For as long as I can remember, I wanted to be an actress.
I knew—knew —that performing was my destiny. I spent my childhood being ferried to and from lessons, shows, and auditions. I studied. I practiced. I got into a top college program, excelled in it, and then embarked on my sure-to-be legendary career on Broadway. It was the only thing I had ever really wanted.
And then I quit.
Some might say I gave up on my dreams, and it’s true, I did. At twenty-six, I put away my songbook and haven’t sung a note since. But the funny thing about dreams is that, sometimes, they don’t lead you to where you thought they would.
I saw where my dream was leading me. I had romanticized la vie boheme that I was sure to have as a struggling Manhattan artist, but the more I worked (and I did work, both on stage and on camera), the more I grew to hate it. I hated the casting directors who barely looked at me during my auditions. I hated my agent for submitting me for parts that I had no hope of booking. I hated other actors who could only blabber about new classes, new headshots, and how Landmark Forum had really taken them to the next level.
I looked twenty years down the road and saw myself tending bar into my forties, living alone and never having had the chance to settle down and find a partner or have a family. I knew many older actresses who had gone down that path, and some loved their picaresque lives without ties or burdens. But for others, it was a fate they were resigned to, continuing to pursue stardom not because it was what they really wanted, but because they didn’t know what else to do. I didn’t want to be one of them.
It’s a sad fact of life that not all dreams end in glory. Sometimes they just don’t pan out. Sometimes dreams end in bitter frustration, the dreamer wondering what might have been if they’d had the courage to find another path. How many of us know someone who attended medical school or business school, quickly realized that it wasn’t right for them, but trudged on anyway because it was their dream to be a doctor or a banker? At that point, blindly following a dream becomes less about pursuing a passion and more about just desperately trying to avoid failure. There’s nothing authentic or satisfying about that. In fact, continuing to chase something that’s long since stopped making you happy can make you pretty miserable.
But here’s another funny thing about dreams: Even the ones that don’t work out can lead you to new places and new dreams that are better than you could have ever imagined. If I hadn’t followed my theatrical passions to New York, I might never have temped for months, with hours free to peruse the internet and write. I might never have known that it was possible to make a living by slinging words on the web. Without my background in entertainment, I might not have been able to get my first regular writing gig—as a theater and film critic. It was only by pursuing one dream—and then giving it up—that I was able to find a new, better one.
Maybe our lives aren’t supposed to be ruled by one single passion forever, or one single goal that guides us like the North Star. Maybe life should be a series of adventures, moving from one dream to the next as we grow and change and discover who we are what our hearts want. Maybe we end up wanting kids and a family, maybe it’s joining the Peace Corps or getting plastic surgery. Who knows? The point is that it’s impossible to know. Ten years ago, I would hardly believe that today, I’d be standing backstage at New York Fashion Week, interviewing one of the world’s top makeup artists. I think, How could I have ever thought I wanted anything different? But I did think I wanted something different, right up until the day that I didn’t anymore.
When people ask me if I regret putting my childhood dream aside, I know that what they’re really asking is whether I feel guilty about cutting my losses so soon. After all, maybe my big break was waiting right around the corner. But in either case, the answer is that by giving up that dream, I was able to pursue things that have been more interesting and satisfying than anything I had ever imagined before. The world isn’t crying over one fewer actress in New York, and despite the occasional pang of sadness I feel when I hear “Our Time” from Merrily We Roll Along pop up on my iPod, I don’t cry about it either.
“Following your dreams” isn’t always about seeing them through all the way to their happy ending. Sometimes the end comes sooner than you thought it would. Sometimes the end of a dream isn’t the Oscar or the Nobel or the giant corner office; sometimes the end of a dream is simply the quiet moment when you admit to yourself, I’m done now. That’s not failure…that’s freedom. It’s the freedom to do other things and follow new paths, whatever and wherever they may be.