a death row pardon 2 minutes too late

“I‘m afraid that if I start dreaming, I’ll lose my way.” I wrote it in my journal just the other day and immediately saw the irony. When we stop following our dreams, isn’t that when we’ve lost our way and not the other way around?

“If I start dreaming, I’m afraid I’ll move away from what I’m meant to be doing, get distracted, and do something I’m just mediocre at, that won’t make me special. I’m afraid I’d start painting and drawing, and what would I do with that? I’m not an illustrator. I didn’t go to art school.”

That’s the voice of my inner defeatist. She dresses governess-chic and always looks as if she’s just come from the salon. Only her lipstick shade is always a little off, too coral, the poor thing.

Maybe it’s also the voice of my parents—the people who love me dearly, but who also live in a practical world of meals on tables and money to pay for heat, water, and premium cable channels. I was always told to follow my dreams, but then it was quickly chased with a, “You know, you’d make a great lawyer.”

Had I said, “When I grow up, I want to be an artist,” I’m sure it would’ve sent my father to the bowl with ‘rhea.

“That’s fine,” he’d say two hours and one box of Tuck’s medicated pads later. “Do all that art stuff, you know, as a hobby, on the side. But in the meanwhile, take the job with the health insurance and 401k match.” So I did both.

I took the job in advertising that allowed me to be creative with a month of paid vacation, and two free pairs of eyeglasses a year, dental and medical. And I followed my passions on the side, taking night classes in figure drawing, in watercolors, in photography, and in writing. I did this for eight years, and then I left advertising to begin a new full-time job as a writer (who’d work from home, cafe’s, and a lot of bars).

It’s no “secret” that I strongly believe that when we follow our passions, doors open for us, to show us that we’re moving in the right direction. As long as we make ourselves open to possibilities and have the guts to risk, it can all come true. I’ve known and said this for a long time now. And yet. There I have it, in my journal: an expressed fear of following my dreams. Well WTF is that about?

“I’m afraid that if I start dreaming, I’ll lose my way.” I realize this is actually bullshine, given that you can have lots of ways. I wonder why, from such a young age, we’re asked what we want to be when we grow up, and our answer, while it changes from day to day, mood to mood, year to year, usually contains an OR instead of an AND. “A princess,” or an “actress,” or an airline “stewardess,” anything ending in “ess.” Then we grow up and realize it’s actually “flight attendant”– how disappointing — choose one thing, dedicate our lives to becoming more skilled, in teaching others what we’ve supposedly mastered. Though none of us really feels as if we’ve mastered anything. Mostly we wonder when we’ll be found out, when the world will realize that we don’t deserve the awards, the promotions, the accolades because there are so many people out there with so much more talent, just not as much tenacity. And yet, so often we believe that one role we chose is what makes us us. People get laid off and find themselves saying, “But this is who I am.” It’s what we know, but it’s such a small part of who we are.

Dreaming feels indulgent, like making five different desserts for Thanksgiving (and eating them all, naturally). There’s a fear in dreaming, that the reality of it will never be as satisfying as we’d hoped. It’s what I call “The Pillow Fight Factor.” People have pillow fights in movies, running through hallways of a house barefoot on wooden floors, jumping on beds, feathers slipping out, seesawing their way through the air. Then giggles, hiding behind a chair, threats of “I’m going to get you.”  No one is ever allergic, and no one has to clean up the mess. Then you try it in your own life, only to realize PILLOW FIGHTS HURT. They are not fun at all. Especially those Goose Down numbers that might as well be a sock stuffed with coins, a weapon. The fantasy of it was so much more exciting than the reality of it, so what if that happens with my life? With this job, with this relationship, with this sexual fantasy I want to try out, with this huge decision I’m making? What if I risk only to later feel regret?

The eye-rolling kicks into high gear, followed by a yawn. Please don’t tell me “Then you learn” or “Then you can always change your mind.” That’s not enough. Here’s what is: Then at least you’ll know. In old age, at the very end, wouldn’t you rather say, “At least I tried. I didn’t waste my life too scared to live it.” It really does come down to a book of quotes about failure and success. And as cliche as they might be, they encourage me to at least try.

Why would I be afraid to dream? Because what if what I dreamed for now “derailed me?” What if it took me so far off course that I’d live to regret it with a “what the hell was I thinking?” years from now? I think I read somewhere that it took courage to dream, and I remember rolling my eyes. It doesn’t take courage to dream. It takes courage to follow them.

2 YEARS AGO: Delusional, Much?
3 YEARS AGO: This Waltz
5 YEARS AGO: Why I Never Went to Law School



  1. This really spoke to me today. Thank you. I think you're on the right track in the discovery that to live a creative life, one in which you practice your craft every day regardless of whether it is professionally lucrative or not, depends on a certain kind of perspective. The creative flow state that is essential for your best work, that state of touching the unconscious, barely noticing the passage of time until you are amazed at the end that you were able to express something just as you'd imagined it, is a fragile thing that needs to be supported. In the long term, the punishing inner voice that judges, that says words like mediocrity and success, will incapacitate the flow state and silence creativity. Only a practice that is based not so much on goals, accomplishments, or external validations, but on the pleasure of the process, on simply doing, on conjuring that feeling of passionate self-expression will carry you through a lifetime of being an artist. There's something in this too of letting go of the ego and detaching from being defined by your work; this is important both during the process of creating and after the work has left your hands.

  2. Great post Stephanie. I can relate so much. My parents were also pushing toward the career that would pay the bills, and provide the medical, dental and 401 k. Everything I wanted to do was in the arts. You know the stuff that doesn't necessarily do all of those things. So I did what they wanted, went to college, got a degree in occupational therapy and went to work in a hospital with the good medical etc. I did it for years and my dream of becoming a writer kept speaking to me. And it took me years to realize that it was my passion and years to have the courage to follow that dream. And although I have begun to move on the right track the fear stumbles me every time. You are right, the courage to follow the dream is truly the hardest part. Thanks for this post today! It helps me to see I am not alone in what I struggle with sometimes.

  3. This blog post really spoke to me. It is the wake up call I needed. I think we're allowed to dream big as kids, but once we get to high school we have to turn our dreams into practical ones that don't have the same glow or excitement.
    Not sure what your sexual fantasy is, but mentioning that kind of dream is something that might be nawing at the back of our mind, but depending on how we were brought up living out those fantasy might be a challenge to live out.
    Your blog posts arrive in my inbox first thing when I get up. Perfect timing. :)

  4. Great post today. I think you should follow your passions no matter where they take you. Whille there is always that notion that you could fail/feel regret, there is also other notions that it could be the best decision you ever made. You should never let fear hold you back. Now, it must be within reason since you do have a family to think about but I think anything you do, will be great :)

    On a completly separate note, I just recieved an email from my university (Nova Southeastern in South Florida) infroming us that you would be at our annual LitLive event on 3/21 and I am super excited to meet you.

    "Throughout the centuries there were men who took first steps down new roads armed with nothing but their own vision" -Ayn Rand

  5. People get laid off, and find themselves saying, "But this is who I am." It's what we know, but it's such a small part of who we are.

    God, I needed that.

  6. Wow. Sometimes I read your blog and we're in such different places in our lives that it's hard to relate. I don't have children, I'm not married, I just not in a similar situation at all. But reading this post made me remember why I got hooked here in the first place.

    I'm afraid to pursue my dreams as well, and I realized recently that it's because I'm afraid I'll fail at them, and then I won't have those dreams anymore. As long as I'm not trying to be a writer, I can still dream of being one, or of living somewhere sunny, or whatever. But I've also realized lately that something has to change. Thanks

  7. Wow. This has personally been the topic of inner conversation for the past year.
    I "thought I was something," and now I am not. And, there are things I see myself being, and ultimately finding such happiness because of this, but I am too afraid to dream out loud. Because, I think "failure" and fear are so much easier to digest than the possibilty of actually living a dream. I always think I am stuck in a vaccuum, and then I hear someone else speak my inner dialogue. Thank you for the kick in the "touchas."

  8. When I was a child, I was afraid of trying things because I was afraid of failure. I don't know where that fear came from. My parents did not press it upon me and in fact encouraged me to try new things. I never took piano lessons, never tried out for cheerleader, never played soccer…all because I was afraid I would not be good at it and thus never even tried. I think I was afraid of looking stupid. How sad. I'm so glad I eventually got over it. I was lucky to have a mentor who pushed me to try things. It's a cliche, but I love the phrase "What would you do if you knew you could not fail?" Answer that. Do it. And if you fail, so what?

  9. I must have limited intellectual capacity, because your writing always seems flighty and nonsensical and somehow, too contrived. I think you have some good thoughts to share, but you always come across as trying too hard to make people think you can write. I suspect you CAN write – you just give in to the urge to try to impress your readers. You used to be interesting, now you just come across as kinda sad.

  10. I think actually, that it does take courage to dream. The courage to dream, is to have some hope that it can be true. If you dont have any faith or hope or aspiration that it can be…then you don't dream it.

    Some don't dare dream it. Why have hope dashed, safer to not dream. Not to hope. Live in the reality. This is how it is. There is no better or I cant dream.. or have my heads in the clouds.

    To dream is to hope. Isnt it to hope, perchance to dream?

    I was taught to dream. i was taught and raised to believe I could do anything. I was also taught responsiblities. The dreams were to be self sustained, independent, and to make a change. To take a chance sometimes.

    I'm just now learning to dream the fantasies "someones princess"; to mean to be loved and treated like a prince would treat you. To fly free. To love freely. To not be restricted.

    But sometimes, to dream, is to neglect that which we have already, and in that you can lose your way. For when you doubt the dreams you've achieved; you aim to search for more dreams..and then your head is in the clouds and your feet are walking a path that you dont know with sights that you dont take in.

    In it all; shoot for the moon; in doing so; you always end among the stars.

  11. Stephanie –

    A writer friend just told me about your blog and it's rather amazing this is the current entry.

    I wanted to be a writer, but went to medical school because really, what else was a Jewish only child supposed to do? I put away my writing dream for many years, until my husband taught me, by example, the importance of living our dreams while we still can. (His dream was really my nightmare: Chucking it all to travel the country in a converted bus for a year. My response, "Why can't you be like a normal husband in a midlife crisis and have an affair or buy a Corvette?" We're both psychiatrists, but he's obviously the better shrink, as we did do the trip.)

    After many agent rejections ("I love this, I just don't think I can sell it") my book was bought by a major publisher, came out in June, and is already in 6th printing. (As a shrink, I must admit, my favorite Freud brother has always been Schaden.)

    I'm a firm believer in at least going for it, so you have no regrets.

  12. Love the Alanis reference. Reading this post with her singing in the background would be truly therapeutic…since she's known for kicking her own ass and then allowing herself to patch things up with her self, while you are known for those very same things (although we're yet to hear you sing these words!) Anyway, the word that's been circulating around my head is AFRAID. And, I don't know where it came from or why it's there, but I want to know–how come it's not gone yet? I guess it's because I'm still at the crummy day job hating every minute of it,and like you, I'm taking night classes and loving those…all the while wishing that what I'm acquiring in them will soon morph itself into a permanent gig. But, it feels so far away. Sometimes those dangling carrots get me all cross-eyed.

  13. Thanks for this much-needed wake up call. I've been dragging my feet about writing for way too long now. I need to find a way to find the time while taking care of everything else life throws at me.

  14. You really struck a nerve with this one. It is so damn easy to say follow your passion and your dreams and everything will work out…but do damn hard to actually do it. And then, what if you are not sure about your passions and dreams? What if you need to explore and experiment? What if you don't have a nice, neat answer ready to go? I want to be X or Y or X and Y. Then it just gets harder and scarier. I don't want to die but when I do I want to know I tried too.

  15. But what if you don't even know what your dream is? I just realized that I didn't have an answer when people asked me that question growing up, and I'm no closer to answering it now.

    I'd love to be able to throw caution to the wind and jump in feet first into making it happen…but I don't have any idea what "it" is. I feel paralyzed.

    FROM STEPHANIE: I have had this feeling you're describing during periods of uncertainty. Even now, I say, "Okay, you can do anything you want. So what do you want to do?" And as of a few days ago, I wasn't sure. It was the first time I could relate to people who didn't and still don't know what their dreams are. So I did the work. I wrote in my journal for days, trying to list all the things I think I'm "secretly interested in." You know, if I had no limitations, forgetting for a moment the practical, and I FORCED myself to answer the question. If I could do anything, what would I want to do? But my answers were coming up… murky. I was patient, yet also frustrated. I tried to think of things I enjoyed doing as a kid. I asked myself, "what was your favorite childhood game? Your favorite toy? What could you do for hours without even realizing it? What can you do for hours NOW and not even realize you're doing it?" I also paid attention to my body, when I mulled different things over. Then I got to one idea that got me really, really excited, and I was overcome (I cried) by the joy I was feeling even considering it. And that's when I knew what I would begin working on next. You have to follow (and in your case) be willing to work at finding the joy. I'll be juggling several new projects. One is more long term… that is, it will take time, but it will happen. Hope this helps.

  16. Thank you for this post. This is what I love about your blog: that you're ok with opening up and showing your conflicting emotions, confused thoughts that take you back and forth. I remember the first time I read on here about your "inner defeatist voice" I thought "wow, it's not just me being pathetic, weak, wishy-washy. there's a word for it." My parents were great, but they never gave me the "follow your dreams" talk. They focused on raising humble, not self-confident. They were too cynical in nature to have ever spouted any platitudes, so as trite as it might sound, reading these posts about how you motivate yourself, and how they motivated (and didn't) you really helps me.

    I know the changes you want that you've been writing about recently probably go beyond what you could get from a simple once-a-week art class or anything like that. But for what it's worth, I recently started taking two at FIT, things that aren't practical or a career track I want to go in, just a way to do something that gives me pleasure and teaches me something new. "For fun." A lot of us were talking about how the economy sort of has the silver lining in that we wouldn't have started these classes if we hadn't been on involuntary long-term unpaid vacation. "Getting ahead" doesn't really exist at this moment in NY, so it's sort of like the world is on pause, and you can take the time to do something purely for yourself.

    I hope that you are secure enough at the minute with your royalties and your husband's work that you can take some time too, without guilt, which frankly makes it impossible to really get anywhere.

  17. Thank you for writing this.

    This really resonated. It's happened to me before that major goals, once realized, left me disillusioned. The idea of the dream turned out far superior to the outcome, and I felt that I tricked myself, spending years working for something I couldn't value in the end. The sacrifices were basically not worth it. Wonder if anyone else has ever felt this way?

    Now it takes a ton of courage to pursue a dream. It's like having no direction – hard to evaluate what's worth it and what's not. I was really convinced in the past, and wrong on so many counts. What if I invest another decade into something and get lost again, possibly even disliking the process along the way? How many fits and starts can I afford before I start to feel like a failure and acting like one? How many peer groups can I afford to join and let go, how many communities?

    An old friend of mine passed away in the fall, and it reminds me daily that when you sacrifice the present moment, the returns are not guaranteed. More than ever, I value simple happy days. As for dreams, sure, I have a few big ones, but if there's even a mild to moderate chance that they might entail many stressed out, possibly unhappy years, are they worth it? Or is that a trick question that I just don't get? Should I dream smaller? Or different?

    So if anyone asked me, I'd volunteer that dreams require courage, because we know we have to make sacrifices. And we know that the sacrifices may turn out too great, because we can fail in more ways than one – not just by failing to get there, but by forgoing something of more value or by failing to feel good about the journey or the destination. Which might in effect nullify the dream. Many years ago I had no idea of the sacrifices I was about to make, and what it meant that by choosing one path we forgo another. The older we all get, the better we know this, because we've lived. That's the conflict for me, right there. That's why the fear.

    Anyone please feel free to argue me on this, I would love that being as what I wrote is seriously on the negative side, and for what it's worth I do apologize for such a downtone comment.

  18. That definitely helps. Thank you. Everyone tells you to go after your dreams, but no one tells you how to find out what your dreams are. Maybe this weekend I'll take my notebook to Chelsea Market (where I could sit for hours) and really start to think about this.

  19. nice post, stephanie. i feel like i have the opposite problem. i know exactly what i want and what i like. its just a matter of getting there. but what if im wrong? or what if i never get there?

  20. Why does it matter if it makes you special? Isn't being happy enough? That is what I took from this post. Is that you are more concerned with what other people think. . . which is maybe why you still have questions?

    FROM STEPHANIE: Actually, all my life I wanted to be special… that is, to KNOW what I can contribute better than anyone else. Since we're all unique, and there's no one else who can think exactly as we do, exactly when we do and say it the same way, we're all "special." I just always felt a strong desire to figure out what it is that I'm here to do and experience as only I can.

  21. I loved this post Stephanie – thank you. I am not so young and still dream – some of my dreams have not come to fruition but I do not see these unfulfilled dreams as failure and I hope it will not stop me from dreaming in the future, or revisitng old dreams. You are so right, it does take courage to follow your dreams, but it makes life richer. Persue your dreams, I wish you success and a wonderful eventful ride.

  22. Ha, you're dead-on with the pillow fights, they're so overrated.

    I also had a lot of dreams as a kid. There were also a number of teachers that wanted me to do the sensible thing, luckily my parents let me be. I ended up with the sensible carreer after all, but I still have a ton of dreams, including leaving it all and moving abroad some day. Even if these things are not happening at the moment, just knowing the possibilities that are out there in life make me happy and hopeful. Something to look forward to.

    There's only one thing gnawing. You know what I'm afraid of? That I'll postpone my dreams until I find the guy to live them out with. Because in my head I have this picture of a partner standing next to my side in all my adventures. I try to ignore that image and force myself to do things on my own, gradually. If I keep waiting life may just pass me by.

    P.S. I'm really curious now to find out what your new idea/dream is!

  23. Wow, this post really spoke to me. I lost the job I had for eight years just a couple months ago. It was a 'good' corporate job, and it enabled me with a good salary and benefits, but I felt like I was slowly dying inside–becoming compressed and flattened like a slab of gray felt. I'm quite resistant to finding the same sort of job, but at the same time quite fearful about recalibrating my mind to work creatively as an artist again. Because: what if I can't make it financially? Is it indulgent? Do I really have anything meaningful to contribute? Etc. Sometimes I wish for the fiery arrogance of my twenties to blaze through my self-doubt!

  24. My inner asshole (who is more dominatrix, less governess) likes to shout out, WHAT IF YOU SUCK? whenever I consider pursuing anything artistic or new or just generally challenging. If I knew how to shut that bitch up, I’d save a ton in therapy bills.

    1. Your inner asshole has been hanging out at my place and I’ve pretty much had enough of him.

      Other favorite cries include
      “Who’d want to listen to you sing/read your writing/come to your show?”

      A silver bullet? A wooden stake?

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