“If you want to truly honor your loved ones, go out in the world and live your absolute best and brightest, make the most of that gift your parents gave you. And you have to be okay with the fact that they may always resent you for doing so, and you have to forgive them that resentment.” -Nial Doherty
When you take risks, follow dreams, embark on new ventures, or do anything else that challenges you to become a better version of yourself, you force the people around you to change even if they weren’t ready, willing, or planning to change.
In a sense, you’re like a character in someone else’s narrative and that’s not exactly a bad thing. The people you know are also characters in your narrative. As long as the characters in our lives make sense, we tend to feel comfortable and we enjoy the story. Nobody likes a story with a messy incoherent plot. Suspense is fun, but not chaos. With that in mind, take a brief moment to imagine all the important people in your life: they’re going through their daily routines, following their own dreams, building their own futures, protecting their own cherished belongings, and then you come along and say “hey, I know you’re busy writing your novel and all, but I need to deviate from the script and completely change my character’s story arc.” Now they have to scramble, regroup, revise, and somehow find the energy, time, and perspective necessary to save their precious project. When you take creative risks, you sometimes look and sound like the equivalent of an out of touch executive film producer who barges on set in the middle of production and announces “I need you guys to change this from a romantic comedy into a sci-fi/action film about zombies and werewolves.” Imagine the shock, the outrage, the fear, the anxiety, the criticism. Things don’t always play out this dramatically, but the underlying theme is present in many examples where people make major life-altering decisions.
It’s impossible to take charge of your narrative without forcing the people who’ve already cast you as a character in their narrative to make significant script revisions that they probably never planned to make.
In How to Ignore Pessimistic Family and Friends, Scott Berkun reminds us that the doubts, fears, and concerns expressed by our loved ones about our dreams are not always evidence of hate and antagonism:
It’s important to remember that change is scary for most people. When your family hears you talk about making a change they subconsciously experience their own fears. And since they care about you they naturally project their fears in your direction. It’s partially out of love that they’re not being as supportive as you’d like.
You will need to do something to wake them up out of their default answers. It will take work for them to see that their own fears, and dreams, aren’t necessarily yours. And it will take work for you to see that despite your dreams, some of their concerns might be valid enough to consider. You likely have your own defensive habits that you fall back into when challenged, which helps your family see you as the person you were, not the person you’re trying to become.
Being empathetic towards those who feel doubt or discomfort when we announce our plans is the mark of a mature mind. One of the most difficult lessons that artists, entrepreneurs, and other aspiring innovators have to learn is that our dreams and creative visions aren’t always going to initially seem amazing to everyone else. As wonderful as it feels to hear people enthusiastically say things like “I believe in you” or “Go get ’em, tiger,” it’s important to remember that people don’t need to see everything your way in order to genuinely care about your well-being. Your dreams aren’t necessarily a reflection of how much you love yourself. Rather, your dreams are a reflection of how you see reality. Since we all have different ways of processing and perceiving reality, it should come as no surprise that someone happens to see your dream from a vantage point that naturally invokes fear or concern.
When I was raising money for my first start-up several years ago, someone I deeply respected told me “I love you so much, but there’s no way I’m putting money into your idea until I see some results.” I was crushed by those words, but I couldn’t deny in my heart of hearts that this person truly cared about me. That experience taught me a most valuable lesson: loving someone is not the same thing as seeing the value, reasonableness, or viability of their ideas and convictions. If you want to have any hope of succeeding in the real world, you’ll have to get accustomed to the humbling experience of learning how to 1) sell your ideas to people who don’t get them right away; 2) prove your character and consistency to people who need to see more than mere enthusiasm; 3) motivate yourself to do the right things even when you think others are reacting to you in the wrong way and 4) find ways of relating to people who have different intuitions and impulses without resenting them for not being identical to you. That doesn’t mean you should allow yourself to become an unassertive doormat for other people to walk over with their dissenting opinions. In fact, I’m saying the precise opposite. If you’re really hungry for an unconventional life, you’ll respect the fact that you won’t be able to create the results that matter most to you by relying on the easily obtainable praise afforded to those who follow conventional paths. If you want easy support, you can always go do easy things. If you want to do really creative things, however, then a huge part of what you’re going to have to create is a mindset and a skillset that’s capable of turning unbelievers into believers.
In 7 Things to Remember When People Don’t Support You, Alden Tan seconds Berkun’s advice to not take it personally when others fail to express excitement about our plans and pursuits:
People who don’t support you and discourage you may not actually be bad people who intentionally want to destroy your dreams. Sometimes, they just don’t understand why you do what you do, so they voice out their concerns, which may make them seem dissenting. I personally try not to take it to heart when people discourage me. I see it as they need a little education and explanation.
Treat your family and friends as if they’re investors. In this case, though, I’m not talking about investors of financial capital, but investors of emotional, mental, and social capital. When you approach an investor with your pitch, what do you do if they’re not impressed? What do you do if they think your idea is crazy? Do you give up on your dream? Do you storm out of the room with an “investors just don’t understand” attitude? Not if you care about your idea enough to succeed. When these things happen, you begin by acknowledging a simple fact that all successful entrepreneurs and artists eventually come to understand: your concerns and risks are very different from the concerns and risks of your investors. Yes, you all want to be happy, but that’s too general and vague. Things get tricky once you start to get specific. Your concern may be to change the music industry, make a cool new movie, or travel the world. Your investor’s concerns may be something like “what are you going to do with all my hard-earned money, what’s my rate of return, when am I going to see it, and what kinds of risk am I assuming here?” Until you can learn how to appreciate the investor’s concern and translate your vision into a language that’s about something more than you getting what you want, you risk becoming just another frustrated person who goes around bemoaning the alleged stupidity of the world while you still fail to get what you need. It’s tough when people don’t get excited about what excites us, but such moments are a great opportunity to grow into the very kinds of people who are truly capable of doing exciting things. When you take people’s reactions too personally, you lose invaluable opportunities to learn.
In Parents and children, Best-selling author Paulo Coelho recounts the experience of his parents placing him in a mental institution three times because they thought his aspirations to be a writer were insane:
- “When I was young, my parents sent me to a mental institution three times (1966, 1967, 1968). The reasons in my medical files are banal. It was said that I was isolated, hostile and miserable at school. I was not crazy but I was rather just a 17-year-old who really wanted to become a writer. Because no one understood this, I was locked up for months and fed with tranquilizers. The therapy merely consisted of giving me electroshocks. I promised to myself that one day I would write about this experience, so young people will understand that we have to fight for our own dreams from a very early stage of our lives.”
Although Coelho clearly proved that his dreams were not insane, what’s most impressive about his story was his persistent refusal to take the concerns of his parents personally:
When I realeased “Veronika decides to die”, a book that was a metaphor of my experience in a lunatic asylum, the press started asking me if I forgave my parents. In fact, I did not need to forgive them, because I never blamed them for what happened. From their own point-of-view, they were trying to help me to get the discipline necessary to accomplish my deeds as an adult, and to forget the “dreams of a teenager.”
Imagine if Coehlo decided to spend all his energy resenting his parents. If anyone deserves to never be spoken to again, it would seem that his parents would make very good candidates. Statements like “I’m not sure about that” or “I’m concerned about the choices you’re making” or “you’re not being reasonable” are a walk through the park in comparison with being placed in a mental institution three times. But Coehlo figured out a way to make the experience work for him. It was a horrible experience, to be clear. Yet, he chose to assimilate key elements of that experience into his creative process. He used it as an opportunity to get better. Just to be clear here, this isn’t about Coehlo getting into heaven when he dies nor is it about how proud Buddha might be of how he handled the situation. This is about Coehlo succeeding at making his dreams happen. Coehlo’s decision to not be sidetracked by resentment opened the way for him to become the writer his parents thought he was crazy for trying to become. Looking at someone as a villain simply because they have a difficult time understanding you is only going to make it more difficult to focus your creative energy in a constructive way. When you refuse to get bitter and defensive about the doubts, fears, or concerns that people have towards your dreams, you anchor yourself in a psychological state that makes it much easier for you to gain their trust, earn their respect, and win their hearts.
As Scott Berkun argues, when you’re looking at skepticism and scrutiny from the right vantage point, you can transform seemingly unsupportive relationships into assets:
Sometimes people need to see how fully committed you are before they’ll see you and your dreams differently. You might need to start working on your dream before anyone else will take your seriously. Talk is just talk, but if you start taking steps towards your dream, reducing your expenses, moving to a more affordable apartment, going back to school, or even quitting your job, it will be harder to dismiss you and your dream.
But don’t see your goal as simply learning to ignore your friends and family. Knowing who your Doubting Thomas is can be an asset. There will be good questions and critical feedback you will need to hear to be successful, but if everyone around you is pathologically supportive you won’t hear those things. You want to have a balance of support, some emotional, some logical, some supportive, some doubting, that combined helps you both emotionally and practically. A wise critic is an asset provided they are not your primary source of encouragement.
If you really want to change the world, do something special, or discover what makes you come alive, do your loved ones a big favor by remembering this the next time they seem to arbitrarily freak out at your ambitions and creative undertakings: It’s not personal. The people in your life are likely just going through the creative challenge of having to rewrite the script for a story they really care about. Someone is probably going to do the same thing to you someday. So be easy on them. Following your dreams doesn’t have to mean waging war with your family and friends.