There’s a viral meme that I keep running into on social media that goes like this:

“At age 23, Tina Fey was working at a YMCA.

At age 23, Oprah was fired from her first reporting job.

At age 24, Stephen King was working as a janitor and living in a trailer.

At age 27, Vincent Van Gogh failed as a missionary and decided to go to art school.

At age 28, J.K. Rowling was a suicidal single parent living on welfare.”

Et cetera, et cetera.

It closes with a feel good message about how you should never give up because “you never know where you’ll end up tomorrow,” and that “You can do it. Whatever it is.”

I’ve seen it everywhere, and I think one reason it’s so sticky is that it encapsulates an oft-repeated piece of advice frequently passed down from the rich and famous to us common folk: the idea that it’s not too late for you to make it big.  And we gobble it up because it feels good- it comforts us during the days when we feel small, or defeated, or insignificant.

It makes sense that famous people would believe this: they are living statistical anomalies. If they made it big and everyone around them did, too, it probably doesn’t seem so unusual. But here’s the truth: the odds are very, very low that anything like what happened to Tina Fey or J.K. Rowling or Oprah will ever happen to you. The number of people who become famous enough to achieve household name recognition is so infinitesimally small as to be totally statistically insignificant. Think about it. How many living famous people can you name? A few hundred? A thousand, maybe? Think about those people compared to the teeming masses of humanity currently alive in the world- the cabdrivers in New York City and the call center operatives in Des Moines and the ER nurses in Seattle and the aspiring actresses in L.A.

The world is a saturated place, and breaking through the noise and static, even in a small way, won’t happen to many of us.

Your pop album will probably never get played on top 40 radio.

This blog is not likely to get noticed in any major way.

30,000 people qualified for the Boston marathon this year; there was only one winner.

For every J.K. Rowling, there are ten thousand talented novelists who will never score a book deal.

And that reality doesn’t feel as comforting; certainly no one is going to make and share an inspirational meme about it.

To be clear, I’m not trying to say that you’re not special or important, or that you can’t find fulfillment by following your passion, or even that you can never make a living doing what you love. And I’m certainly not saying that you should give up on those things that make you feel alive, or help get you through the night. For goodness sake, paint and sing and finish your manuscript and run that marathon and take piano lessons and sign up for that improv class.

Follow the dream because you have to follow the dream.

Follow the dream out of love, or because it feeds you, but do it with your eyes open; with the knowledge and acceptance that your big break is likely not around the corner, or even anywhere on the horizon, and that the pursuit of the dream often means making sacrifices in other areas of your life, not just today but for the long term. Know that you probably can’t have it all: job security and a 401(k) and kids born at sensible times and 5 gym workouts a week and a healthy diet devoid of high glycemic index carbohydrates and 8 hours of sleep and your passion, too.

And then, with your eyes open, and if you so choose, work hard on the dream anyway. Release your expectations. Let the doing of the thing be enough, just as it is.

And then, if you read all this way and this resonated with you, maybe share it with your friends. I haven’t quite given up on being the next J.K. Rowling yet.

3 thoughts

  1. I was speaking with a friend recently about this in regards to the wellness industry. So many people who have become big have been able to leave their old lives and start afresh because they already had the means and connections to do so. Or they’ve come from privileged backgrounds which means that should they fail in their chosen life, they wouldn’t actually suffer any of the financial hardships others would suffer. I don’t think their background detracts from their achievements but it’s a bit hard to hear to drop everything and live your dream from people who have never had to worry about money before.

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  2. How wonderful. I think we have crippled many many people with the myth of “BIG”. The whole world needs your dreams, for they are your gifts to it….and that is so often misunderstood to mean the numbers of their people who know your name means you were successful …but nothing could be further from the truth, imho…. we can only follow love…the receivers of our gifts? We may never know each other’s names…but the world is still better for us following our dreams. Important post, but you can never be the next JK …there is only one her, and one magical spectacular you!

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  3. So right on, Brenna. If you have dreams of doing what you love, do it, do the work, with no expectations other than to love what you’re doing. If it doesn’t pay the rent, do other “enabling work” that pay it but also supports your love. Love your blog.

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