Chasing vs. going after

kids chasing a soccer ball

I didn’t submit a talk show idea to Oprah. (You can thank me in the comments.)

I didn’t submit a panel idea to South by Southwest. I didn’t submit myself as a speaker for the international women’s conference a friend urged me to.

I haven’t entered a contest or sweepstakes in I-don’t-know-how long, haven’t asked to be included in a gathering I knew would be fun but that I hadn’t been invited to, and the last guy I liked who asked for my number had to pry it out of me.

I’m not sure exactly when it happened, but at some point over the last year or so I went from being someone who chased after things to someone who went after her own thing. And yes, there is a difference.

Take Yaddo, for example. It’s an artists’ community in New York State that houses writers and poets and, well, artists in retreat, providing them with a beautiful, distraction-free setting in which to focus on a piece of work. One applies, and one is either accepted or not. I have decided to apply, because I really, really like the idea of me in a beautiful, distraction-free setting, finishing one of the three books I started writing this year1. Or take Jennifer, although you can’t, because her delightful husband already has her, heart and soul, who introduced me to the idea of Yaddo, and that it was a perfectly reasonable thing for me to apply to. (She wrote most of her book in residence there.) I met Jennifer because I wrote a review of her excellent memoir, and got to know her because, after a bit of correspondence, I asked if she might want to start up a little writers’ group here in L.A., and she said “Yes.”

See, it’s not like I don’t go after things. I’m going after Yaddo; I went after Jennifer (in, you know, the friendliest and most well-meaning of ways). And if Yaddo turns me down, I may go after a slot again, later on, if I really want it. What I’m realizing is that in the past, there were too many times when I chased stuff because I thought that catching it would get me something or somewhere. That it would mean I had made it, maybe, where “it” is the cool kids’ club or a USDA-prime stamp on my ass or some other shortcut to the other side of some mythical, self-imagined velvet rope.

Much like Gertrude Stein’s genius summing-up of the perils of grabbing at the evanescent, however, on the few occasions when I managed to chase down my trophy and nab it, I came up empty. The thing I had desired wasn’t there, and the desire I had going in just vanished without a trace.

If pressed to define the difference I see between chasing a thing and going after a thing, I’d say this: a chase ends up being about the chase, and less about the fox at the end of it; going after something is putting one foot in front of the other and moving towards what you want. Deliberately, thoughtfully making choices, and perhaps delaying gratification elsewhere, so that you can get to the Next Right Place you need to be. Although I guess you could just as easily go after a refrigerator or a dream house or even a fox, if you had decided that what you really wanted was a teeny, tiny stole. But you would want that refrigerator or that house or that tiny stole because you really wanted it, you’d really thought it through, and figured out how it would make your life that much better, and it was worth losing that much life to go after it, and not just because you wanted to fill an empty place in your soul with a high-end icebox or rub your neighbor’s nose in your teeny, tiny fox stole.

Is submitting a talk show idea to Oprah always chasing? No. Absolutely not. I’m sure there were lots of people who were motivated as much by the idea of making a submission video as they were winning the golden ticket. When I entered a similar kind of contest a few years back, a huge part of the “why” for me was that I came up with an idea for a video I thought would be hilarious and great fun to assemble, not because I particularly lusted after the idea of being chosen from on high (no pun intended) by the great gods of the cut-rate airline to travel in their metal tubes and document what I found along the way. I mean, it would have been fine, but the winning, I was ambivalent about; the making of the video I had to go after.

But I spent a lot of years as an actor, watching a lot of actors chase after stuff that wasn’t there. As I said in a recent interview, you need to be about the acting, and the day-to-day work of being about the acting; if you’re going after gold statuettes and the love of a million random strangers in the dark, you’re going to come up with nothing even if you get your wish.

So yes, chasing vs. going after is a little like the old destination vs. journey standoff. And it’s also about living for other people vs. living for yourself, living the life you really, truly want, every possible minute that you can. It’s probably also a bit about all that good sovereignty stuff that Hiro Boga talks about.

The easiest way for me to think about it, though, is wanting what you want enough to do something about it, but really wanting what you want.

As the song says, more I cannot wish you…


1Yes, three. And you heard it here third, I already let the cat out of the bag with Havi’s Kitchen Table people and Pace & Kyeli’s World-Changing Writing Workshop. There will be more on these three massive mothers as I move forward, including how you can participate in one of them, but in the meantime, if you want to get on a notification list, sign up here, and leave a note in the comments field to that effect.

Image by jot.punkt via Flickr, used under a Creative Commons license.


  1. I like the distinction. It put me in mind of Thoreau’s “quiet desperation” line: desperation alone may be difficult to experience or to see in someone else, but even worse than the quiet kind is the noisy. (The rattle and clatter of someone’s neverending chasing-after.) Good for you for splitting the hair.

    Yaddo, McDowell… a long-time dream of mine, too. One of these days I might actually locate the gumption necessary to forcibly remove myself from the world for a block of time. Mostly, though, cowardice and inertia stop me from going after that goal!

    (Wouldn’t it be funny if you found a fox in those woods?)

    1. You raise an excellent point: noise of any kind tends to drive other people away (except crazy people, and who needs more of those?), and noise abounds in the desperate. That’s how we describe grabby, desperate actors, as having “noise”. The clearer you are about what you want, the more focused you become, the better you generally are at it, the less need stank you’re throwing off. And all of those things add up to people liking you more.

  2. I’m here via Pace & Kyeli’s WCWW (really enjoyed your part in the workshop). This was the most perfect post for me to read with my coffee this morning as I’m in a pros and cons phase of figuring out what direction to take my work life. I’m seeing that list in a whole new light with the idea of chasing vs. going after to hold up to it.

    For me, I often find the chasing part happens mostly in my head and in conversations. I get ideas and I love the thought of the result at the end of implementing the ideas. I yammer on about them to friends and family and take a lot of notes but never take the real actions to move me towards the results. Really trying to turn that around, which means working on my book a little bit every day, and making the calls to get more information about this business I want to start.

    Can’t wait to hear what your books are about.

    1. Chasing is definitely chattery noise in your head, and blathering too much not only adds stress, it releases pressure in the bad way, like deflating a tire.

      A wise friend once said that he couldn’t take too much talking, even to good friends, b/c it drained him of vitality. It’s a constant balancing act—I find I need some connection and unloading, for sure, but too much leaves me unable to work effectively.

      Thanks for the kind words re: the WCWW, and good luck with your work-life project!

  3. Ah, yes … such different energies in chasing vs. going after, yet difficult to articulate. Thank you for taking the time and effort to do so – I’m really grateful for all of the gifted writer/articulator folks such as yourself who put good words around these things and share them. A specific blessing for me today, and a general blessing always.

  4. You’ve reached a place of real adulthood—discovering that the best journeys are about the decision to make the voyage and enjoying it along the way. The destination is important, yes, but you’re not sprinting towards it for the sake of just getting there. I’m envious in a good way, as this reminds me I need to reflect on what my own version of Yaddo might be. Thanks, Colleen!

  5. Ah, Yaddo…
    I went to college in Saratoga Springs and Yaddo was a constant, quiet presence for me. The very thought of an artist’s retreat was so foreign to me then that the residents seemed more alien than artist. What would one DO with all that time?
    Now, of course, 21 years later, I salivate at the very thought of it. Colleen, another option for you and other writers is Hedgebrook, here in Washington. It’s on beautiful Whidbey Island and hosts women in their own separate little cabins. There are hundreds of acres and shoreline to explore if you need it, a community evening meal, or they will silently deliver your meals to your doorstep if you need to work without interruption. Yaddo and Hedgebrook are both on my list of “someday” accomplishments. You inspire me to bring “someday” a lot closer to “now.” Thanks! SPG

  6. I really like this discussion. Seems to me that chasing tends to not leave enough space for fully receiving. Makes me think of a fisherman wading through the water trying to chase fish instead of simply casting her line and waiting for a nibble.

  7. I have been pondering the idea of truly wanting the want that i tell myself i want and most times, i come up with no clear answer. some days the want feels so real to me that motivation just oozes and i can’t stop scribbling down ideas and telling people what i’m planning (aka, chase). and then some usually short period of time goes by, the perceived want vaporizes and the motions turn to feelings of dissatisfaction and hoping that anyone i told fogets i ever had a “plan”. The ability to really pull apart the true wants from the ones that seem real but aren’t is a skill i realize from you post today deserves more credit for its level of difficulty.

    1. I’m sure there are some people for whom it is easy-breezy. If life is fair, those people can’t sing or dance or string two words together to make a short, declarative sentence. But then, rarely is life fair.

      I wonder where the lines cross for impulsiveness and ability to sustain action. Or maybe the ability to see multiple possibilities and the ability to pick a path. Maybe some of us just see more options. I see plenty, but am moved to stick with few over the long haul.

      If anyone has some good reading in this area, please, bring it on.

  8. Going After, is a long term process. I like your writing about this topic, it helps me remember the process involved in pursuing flow. Thanks for sharing.

  9. Of COURSE we wanna know about your three massive mothers, unless the talking about/dissipating energy thing affects you, then no, just write ’em up!

    This was a great post, and drew swell comments (always a pleasure to read thoroughly on your site), and I can not thank you enough. But I’ll keep trying.

    Your book-buyer in waiting,

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