How to Chase Your Dreams and Reinvent Yourself

In 1965, a young man named Tom graduated from college with a degree in English.

Soon after, Tom took a job with an insurance company in Connecticut. After working there for seven years, he transitioned to a new role in the industry and started working for an insurance agency. He worked at that insurance agency for the next eight years.

In 1980, he decided to buy a small insurance agency. At this point Tom had been working in the insurance industry for 15 years, but he was beginning to feel an internal pull to do work that really excited him. He had always wanted to write a novel.

He started by writing in his spare time. Then, he started cutting his work day short so that he would have more time to write. Eventually, he was working on the novel whenever he could find time.

His wife, Wanda, recalled Tom’s early writing years by saying, “He was writing at home every weekend. I told him he should go back to selling insurance.”

In 1984, after working for almost 20 years in the insurance industry, Tom Clancy finally published his first book, The Hunt for Red October.

He was hoping to sell 5,000 copies. By the end of the decade it had sold more than 2 million.

It’s Never Too Late to Reinvent Yourself

Unfortunately, Tom Clancy passed away earlier this month.

He was one of the most successful authors of his generation. Focusing primarily on military story lines, Clancy wrote 17 novels that became #1 New York Times best-sellers. In total, his books sold more than 100 million copies. Many of them, including The Hunt for Red October, Patriot Games, and The Sum of All Fears were turned into major motion pictures. Others became the basis for popular video games like Rainbow Six, Ghost Recon, and Splinter Cell. For millions of readers, Tom Clancy is a household name.

But even with all of those amazing achievements, what I found most amazing about Clancy was his willingness to reinvent himself.

We all have goals that we say are important to us — getting in shape, building a business, writing a book, and so on — but for most of us, the inertia of life holds us back. This is especially true when we’re living a relatively comfortable life. Most people in Tom Clancy’s situation would probably continue their insurance career rather than chase the dream of becoming a novelist.

It’s easy to look at someone with the success of Tom Clancy and claim that he was destined for success. 100 million copies sold? He must have been born to be a writer. But if you were to look at him at any point during the first 20 years of his career, you wouldn’t have seen a writer at all.

And that raises an interesting question…

What made the biggest difference in Clancy’s life? Was it his level of talent? Or was it his willingness to make choices and take action?

There are plenty of talented people who never make a choice to do something different, to reinvent themselves, and to pursue their dreams. It’s hard to work up the guts to try something new. Nobody wants to feel stupid and start from the beginning all over again.

But talent isn’t worth a thing without the willingness to take action. It’s great to have a dream, but it’s better to pursue it.

How many Tom Clancys are out there right now, holding their dreams inside and letting the inertia of life pull them in the same direction they’ve always gone?

Tom Clancy’s Advice for Writing (And Life)

You learn to write the same way you learn to play golf. You do it, and keep doing it until you get it right. A lot of people think something mystical happens to you, that maybe the muse kisses you on the ear. But writing isn’t divinely inspired — it’s hard work.
—Tom Clancy (source)

There’s nothing special that happens to the people who choose to reinvent themselves and chase their dreams. It’s not any easier for them than it is for you. It’s just that at some point, they choose to do the work. They choose to take action. And they choose themselves.

Reinventing yourself and developing a new skill is hard work. Going from out of shape to the best shape of your life is hard work. Transitioning from corporate desk jockey to proud entrepreneur is hard work. Moving from life-long insurance salesman to best-selling novelist is hard work. And so is pretty much every other goal worth fighting for.

As Clancy says, there’s nothing “mystical” about it. You won’t feel “divinely inspired.” The first steps toward any dream are slow, unsexy, and inconvenient — sort of like writing a novel on the weekends while you’re still running a small insurance agency.

And to further complicate things, reinventing yourself is particularly hard because nobody is going to praise you for it — especially in the beginning. Tom Clancy’s wife told him to “go back to selling insurance.”

The good news is that the path to doing work you love might not look the way you expected, but it can still get you to where you want to go — if you make the choice to try something new.

It’s never too late to reinvent yourself.

References
1. Special shout out to Julio, the awesome reader who originally sent me the Tom Clancy quote.

53 Comments

  1. This is soooo good! What an inspirational story.

    But James, I disagree that the first steps are unsexy — willingness to try AND taking action are the sexiest things of all. :)

  2. Awesome post, James. I love inspirational stories like this. How old was Tom, anybody know?

    Love the golf analogy as well, same goes for lifting.

    Thanks again.

      • What if you have been looking and trying different things for years but still are not near a place that you are doing what you love? How long does someone bounce around just existing?

        • I’ve been bouncing for about 5 years now, still not assured about my current job.

          What about you?

  3. Well said. Bottom line is that it takes courage to re-invent oneself and don’t expect to have a cheering squad, hence even more courage is required. In the end, if there is the desire followed by courage and effort, there will be no regrets — a happy ending indeed. Thank you for the post James. :)

  4. This was really encouraging. I’m currently in the midst of reinventing myself, and it’s tough. I’ve started referring to my internal reactions as the “Stress of Personal Transformation.” If you’re looking for a way to draw out your fears and limiting beliefs for an all-out assault on your endeavors, then there’s nothing quite like it.

  5. Thank You James. Your articles always re-energize me and fill me with extra confidence and positivism to conquer my dreams! :)

  6. Loved this article so much especially because that is what I am trying to do now. Love how you always manage to relate to the stuff I have in my mind. I also love that you give examples of famous faces which make the article more incredible. Keep up the good work. You are doing an awesome job.

  7. What a fabulous post, and very timely. I’ve had to reinvent myself several times and heading into that space again at the moment. Sometimes you do it because you want to or because you have to, but either way, no matter how challenging it is, it’s a good thing as long as you commit 100% and throw yourself into it! Thanks again.

  8. What an excellent article! I just told my husband yesterday that someday I’m going to be a famous author. If I’m determined as much as people like Tom Clancy (and other authors), I really think I can do it!

  9. Thanks James. A little serendipitous … I just signed up for your posts last week and as I’m struggling this week with ideas of reinventing myself, silently contemplating a career change, going back to school, or quitting my job, and as I’ve thrown myself into new learning experiences recently and completely shaken my sense of competency…I see this in my inbox and feel just a little less crazy today. Thank you!

  10. That is very inspiring. I was beyond frustrated with trying to make my way. Felt like no matter what I did it was “wrong.” Taking control of your own destiny is key. I chose Marilyn Monroe. That’s how I want to be remembered.

  11. Hi James and all,

    I would like to think that potentially, we are all the “cheering squad, Suppinder. That when another in our sphere of influence is attempting/endeavoring to do, say, be different, to expand their horizons, we are there for them.

    Here we are in this little growing community sharing, urging, uplifting one another by our caring to participate. We are seeking. We are finding.

    It’s so true, James. I had been dreaming most of my life to publish a book of my poetry. Writing, editing, refining, rewriting. Feeling at some points, it was nonsense, and at others brilliance.

    I finally did last November. I am working on five others. Three of them are pretty much done except for the art work. They are in the process of refinement and what I call “tweaking” the text. Takes what it takes to be inspired and diligent.

    But I do know this: it doesn’t get done if you don’t do it. Thanks for your brilliance, James.

    Joan

  12. I see a lot of your transition to writing experience in Tom Clancy’s story. It shows in your connection to the idea of reinvention and trying something new. Thanks for the article James!

    JK3

  13. Sometimes the hardest thing of all is to reinvent oneself.

    As a single person, it seems every ten years I am called (from within myself) to take inventory and reinvent myself.

    This time my dreams are so much bigger, and facing my fears to create a new direction becomes a bit scarier because as I grow older, I hear the siren calls of the outside world begging me to choose security.

    Thank you for this article. It has come to me at a moment in time where I am gathering my energy to harness it into something new. It is brutal work. It is down in the trenches work. It is the work that takes place after daring to dream that beautiful, intoxicating dream. It is the moment when action is required and fear is a companion. And in this moment, despite all crazy ramblings of the mind, it is more compelling to step out into the unknown, against everything that has past and all the well-meaning family and friends and supporters who think they understand but really don’t … and make this one step all alone. And it is remembering, at this moment when it feels so huge, that it is only one step. One step … and that is all. Just one step at a time.

  14. Throughout my whole life, I have always been fascinated by surgery, I used to watch those surgical shows and read books about anatomy. I never found any of it gory or unsettling (although my mother thought I was very odd). I left school, got a job in retail and worked various jobs until one day I turned 35 and I thought: “This is it, if I don’t do something now, I never will.” So as a single mother of 3 small children I went to university to study to become a nurse, I worked night shift as a nurse aide to pay my way and it took me five years to finish a three degree BUT… I am now a full-time OR nurse working in neurosurgery. Everyday I get to see surgeries on spines and brains and it never gets old. I truly love my job.

    You’re right, working nights, attending lectures and study groups by day and taking care of my kids wasn’t sexy or convenient. It also was scary and strange starting a new career at 40, but it has been worth it.

    Sometimes you just have to be brave enough to stand up for your own dreams.

    • I salute you! You made a Brave decision and you have inspired me. I am really proud to read your story. Finally you have made it! Congrats! Its now my time to chase my dreams!

  15. I only recently quit my day job to write a book. :) And it really is funny how long you can stay afraid in your little comfortable world. But as soon as you start being completely honest with yourself, you know nothing else is as real as going after your dreams. ;)

  16. Very inspirational! So interesting to know the hard work Clancy put in before he experienced any sort of success. Thanks.

  17. Your post is the first thing I’m reading this morning at 6am from Chinon, France and I’m deeply moved and inspired, James.

    I love how you speak of, chasing your dreams and your own personal willingness to try!

    Four years ago I reinvented myself after suddenly loosing my job. I took the opportunity, and that’s just how I saw it, as an opportunity, with all the doubt, fear and pain I felt, to run head on into my dreams.

    I have a force inside of me, call it drive to succeed or discover — a force to create my destiny; to build and live in my dreams. And, I’m so happy to say –I’m doing just that.

    For me the chase you so passionately express is a daily fire inside of me. Often when I go to bed I can’t wait to wake and begin to chase and fulfill again my dreams.

    I’m now a Life/Career and Change Coach. I help people to live the very best life the can image; to live the dreams they wish for, aspire to… hunger and ACHE for!

    I agree with 100% — It’s never too late to go after your dreams.

    Thank you for using your life and the life of Tom Clancy to inspire others to CHASE down their dreams… to reinvent, rebuild, re-NEW their lives.

    My very best and looking forward to much more logical fire from you.

  18. Going through a starting over period in my life so this was very timely. Choosing to make change can be challenging, but if the expected reward is sweet enough… let’s just say I’ll be keeping my eye on the prize for the next 6-9 months.

  19. LOVED this! I always wanted to compete in a Figure Competition. At 45 years old, I took a chance and did it. I actually won some shows and qualified for the Arnold Classic. This post spoke to me (they all do really, but this one in particular) because it hits the nail on the head. Awesome post James!

  20. Excellent post, James!

    Makes me think of a quote by Dr. Martin Luther King, “Faith is taking the first step even when you don’t see the whole staircase.”

    Here’s hoping we all find the courage to take that first step.

  21. James, as always, great post. I especially like the reminder that you have to “do the work” and you have to “choose yourself”. As a HS teacher, too often I see young people who are killing time, not doing the work, not choosing themselves. Still trying to figure out how to light a fire under their feet to make them understand how important these 4 (or in some cases 5 or 6 years) are for their happiness and success for the next 10-15 years. They’ll figure it out eventually, but I hope it’s not too late.

  22. James,

    This is a great post. You have been spot on with many things lately. I feel a lot of people have the same thoughts run through their heads on a daily basis, but you actually DO and put those thoughts into words.

    Thank you!

  23. I struggle with “I’m nobody from nowhere” as I contemplate finding my true self at the age of 62. I struggle with ‘how is it possible that I haven’t taken action by now’ and at this ‘stage of the game’. I struggles with social norms that condition friends and social contacts my age to look at retirement and not at starting over or again. I love getting your newsletter. I print out words from your pieces and tape them on my computer monitor at work. I’m not where I belong and don’t know where that place actually is but I feel that I’m moving in that true direction…and I thank you for your help James!

    • Hi Deborah,

      May I share something with you?

      “If you believe you are nothing, then you are attached to what you think you are not. If you believe you are something, then you are attached to what you think you are. It is only when you know you are everything, that you can finally let go and just be you.” ~ Daniel Jacobs ~

      I found this a number of years ago, and it is worth studying and committing to memory because we are everything… Lightness and Darkness, sad and happy, failures and successes… ending and beginning… All things and shades of the colors of them reside in us.

      Like attracts like, so know that you are worthy and living your life in a positive way. You found James, didn’t you? He’s our mentor to be our higher selves. So be it.

      All the best to you,

      Joan Belle

      • Thanks Joan…I didn’t mean to sound so dire as in I’m ‘nobody’ but rather I feel so far removed from the place I need to be even though I don’t know where that place is yet…but you’re right, I did find James, or maybe he found me! And then of course there is you…and I am thankful for you as well. :-)

    • Dear Deborah,

      I have struggled with social norms all my life… a asian woman being brought up with traditional values and living in a western society. Another Agist social norm is the fact I have gone back to University at the age of 43! At times I have questioned my actions surrounded by 18 year olds…. but I have realised I am important and I should do what satisfies my soul and nurtures my spirit. So whether 43 or 62 our journey is the same…. I wish you luck in yours… listen to your heart. :-)

  24. James,

    You are so right. It is never to late to reinvent yourself and follow your dreams and passions.

    Tom Clancy is a great example. I had never heard his story before. But it resonates and matches so many other stories, specifically in the field of writing, where experience and what you learn in life can impact your success.

    Nothing in life that is worth having is easy, but if you get out there and bust your butt, success is achievable.

  25. Great Post. I have been thinking quite a bit about this. Seems like the crux of this point is about taking action and not just seeing or having a dream. The “inertia in life” is indeed strong. I am curious to hear from you, James, or your followers what it is that sees some through to action and others not. From whence to we derive the courage to go against the inertia of life? These stories seem to rear up the wake of someone’s passing (Clancy, Steve Jobs etc…) but how do we, the living, learn from the courage it took those to actually break their inertia. The stories of them doing that are great and often true, but I still would love for someone to write to the topic of what it took to see past the fear to actually break through and change.

  26. Great article! I’ve always loved Clancy’s novels, but never even thought about the fact that he wasn’t always a best selling author. Glad he reinvented himself as we have enough insurance companies and agents in CT!

  27. Great post. It reminds me of the saying, “80% of life is just showing up.” (I’ve also seen it as 90%. Either way, it’s a big chunk!) You can make just about anything happen if you regularly sit down and do SOMETHING for SOME amount of time.

    I used to tell people that I was building a website, but that it was taking a long time. In reality, I was only THINKING about building a website! Thinking is important, especially when your ideas need some refinement, but the real clarity comes from simply getting started and remaining engaged in the process. Once I started sitting down for an hour a day to work on the website, it practically built itself!

  28. Wow, what a great post! I cannot agree more that you’ll have to defeat yourself, especially your fears, when pursuing your dream. A thousand-mile’s journey starts from the first step. Dream remains as dream until we take action. Currently I’m building my product and web site as a side job. But I feel so attached to it and truly believe that it’s my destiny. I’m so happy to find your great site and there’s a wonderful community here. It’s a constant inspiration to me. Thanks a lot James for the sharing!

  29. (I know this is long please read)

    Hey people. I signed up to James clear newsletters today after googling Richard Branson just wondering how he achieved his success and one of the articles lead me here..

    I just turned 21. People always tell me I live in the clouds & I’m a dreamer. But I find it difficult to translate that into productivity.

    I left home and moved 10hrs interstate when i had just turned 17 and had graduated high school because I got into the top fashion design college in the country which was pretty hard to get in to. I’ve been living on my own since then.

    In first year (of a 3 yr course) I failed a couple of modules towards the end.
    Then the second year i decided to repeat first year when I was told not to because I was really talented & could catch up. Which i ended up completely bombed out on because I was severely struggling with an online addiction. I decided I needed to come back to fashion at a later date when I knew who I was a bit more, saw life some more, gained some inspiration. Or maybe when I thought I could handle all of the pressure and juggling associated with it. I also realised how expensive it was & I didn’t want to waste my fathers resources continuing if I wasn’t in it 110%.

    The following year I decided to study a different (still associated with industry) 1 yr diploma to decide if i wanted to apply for it in University (3 yr course) But towards the end i lost interest, I just couldn’t keep up with all the theory work, essays and talks about politics and stuff I hated that. It wasnt me.

    The year after that (this year) I told my parents I was going to apply for uni for the course I did the last diploma in.
    But I actually just worked & saved up a little bit of money and managed to go to the USA to see my boyfriend who I hadn’t seen in 8 months..
    I originally started the pretence of saving that I was going over there for an internship I was offered in Manhattan. Problem is 1) 6 weeks unpaid internship living in new york. 2) position wasn’t solidified because it depended on me having money to sustain myself over there. 3) I needed to build up my portfolio before I headed there because I didn’t want to arrive in the big apple empty handed when there are opportunities in every street.
    My parents were happy with that.

    Next minute my bf was granted leave (USAF) so I had to go then & there with the money I had & it wasn’t enough for the 6 weeks in NY. (Even though my mother had contributed money towards it also) So I just met up with him in Florida & we travelled around there for 3 weeks & I was back home.

    When I told my dad I was going to see my boyfriend he said.. “So you’re just going there for fun. Wasting my time while I’m paying for you to be here..” It really hurt, because my boyfriend is my soul mate I’ve known him for nearly 9 years, we used to go to school together & he is my main motivation in life to get my career together so I can move over there, sustain myself and be with him. It’s too expensive to study over there.

    When I got back from the US I had lost my job because obviously I left for 3 weeks & they needed someone to replace me..
    I’ve been trying to get a new job & struggling financially. I realised that being around people who are like minded and really “get you” is something that is hard to find in the real world. And that working for someone is so much harder for me to swallow than just studying and being appreciated for my own individuality.

    If I’m studying next year I won’t have time to 1) save up for NY 2) have 6 weeks time for the internship.
    So that’s out the door I have missed that opportunity. But if i invest my time studying next year and most likely the following year, the opportunities will be greater because i will have more to offer.
    I feel like I didn’t accomplish what I expected to this year. What I did gain was the realisation of my true passion (it is fashion design) & the yearning to incorporate it into my life now & in the future, and how it ties with who I am & what I want.

    But what I don’t need is the things that my mother currently says in regards to me going back to study fashion design next year.. things like “you f***ing failed” “You wasted all of this time” “you f****d up” “You moved away and since then you have done nothing with your life” “I don’t see you actually want to do it” “You can’t do anything” “you just sit on the computer” (not acknowledging i’ve overcome my addiction from years ago) “I’m so disappointed” just telling me that I am not to go back and study my passion next year and that “I’m going to f*** it up again” and because of the past when I was 17 and that I shouldn’t pursue it now that I’m 21…. not acknowledging my growth or change..

    My father is being encouraging towards me studying because he said that I can’t get married to my boyfriend until I’ve completed my Diploma, and he knows that once I get married I will be moving to the USA. So I think he wants to prolong that happening.

    I’m analysing all of the reasons I faulted in the previous attempts, and am trying to implement solutions for the following years. But the number 1 thing I’ve learnt is staying focused and driven on an end goal. Now that I have this plan for the future with my boyfriend I just want to be with him as soon as I can. He is so supportive, I really feel like all of my dreams and goals can be achievable although I know it is not easy.

    That is why I have subscribed to this website because I feel as though there is a recurring pattern/habit & I want to break out of it and really push through to the other side & be who I’m meant to be. I really hope it helps with succession of the tasks ahead. I’m glad I stumbled across this and thank you for existing!

    Thanks
    -Katherine

    • Hi Katherine,

      Life is an ongoing series of choices. We get to do anything we want, when we want to, and the end result is us experiencing the results of our choices. There are no wrong choices only choices that lead us in different directions than we might have had we done something else.

      Opportunities come and go, and you are correct some never come again exactly the same way, but sometimes they are much worse or better than we can imagine. The thing is you are experiencing what you are choosing. You will learn from this.

      One thing we have to learn is that others, whether parents, friends or lovers, show us life through their eyes and their needs to feel comfort and ease. Be mind-ful of that. The choices they have made, would like to make or have been told should be made are sometimes a series of “would’a, should’a, could’a.

      It’s up to you to make your decisions based on what feels comfortable and ease-ful for you. Your way may be hard or easy, you are choosing. I would also share with you that behind anger is fear. Fear can be a tool for protection and/or stagnation, both are necessary to grow, provided you choose to use them that way.

      I send you good wishes to be discerning and happy in your choices!

      Joan Belle

  30. Thank you so much, James! I’m just in the transitioning phase right now, and I can’t seem to get enough encouragement. It feels really good to hear the recognition that, yes, it is hard work – and it is worth it. Thanks again.

  31. Isn’t that the truth! If it was easy, everyone would do it. I have tried several business’s and new ventures, and most have not worked out. But here I am, age 30 and working on my 5th business, and it is starting to work out. Was hard to get back into it, but I am sure happy I did. Articles like this are why I keep at it. Thank you.

  32. “How many Tom Clancys are out there right now, holding their dreams inside and letting the inertia of life pull them in the same direction they’ve always gone?”

    This reminds me of a story James Altucher mentioned about Ghandi I just read:

    “One of Gandhi’s financial backers once said, “it’s very expensive to keep Gandhi in poverty.” Consequently, I suspect the financial backers felt they had some influence on Gandhi. But money means nothing to a spiritual leader.

    One time Gandhi said to a group of his backers, “I need to set aside one hour a day to do meditation.”

    One of the backers said, “Oh no, you can’t do that! You are too busy, Gandhi!”

    Gandhi said, “Well, then, I now need to set aside two hours a day to do meditation.”’

    Legends like him MAKE the time for the things they need to be successful and don’t let anyone else dictate that. Tom Clancy MADE the time to write and slowly got rid of barriers preventing him from doing so.

    It’s important to understand that we control our own time and often have to make hard choices to do so.

  33. Dear Katherine,

    Do NOT listen to negative voices….. I applaud you for having the courage to go for what you really want to do! Listen to what your heart tells you and it makes me sad (as a mother myself) to hear your Mum say those words….

    Well done for overcoming your addiction! The road to what we want is not easy but it seems to me you are determined to get there, go for it! :-)

  34. This is my first comment since joining this community. I’m 41 years old, in the Navy and have just started reinventing myself. James, wow! Your content is so profound and yet so simple its awesome. From the bottom of my heart, I thank you. I’m in the middle of Transform Your Habits and just wanted to share some thoughts. I always wanted to be big and strong as a kid but never did anything about it…so much self doubt and fear. But not anymore. One of the ways I define myself now is a weight lifter who strength trains no less than 4 days a week. I try to focus on that more so than the long term (5 year) goals (bench 300, 21 inch arms, weigh 250 etc…) All of them are reachable, but I’ll get too side tracked if I don’t focus on defining myself first; and making it a habit. I’m in the 2nd month of a 9 month deployment in the Mediterranean so I’m fortunate that I have time to make it a habit and time to really lift and get strong. Now I have to really think about my life and decide how else I want to define myself. That’s really the hard part…deciding what you really want out of life and going for it. But I did want to thank you for your content…you have a gift for teaching common sense, and you have a fellow Tarheel as a new fan.

  35. Very inspiring article. I was very touched by it especially that I have quit my job to finally pursue my passion in design and make it as a graphic designer. I am really glad that I discovered this blog! It’s priceless.

  36. Honestly, I can’t be reminded enough that dreams aren’t “divinely inspired.” I’ve wasted a lot of time in my life waiting for a stroke of inspiration, unbridled passion, or some other kind of extraordinary call towards something. It’s such a popular myth in our society. But that’s just not how it works! Dreams are more like soft whispers combined with a decision to actually do the work. I’m only just now accepting that. Thank you for such an enlightening story!

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