Jiminy Cricket (“When you wish upon a star…”) would not be happy with me, but the truth is, I’m getting tired of people wasting their lives following dreams they’ll never achieve. I have screenplays on my desk from writers who “have a dream” about writing a Hollywood screenplay, but aren’t interested in actually attending a writing class. I met an actor recently who left his wife and young son to pursue his dream of an acting career. The problem is, he has absolutely no talent. I received a self-published book in the mail a few days ago, with a letter asking me if I’d help the writer market the book. But the book is simply awful (not to mention riddled with misspellings.)
I know -- some of you will push back about me being too harsh. “Who is Phil Cooke to dash someone’s dream?” “How arrogant to tell someone they don’t have talent or they’re pursuing the wrong dream for their life?”
I understand. I struggled for years with the question of whether or not I should continue encouraging people or tell them the hard truth. But writing my new book, “One Big Thing: Discovering What You Were Born to Do” taught me something that changed everything: It’s much easier than most people think to actually determine the real “one big thing” that we were born to accomplish with our lives.
But Hollywood, the self-help industry, the esteem movement and well intentioned friends have led us down a far more romantic, but ultimately destructive path. We’ve been taught that all it takes is a dream, and you can accomplish whatever your heart desires.
As a result, we have a flood of would-be filmmakers descending on Hollywood every year. Publishers are deluged with poorly written manuscripts from wannabe writers with no talent, and auditions for shows like “American Idol” have long lines of singers who can’t hold a tune in a bucket. (Admit it -- you love watching.)
High school drama teachers, parents, and well meaning friends have encouraged them for years. But at what cost? How many years have been robbed from potentially finding the one thing where they could actually be extraordinary?
Don’t get me wrong. Pursuing a dream is fine. But unless you have the talent, skill, ability, a commitment to achieve that dream, you’re simply wasting your life. But how do you figure it out? How can you avoid spending years pursuing a delusion?
In my book, I suggest you start with a few key questions:
1) What comes easy for you? Think about your life. How many times were you asked to do something because you were the organized one, the athletic one, the best writer, or good with numbers? Perhaps you’re the responsible one who’s always expected to keep your group together at the shopping mall. Maybe you’re the person everyone turns to in a crisis. Looking back, think about the moments when you naturally gravitated toward a particular task on the homecoming committee, at church, a school project, or at the office. Some people even build a reputation as the person who finds this or that task, project, or challenge easier than anyone else.
The confirmation of other people matters, so take a minute and think about talents you possess that other people notice. Whatever it is, that ability could be a key indicator of the dream you should be following – or what I call in my book, your “one big thing.”
2) What do you love? There are plenty of people volunteering at jobs they love and working on the side to make a living. But what if you could combine the two? What if you could actually make a living working at a job you love? If you consider the whole working world, only a tiny minority of people are actually pursuing a dream they’re passionate about.
What are you fanatical about? I’m not talking obsession in the same sense as a psychological disorder. (Well, maybe.) In other words, what are you constantly thinking about? What type of books do you buy or television programs do you watch? What’s the first thing you think about when you wake up in the morning and the last thing you think about when you go to bed at night?
3) What drives you nuts? It may sound strange, but I’ve discovered that in many cases, the thing you hate the most could be the problem you were born to fix. In other words, what do you hate? I believe the key to your destiny could be found in the answer to that question.
The answer to what frustrates you could express itself in a new product, an original method, a movie, a book, a march, a campaign, a cause, or a religious awakening. It doesn’t have to be big, it just needs to start. Try it yourself. What drives you nuts in life? The answer may change the course of your future.
4) Finally - have you done the time? I’m not talking about prison, but a question of commitment. Professional writers write. Musicians practice. Designers design. You may not have a job, a business card, or a buyer, but if you have a dream, what foundation are you laying today for success tomorrow? What classes are you taking? Have you found a mentor or coach?
I wrote and threw away thousands of pages before I published my first book. A college friend of mine who’s a concert pianist practices 5-6 hours per day. One successful producer in Hollywood won’t even consider reading your script until you can prove you’ve already written at least ten screenplays. (No wonder he’s successful.)
It’s time to stop being average at so many things and start being extraordinary at one big thing. The key is figuring out what that one big thing is. Remember the immortal scene in the movie “City Slickers?”
Curly: Do you know what the secret of life is?
[holds up one finger]
Mitch: Your finger?
Curly: One thing. Just one thing. You stick to that and the rest don’t mean s***.
Mitch: But what is the “one thing”?
Curly: That's what you have to find out.
It begins with brutal honesty, and thrives on hard work. Without that combination, no amount of dreaming in the world will take you very far.
He was cranky, rude, and insensitive, but American Idol’s Simon Cowell never hesitated to call it like it was when it came to talent (or lack thereof.) While it was painful at the time, how many people have avoided years of disappointment because Simon wasn’t afraid to tell them the truth?
This is your moment. Maybe it’s time to stop just following a dream and spend more time discovering what dream you should follow.
Phil Cooke, Ph.D. is a filmmaker and media consultant. His latest book is "Unique: Telling Your Story in the Age of Brands and Social Media." He writes daily about the intersection of media, faith, and culture at philcooke.com.