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Follow Your Dreams at Your Own Risk – Or: How ‘going Your Own Way’ Is the Best Worst Idea Ever

Being the idealistic millennials that we are, many of us grew up in environments that were educationally, economically and culturally privileged enough to not overly worry about finances, about our access to education, or to intercultural experiences. As a consequence, we were exposed to one of the most influential sentences of the last 50 years over and over again:

Go your own way! You’re special, show it! Follow your dreams! If you can dream it, you can do it!

And we bought it. All of it. Be it intellectual insight, personal tragedy or the belief that the Hippies were actually right in the 60s, we all bought into it – and for good reason. Following one’s dream, becoming who we always were meant to be is without question a great thing to do.

What they don’t tell you is that there are helping factors to that pursuit – and a cost. These tiny little helpers are a) if you already know who you want to be and what you want to do (‘save the world’ does not (!) count) and b) if you have both the network and financial backing to help you through the glass ceiling early on. The cost comes in if you don’t have little helpers a) and b), meaning you are like most of us.

Sure, the base line of us means that we are a somewhat elitist group from the start, but that doesn’t change the one fundamental truth we all face: when you trip, stumble and fall, the face you land on and the bruises are your own. Understanding the phrase ‘paying your dues’ and actually realizing the cost of following your ideals and the attempt to see those magical phrases through to the end are two quite different things.

If you really want to go your own way, you might want to consider doing the following:

  • Forget making meaningless internships just to have some famous letters on your CV
  • Forget taking jobs that are not answers to ‘Where do you see yourself in 10 years?’
  • Go volunteering for a three-people local NGO that is doing very important work in a very remote area
  • Be a non-paid board-member in five different NGOs that all consist of the same 20 people
  • Be Pete: everyone likes Pete, Pete helps everyone for free, if you don’t know Pete, you should, he is THE NICEST, I wish we all were a bit more like Pete…

Idealists who want to save the world, we all have likely done several of the above things and while Pete is genuinely a great guy, no one tells you how he pays his bills, no one warned him of the 7-70 years of draught that followed his one ‘magical’ idea. They don’t mention (or in the very least not while we were listening) that there actually was a chance that while indulging ourselves in Human Rights, Marx’ critique of capitalism and the struggle of some minority we first heard about 3 weeks ago, but whose problems we are definitely able to solve in a jiffy or two, that media production, oratory skills and more than a basic knowledge of economics and management (budgeting!) would have gotten us same as far or further than going to our 10th International Exchange for Future Leaders in a Belgian village (not that anything is wrong with attending such an event in such a place, but opportunity costs ARE a thing).

You can only start and restart projects and ideas so many times between 25 and 40 – and while every step of the way towards eventual success makes sense after the fact, it is important to note that there is one quality and one quality alone that will get you through doing your own thing: stamina.

Along the way of doing what we do, we will get a lot of the things we strive for: validation internally and externally, recognition, peers we admire and projects to be proud of. That however does not negate in the least the amount of waiting, professional rejection, dependence on others, times of unemployment, as well as potential personal and professional problems that are so deeply ingrained and rooted in the other side of that coin and path we chose.

It takes stamina, time and experience to do what we do and to go where we are going. At the end of the day, though, when it works out, it is so very much worth it. If it weren’t, we wouldn’t do it, right?

The ability to admit defeat, reset and roll the dice again without loosing courage and trust in ourselves is a central part of staying the course, even if altered, but we cannot do it alone.

If you can’t run, you walk, if you can’t walk, you crawl and if you can’t crawl, if you can’t even do that, you find someone to carry you. – Never underestimate the power of others to keep you motivated, be it a random comment on the internet, be it a colleague or mentor to support you or a friend being a friend. Stamina is what keeps us going, sanity is what gets us there.

It is not an easy life we chose, and yes, knowing that in advance and living it day by day are two quite different things indeed, but that cannot distract from the reasons why we started doing what we do in the first place or from the strength and joy we get from doing it.


Moritz Borchardt is a Co-Director of GPPW and the resident bloggy person onboard

Cover image: theaucitron under a BY-SA 2.0 generic creative commons license


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