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"Never Give Up Your Dreams" is Terrible Advice
Never stop believing it's okay to quit. In the meantime, I wish the smug and successful would keep their bad advice to themselves.
I’m a novelist and screenwriter, and for the last couple of years, I’ve been working on a movie project about digital nomads. It’s a romcom called Wander+Lust about two nomads who keep running into each other in different exotic destinations, but circumstances always push them apart.
It’s sort of a cross between Eat Pray Love and Four Weddings and a Funeral. In the end, my main character learns how important it is to embrace her life at any cost.
A month ago, things were looking very good for this project. A great producer has been working on it for about a year, and she’d found a home for it at one of the big movie studios, which loved the script. The producer and the studio had also approached the production company of a major movie star, and they’d also loved the script.
In fact, everyone liked it so much that it seemed like the studio was about to give us our official "greenlight," and the movie would film in January.
We hadn’t even had very many notes! That neeeever happens.
Then, completely out of the blue, a big executive at the movie studio was fired, and an entire slate of movies immediately got cancelled, including mine.
This one was a pretty bitter pill to swallow, because, frankly, it would have been my highest profile project so far.
One of the things they don't say about a career in the arts is that this kind of thing happens a lot.
Like, A LOT a lot.
Sometimes I think back over my writing career, and I want to cry at all the coulda-woulda-shoulda TV and movie projects that "almost" happened, or the books that seemed like they might break out wide.
But, in the end, they never did.
Every professional writer I know has a trail of cancelled TV shows, un-invoked movie options, or fizzled books. It should be part of the job description. But I confess my number seems unusually high.
In fact, unlike a lot of my writer-friends, I’ve never had a Truly Big Success. Or a Big Award. Or even an especially nice payday.
Maybe it’s because I’m not a very good writer. I mean, sure, maybe I was the best in my sixth grade class, or my whole school — or, hey, maybe even my whole hometown.
But professionally? This is the big-time, baby! Maybe I’m simply not the best of the best.
Trust me, I’ve definitely considered this.
On the other hand, well, I’ve had all these coulda-woulda-shoulda near-misses. That seems to mean something.
So maybe I just need to have hope, to keep plugging away, and never give up my dreams.
That’s what the internet says, right? “Never give up your dreams!”
These are the words that have launched a zillion memes. There’s a whole series of Tweets by famous writers, usually when they’re announcing some big Netflix deal, where they write about how three or five years earlier, they were right on the verge of giving up. And they end the tweet with…
Never give up your dreams!
Me? I think “Never give up your dreams!” is terrible advice. I’m getting increasingly annoyed every time I see it.
When the writer in question writes these tweets, it seems like a self-aggrandizing humblebrag pretending to be inspirational. But even apart from that, the advice itself is simplistic and silly.
I think it’s especially ridiculous for anyone working in the arts.
Here’s the very simple reality of a life as a writer, actor, musician, singer, filmmaker, or anything along those lines: the vast, vast majority of people who do it will fail.
I guess I need to define “fail,” because, of course, the arts are inherently satisfying. It’s an amazing feeling to express yourself with words, music, performance, or film.
Duh! This is why so many people want a career in the arts. Who wouldn’t want to get paid to do something they love so much they do it for free?
But by any reasonable measure, most of the people who try to do these things professionally will not succeed.
It's not The Hunger Games exactly, because no one dies. But other than that, well, yeah, it kinda is The Hunger Games. Some folks last longer than others, due to talent and grit and luck, but almost everybody still gets eliminated in the end.
That’s what I mean by failure.
And to some degree, this is as it should be. Only the best of the very, very best should succeed. I took piano lessons for five years as a kid, but I sure as hell wouldn’t pay money to listen to me play.
But here’s the thing: the current state of the arts? Even most of the people who are very talented will fail professionally.
We hear about the successes, like the guy who wrote Squid Game. Yay! Good for him.
We never hear about the literally millions of failures. More people win a million dollars in the California State Lottery every year than sell spec screenplays to one of the major U.S. studios.
A career in the arts is exactly like a career in professional sports. Should every kid who wants to play pro ball — which is, basically every nine-year-old who has played a sport well — never give up that dream either?
Okay, I realize I’m sounding really, really bitter here. As in, Grinch-Who-Stole Christmas-bitter. I’m seriously arguing against the anodyne phrase, “Never give up your dreams”?
But, well, this is kind of the point. I am bitter. And I’m a relatively “successful” writer — someone who’s made at least a modest, full-time living in the arts for more than twenty years.
When I first started out, I had no idea how hard and frustrating this life could be — how much rejection there is, and non-stop criticism, and, frankly, humiliation.
Or maybe I knew, but I never thought those things would apply to me. I had talent! And, more importantly, drive. I once sent out six hundred queries on a book project — by snail mail, incidentally, since this was pre-email — and it never even occurred to me that this might be a little obsessive.
(That book did eventually sell, was a decent hit and even got turned into a small feature film. Which just proves yet again that five hundred and ninety-nine agents and editors didn’t know a damn thing.)
These days, I know that frustrations like mine are the norm in this business, not the exception. I have some very successful writer friends, and except for a very lucky few, they’ve all been through the meat-grinder too.
And except for once-in-a-generation talent, I think break-out success is mostly luck. Or maybe a better word is “timing.” The zeitgeist gods need to smile down upon you and your work.
You tell yourself that the truly talented, the truly driven, will eventually find some kind of big success, and I actually believe some version of this myself. I think the business is bonkers-insane, often rewarding all the wrong people for all the wrong things.
And I don't just mean the suits and execs: if it isn't obvious to you that Bad Art Friend Sonya hated Dawn because she wasn't one of her “cool” writer friends, I don't know what to tell you.
But I do still think there is some correlation between talent and drive, and success — at least over a lifetime, if not for any given project.
A life in the arts is still really, really hard.
And I think it’s totally okay to give up on this “dream.” Sometimes I think it might even be the smart thing to do.
When this latest big movie deal seemed like it was actually going to happen, I asked myself: “Will this make up for everything that came before — all the years of misery and self-pity and self-hatred?”
And the answer was a tentative: I think so. Maybe. I guess.
Anyway, my latest movie didn’t happen. And honestly? I’m no spring chicken — I might never have a zeitgeist-landing Great Success. And why should I? The world doesn’t owe me their adulation.
But still, that means my life will be yet more in an ongoing stream of high hopes leading to crashing disappointments.
Seriously, I now accept this is a real possibility.
I’ve spent years of my life working on movies that never got made. I’ve had one movie under option for sixteen years! Once we had an Academy Award winner attached, which was very exciting.
It became less exciting when it still didn’t get the damn thing made.
And I’ve worked on movies that did get made, but somewhere along the way, something went wrong and — since I was just the writer — the finished product isn’t really anything I can take any pride in now.
All those people who are telling people like me to “Never give up your dreams!”? They’re basically saying: Spend your life being miserable, despite the fact that the vast, vast majority of you will never succeed.
This is not a message I can endorse.
Look, as I said, there is an inherent value in the arts. I love the act of what I do. Nothing makes me feel more alive.
Plus, I’ve sold tens of thousands of novels over the years, and received literally thousands of fan letters and emails from grateful readers. Lots of money has been spent buying, developing, and occasionally producing my screen work.
I’ve personally made at least a modest living doing what I love.
For the first half of my life, I never considered that I might be a happier person if I hadn’t pursued the professional writing path — if I’d kept it entirely as a hobby.
I also know there’s a real value in doing hard things — in pushing through your pain and persevering until you reach the finish line.
But, well, life isn’t a marathon. There is no finish line, unless you count death, which isn’t what I’m talking about here.
Life is about what happens along the way — in the moment. The measure of your life is how you feel day to day. Was it a good day? Were you content?
When you finally do die, the only thing that truly matters is: Were you mostly happy and satisfied? Or frustrated and bitter?
I’ve spent most of my life trying to be successful as a writer. And that usually made me feel like complete shit, even if I didn’t realize it at the time.
I used to say the same thing over and over: Oh, well, that’s life! Life is mostly disappointment.
Then four years ago, I left with my husband Michael to travel the world as digital nomads.
And I quickly realized that life isn’t mostly disappointment. In fact, traveling the world, my life was suddenly about 95% fantastic and only 5% disappointment.
(My new lifestyle also cost me about half what I’d been living on back in America, but that’s the subject of another article.)
The disappointment that remained in my life? Most of it still came from my writing.
Breaking news! I’d been lying to myself for a very long time.
Is what I’m saying here only related to a life in the arts?
In fact, I do think there’s something uniquely soul-crushing about this particular life, at least as practiced in the United States. But maybe that’s just my privilege talking. On the other hand, I think anyone would be frustrated by pouring their heart and soul into a project for a decade or more, for almost no money and nothing to show for it in the end.
So I guess I do think these words apply to almost everyone’s life — everyone’s dreams.
Setting goals is important. Dreams are a really good thing! Dreams can give your life meaning.
But dreams also need to constantly be reassessed. Dreams do not exist in a vacuum.
I don’t think you need to be “practical” — oh, God, that’s not what I’m saying at all. By all means, reach for the stars!
But your dreams should serve you. You should not be in an abusive relationship with your dreams.
And here’s what I really think: There is absolutely no shame in giving up on a pursuit of something that’s making you chronically unhappy. On the contrary! Having the courage and grit to do this most difficult thing means you’re a total badass.
Put your pursuit of anything in the greater context of your overall life. In the end, how is it making you feel?
If it makes you feel like shit most of the time, well, why not give up that dream? Maybe you can pick a new dream. Or pivot to a similar dream.
Or don’t have any dreams at all for a while and see how that feels.
The internet can go on celebrating the guy who made Squid Game — and all those other writers who finally got all those incredible Netflix deals.
Me? I’ll be celebrating that incredible grilled mahi mahi I had on the beach in Mexico with Michael and Tyler, and that lovely, lazy day Michael and I spent with our friends Mike and Miek exploring Ba Na Hills in Vietnam. Right now, Michael and I are living in Prague, which already has me deep in its thrall.
It’s kind of funny when you think about it. I’ve spent the last few years writing a movie about a woman who becomes a digital nomad and learns how to embrace life.
That movie didn’t get made — and, hey, maybe it never will.
But that script didn’t come out of nowhere. I wrote it because I wanted to tell the world how much I love my new life — how, in the end, I’ve finally learned to embrace my own life at any cost.
I haven't given up my dreams (yet), but maybe I've put them on the back-burner. I tried to put them more into perspective.
So am I the Grinch Who Stole Christmas?
Nah. These days, I’m the luckiest son of a bitch the world has ever known.