Number 9 – Are Dreams and Ambitions Good For You?
Having dreams and ambitions seems like a good thing. It is what we are told we should have. We should have aspirations for our futures. Shoot for the stars.
In reality, I question whether having a clear dream or ambition in life actually helps. Rather than living life in the moment and going with the flow, it puts pressure on ideas of success and achievement. We put a lot of pressure on ourselves to reach our goals and to fulfil our potential.
This is a dangerous mindset for our mental health and general well-being. It leads to obsessive behaviours in our work and to increased levels of depression and anxiety. This is unsurprising because we are putting ourselves under so much pressure to achieve or, maybe more accurately, not fail, that our levels of cortisol are going through the roof.
A life fuelled by cortisol is a life of extremes, one of highs and lows with very little mental calmness or stability. There’s a limit to how long this can be maintained. Consistently elevated cortisol levels will lead to burnout, where we flip completely the other way from our obsessive, goal-driven behaviour. We become lack-lustre, filled with self-doubt (or even self-loathing), and lose all sense of purpose and motivation.
I feel this is often talked about in relation to high-pressure, big-business, inner-city jobs. A sector where it is less widely recognised, is in the arts and creative industries.
We go into careers in the arts because we love what we do and feel passionate about the work we want to make and the positive impact we want to have on our society. For many of us in the arts, our work is very closely tied to our sense of self and our perception of our own worth. This is not just a job for us, it is our life. So, suddenly the stakes are incredibly high. If we fail to achieve our ambitions, we have not just failed at our careers, we have failed at life.
Plus, we creative types tend to have quite active imaginations! So, when we dream big – we dream BIG. If we’re actors, we dream of winning BAFTAs, Oscars and Olivier’s; of working on the stages of the National Theatre, Royal Shakespeare Company and the West End. If we’re directors, we dream of being the Artistic Director of a big building or founding the next ground-breaking company whose style will be studied in schools. In other words, we set our sights incredibly high!
And because our work is so interconnected with our sense of self, when we find ourselves struggling to get any work, putting our shows on in pubs or in small regional arts centres for no money at all, and juggling facilitating work and admin jobs just to earn enough to get food on the table, we don’t just feel like our careers are failing, we feel like failures ourselves.
No-one has ever denied that a career in the arts is tough. What I think is underappreciated and underrepresented, is just how stressful, anxiety-inducing and mentally draining it all is. I’m not suggesting it is the only industry that makes people feel this way – I know from personal experience that sport has a similar impact – but the arts are relatively unusual in being so high-pressured and stressful, whilst also being incredibly poorly paid!
So, what’s the takeaway from all of this? Maybe, it is that we should be less focussed on our goals and ambitions? Think less about the future and more about the present. What can we do and enjoy right now? (I know that is hard in the middle of a global pandemic!) Maybe, we can be a bit more pragmatic? Doing anything creative is an achievement that can and should be celebrated. If you need another job to support yourself, that’s not a failure, it is a proactive, pragmatic and positive choice to support the lifestyle you want.
It’s not easy. I’m writing this to convince myself as much as anything. But we have to find ways of getting off the cortisol rollercoaster – at least temporarily – and, maybe one way of doing that, is to let go of those dreams. You might just realise that those dreams weren’t serving you after all.