In the first week of the 5th grade, our class had a special music afternoon. It was our opportunity to try out the different instruments in the school band. We were to make a decision, that very day, about which instrument we would play almost every day for our school music careers.
I was so excited. I had been busy deafening my parents for years by creating high-pitched squawking melodies on my recorder, the closest thing we had to a wood instrument at home. On band day I was so excited to finally get to see and hold a genuine, shiny flute in my 10 year old hands.
I picked it up, my eyes gleaming, and held it to my lips. “Pfffffffffffffffffffft.” Nothing. I tried again, blowing into it like the 12-year-old owner of the flute had showed me. Again, nothing but a music-less “Pfffffffft.” I couldn’t believe it. My heart felt heavy in my chest, and tears pricked at my eyes. I gave up, and handed her back her flute.
Next, I decided to try the clarinet. It wasn’t the flute, and I wasn’t a huge fan, but at least it was still in the part of the orchestra that got the pretty melodies. “Honk-screech!” Everyone around me covered their ears.
Feeling even worse, I made my way to the back of the room where the brass instruments were. Someone handed me a french horn. I held it to my lips, and out came a full, rich sound totally recognizable as belonging to a musical instrument. I shrugged, and wrote down “french horn” next to my name, as by default this was obviously my instrument.
I played the french horn for five years, including the first couple of years of junior high school. I hated the thing. I never got the good parts of any musical piece (other than in one song, which I’ll always remember: the theme song for the TV show “Dallas”).
The horn came in this huge awkward case, and I lived on the slope of a mountain above the school. Every day I dreaded lugging the thing home, and only ever had any relief when snow came and I could drag it along behind me like a sled.
My father even worried that all the tuba-like blowing would wreck the shape of my face.
In my second year of junior high school, my apparent “rare talent” for this instrument got the attention of a professional French Horn player in the city. He even offered me free private lessons after school.
The plan was that I’d play in a major youth orchestra, and eventually play professionally. Heaven help me. How I dreaded those dark afternoons in the dimly lit band room after everyone else had gotten to go home.
I don’t remember how, but somehow I managed to quit the darn thing, despite everyone’s excitement about my supposed talent. I didn’t get much respite though, as fairly soon after I got sucked into the vortex of being a “gifted student in the Sciences.” I was finally spit out by the system at the age of 28. By then, I was not surprisingly a suicidally depressed emergency medicine resident. Same phenomenon, different vocation.
People don’t mean any harm by identifying talent in kids and giving them opportunities to develop that talent. If the child actually enjoys the activity, this is a fantastic thing. A friend of mine in junior high was discovered by a professional ballet company, and within weeks accepted an offer of a a full scholarship at the best ballet school in the country. She dances professionally today at a well-respected company. But she loves ballet – this is the difference.
I so wish that some grown-up had encouraged me to choose the musical instrument that I loved passionately, along with the reassurance that I could learn how to play it. I wish that someone had seen past my “gift for science” and paid equal attention to how much I loved my creative writing classes. I wish someone had noticed how obsessively and joyfully I practiced for my unforgettable one-time class dance performance in 7th grade, that was my peak experience in grade school.
Can you relate to any of this?
You can only go so far on talent alone. If you’re good at something, it gets noticed and valued by others, and it certainly opens doors. It can generate much-needed income, which can be important. Yet when it comes to truly fulfilling your potential and knowing the joy of doing what you were made to do, the only thing that will give you that experience is what you love.
I’m nowhere near being a great flamenco dancer and don’t know that I ever could be, even if I focused on it exclusively. Yet I have been paid surprisingly well to perform – often more than I earn per hour as a doctor – on multiple occasions over the years. Apparently there’s something unique I bring to performing (audience members have often told me that), the value of which has everything to do with deep passion and much less to do with technique.
My dance performances are among the most cherished moments of my life. They’re “I could die happy now that I’ve done this” moments. I feel the same way about having published a book, and having spoken in front of thousands of people about subjects I’m deeply passionate about.
I still work a handful of hours a month as a general practitioner in a medical clinic. Patients that I treat often tell me that they wish I would practice full-time so I could be their family physician. I’m extremely grateful for my education, the knowledge base and the ability to earn income practicing medicine, but it would break my heart if it was the only vocation I was limited to. I’m quite sure I’d get very depressed again.
No, what makes my heart sing is this: writing, public speaking, media work, dancing, and even just posting educational/inspirational Facebookposts and Tweets that help improve the lives of my online community.
I fully appreciate that you can’t always do what you want. Economic realities are what they are, and it would be foolish for many people to abandon the job that pays the bills in order to pursue their passion. Then again, there are plenty of people who have done just that, and have done very well.
If you know what your passion is and there’s a potential to earn income doing it, and have gotten “stuck” in a job or career on the basis of ability versus passion, you might want to do what I did and transition over gradually. For years I was a full-time doctor by day and a salsa and flamenco dancer by night, I look back on that season of blooming with so much fondness.
Regardless, if you’re honest with yourself about what your true passion is, you owe it to yourself to pursue it in some form, even if you never quit your day job and you never earn a penny doing what you love. The key is to do what you love, somehow. And you know what? When even a tiny part of your life is spent doing something you love, you would be amazed how bearable it makes everything else in your life that you “have to” do.
I’d love to hear your story—did you get accidentally funneled into a career or job that you don’t really enjoy, because you happened to be good at it? How would you earn your income, if anything were possible?
The best part is, you would likely be amazed by what might actually be possible for you. Life can be so full of delicious surprises, if you’d only just step out and give it a chance.
Susan Biali is a physician and author of Live a Life You Love: 7 Steps to a Healthier, Happier, More Passionate You. She blogs at her self-titled site, Dr. Susan Biali, MD.
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