10/07/2013 05:31 EDT | Updated 01/23/2014 06:58 EST

When "Living the Dream" Becomes a Nightmare

"No, I'll never pack it in. That would mean I gave up. You've gotta live the dream, right?"

The man across from me was on his way to extremely drunk. We'd just met at a mutual friend's party, and in his slurred speech he was determined to convince me (or himself) that leaving Los Angeles would be a huge mistake.

I'd gathered from our five-minute conversation that Cary barely kept up with the Joneses, supporting his wife and young son with income from occasional film-editing jobs. He looked about 40 years old, attractive, well-dressed, sporting very expensive-looking designer eyeglasses. I tasted the bitterness that coated his words, felt the chill of his failure seep into my bones. He had moved his family to Los Angeles in order to make it big in the movie biz. Around him, he saw people climbing the ladder of success, but he could not budge.

Dreams and vision can change the world. Where would we be without them? Artists of all kinds encourage us to open our minds and hearts. Entrepreneurs start companies that provide jobs, offer purchasing alternatives, promote environmentalism, and evolve industries. Inventors live hand-to-mouth working on products that may not ever make it to market. Scientists race to find new medications that will treat or even cure conditions that used to be hopeless.

Cary is not out to change the world, he simply wants opportunity and recognition in a field for which he has great passion. At some point, chasing his dream became less exciting and more frustrating. Chasing his dream began to erode at his happiness and sense of well-being. At what point, then, should he give up on that dream? I wondered if this man has exceptional talent, and if so, whether he possesses enough other qualities to climb over the thousands of other talented, movie-making wannabe's that arrive in L.A. every day.

Some people do make it big. How sad it would be if he packed it in, only to see in a cosmic, post-facto magic ball that he would have succeeded had he only stuck it out another month or another year?

When it's just you, you go for it. You're young and your needs are simple. Things get more complicated if you find a partner or spouse, and even more so if children arrive on the scene. Your spouse had faith in you, but 20 years later, is he or she still willing or able to foot the bill? If she insists that you choose a more easily attainable goal, are you willing to compromise, or would you give up on your relationship before your dream? Can a healthy relationship or even a growing family become satisfying enough that you allow the old dream to fade away?

At that same party, I spoke with a man passionate about theatre. After college, Blake moved to New York City, as many do, to chase a dream of bright lights and curtain-calls. He met a lovely woman there and married her, and they decided to start a family. He got a "regular" job for a while, because it paid the bills, and then eventually became a stay-at-home father so that his wife could accept a promotion involving extensive travel.

Granted, Blake is cut from different cloth than Cary. Blake does not express regret at leaving the stage; he simply traded in that experience for an equally fulfilling long-term goal. His family is stable and happy. He feels a sense of purpose and peace, even though he meets very few men at the library story-hour. If Blake were in Cary's shoes, I imagine he would apply to teach at film schools. He would not see his love for film as an all-or-nothing proposition, and he would certainly not perform inebriated soliloquies to strangers at cocktail parties.

The outside world may look at Cary and see a slick, handsome go-getter. They may look at Blake and see a wimp whose wife makes all of the money. Do you know what I see? In Cary, I see ego. I see fear, stress, and a future of unhappiness. In Blake, I see bravery to do something untraditional. I see compromise, humility, and a life full of love and joy.

"You've gotta live the dream"? What dream? Says who?