Actually, Don’t Follow Your Dreams

I often listen to books on tape. The ones you pay for generally have excellent readers, like the magnificent George Guidall. But the free ones (e.g., through LibriVox) are of uneven quality. I am in the midst of listening to a famous Victorian Era novel through LibriVox, and some of the chapters are read by a woman with such a thick accent and poor command of English words and cadence that I keep laughing because her rendition reminds me of this Monty Python sketch.

But it’s no big deal. People can certainly read the book on their own if they don’t like someone else’s reading, and she’s not harming herself. She’s a volunteer doing something she finds intrinsically enjoyable in what I suspect is her retirement. Indeed I get the sense she really admires the author of the words she is mangling.

But it makes me think of a situation I and many other professors encounter where the stakes are much higher, namely when someone is at the beginning of their adulthood, and just not that good at what they want to do in their career. What is my or any other faculty member’s responsibility to the pre-med student who dreams of being a surgeon but is better suited to being a barber? What onus is on the high school basketball coach to tell his star player that he’s never going to be an NBA player, so he should focus instead on doing well in math, science and language class?

This is a very un-American topic to raise. “Gotta have a dream” American movies are a dime a dozen, and virtually all of them feature a scowling older person who tells our young hero/ine that s/he’s never gonna be a movie star/top athlete/brilliant scientist/successful musician etc. Most professors don’t want to be that scowling figure; it’s easier to tell everyone to go confidently in the direction of their dreams, even when we suspect it’s going to be a train wreck (Food for thought here: I never should have followed my dream).

A couple years ago I was talking to a high-ranking professional staffer at one of the country’s leading universities. I asked him how he chose his career, and he said he owed it all to the mentor who told him in graduate school that he was never going to achieve his ambition of becoming a chemistry professor at a great university. His mentor told him, compassionately, that he didn’t have the scientific chops or drive it took to make independent research breakthroughs, and that he would probably end up at a community college or low-tier 4 year college where he would be required to teach all the time (and he didn’t like teaching). He dropped out and is now in a very different but well paid and meaningful line of work. His tribute to his beloved mentor stayed with me: “Thank God he didn’t believe in me”.

I don’t claim certainty about how faculty can know in advance for which mentees unwavering support is the right medicine and for which it is cruel. But I do feel pretty confident that American academic institutions tend to worry less than they should about leading on optimistic, unrealistic, dream-chasing students.

Author: Keith Humphreys

Keith Humphreys is the Esther Ting Memorial Professor of Psychiatry at Stanford University and an Honorary Professor of Psychiatry at Kings College Lonon. His research, teaching and writing have focused on addictive disorders, self-help organizations (e.g., breast cancer support groups, Alcoholics Anonymous), evaluation research methods, and public policy related to health care, mental illness, veterans, drugs, crime and correctional systems. Professor Humphreys' over 300 scholarly articles, monographs and books have been cited over ten thousand times by scientific colleagues. He is a regular contributor to Washington Post and has also written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Monthly, San Francisco Chronicle, The Guardian (UK), The Telegraph (UK), Times Higher Education (UK), Crossbow (UK) and other media outlets.

13 thoughts on “Actually, Don’t Follow Your Dreams”

  1. This isn't a dream, rather an illusion or delusion (From ludo, the Latin verb, to mock or deceive) told to us by a popular culture obsessed with insensate "success" achieved by hand-waving and intensity (witness our president*). I believe that every person can do something well and make a difference, that we need to keep a place for earning a living/contributing and perhaps another space for things that bring us joy and grace (not their leaden counterpart, success) however much our efforts there may be amateurish…for, after all, amateur comes from the Latin, to love. One of the problems of globalism and the internet is that it shoves our nose in world-class creativity….and thus diminishes our own worthy attempts.

    1. One of the problems of globalism and the internet is that it shoves our nose in world-class creativity….and thus diminishes our own worthy attempts.

      Yes, this was a key point of the excellent book "Winner take all society" as was the related point that it is in fact harder to make a living now as, say, the 1000th best opera singer in the country, than it was in the past.

      1. As an author, I've of mixed mind on this. Yes, it would be lovely if I could make a living writing, and that is, probably, less likely in the current world. On the other hand, the avenues for self-publishing are vastly greater, and in the old world, the chances would have been very high that Becoming Phoebe would never have become available at all.

  2. The TV detective series “Monk” lampooned this kind of adage a couple of times. In one episode, Monk is despondent because he has just had his detective license revoked after having accidentally deleted all of the files for the police department’s open cases, and his psychiatrist says, “One of my favorite sayings is this: when God closed a window, He opens a door. Do you believe that?” And Monk replies, “Do I believe that that is one of your favorite sayings?” In another episode, Monk’s assistant tells him about one of her favorite aphorisms, “Leap and a net will appear.” Later in the episode, Monk is in a desperate situation trapped on a boat with a dangerous criminal; he leaps into the water and nearly drowns. So much for little maxims of that nature.

  3. What a thoughtful post on an under-discussed topic. two quick reactions:

    1) One should probably distinguish between highly common occupations that nonetheless require special abilities (i.e. being a physician) and incredibly uncommon occupations (being an NBA player). A high school basketball player who is not a jaw-dropping talent has zero chance –
    zero chance – of being an NBA player (unless he has a growth spurt an becomes 7'2" all of a sudden at age 19 – but those rarities sort themselves out). Hell, a high school basketball player who is a jaw-dropping talent has a vanishingly small chance of being an NBA player. But a seemingly mediocre intellect who wants to be a doctor might – maybe, perhaps – blossom intellectually enough, or develop sufficient wall-knocking drive, to limp over the threshold. So its more of a question of "how badly do you want it kid?"

    2) Often when a young person has their heart set on being X, and they really aren't cut out for X, it's because they are insufficiently aware of the breadth of things that adults do with their lives (and are quite happy doing so).

    I attended a wonderful, academically rigorous small liberal arts college with stellar teachers. But a hugely disproportionate number of students wanted to go get a PhD and become a professor, despite the fact that only a small sliver possessed the innate ability and maniacal commitment needed to land a tenured job at either another academically rigorous liberal arts college or a major research university (which, let's face it, is what 99% of people who enter PhD programs imagine for themselves despite being a small % of the available academic jobs – even among doctoral graduate who in fact find academic jobs).

    Where their delusions came from was a set of life experiences that had given them enormous exposure to the world of professors at liberal arts colleges, and almost no exposure to the worlds of journalists, managerial executives (in the for-profit and non-profit sectors), financial analysts, consultants, computer programmers, product designers, etc. All of which are intellectually engaging jobs (or can be) that can support a life for the doer and his/her family and that are quite attainable for smart people with a decent work ethic.

    The process of "letting someone down easily" has to be coupled with an education about all of the things one can be very happy and fulfilled doing. Unfortunately, many academics lack the exposure to these things themselves, and most college and university "career services" offices are not especially well run.

    1. Thanks for this. I see this a lot, and the media feeds it. Some of the media stories about "kids who didn't get into Princeton/Yale/Harvard despite their 4.0 GPA" seem to imply that one's only alternatives are an Ivy League education or lifetime homelessness, when in fact there are countless good careers/lives to be had in neither of those narrow categories.

  4. The 11/12-year old me (1959/1960) planned on growing up and replacing Yogi Berra behind the plate for the Yankees. I discovered, in relatively short order, that (a) I couldn't hit a Little League fastball and (b) I couldn't catch one, either. Fortunately, I was not scarred for life (although I retain an deep interest in baseball)…I became an economist, with (among other things) teaching and research interests in sports economics.

  5. At the beginning of my senior year in college, the departmental advisor in my major opened That Talk by saying "You realize, of course, that you're not going to graduate school." I hadn't realized it, of course, but managed to scramble into a vaguely related field that used more of my talents and even managed to collect shares of the odd award over the decades. (And I likely would not have been at all happy as a mediocre physicist.)

    Ironically, after I had shifted all my plans and gotten myself set for a plebeian real-world-ish job, a professor in a different department tried to recruit me to go to grad school with him…

  6. When I was 17, I knew exactly what I wanted to do for a living. However, I was mistaken, and that happened at least three times since. I advise students that life for most people is a flat optimum, that they actually confront several equally satisfying life paths that may be quite different from each other. I don't think I've ever had a job I was qualified for when I started, or that I knew to seek, but every one turned out to be fun, and put food on the table: the world in its weird way often has a better idea than they do about how they can create the most value, and presents opportunities one has to be at least somewhat courageous, and both alert and curious, to seize.

    On the other hand, there are people with psychologically restricted options. When I taught at MIT, as I recall the application to admit rate was highest for architecture, of all things. We would try to counsel these applicants "do you know what the job market looks like? how many architects are not designing but handholding clients, writing specs, etc." They would say, yes, I know, but "it's who I am, I have to do this. "

  7. Comedy Store owner Mitzi Shore is said to have kept a placard on her desk (that only she could see,) reminding her that "It's a Sin to Encourage Mediocre Talent."

    As someone of mediocre talent who spent far too much time chasing a dream, I endorse the sentiment.

    If she'd only had the fortitude to remember that when it came to her son, Pauly…

  8. Everybody needs a plan, and the plan needs to be adjustable. On top of that, feel free to have a dream of musical/sports/other super-achievement, but figure out how to do it in your spare time if reality sets in and you can't make a living at it.

  9. OTOH, it's been gratifying to see more emphasis placed on the benefits of failure. I used to remind my students that the first thing you are taught when learning to ski is how to fall, because if you're afraid to fall you won't ever extend yourself.

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