Current Issue
This Month's Print Issue

Follow Fast Company

We’ll come to you.

4 minute read

Innovation Agents

4 Habits of People Who Follow Their Dreams

Inspiration from famous people who followed their childhood dreams and the habits that kept them going.

[Photo: Flickr user loomingy1]

As kids we all had dreams. Some of us wanted to be firefighters while others planned to become teachers, veterinarians, or even President. I wanted to be Nancy Drew. Along the way, however, most dreams get derailed. It could be because we form new dreams or outgrow the idea. Often it’s because we’re told that our dreams aren’t realistic.

Yet some of us follow those childhood dreams no matter what. They ignore the naysayers. They don’t take "no" for an answer. And they do what it takes to make it work. Here are four famous people who followed the calling they had as a child and the habits they had that kept them going.

1. They Don’t Take Rejection Personally — Stephen King

Stephen King’s dream of becoming a writer started as an adolescent, and by the time he was 14 he had received so many rejection letters from short-story publishers that the nail he used to hang them on the wall would no longer support their weight.

"I replaced the nail with a spike and kept on writing," he said in his memoir On Writing.

King didn’t sell a short story until he turned 19; "The Glass Floor" earned him $35. And his best-selling book Carrie received 30 rejections before it sold to Doubleday Publishing for a $2,500 advance. Today, King’s books have sold more than 350 million copies, and it’s because he didn’t take rejection personally.

Social scientist Brian Martin of the University of Wollongong in Australia says the key is distinguishing the writing from yourself. "The paper is my work, not me," he writes in an article called "Learning to Love Rejection" for Inside Higher Ed. "If it is rejected, I don’t consider this a personal failing. In playing a game of tennis, it would be silly to give up after losing a point or even a match. The key is to keep practicing and keep playing."

2. They Make Their Own Opportunities — Steven Spielberg

Steven Spielberg dreamed of making films since he borrowed his dad’s 8mm camera at the age of 12. He applied to the University of Southern California School of Theater, Film and Television three times and was denied each time. While taking a tour of Universal Studios during summer break after high school, he got off the bus and spent the day on the lot. Enjoying the experience so much, he came back the next day, confidently walking through the gates while waving at the guard.

"For the entire summer, I dressed in my suit and hung out with the directors and writers," Spielberg told Reader’s Digest in 2005. "I even found an office that wasn’t being used, and became a squatter. I bought some plastic tiles and put my name in the building directory: Steven Spielberg, Room 23C."

Eventually, Spielberg’s persistence paid off. After showing executives a film he made, he was offered a job as director on the television series Night Gallery and Columbo. He would go on to direct two of the top-10 highest-grossing movies.

"Persistence is not about hitting your head against a brick wall when there is no chance of breaking through," Martin writes. "It is about developing a capacity to judge your own work, making a considered judgment about what to do next, and then actually doing it."

3. They Find An Advocate — Pro Skateboarder Tony Hawk

When Tony Hawk was starting his career as a skateboarder as a teenager, he was met with harsh reviews. "I’d be written up in magazines, like: ‘He’s just a joke. He does circus tricks.’" he told Men’s Journal earlier this year.

But his coach believed in him and would say, ‘Don’t listen to the haters.’ Based on that vote of confidence, Hawk kept perfecting tricks. When he started receiving big endorsement deals, people called him a sellout. "I just stopped listening to that noise, because it didn’t affect who I was," he said.

A recent study by researchers at Ohio State University found that students often need an external boost of confidence to pursue their dreams. "Sometimes students have the grades, the motivation, and the ability but simply lack the necessary self-confidence to wholeheartedly invest in the pursuit of a realistic new goal," said Patrick Carroll, assistant professor of psychology and author of the OSU study. "This work shows how parents, teachers, and counselors can steer students into the right direction to achieve their dreams."

4. They Use Naysayers To Fuel Their Drive — Novelist Amy Tan

Before Amy Tan found success as a novelist, she operated a technical-writing business with a partner. Her role was in account management, but she wanted to do more writing. Unfortunately, her partner had other ideas; he believed she should give up writing to concentrate on the management side of the business.

Tan stood up for herself and quit, and her partner predicted she’d never make a dime as a writer. Fueled by a desire to prove him wrong, Tan took any assignment she could find, working 90-hour weeks as a freelance technical writer. Her business was so successful she was able to buy her mother a house. Eventually she tried her hand at her true love, fiction, and penned the New York Times’ best seller The Joy Luck Club.

Researchers have found that negative feedback can be a bigger motivator when a person’s level of commitment to a goal is high. While novices may seek and respond to positive feedback, someone more experienced and committed will use negative comments to stay on track and overcome distractions, says behavioral science professor Ayelet Fishbach in her study "How Positive and Negative Feedback Motivate Goal Pursuit" for the University of Chicago. "Negative feedback on lack of successes signals that more effort is needed and encourages goal pursuit," she writes.

loading