This is why I won’t tell my future children to follow their dreams
Letting go of aspirations that belong to others, breaking the mold, and feeling at peace with choices at every step
When I found out I had been offered a position in New World Symphony, America’s premier pre-professional orchestra, I was walking on air. It was early spring 2015, and I was in the final weeks of my undergraduate career. I remember heading home from school soon after learning the news, bursting out of the 190th Street A train stop in upper Manhattan, beaming like I had not in years. I was 22, and until that moment I wasn’t satisfied with any of the open paths ahead of me. I’d settled on graduate school in the fall, as many classically-trained musicians pursue right after finishing their bachelors, but I honestly didn’t want to go. When I got the news about the position, just as the long New York winter had finally started to thaw, I felt like I was blooming into who I was supposed to become.
A couple of months later, at my college graduation, my father stood across from me in an elevator and told me how excited he was that I was moving onto this great opportunity to refine my skills. He didn’t explicitly say that he was proud of me, but I could hear it in his voice. Why wouldn’t he be proud? My parents had always been incredibly supportive of me and my music career, and my life was taking off.
At the time, my life was a storybook in the eyes of other people, and it even felt that way to me sometimes. I ran around New York to see concerts at Carnegie Hall or operas at the Met. I attended magical chamber music and orchestra rehearsals with very talented friends. I took lunchtime walks in Central Park between my comically difficult ear training and music theory classes. And I was about to start making money to play orchestral music full-time. When I see the memories before me, it’s like a montage from someone else’s life.
As magical as my life had become in New York, when I saw how my dad was reacting to my success, I felt guilty. It was extremely validating to be successful and have that recognized, but I knew, in a deep part of myself, that this life, one that anyone might call a dream coming true, wasn’t really my dream.
From the time I was 7 years old, all kinds of adults had expressed admiration for my musical talent. It was the only thing that most people seemed to know about me. I bought into the story they told — “Zach is going to go to some great music school and then become one of the most successful clarinetists ever.”
Of course, it was never on anyone else to decide what I should do with my life. But I wonder if it should have been on me, a child, to deliberately not adopt the aspirations that adults had for me. I’m grateful that all of these adults had supported me, but they had no awareness of the psychological environment around success that they were reinforcing for me and that would live with me for decades, even after the dream of a blissful life as a musician didn’t pan out for me.
I’m not sure if I’ll ever have children of my own, but I do have a young niece. For my niece, and my potential future children, I think about this a lot: What is the message I would want to share with them about their future?
The reason I say that I would never tell my child to “follow your dreams” is because it completely disrupts the organic discovery of the kind of balance one wants in life. Truthfully, none of us should need to worry about whether we’re following our dreams. We shouldn’t have to waste the energy wondering, What is a dream? How do I find mine? What if I miss it? It leads us to believe that satisfaction or fulfillment is achieved by setting a massive goal and seeing it through, and we build our lives around that. It makes our purpose tied to an outcome, one that in many cases is beyond our control, or something that we find we never wanted when looking back on it.
My musical talents as a kid led people to believe that my dream must be to become a professional musician. To them, I didn’t need to invest any more time or thought into exploring my interests and values. As I got further into my 20s, fully pursuing a professional career in music, I became acutely aware of just how much my aspirations were built on the aspirations of others. I was forcing myself to fit into the right box to make a living as a musician, which gave me a warped sense of what it meant to be a worthy and successful human, something that I’m still trying to iron out.
I would not want to take away my child’s ability to figure out what it means to live a good life; I would want to encourage them to think for themselves. I would want to help them understand that what’s most important is that they feel at peace with their choices at every step, and that it’s okay to question the notion of pursuing something just because they’re good at it. Maybe I wouldn’t encourage them to follow a dream, but to build a dream.
Zach Manzi is a speaker, coach, and eternal band geek who has spent the last decade motivating people and organizations to redefine the way they see themselves and their place in the world.
An alum of Juilliard and New World Symphony, and a former Knight Foundation fellow, Zach coaches musicians who are transitioning into new careers and is currently producing a podcast called Over It, which tells the stirring stories of people closing chapters of their lives and moving on, to be released in 2023.
Zach is based in Austin but makes just about any excuse to travel ✈️