The Downside to Pursuing Your Passion: Dreamer's Guilt

The Downside to Pursuing Your Passion: Dreamer's Guilt

I love what I do and pursue my passions fervently and in all directions. While you're starting out and not achieving much, you feel a wealth of support, but with success comes a type of guilt I've labeled, Dreamer's Guilt.

As I walked out of my Master's by Research viva (an oral examination where you must defend your thesis to a panel of more intelligent people), I walked a few steps down the corridor, mutedly celebrated, and then fell in to the wall. I'd got the highest grade, passed first time without revisions, and done it 6 months earlier than planned to avoid another term's fees. My tunnel vision, sleepless nights, and sacrifices had paid off and I was elated. Over the next few days I transitioned from euphoria to malaise quickly. My MRes was in Philosophy, and I wasn't keen on starting a PhD, without which left my career options either very open, or very limited, depending on your outlook. I scoured job boards and applied for positions above my station. One thing I was sure about: I couldn't go back to a job that bored me so much I would grind my teeth 8 hours per day and dread the alarm.

I finally got an interview for an interesting position in central London, working in a part analyst, part account manager role for a nondescript product at an impressive company. I've always felt confident in interview scenarios and it went well. Not long after I walked through my front door and in to my kitchen, head held suspiciously high, my phone rang. The company was pleased to offer me the position and were going to post me an official offer letter and remuneration package details. I thanked them, hung up, and had one of the largest panic attacks of my life. I had never felt more certain I didn't want something, than at the moment I was offered the job I wanted. I felt trapped and like an outcast.

I didn't really understand why; I worried I was lazy. I wished something I have wished many times in the consequent years: that I could just find fulfillment getting a career, climbing the corporate ladder, and enjoying my weekends. But I could never find the fulfillment or even the desire to do that. Was this an aversion to hard work? Was this the "real world" coming knocking like my elders prophesied, jadedly? I didn't think so. I'd been working at damn near capacity for 5 years for my degrees, sacrificing my health to achieve something I wanted. So what did I want now? Well I asked myself the Alan Watts question of what I would do if money were no object. I would be a photographer and a writer. Great, let's do that. But there we returned to the "trapped" sensation. I was pushing 30 and I felt behind my friends and piers in both life goals and finances. Thankfully I buried that vain feeling of inadequacy and threw myself in to photography and writing full-time. But as I began to achieve small success, growth, and establish myself as what I wanted to be, a new sense emerged that I wrestle with in place of past fears: Dreamer's Guilt.

Image courtesy of Rex Jones.

I coined this term not through delusions of grandeur, but rather because I couldn't find anything specifically discussing or labeling what I have been experiencing for a while now. Perhaps it's singular to me, though I doubt that; perhaps it's a "British" thing, but again that seems unlikely. The best way I can describe Dreamer's Guilt is this: pursuing what you love is a noble act, but having success in it must then be accompanied by the utmost humility; here's why. Over the years several friends and acquaintances of mine have made variations of the same joke. They all like what they do career wise, and many make good money, but if I do what I love and also make good money, that'll annoy them. It was of course said in jest, just not entirely. When you're a struggling artist, you're seldom short of support. But if you're fortunate enough to start making headway and succeeding, that supports turns to a type of envy that I'm overly sensitive to and vehemently avoid evoking.

A very close friend of mine has actively said what acquaintances won't express quite as bluntly: "if you start making the same money as me or more, I'll be annoyed." This person doesn't mean it fully, but I can understand his point. There was a time when I too dreaded Sunday nights and although I didn't loathe my job, I certainly didn't like it much; it was a means to an end. If I saw a friend doing what they love and enjoying life and making the same or money as me, I'd have been annoyed too. Primarily at myself for not being in a position as favorable as theirs. It's not that I wouldn't have wanted them to succeed, I would just be conscious of how my swapping of time and happiness for money wasn't as necessary a trade as I had made out.

This had lead to a growing feeling of needing to hide my accolades and windfalls: Dreamer's Guilt. The more my businesses grew, the more opportunities I was fortunate enough to get, and the more I hid. Several times in the last few months I've had fantastic opportunities come my way that I am both proud and grateful to have received. Yet I don't breathe a word to anyone who doesn't need to know. I don't announce it on social media (arguably to the detriment of my "brand" as a photographer and writer), I don't tell friends (despite them jabbing at me for being "secretive"), and I try to avoid talking about it after the fact. It's borne of a sort of shame; I don't want those around me to think I'm rubbing their faces in how much I'm enjoying my life. Instead, I just reiterate how many hours I work per week and how stressful self-employment can be, avoiding at all costs the follow-up that I wouldn't swap it for damn-near anything. I'm not highly successful, but I can see constant growth and am becoming less stressed about money and the future. I'm glad and proud that my hard work is making inroads, but I'd rather those around me didn't know quite how much I'm enjoying myself. How odd.

Am I alone?

Lead image courtesy of Snapwire via Pexels.

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7 Comments

T Scarb's picture

Alone? Not sure... Full of yourself... you bet.

Phillip Breske's picture

Hmm. I don't think it's "full of himself" that prompted this article. I think it's more like the fact that there are so many Fstoppers writers that they have to come up with something supposedly new every other day or risk not getting paid for the ubiquitous YouTube video link stories. (Both of these scenarios look the same.)

I totally understand. Unfortunately photographers have a very high level of jealousy/envy. It’s very unfortunate. In today’s world of social media everything one does becomes everyone’s business if allowed. Instead of working harder towards their goals, it’s easier to just lash out on others.

JetCity Ninja's picture

i'll assume this isn't your vanity speaking in a falsely modest tone and continue...

most people avoid pursuing their passion because they assume their happiness in work will come at a financial cost. when they see someone who proves their assumption wrong, they get upset. and it's not just that assumption, but any assumption as most people simply get upset when their assumptions are proven wrong. they may even get defensive when their assumptions are simply challenged. it forces them to face why they chose not to gamble and no one likes to admit their own cowardice.

in your case, it may be imposter syndrome if you haven't had an honest conversation with yourself to discover the root cause of your guilt.

to assuage that feeling, you can start by doing the responsible thing: giving back to those who supported you on your path. you freely admit that when you struggled, during your anecdote about friends being too cowardly to pursue their passions, people were there to support you and now that you're "doing what you love and making as much or more than them," it's time for you to repay them. here in the states, we have the so-called phenomenon of the "self-made millionaire," which is obviously a falsehood, who fail to pay back the friends, family and community who supported them when they were struggling, the ones who provided the means and the community that provided them the environment to succeed.

for example, even if someone thinks they made it "on their own," with no support whatsoever from people or entities, consider something as basic as infrastructure. taxes pay for the roads they literally used to grow their business into a success and once thye have the means, they hire an accountant to avoid paying those taxes. that simple act goes a long way toward burning the bridge they themselves traversed to find success, adding an additional cost for people trying to find that same success. only an ego-driven narcissist wouldnt feel guilty after being exposed to the bigger picture although that sociopathic attitude seems to be getting pretty popular on this side of the pond. but it demonstrates how no one is truly "self made," that those who excel should feel a moral compulsion to give back and it's because they were given, or simply took, from their community.

you don't have "dreamer's guilt." you should be modest regardless. and the way to assuage that guilt is by giving back to those who were there to support you when you struggled the most.

of course my perspective is tinted with having grown up with the values i have, born out of a Japanese household and may not fit western norms.

however, returning back to the top, if you're the type who likes to bring up your income and happiness level to your friends at every opportunity, then stop being a dick. just post selfies of you near a pool with a cosmo like all the other narcissists and twatwaffles. XD

Jordan McChesney's picture

I’m not sure “dreamer’s guilt” is the best way to describe this, since you’ve already made it your job. I would use it to describe someone who is still in the “working towards a dream” situation.
For example, I’m not a professional photographer, but I dream of being one. I’m in the middle of building a portfolio with photography currently labeled as a “hobby”. I feel guilty when I have to travel alone and leave my wife and daughter at home. I’m trying to balance being a good husband and father while working a full time job and spending most of my free time tying to take baby steps towards my dream. I feel guilty for having what seems like “an impossible dream”, but I can’t bring myself to give up on it. I feel selfish for having a dream and pursuing it. That to me would be better defined as “dreamer’s guilt”.

As for your situation, not everyone is going to be supportive, and not everyone wants to hear about your success. Maybe I’m just a negative person, but I assume that nobody wants to hear about my photography, or successes. I suppose this is since I come from a small town where most people I know haven’t been able to follow a dream, and some never had one to begin with, so talking about it seems like bragging. My rule of thumb is only talk about success when asked.
Thanks for sharing, though.

Robert Nurse's picture

Dreamer's guilt? Pish Posh! Enjoy your career! Enjoy your life! When you can, give back. Help someone else live their (photographic) dream. Share your insights, whether technical, artistic or life-skill. You'll not only pick up new insights, tips and tricks in the process, you'll be helping others.

JC Ruiz's picture

I don't believe you're alone in feeling/thinking this. There is a lot of jealousy in photography. How did they get that job or I'm better than him why not me? I don't tell people who my clients are. I did that once and never again.