Pursuing Your Path Alone

If you have ever told someone that you were passionate about something, no matter what it is, you likely had to deal with detractors.

“What do you mean you want to be a musician? You’ll starve to death!”
“An English degree? What are you going to do with THAT?!”
“Writing poetry isn’t going to put food on the table.”
“Run your own business? Most of those fail within the first five years.”
“You want to make video games? When are you going to grow up and get a real job?”

A Real Job(tm) is the holy grail for these detractors. Usually a real job is in the fields of medicine, law, or engineering, but I wouldn’t be surprised if lawyers, doctors, and architects also have friends and family who tell them that they are wasting their lives.

Who are these people?

Friends, family, coworkers, and sometimes it seems even your pets all seem to have an opinion on what you should be doing to further your career. If you do have a job, no matter how happy you are doing it, there will be people who won’t understand why you don’t do something else. When I told my mother I was going into computer science, she first guessed that I was going to be “putting computers together for big companies” and seemed somewhat pleased since a friend of the family seems to be making a lot of money doing the same thing. When I explained that I would be programming mostly, she said, “But won’t you get bored sitting in front of the computer all day?” Nevermind that I loved the experience of creating my own laws of a universe that changed with lines of poetry ending in semicolons. I would clearly be bored if I wasn’t doing something more exciting. When I said I wanted to make video games as well, I heard on more than one occasion, “Aren’t you too old for those things? When are you going to stop playing them?”

A job is one thing. Deciding to go into business for yourself is another. Suddenly ANY job seems more real to these people than whatever it is you’re doing. They start trotting out statistics such as “9 out of 10 businesses fail.” Period. They just fail. And nevermind where the 90% failure rate came from. Everyone knows that stat! They start telling you about problems that you’ve already analyzed to death, such as how you will be able to get health insurance if someone isn’t providing it for you. My father kept insisting that I had no idea how expensive emergency medical procedures could be if I didn’t have insurance, even though I said that I not only planned on getting insurance, but I was already providing myself insurance since I didn’t have a full-time job yet. He couldn’t understand how I was planning on paying for it myself since I didn’t have a real job. “My business will be paying for my insurance!” “Hah! And where are you going to find the money to pay for it?” As if I wouldn’t be making money from my business?!?

Soon after college, I decided I wanted to start my own business. I knew that if I got a full-time job, I would be able to pay for my own expenses, but I would have less time to work on my business and it would take much longer to get my business off the ground. If I worked full-time on my business, I wouldn’t be able to afford living on my own. I asked my parents if they would support me until my business got off the ground, and they said yes. Awesome! They believed in me! I could dedicate my efforts full-time to my business and not worry about having a tedious day job to pay the bills.

Then a month later my sister informed me that my parents were grumbling that I needed to “shape up, stop playing on the computer, and get a job”. I confronted my mother, who said “Well, why don’t you get a real job so you could pay for your business with the savings?” Well, that’s just brilliant, but wait, I already came up with that option, but I thought that I had an agreement with my parents to support my other option instead. Clearly they didn’t, and it was then that I decided that I needed to stop expecting help from anyone else but myself.

They Mean Well

Loved ones usually only want what they think is best for you, so you can’t be too upset. They just want to help. They are watching out for you. As Dr. Wayne Dyer has said, that’s what the tribe does. If you stay with the tribe, you have safety in numbers. Leaving the tribe is scary. The tribe knows how scary it can be, so it does its best to dissuade you if you even think about pursuing your own path. No, you don’t want to move to that city! You don’t have any family or friends there! No, you don’t really want to take a pay cut and choose a job in a field outside of your current expertise! You’d be insane to think you’d be happy with less money! No, you don’t want to be a vegetarian! How can you stay healthy, and where will you get your protein? Best stick with us, and at worst you’ll just be in as much trouble as the rest of us, and that’s not as bad as being in trouble by yourself!

So you could choose to stay with the tribe, or you could choose to leave it. Most of the time, people who leave the tribe don’t really leave it, or at least pretend to be part the tribe. I don’t know of anyone who has been disowned for choosing to be an artist or a writer instead of taking what is probably a better paying job in some office. Instead of being shunned, you will just be the black sheep in the family. But you’re still family. You still have your friends, even if they insist that you don’t know what you’re doing.

Still, the disappointed looks, the subtle and not-so-subtle suggestions that you should do something that pays more, the fights, the lack of understanding from someone you thought understood you…it all takes its toll on you. You get tired of hearing that what you are doing is fine enough for a hobby but not for a proper career. You get frustrated when someone laughs at your excitement over earning more than $2 in one day from ads on your blog. “$2? You could earn that in 15 minutes if you take a second job at a fast-food restaurant!” You want to scream if one more person pities you for not pursuing opportunities to supposedly “improve your career”. You can’t help but get upset when someone insists on helping you by pointing you back towards what you already decided to turn away from.

You’re on Your Own

And so you find that in the end, even if you tried to at least hang out with the tribe, you’re alone. Of course, it makes sense. Pursuing your own path is not meant to be a group effort. Maybe you’ll be lucky enough to have people in your life who will light a fire under you and push you to put on a good performance, people who trust you when you say “This is what I want to do!” and genuinely want you to succeed. Of course, if most people were this way, you wouldn’t likely feel alone in your endeavors, so most likely you’ll be dealing with people who don’t understand you. At best, they’ll say they understand you but make you feel as if they are expecting you to fail.

And of course you will fail. You may see failures as stumbling blocks, as learning experiences, and even as your friends on the way to success. The people around you will see these failures as justification, as proof, that they were right. Of course no one showed up to your first play, your second concert, your fifth gallery, your 10th book signing, or your 100th website. Did you really expect to make a living doing what you do?

Yes. Yes, you did. And you do. Only now you feel like you need to keep it a secret. Your career decisions become one of the taboo topics at the dinner table along with politics and religion. You decide that your customers will provide you with all of the justification you need. Your satisfaction at your work is yours to enjoy and no one’s to destroy. Maybe you stop expecting the people who are close to you to really know you.

Some days are harder than others. Sometimes you wish you could take all of the frustration and channel it into your work, but you can’t always bear to use bitterness and “I’ll show them!” as your motivation. It seems to cheapen your work when you’re not doing it for yourself. Sometimes you wish you could share the smallest success, but you know from experience that your spouse, your parents, your siblings, and your friends won’t see what the big deal is. And even when they do see something as a big deal, you sometimes want to lash out at them for being surprised that you pulled it off because it shows that they had low expectations in the first place.

Pursuing your path is lonely, and you’ll be unsure of yourself even without all of the negative feedback from the tribe. When you don’t know exactly what you’re doing but decide to do it anyway, it’s scary. Sometimes it feels like people are waiting for you to come crying back to normalcy. Even the other weird people find you a little too weird, an outcast among outcasts.

Still, you keep going. Why?

You Own Your Life

I’ve never read Friedrich Nietzsche, but I have this quote up in my cube at the day job:

The individual has always had to struggle to keep from being overwhelmed by the tribe. If you try it, you will be lonely often, and sometimes frightened. But no price is too high to pay for the privilege of owning yourself.

You want to own yourself. You don’t want your life dictated to you from the expectations of others. You don’t want your dreams put on hold until someone else feels comfortable enough for you to have them. You don’t want to settle for less than what you want just because it pays more. You won’t be happy doing something else just because someone else is perfectly happy doing it.

You want your own life. And sometimes that means you will feel as if you are on your own. But it’s good to know if you can stand the person in the mirror since, some days, he or she is all you’ve got: your best friend and worst enemy. Be on good terms with that person, and all the frustration and anguish you suffer from everyone else gets easier to handle, dismiss, or ignore. If you can’t trust yourself, someone else’s opinion of you and your path tends to inflate in importance. If you trust yourself, even when you’re unsure of your next step, you’ll do fine.

[tags] indie, career, relationships, personal development [/tags]

4 comments to Pursuing Your Path Alone

  • Great post!

    I was part of a (Canadian) government program that helped tiny entrepreneurs start their business, it was really helpful both in practical terms (i.e learning about bookkeeping) and mindset (one of the instructors warned us that friends/parents often pressure you to give up). Don’t know if there’s something similar where you are, but I’m definitely glad I took it.

    I find it pretty bizarre that you wouldn’t get more support though.. I thought entrepreneurship was the American Dream!

  • Oh, it is! And from my understanding, it’s generally a lot more friendly and supportive of an environment in the USA than it is in other nations.

    My post was more about the lack of personal support from friends and family rather than about the feeling of swimming in a big ocean that can come with running your own business. Actual business support can come from organizations like SCORE, the SBA, and other entrepreneurial support groups, some of which I’ve visited in the past and gotten a lot out of. You can get small business loans and referrals from some groups.

    But it can still be a lonely endeavor when you are just looking for someone to be excited with you. Even here, most people don’t look too highly on someone making his own way and rocking the boat. They get defensive, or they try to belittle you, or they tolerate you while expecting you to “come to your senses” eventually. My post was more about acknowledging it and trying to figure out how to deal with it.

  • Oh, that last paragraph _was_ meant concerning parents and friends, rereading I realize that totally didn’t come through 😉

    It’s definitely something I remember strongly about the courses though, the “lifestyle” sessions — we were warned that we might have to stop seeing friends who’re excessively negative or defeatist!

    One thing that helps is finding other locals that are doing the same thing — we have a group of 8 or so people who’re all in Toronto making games (both full-time and when-possible-between-contracts.. from one-person teams to founders of +20-people developers).

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