Friday, March 18, 2011

Following your dreams

As anyone who reads this blog is aware, I recently quit my job to follow my dreams. I have no regrets about quitting my job - it was abundantly clear that it was making me miserable and stressing me out to no end. I have no regrets about choosing to follow my dreams, either. I finally did realize that there was something I've wanted to do from a young age, and that if I didn't take the chance when it presented itself, I would always wonder what might have happened. However, one question did trouble me for a long time - is following your dreams inherently selfish?

One of my many idle lines of thought about following my dreams has been whether or not this is a uniquely Western idea. Certainly, the ideal of the American Dream seems to be Western. It smacks of an entrepreneurial attitude that traces all the way back to the first voyages of the Puritans, sailing off into the sunset in hopes of building a new life, a city on a hill, an ideal which should be aspired to by all. It's this attitude that draws a constant stream of immigrants, as well. Americans by and large seem to hold the opinion that with enough hard work, you can be whatever you want to be. When you don't feel trapped in your position, you are free to dream of something greater, and to hope that one day, your dreams may come true.

However, in other countries, this would be seen as indolent, a shirking of one's duty. The Confucian ideals which drive modern Communist thought in China involve a strict adherence to the duty entailed by one's particular place in society. In India, as well, exists what was until recently an institutionalized class system. Aspiring above one's class was simply unthinkable. By quitting my job, I am failing to live up to both of these ideals - if my parents needed support from me, I might very well fail to provide it for lack of the funds I would've gotten from staying at Google.

Until recently, this was the end of my inquiry - following your dreams is an odd American idea that other cultures disdain. On pondering this idea, however, recently it struck me that it's very similar to another concept present in so many cultures throughout the history of humanity - the idea of Destiny. This thread runs throughout many religions, and one could also argue that by being a programmer despite my lack of interest, I am ignoring my true calling. Thus, if you believe that God has a plan for me, then you could argue that by ignoring my gut telling me to write fantasy novels, I'm ignoring the word of God. Since one's first duty is to God in so many religions, one could reasonably argue that refusing to follow your dreams shirks your duty to God.

Really, though, I ultimately decided my own answer to this question based on none of these traditions. Instead, I decided it based on my own attitude. My resentment toward my job was starting to bleed over into all areas of my life - I could feel my temper getting shorter, my motivation getting weaker, and my thoughts growing duller. Allowing myself to remain this way does no service at all to my friends and family, and makes me much less pleasant to be around. I had to ask myself: Would they really want me to be miserable if it meant I could help them make their mortgage payments? I never asked them directly, but I would have to assume the answer would be no.

Of course, there's no inherent link between following your dreams and improving your attitude, though I would argue that it's pretty clearly a big help. I could theoretically have stayed at my job and devoted a lot of effort to changing my attitude in other ways - seeing a counselor, exercising more, trying to change my thought patterns on my own, and so forth. I could also have given making my work at Google more fulfilling the old college try. However, I felt like I had devoted enough mental energy into trying to make my job at Google work. At some point, you have to admit that nothing you can do is going to change the fact that you hate your job.

Still, my plight is a hell of a lot less complicated and severe than that faced by most people. While I do have family I could support, it's a far cry from, say, supporting a wife and children. In that case, I think most people would agree that quitting a well-paying job to follow my dream of working at a bowling alley seems horribly self-centered. As well, if I had no money saved at all, but I had loving parents who couldn't possibly stand seeing me destitute, it would seem pretty selfish to quit my job knowing that I would soon have to go to my parents for help, and that they would be unable to refuse. In these cases, the answers seems to me to be far less clear-cut, and I'd have to think long and hard before passing judgment.

Ultimately, the answer to whether or not following your dreams is selfish isn't easily come by. I guess I just decided that it was worth being a little bit selfish if I had a chance to make myself much happier. One day, if I get married or my family is facing, say, some costly medical bills they are in no position to pay, I might revisit this question.

1 comment:

  1. What does it mean to be selfish anyway? I think anything anyone does serves their interest in one way or another.

    But I personally think that one should do what one is good at, not what one wants to do. If the two are in line, then everything works out. But if not, I think doing whatever contributes most to society (whatever that means) should trump personal desire.