Oliver Wendell Holmes once said, "Many people die with their music still in them." I think that captures the fear of about 99 percent of the people I see who come in for career coaching. Either they know exactly what gift or talent they have that they are not using, or they are just afraid they have somehow missed finding their real authentic and fulfilling path.
What is that area that is lying dormant for you? I recently had a pharmacist approach me at the end of a short presentation I titled Hold Fast to Dreams. He said he had been in his profession for 17 years and could not think of any dreams he had. In his description of his "responsible, predictable" life, it became clear to both of us that his dreams had become buried along the way. All those childhood passions had been put aside as one responsibility led to another. At this point, he was so desensitized that he couldn't even bring them to mind anymore. He began weeping in the three minutes of our conversation as he identified his current life.
You know the symptoms: As a child you loved singing, but now you haven't sung in 20 years. Or every time you see a news item about the starving people in Africa, it brings you to tears — but you've never done anything to help. Or when you see a beautiful painting, you remember how much you loved that second-grade art class. You may recognize that whenever you are around old people, you are energized by the compassion and wisdom they have — but you only go visit them once or twice a year.
Change — even when unwelcome or unexpected — often wakes up those dormant dreams. I have seen physicians move to the country to take up organic gardening, pastors who switched to fulfilling careers as artists, and housewives who emerged from the years of raising children to release their gifts in writing and counseling.
"Many people die with their music still in them. Too often it is because they are always getting ready to live. … Before they know it ... time runs out."
— Oliver Wendell Holmes
Happiness or Misery — You Choose
There is a story of a 92-year-old lady who was moving into a nursing home. As she was being wheeled down the corridor, the attendant began to describe the room. "I love it," the old woman gushed. "But you haven't even seen the room yet," the attendant reminded her. "That doesn't have anything to do with it," she replied. "Happiness is something you decide on ahead of time. Whether I like my room or not doesn't depend on how the furniture is arranged. It's how I arrange my mind."
There's an important principle in that little story. Much of your success is decided in advance — or "arranged in your mind." Circumstances will never determine your amount of happiness. Circumstances only highlight who you already are. Many times a career path starts because of circumstances rather than priorities. Family expectations, chance occurrences, a friendly teacher, or the desire for money can lead us down a career path that's ultimately unfulfilling. It's tough to make choices at 18 that will be meaningful at 45. Just recently, I saw a 44-year-old client who opened with the comment "Dan, I'm tired of living my life based on the decisions made by an 18-year-old."
If your work life is not providing a sense of meaning, purpose, and fulfillment, draw that line in the sand. Decide what your ideal day would look like: How would you spend your time? What skills you would use? Money is ultimately never enough compensation for investing one's time and energy. There must be a sense of meaning and accomplishment. And yet a surprising thing frequently happens on the way to fulfillment and worthy contribution: Rather than learning to live on "beans and rice," there is often the release of a financial flood. It's a myth that if you do what you love, then you'll have to be content to never make any money.
I have had the pleasure over the years of working with many people in this process of refocused and authentic direction, where ultimately the flow of money surprised them!
Hardship or Opportunity?
Lornah Kiplagat learned to run because she did not want to be late for school. Each morning, this little Kenyan girl would help her father milk the family cows as soon as there was enough light from the rising sun. Then she would run the 14 miles from her home to school — where she was an eager student, knowing education was her best option for a better future. At the time she did not realize that her running was laying the foundation for her world-class status as a long-distance runner. She ran because she was poor — but in the process, she developed the discipline and stamina to rise above all competition in running.
Could it be that there is an opportunity in something you consider a hardship right now? Most inventions, great books, and leadership skills emerge from those tough times in our lives when we needed a solution or the fortitude to just survive. As I look back on my own early farming days — yes, those days of just looking forward to leaving the farm — I now realize the value of having significant carpentry, plumbing, electrical, and mechanical skills. Those insights have saved me thousands of dollars over the years and also opened my eyes to innovative solutions in business. My writing draws from the challenges I've faced myself in career and business.
Is the "running" in your own life just a means to an end, or is it teaching you and preparing you for something great? Maybe that long commute is giving you time to learn a new language or better parenting skills. Maybe the broken machinery at work is providing you the opportunity for the next great invention. Perhaps your constant struggle with fatigue is positioning you to discover a nutritional breakthrough.
Lornah, that little Kenyan girl, is now 33 years old. She holds four world records. She has also established an academic foundation for other little girls in Kenya. They are trained in athletics but also in academics and personal development. Lornah is committed to putting an end to the enduring tradition of female subservience in Kenya and recognizes that her running has given her the opportunity to be that force for change.
Lawn Mower or Porsche?
If you don't combine your passion with your work, you will never achieve excellence and fulfillment. I imagine it kind of like having a lawn mower engine in a Porsche. Yeah, it will move along, but it can hardly get out of the way of other traffic, and it sure doesn't give you the thrill and exhilaration that driving a Porsche should. (I took a friend's Porsche 959 for a spin recently. It had been modified from its original 331hp to 615hp — what a rush!)
Every week I hear from lots of people who are still trying to find their passion. Here are some examples:
Dan, I cannot think of anything that just supremely stirs my drink. I have no passions or dreams. (I'm in my early 50s.) I mean, there are some "warm" areas. But there is nothing I feel like I want to give my life to. The old cheese has moved, and the old dreams are dead and gone. I'm looking for a new one.
I'm currently working with a high-level financial executive who, after 26 years with the same company, is being "invited" to leave. He's having to catch up with the new opportunities because for 26 years "I've had my head down, and pencil up."
Today I talked with a 34-year-old who has a history of starting businesses "that have nothing to do with my passion." And then he wonders why it's such a struggle to make them work.
I'm also working with a 48-year-old dentist who, after years of frustration, says, "I just keep getting better at what I intend to get out of."
What's blocking you from finding your passion — and integrating it into your work? Are you convinced that work is meant to be boring and stifling — only a means to a paycheck? Do you think that fulfilling God's will always means sacrificing your true passions? Do you believe that if you followed your passions your income would drop dramatically? I believe all of these are false statements.
What's your reason for not living in your passion?