As a teenager, I had big dreams of becoming a successful musician. I was ambitious (or delusional) as hell. I fully believed that if I worked hard enough, I'd end up in a place where Radiohead would open for me. Thom Yorke would high-five me before I went on stage, and maybe even teach me some dance moves if there was enough time.
My relentless effort is what made this irrational dream feel possible. I was a doer. My work ethic matched my ambition, and you couldn't stop me if you tried.
I would write new songs every single day. I would practice constantly. I would think about art direction and stage-lighting for imaginary tours. I would lay awake at night dreaming of new ways to express myself through the music. To do something that no one had ever seen or heard before.
It was my obsession and I couldn't even pretend to hide it.
Unfortunately, I started to notice that other teenagers around me didn't seem to share my enthusiasm for some irrational dream of their own. In fact, I couldn't really tell if they had any big dreams for their life at all.
Instead, I was greeted by an unfriendly force of nature. A cloud that swept its shadows as far as the eye could see. A feeling that still makes me uncomfortable to this day.
I call this force The Shield of Irony.
The Shield Of Irony
The Shield of Irony is a stupid-sounding name, but it’s the best way to illustrate the behavior I've watched develop through the internet age of my life. Here's a quick definition;
The Shield of Irony - The use of irony or humor to hide, or conceal one's true desires out of fear of being exposed or embarrassed.
I started noticing the "shield" when I would try and connect with others about their dreams. More times than not, it would quickly dissolve into cheap jokes or passive responses that left me feeling stupid for asking. I remember an interaction with a peer that went something like this:
Me: "What do you want to do after we graduate?"
Them: "Um go to college...?!? What do YOU want to do after we graduate?"
Me: "I want to make music."
Them: "Wait, you think you can just become some rockstar? HAHA Hey, guys, Alex is trying to be the next Coldplay LOL."
I was never offended by these jokes. In fact, I used them as fuel to keep pushing along. Honestly, I was more offended that other people were putting so little into chasing their own destiny.
After enough of these conversations, my resentment of “the shield” grew deeper and deeper. I quietly continued my pursuits and shared the journey with fewer people.
Fast-forward about 10 years
You'll be shocked to hear that Radiohead never opened for me. I never got the dance lessons or high-fives from Thom. Never hit the Billboard charts. So no, I didn't check every box I had for my music career, but I did do a lot more than most of my high-school peers ever expected me to.
I was able to tour the country a few times. I had a song used in a Super Bowl ad. I made a living from my music by the time I was 25. My work led me to podcasting where I've been fortunate enough to build a successful career that I love. I never got a college degree and had no formal training. I can't even read music.
How was I able to do this? Upon years of reflection, the answer is clear.
I never stopped taking my dreams seriously.
The Problem With "Don't take yourself so seriously"
Growing up with the internet has damaged our ability to take ourselves seriously in many real aspects of life. Everything is funny to someone. Anything can be ironic. Life is a meme.
The term "don't take yourself so seriously" has made it feel risky or selfish to pursue something ambitious. If you dare to dream big, you will appear self-obsessed or no-fun to those holding their Shield of Irony. And they're not shy in letting you know about it.
The scary thing is, those holding the shield will never pursue their vision because of the fear of being exposed. They're afraid to take themselves seriously, so they cover up by throwing humor at those that do.
But here is the ugly truth: If you never take yourself seriously, no one else will either.
Being Serious Isn't The Problem
Taking yourself seriously isn't the problem. Lack of self-awareness is. We’ve talked about this before.
If you are unable to take a joke or acknowledge your shortcomings, you probably have some insecurity to work through. We all know "that guy" who can't laugh at themselves or acknowledge their own weird traits. Not a fun hang. Don't be that guy.
The good news is, you can laugh at yourself (maintain some self-awareness) and keep working toward reaching your dreams. Life isn't all serious and it’s also not all jokes. If you are self-aware, you can smile at your idiosyncrasies while still staying on the path of achieving your goals.
Life is short. Don't spend it shielding yourself with irony.