All my life I have been taught how to dream.
“You can be anything!” “Follow your heart!” “Your possibilities are endless!” These generalities were the bedrock upon which I built my imaginary future.
I designed my own multiverse in which I lived a life as a physical therapist, a film producer, the CEO of a consulting firm, and a chorus member in a Broadway musical. These futures were exciting because they were stories I told myself. I knew none of them would actually happen.
Not that I was incapable of living these lives; rather, the problem was the distance I kept between the dreams and how I lived my life.
For instance, physical therapy naturally requires lots of science classes. I abhor science classes. If I actually thought I wanted to be a physical therapist, I would have taken AP sciences, applied for a physiology degree, and made plans to go to grad school.
Instead I majored in English and wrote for the school newspaper.
So in the end, as encouraging as those high-minded phrases may have been, they were also pretty useless.They offered no concrete steps forward, no guidelines to decision-making, no criteria for which of my “endless possibilities” might be best for me.
As much as I knew how to dream, I never learned how to want.
I don’t mean wanting like craving chocolate. Satisfying a chocolate craving is as easy as breathing for me, I don’t have to think about it. I mean deliberately forming an ideal vision for my future and taking practical steps to get there. Having an answer to the question: Where do you see yourself in five years? That kind of wanting. I don’t know how to do that.
I spent four years pursuing a college degree because that was the next step in life. That’s just what we do now. I had never really thought about whether or not I wanted a college degree. So when I graduated, suddenly I was stuck with no sense of direction.
Unable to examine my own mind for the motivations that drive me, I packed all my books and shoes and moved across the country. I thought the adult world would have a system for making career decisions for me, like progressing from junior high to high school. Maybe if I applied to a bunch of jobs in a new city, I could follow the career path of the first company that hired me. When that, predictably, did not happen, I was finally forced to confront the question I had been avoiding: What did I really want to be?
I felt like I was treading water in the ocean with my infinite possibilities just beyond the horizon. If I picked a direction and started swimming, maybe I would go the wrong way, and then drown and die. Much safer to keep treading water and hope an island would just appear in front of me.
I thought I was dreaming big and staying open to opportunity, but actually my dreams were getting in the way of me making a decision.
This stagnation has happened to me before when choosing a college major. I spent most of my childhood and teens at a dance studio. So of course, deep down, I wanted to be a professional dancer. But I refused to let myself admit it. Somehow I was too attached to dancing to pursue it. I was afraid that I would try and fail, and my heart wouldn’t survive the failure.
The problem was that I never learned how to want a dance career, how to set a specific goal and make it happen. I only knew how to dream about it, and in my heart I knew no one’s childhood dreams ever really came true. So I let the dream die, and I have never regretted anything more. Now I have a chance to change that pattern, but it will require some work. No more hiding behind the safety of impossible dreams. I need to be specific about what I actually enjoy and which careers involve the skill sets I have spent time cultivating.
If I’m honest with myself, I enjoy Broadway, but not in the same way I LOVE teaching kids how to write. I can talk about film with ease, but when I really get into the best techniques for exploring narrative voice, nothing can shut me up.
Now, if you were to ask literally anyone who knows me, these would probably be the first vocations they would assign to me. Of course Julia is a writer, they would say. And she helped me with multiple essays growing up. I hope she becomes a cool English teacher.
So where did I get the idea that, in my soul, I wanted anything else? And why did I waste so much time pursuing a different path? I have a couple theories.
First, teaching and writing are so ingrained in my personality that I often don’t even notice them. I will explain things to people until the day I die, even if I never get paid for it. I didn’t realize that was a potential career; I thought it was just me.
Second, as women, we are encouraged, whether explicitly or not, to be more self-denying than men. Based on the behavior modeled for me by all the women in my family, I have always understood that carrying and accommodating for everyone’s needs and weaknesses is my job. No one taught me how to think about myself. I had to discover that on my own.
Finally, if I’m honest with myself, the heart of the problem is always fear…
The people who work there don’t want you. They’re too cool.
Why should anyone listen to you? You have no idea what you’re talking about.
The moment you take a risk, you’re going to fall flat on your face.
The art of wanting means shutting up those voices. Refuse to listen to them, and listen to your passion and experience and opportunity instead.
So today I’ll ask you, just as I ask myself: Who do you want to be? Who do you want to be?
The next step is probably much clearer than you think.
Julia Clausen is a recent graduate of University of California, Irvine and an intern at Independent Publishers Group. This summer, one of her short stories was published in a Zimbell House anthology. She lives in Chicago, but her favorite places in the world are London and Trader Joe’s.