I've heard it said that if you want to be (fill in the blank), call yourself (fill in the blank) and you are that thing. Easy. I believe it was said in conjunction with being a writer: If you want to be a writer, call yourself a writer and you are a writer. Capital "W."
Of course, this idea can be used with virtually any career, but it's particularly encouraging when it comes to the arts--any field of art--because it isn't easy to make a career. There's no well-worn path. No degree that grants you instant access to publishing, directing, acting, painting. Even if you've proved your worth, you have to continually prove it over and over and over.
Yet even despite the encouraging, possibly necessary, nature of this sentiment, I have to point out something painfully obvious: just calling yourself a "writer" does not make you a "writer" (or filmmaker or painter or dancer) until you're constantly writing (filming/painting/dancing). Every day. Thinking about it. Breathing it. Dreaming it.
You. Have. To. Work.
I've had this dream of being a full-time novelist for years. I've written two books that I've pitched to literary agents without success. I've written blog posts that have garnered a few views. I've written short stories, published some, but not too many. I've now completely overhauled my second book and sent it out on another round of queries with the most success I've ever experienced.
The path to your dreams is a long one...
The path to your dreams is a long one, often spanning a longer period of time than we anticipate, running in circuitous ways we couldn't imagine prior to embarking. It has taken years of writing, rewriting, listening to advice and I'm still not at the goal I've made for myself.
I live by the aforementioned adage, calling myself a writer even though you (most likely) haven't seen my work. It's important to value yourself. And it's important to see yourself in the role you've envisioned even if you aren't yet there. But it's equally important to work at it.
How much work is needed before you achieve your dream? I think it's impossible to say such a thing. It's probably different on your particular station in life, the amount of time or study you've already put into the field or a thousand other unknowable factors.
In Malcolm Gladwell's book Outliers, he pegged the time needed to become "world-class" in a particular field at 10,000 hours of deliberate practice. That would be more than a year of constant, around-the-clock, practice.
Gladwell's number has been refuted by various studies, but I think the idea holds true, that you have to work at it and no one ever is an overnight success. Even the seemingly overnight success stories have been in their dues and worked at their particular craft.
There is no expiration date on your dreams...
I wrestle with the idea that it's too late for me almost daily. In my early twenties, I remember reading that bestselling author, Stephen King, was twenty-six when he sold Carrie. Around that same point, I read that Steven Spielberg was twenty-six when he made Jaws. Just taking in those two, over-the-top success stories, I latched onto the idea that if I wasn't successful by twenty-six years of age, then my chance had expired.
As ambitious as I felt in believing this, I never put in the actual work to achieve this dream. Sure, I'd write here and there, but it was never a consistent, daily routine.
At one point, around 25, I wrote a few short stories, which I filed together with a beautiful cover page and pitched it to an agent at a writer's conference in my home town. I even declared myself the Jack Kerouac of my generation. The agent seemed impressed by my young ambition, even giving me his card for when I completed an actual novel, but he probably laughed privately at my expense. And deservedly so.
Because I hadn't done the research. I hadn't taken the time to realize that it's incredibly rare for a first-time writer to successfully sell a short story collection. I didn't know the market. I didn't understand agents. And I didn't adjust or try to learn, so my failures went beyond twenty-six. I felt depressed for a time because I thought my time had expired.
There is no expiration date on your dreams, though. There's always time to make it happen. Perhaps not in the way you initially envisioned, but there's always time. I saw that Madeline L'Engle swore she would quit writing if, by 40, she hadn't made a publishing deal. At 42, she published her monumental work, A Wrinkle in Time. Frank McCourt was 66 when he published his first book, Angela's Ashes, which went on to win the Pulitzer.
There are more stories like this with folks older and much younger publishing, achieving and seeing dreams fulfilled.
Do. The. Work.
In short, you have to do the work. Period. There is no short cut to success, no easy way to achieving your dreams.
Teddy Roosevelt once said, "Nothing in the world is worth having or worth doing unless it means effort, pain, difficulty..."
To realize your dream, have the confidence to call yourself by that title. Then put your nose down and do the work.