asks the drunk man if he’s sure he lost the keys right here. The drunk man replies, “No, I lost them in the park.” The policeman says “Why are we looking here then!?” and the drunk man says “This is where the light is.”
For me, joining that choir would have been a “Streetlight Solution.” Easy and clear to see, therefore easy to assume I should do it that way. This is where the light is, right?
But because I wasn’t passionate about actually joining the choir, I wouldn’t have enjoyed the whole process – the rehearsals, the team building, the hours spent practicing. It would have seemed peripheral to the goal, pointless, and kind of a drag. Honestly, I probably would have quit before I ever got on the tour plane. And after all that time, I might not have seen the Colosseum. That “easy” path wouldn’t have been so easy after all.
The fastest way to bankrupt a dream is to settle on an obvious Streetlight Solution even when that path doesn’t make you happy along the way.
You dread the actual steps you have to take, but think: “Well, this will be the easiest way to get what I want. This is how everyone else is doing it, and I don’t know any other way. And look, it works!”
Because when you don’t like the actual path, the inevitable happens: You get sick of it. You overdraw your energy trying to deal with the day-to-day, and give up, exhausted, before you reach the end. Then you wonder why the dream never came true.
People who live their dreams are the ones who listen to what they truly want – then pick the right path to it – even if it means bumbling in the dark for awhile to find it.
They find one way to do it, and if it doesn’t excite them, they try another way to get there.
There will probably be more than one “right” path, don’t stress about finding the perfect one. Just make sure that the path won’t make you so miserable that you abandon ship before you reach your goal. There is always another way to get there, even if you can’t see it.
So I ask you:
Do you really want to be doing ________, or do you just want the goal at the end of it?
Do the means interest you as much as the end, or are you stuck in a Streetlight Solution?
If it seems like you can’t reach your goal because you’re so miserable in the moment: What else could you try?
These questions apply to things large and small.
Do you really want to do Pilates, or do you just want to be in better shape?
Do you really want to photograph weddings, or do you just want to photograph people in love?
Do you really want to start offering albums, or do you just want to raise your sales average?
Don’t clog up your life or bloat your product catalogue with things you dislike doing. There are other ways to achieve identical ends. Sometimes those paths are outside the streetlight, but they’re always there, and they can be far less exhausting than sticking with something you don’t love. You might need to forget Pilates and try hiking. Cut the weddings and learn more about Beloved sessions. Abandon endless album design and try in-person sales.
So now, the tough question:
What is your end goal? And are you finding meaning in the way you’ve chosen to get there? Or are you stuck clinging to a Streetlight Solution that makes you want to give up?
If you need to make a change, it’s okay. It doesn’t matter what you spent the last three years doing. It matters what you spend the next three doing.
Figure out what you really want. Pick a right way to get it, even if you have to improvise a career or invent your own genre. And don’t be afraid to change course if you aren’t passionate about the path. Abandoning a path doesn’t have to mean abandoning a dream. It might just mean getting out from under the streetlight.
P.S. I didn’t join the choir, but I found my way to Europe anyway. And I still got that touristy 20 minutes at the Colosseum, bad point-and-shoot photo and all:
Good advice! I love the streetlight analogy!
I love this article!! 🙂
I ABSOLUTLY needed this slap upside the head:) I’m sooo happy I’ve found you and your wonderful insite:) I am soo stuck at the moment, I haven’t actually started my business yet but just got my logo and other things so I can get going:) BUT and there is always a but it seems;) I’m still working my day job , which I’m sooo tired of …. But ( see there it is again;) ) I need to have it until I get going… It’s just sucking me dry!! I need to get out of my funk and figure something out:) this totally woke me up !! See I really like my employers and would feel so guilty if I was to cut back hrs… I’m thinking I need to kick the guilt and work what’s best for building MY business… Or something along those lines anyhow:) so thanks for helping me think there are other ways to a means:)
Again, thank you so much for an inspirational article. It’s a great idea to question why we do the things we do. Is it because we’re excited and inspired, or feel pressured to “jump on the bandwagon”. An example for me is motion video. Supposedly that’s the next big thing and photographers should all learn how to use the video feature on their DSLRs or they will be obsolete in a few years, but it really just doesn’t appeal to me. I love still food photography because of the intimacy and control I have over the subject. The idea of directing a film crew sounds horrible and stressful to me.
Thanks again for the reminder to remain authentic in our artistry while pursuing success.
Thank you so much for writing this! I have been switching back and forth between photography and graphic design for some time. The photography has been much harder to sale with the recent flood of photographers in the industry. But, the graphic design pays the bills. Your article has made me ask myself A LOT of questions. Am I just doing what brings money or am I doing what I love??? The answer is I love both. But, I’m still trying to find a way to make it all work. I love your blog. Thank you so much for dedicating your time to this subject.
Thanks for your note, Sherry! Have you thought about trying to combine the two? e.g. graphic design for photographers, or helping small businesses design websites *and* doing the photos for them, too? Is there one passion that drives you to both creative outlets, and can you honor that somehow? To be fair, in the book “Steal Like An Artist” Austin Kleon makes a compelling case for keeping a ‘day job’ for awhile because it gives you freedom to do what you want creatively while you pay the bills. NOTHING wrong with that. In fact, it gives you the space to try something BOLD because there’s no terrible repercussions if it doesn’t work. But if you can find a way to combine skill sets in a satisfying way, which I think you absolutely could, I think it’s worth considering. And yet, if you really want to jump in full-throttle with photography, now’s the time to start planning! I hope you find what brings you the most fulfillment and chase it!! You can do it.
A truly wonderful post! I’m a writer/photographer that’s still trying to find my way in the dark. Maybe I won’t seek the streetlight, but just use my mini Maglite on occasion. Thanks for the insight!
Oh my gosh, YES!! Thank you so much for this, it really couldn’t have come at a better time. Will be striving to put this into use in my business.
Yikes. This kinda stung.
Great post, insightful as always. It has kind of knocked me on my arse, though. Going to have to think on this one some more….
Thank you for this article Jenika.
It’s brilliant to feel validated, to hear that the gut feeling for what I like doing is worth following despite the difficulties, despite not doing what most people tell me I should be doing, despite not wanting to pursue weddings or studio sessions or standard profile pictures.
I have to combine my photography business with other jobs at the moment, but when I take the pictures I like to take it gives me butterflies. Everything else becomes unimportant.
Thank you for reminding me of WHY
Oh thank you so much for this wonderful, beautiful post. As always, you put things in a way that is both clear and stimulating. Having just embarked on a new creative journey, this topic resonated with me deeply. I am definitely finding that this is true for me. For instance, in the past I had tried to write, but found I quickly lost interest in both the actual task of writing as well as the characters I had created. A firm believer in the ‘organic’ writing craft, I refused to delve too deeply into who my character was or where the story was going, much less where it should end up. I am now finding out that having that destination planned out somewhat ahead of time is a very freeing feeling. I am now free to alter, adapt and even delete aspects of the story or characters that are no longer working, but only because I have a committed ending and developed characters. Thank you for this!
This is a great post, as usual. I very recently made the decision to stop doing weddings, as my heart wasn’t in them. It was just, as you say, a means to an end. But I decided that I couldn’t go on; it’s not that I dreaded them, I just wasn’t that “into” them. So, I’ve decided to focus on my fine art photography and to start a business writing grants for non-profits (writing is my other love, and so are non-profits). Ever since I made this decision, I have felt relief and excitement – something I never felt about weddings. Thank you for the post and for your site – yours is one of my favorites! 🙂
Relief and excitement = totally a great sign. Congratulations on making a big leap! As a fellow writer-photographer, I salute you. 🙂 Thanks for sharing your story, Laura!
Thank you so much for these very wise words! It was exactly what I needed today!
Your advice always hits me at EXACTLY the right time. I’m gonna ruminate on all this. Thank you!
I loved reading this Jenika, thank you. You’ve whispered those words to me that ring so true because there’s something else I want to try but keep telling myself “no, silly idea”. Maybe it’s worth a go!
Thanks so much for sharing this! It`s always great to hear an advise that defies us and pushes to work harder to get our goals.
Keep on writting this magnificient blog!
Cheers from Madrid
This is an amazing article!
Right words just at the right time. Thanks.
It’s hard to keep complimenting your posts when they’re all so awesome. I’m running out of words, lol. Thank you for this; I’ve now given myself permission to not go the popular way that I absolutely hate. Thanks again!