You may remember Erica Williams Simon as the host of MR’s recently concluded podcast The Call, but over the past year she’s been busy working on something new: a books that’s a memoir, self-help hybrid called You Deserve the Truth, out last week. As a cultural critic, media commentator and former political strategist, Erica has an interesting perspective on this current moment in history — made all the more pointed by her own experience with quitting her job at the height of commercial success. Read an excerpt from her book below, in which she pulls apart modern society’s at-times toxic relationship with dreaming — along with her own dream of becoming Oprah. -Haley Nahman
It’s hard to pinpoint the exact origin of the “follow your dreams” story, as dreams are a vital component of spiritual practices all around the world and have been since ancient times. But America has a very specific way of separating them from any spiritual con- text and making them solely about accomplishment, achievement, acquisition, and ambition. This secular framing makes sense when you think about the foundation of the American Experiment itself. In his Time magazine piece “The American Dream: A Biography,” writer Jon Meacham wrote, “Dreams of God and gold made America possible.” The settlers were running from religious persecution and seeking a place with untapped riches and wealth as their refuge. In essence, our country was built on dreams. Sure, those dreams also involved wholesale theft of land, the massacre of a people, and slavery, but yes, it was all in pursuit of a dream.
So the “follow your dreams” story is taught to us from an early age. Some of us hear it from loving, supportive parents. Others may hear it from encouraging, well-meaning teachers or other adults telling us that the sky is the limit and that “if you dream it, you can achieve it.” And even if you didn’t get that kind of direct, personal encouragement—not everyone grew up in supportive, nurturing environments—you certainly heard it from the greatest life coach of all: popular culture. It’s the number one piece of advice given by celebrities, the kind of simple story that makes us feel good and believe that dreaming big dreams and doggedly pursuing them is all that success and happiness require.
I can still hear the melody to Disney’s Cinderella in my head:
Have faith in your dreams and someday
Your rainbow will come smiling through
Or what about the iconic opening line of Notorious B.I.G.’s “Juicy”… “It was all a dream!” B.I.G. goes on to express joy at having realized his childhood dream of being a rapper. In his new life, he could see the dream that he had achieved in his possessions: condos, diamonds, cars, women, and enough money to take care of those he loved.
Hip-hop often gets erroneously blamed for introducing materialism to the mainstream, but the reality is, in America, dreams have long been just as much about a lifestyle as about accomplishment. Our dreams aren’t just supposed to be about who we want to be. They are often about what we want to have and what we want our life to look like when we become that person. In America, we are our dreams, and in many cases, depending on our background, they are all we have. As the “Juicy” chorus says,
You know very well, who you are,
don’t let them hold you down, reach for the stars.
The basic premise of the American Dream is that “the dream,” whether it be independence or material prosperity, is equally accessible to anyone. (Regardless of how untrue that has been and continues to be for large swaths of the population.) The idea was baked right into the Declaration of Independence: The pursuit of happiness is a noble one. What could make us happier than achieving our wildest dreams? If you think about it, this was the nation’s first strategic marketing campaign: Let’s build a society upon the notion of the accessibility of dreams, and we’ll attract lots of folks who are looking for a better life. I can see the brochure now…
And the marketing worked. We have been taught that the American legacy of achievement and innovation starts with the prototype of the intrepid dreamer. From Walt Disney—a man who darn near got high off of the idea of dreams—to modern-day icons like Steve Jobs and, my personal favorite, Diddy, dreams are manna from heaven that are 100 percent attainable with dogged pursuit. In this story, it is our dreams that lead us to new life.
Whether there are aspects of the American Dream story that you find helpful or not, it is clear that to believe this narrative as gospel means that you have taken what began as a great marketing strategy and turned it into a life philosophy.
Just how far has this idea gone? Well, look no further than the bestselling book The Secret. It exploded on the scene over a decade ago, and to borrow a line from Drake, after that, “nothing was the same.” An updated version of its predecessor, The Law of Attraction, The Secret spawned an entire cottage industry of books, conferences, motivational speakers, and YouTube experts who all believe in and teach “the art of manifesting.”
The premise of manifesting is that if you focus on your desires long and hard enough, eliminating all the negative energy that might block them, they absolutely, without a doubt, 100 percent will come true. In this school of thought, following your dreams is a real, metaphysical law. The imprint of that story is visible everywhere, from coffee mugs to televangelism to Instagram. Just Google “celebrities and the law of attraction.”
Unfortunately, not much of the American culture of having and following big dreams explores the merit of the dreams themselves— whether or not they are right for you and whether or not a single-minded focus on them will actually yield a fulfilling life. By not questioning dreams and issuing a blanket mandate about the importance of following them, the broader cultural story brushes over an important truth: that most dreams that you have actually came from somewhere else, something outside of you. What you think you want, what you think you desire, is largely shaped by the stories you’ve consumed about what a desirable life looks like. Your dreams are shaped by external narratives around success, money, accomplishment, love, and the like. That doesn’t make them wrong, but it also doesn’t make them right.
And as cultures change, so do their dreams. In a culture that equates size with power, we dream of big things. In a society that treats wealth as a virtue, our dreams involve material wealth. In a society where ownership is prized, our dreams are about homes and land. In a society where fame is a drug, we dream of celebrity as success. And because the American idea of dreams is so disconnected from spirituality, many of the dreams that we hold up as guides are interpreted as organic goals that erupted from somewhere deep inside of us.
This message is pushed down our throats at every turn. In every commencement speech from kindergarten to college, we are told to chase our dreams, keep them in sight, and never let them die. We wonder, like Langston Hughes, about what happens to a dream deferred, and in order to avoid discovering the answer, those of us with ambition use our dreams as the guiding force in our lives. We are, of course, not the first generation to have dreams, but we are a generation in which the idea has become both central and essential. Thanks to ever-present voices of motivation and inspiration in our worlds— online and off—we rap about dreams, tattoo quotes about them on our rib cages, and glue three dozen pictures of them to vision boards. They are the answer when life gets hard, and the thing we hold on to for hope, even in the face of a stark reality.
We’re not supposed to have just any dreams: We’re supposed to always shoot for the big ones. We’ve been taught that dreaming big is the key to success, that the answer to figuring out what we should be striving to achieve can be found in these mythical, magical dreams, and that if we visualize and fixate on them long and hard enough, they will guide us in the right direction and, ultimately, come true.
Thanks to my newfound commitment to examine every story, looking at the walls in my crooked room and questioning them— in this case, my own personal dreams of success, wealth, and Oprahdom—I had to admit that my relationship to these fantasies had become a bit more complicated. I still held on tight to them, still posted memes about them, but deep down, I had started to wonder if my obsession with them was…well…helpful.
Fantasizing about a specific job, a specific house, a specific dollar amount in my bank account, specific vacations, specific accolades, and specific experiences had started to feel not only cliché but, ironically, a bit limiting. Sure they were big, but by believing in them so much, by using them as the single focus of all my hope, was I leaving room for any other possible future? And if I started to question them, did that just make me cynical? Was it a defeatist mind-set? Or was my doubt just proof that I didn’t believe in myself enough to make my dreams come true? These are the questions you’re not supposed to pose in public, lest you sound small-minded and uninspired, but the truth is, I’d started to question my dreams and the role they played in my life.
If I was going to orient my new life around following and actualizing my wildest dreams, whatever they might be, I needed to make sure that my dreams were actually serving me. I needed to soberly evaluate whether or not the pursuit of my dreams was the best use of my time and energy.
Was this big story about following my dreams actually serving me?
*excerpt has been edited for length
Feature photo by Jabari Jacobs.