Why People Don't Follow Their Dreams
There’s a popular show on Food Network called Chopped. In each episode, four chefs battle each other and the clock by coming up with the best meals they can from a common set of mystery ingredients. There are three courses. After each one, the loser gets chopped. The last one standing wins cash and, more importantly, bragging rights.
In the culinary world, winning Chopped is a pretty big deal. But the thing about chefs is, they love food and they love to cook. Racing against the clock under TV cameras and limelight, not so much.
Last night I watched a talented and introverted chef challenge herself by breaking out of her comfort zone and beating the pants off three competitors to win. At that moment, she was exhilarated. At that moment, she knew what most successful people come to know: that facing her fear and putting herself out there was the right move.
But that doesn’t make it any easier.
People generally think I’m an extrovert, and I guess that, in many situations, it’s true. But that doesn’t mean I’m perfectly comfortable venturing out of my comfort zone. It just means I learned early on that, if you want big things out of life, you have to face your fear. And since that’s what I’ve always wanted, that’s what I’ve always done.
But the reason why I made that choice is something I think we all wrestle with. You see, I was blessed with a father who played it safe. He took a menial job that was beneath him because he loved my mother and wanted to start a family – a common motive in his generation. He never took any risks. And I think that haunted him until the day he died.
I used to think my dad didn’t go further in his career because he gave into fear. I later came to realize that he’d sacrificed a great deal to ensure I would have a better life than he did. He was fond of saying, “Don’t make the same mistakes I made.” I always knew what he meant – and that he meant well – but I sometimes wondered if I’d ever been born if he hadn’t made those mistakes.
As you might imagine, I’ve done quite a bit of soul-searching about what stops people from going after their dreams. I suppose that might have something to do with why I do what I do for a living. In any case, I’ve identified four reasons why people don’t follow the advice of Robert Browning, who said, “A man’s reach should exceed his grasp.”
Fear. This is a big one, and not just because some things are scary, but because a lot of people don’t have the courage to face their fears. They choose to live “in denial,” or what Henry David Thoreau called “lives of quiet desperation.” And yes, it is a choice. Even if you’re not consciously aware, on some level, you know more about what you’re doing and why than you probably realize.
Priorities. This is another big one. You hear a lot about procrastination, these days. There are all sorts of articles about how to do it less, be more productive, take the first step, and all that. It’s all bull. If you procrastinate, it’s for a reason, and that’s usually because you’re either scared or it’s not really your priority. To accomplish great things, that has to be your top priority. If not, you’ll find plenty of excuses not to make it happen.
Inertia. We also hear lots of talk about circumstance keeping people – usually the underprivileged – from becoming successful. Since many, if not most, of the highly accomplished people I’ve known started with nothing – myself included – I have a hard time with that logic. But l have seen lots of kids go down the wrong path before they even know they have choices. I call that inertia.
Bad advice. Not everybody has mentors and not everybody that gives advice should be giving advice. That might account for some people not pushing their limits, but I’m not sure that I’ve never met someone who should have gone further in life but didn’t because they got bad advice. Rather, they chose to listen to bad advice, which, to me, sounds suspiciously like one of the first two reasons was actually in play.
The truth is, we do everything for a reason. And while there is a random component to life, how things turn out for us is largely a factor of choices we make, even if we’re not consciously aware that we’re making them, or why. Like the new Chopped champion, I chose to follow my dad’s advice and reach for the stars. That’s turned out pretty well.
I often think about the last hours I had with my father. I had just flown into New York that morning and, before he went to sleep for the last time, I had the chance to tell him something I’d always wanted to say but never had. I guess we’d had our differences and something always got in the way.
He couldn’t talk, but I knew he could hear me. And I knew he understood that I meant every word because, as he once said when, as a kid, I’d been accused of doing something I hadn’t done: “If he says he didn’t do it, he didn’t do it. Steve may be a lot of things, but he’s not a liar.”
Anyway, I told my dad that words couldn’t describe how great my life had been, how happy I was, and how I owed it all to him. And I thanked him for all the sacrifices he’d made for me. And, as I looked into his eyes for the last time, he looked at peace.
Wherever he is, I hope he’s living the dream. No more sacrifices.
Related: Leadership Is All About Balance
Steve Tobak is a management consultant, columnist, former senior executive, and author of Real Leaders Don’t Follow: Being Extraordinary in the Age of the Entrepreneur (Entrepreneur Press, October 2015). Tobak runs Silicon Valley-based Invisor Consulting and blogs at stevetobak.com, where you can contact him and learn more.