Do you remember when you were a kid and your parents gave you that lecture? You know the one, where they tell you that your current flight of fancy, be it the guitar or stand-up comedy or dancing, isn’t going to pay the bills and you should suck it up, get an education, and prepare yourself for the real world.
I never got that lecture. When I was a kid, I daydreamed about computer software and tinkered with electronics and dabbled in online electronic communities. All of those dalliances would pay the bills, more than adequately in fact.
Of course, I also dreamed of faraway lands where everyone had magic and wars were fought over amazing, rich kingdoms and even further lands on distant planets with strange creatures and incredible technology. I dreamed those things and I wanted to write about them. I did, I won a few awards, but I never entertained the idea of “being a writer”.
Saying that you were a “writer” had the same kind of connotation as being “in a band” or wanting to be “an actor”. It was one of those things that was fun to dream about but nobody in my small circle of family and friends ever thought anything more than an amusing hobby would come of it.
So here I sit, typing this about a year after I decided to be true to myself and be a writer rather than just some programmer who dabbles in writing. It was fairly easy to do then, I just simply decided that I was going to write and then followed that up by not writing nearly enough.
Today, I am faced with a dilemma that, were it in a story in the hands of a skilled writer, would be a gripping read, filled with drama and turmoil and conflict. I feel as though I am standing at the fork in the road in Robert Frost’s poem:
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.
Down one fork leads an easy, paved and well-lit path from where I am now to more wealth, recognition, and prestige. I would get to work on some exciting technical projects that have a chance at paying off handsomely, and even if they don’t pay off, I haven’t lost anything.
Down the other fork is a dark path, the cobblestones giving way to pebbles giving way to dirt, winding into the darkness of the unknown. Down this path, I have a chance at fulfilling my dream of being a writer, but there is a statistically tiny chance of success. Barely any writers actually become successful. There is a chance that my efforts in writing all of the stories in my head will be in vain, a chance that everyone will hate my work, a chance that it will all be for nothing. There is also a chance that I will be happy and content and that I will be a writer.
I am faced with a decision to go down the safe, secure, road lined with potential riches and prestige doing something relatively unfulfilling or deciding to go down the unsafe, unmarked, dark road and risk utter failure to do something that makes me happy.
I’m not talking about quitting my day job. I’m talking about where I spend what Clay Shirky calls my cognitive surplus. I can spend it, as mentioned above, taking the easy road to more money or down the dark, unknown path.
How does one turn down the chance at easy money, the mathematical certainty that through mere application of effort over time one will simply make money, rise in position, and advance one’s career, and instead turn away from that certainty and instead take the risk that there will be no success, no stellar career, no fame, no fortune, nothing but the certainty that you’re writing the stories that make you happy.
The answer is simple: you just do, you do the thing that makes you happy because when you are happy, those you love are happy, and they will be happy whether you’ve made a fortune selling a company or whether you’re eating Top Ramen and baked potatoes while you flash a toothy grin as you finish another novel.