Be honest with yourself about what your true passion is

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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  • Violetta V

    I think one should really be careful here and not waste one’s life chasing a dream. Personally, my passion is opera, but my sweet but tiny voice will not be heard beyond the end of the stage.  Would I’ve loved being an opera singer – sure, but one needs to be realistic. I am good in math, so getting a degree in math/cs and an advanced one in cs enabled me to have a good living. I did take voice lessons as an adult, and it was very enjoyable, but I think the fact that I still had some delusions in my mid-to-late 20s when I was taking these lessons (and to my teacher’s credit she was very honest about my abilities) interfered to some degree with my ability to meet guys and to have a family. There needs to be balance, but most importantly one needs to be realistic about one’s ability. The thing about music is that it’s not enough to have some talent, one needs to be truly extraordinary to succeed (at least in classical music, no talent is needed in pop music today in this age of autotune), and even that doesn’t guarantee a career.

    I also heard a piano teacher complain how he gets 15-year beginner students who think they can become concert pianists and how he has to explain to them that it’s too late. I think there is an attitude today that one can do anything if one just puts one’s mind to it. This is totally wrong. Certain fields require extraordinary talent; and certain fields also require continues work from a very early age – e.g. instrumental classical music, ballet, competitive elite sports.

    One cautionary tale is that of Florence Foster-Jenkins – a great example for chasing your dream without having a realistic view of one’s abilities. You can read about her on wiki or listen to her “singing” on you tube.

    So my view – yes, if you have both a passion and a real great talent you owe it to yourself to try to pursue it. But be realistic about your abilities and where you stand relative to the competition. It’s fine to have a hobby though.

    • Dr. Susan Biali, M.D.

       I totally appreciate your perspective…this is such a tough question. There is a lot to be said for “giving it your all”, even if you fail, so that you know that at least you tried and then won’t spend the rest of your life having regrets wondering “what if” you had tried? And then there are the people who become huge successes late in life, despite the odds for the average person. There are exceptions to every rule (e.g. you can’t be a professional ballerina unless you start at age 4 – my friend started much later and is now very highly respected in her field at a top professional level). There are Masters athletes who compete internationally who started their sport at a very late age. This is a very personal question and issue. It’s like anything in life I suppose – there are potential costs for trying, but also great gains to be had, even just knowing that you tried can bring wonderful satisfaction and other rewards.

      • Violetta V

         I don’t think it’s as early as 4 in ballet, more like 10-11. Top Russian ballet schools like Vaganava take kids starting from 10-11, and while many of them have had classes before, some are real beginners. Misty Copeland, a soloist with ABT, started at 13, but she had classes before, and she is blessed with a perfect ballet body and a huge talent.

        I think a lot can be said for following one’s dream, but having realistic view of one talent, awareness of difficulties, and realistic expectations are important e.g. does one only wants to be a top performer or performing in a small but respectable theater and barely making a living is enough? Would one be happy teaching?

        On another side, there is a story of my mother who was accepted to Vaganova school of Russian Ballet but prevented from going by her father who said “there are very few prima ballerinas and there are more than enough mediocre ones without you”. She was 12 – a year later than normal, but after the war and hunger – they still had card system for food then – they had trouble finding enough healthy strong kids with suitable bodies, and she had classes in a local studio and was quite good. But as she herself said, even if her local studio she was one of the best girls, but not the best. She ended up becoming an electrical engineer, and she said she was grateful to her father because she didn’t think she’d be good, she may have even been expelled after puberty given how her body developed. Maybe she didn’t have enough passion…

        • Dr. Susan Biali, M.D.

          You’re probably right about the ballet – I remember a real fuss being made about how my classmate was “discovered” at a late age, but what you write makes sense. Ultimately, it’s such a personal journey. There are countless artistic successes out there who were told by expert teachers that they had no potential. Maybe they weren’t the best of the best, but ultimately they still found their own unique path. Michael Jordan wasn’t picked for his high school basketball team, that kind of stuff.  Ultimately it’s such an individual journey, and there is no right answer that’s right for anyone, each person has to decide for themselves. Following your dreams doesn’t have to mean going all the way to the top – even if you think you do, sometimes it’s for the best if you don’t or can’t. For a brief time I made most of my income dancing, but decided then that I didn’t really want to be a full-time professional dancer (though I’d dreamed of it). A very interesting conversation with you, thank you! 

  • Nicole Rahel Biasi

    Since I’m too lazy to do my own research, I would love a linked video of Susan dancing!

    • Dr. Susan Biali, M.D.

       Here’s a link to my page on my site re. my dancing, includes a video link (to a rather modest performance, I never claimed to be a great dancer, I just love it and have been very fortunate!)

  • PamC

    Having employment that allows you to follow your passions is wonderful. Work does not seem like work when we can enjoy it. But it doesn’t have to be that way. There are plenty of people who work a job to eat, and follow their passions after hours.

    Me, I was really lucky. I was able to combine my love of computers with my love of language and writing, and combine them into a technical writing career. I certainly didn’t *plan* it that way. I stumbled on to success. 

    I’d like to add a caveat to “follow your passion.” I have many, many passions that I can no longer follow because of my health (dancing… oh, dancing!). I don’t get to express that passion in a fully enjoyable way anymore. Pain, weakness and frailty tell me very clearly: “No.” 

    And we *all* eventually become frail, weak, and physical limitations… the aging process is unforgiving. I am going to run into some situation where a passion of mine is ripped from me before I’m done playing with it. But that’s just how things go sometimes. It’s better for me to learn how to make peace with that, rather than mourning over “shoulda, woulda, coulda.”

    Mike Rowe of Dirtiest Jobs once remarked that the people we works with—people who have some of the dirtiest and most dangerous jobs—are *amazingly* happy people. But they didn’t follow their passion to employment. Who wants to grow up to manage a sewage plant? They followed their passion to the $money$ and now they can afford to follow their passions as they see fit (without some boss hanging over their shoulder, too!). 
    You should check out the TED talks on “Flow” and “Authentic Happiness.” Good stuff.

    • Dr. Susan Biali, M.D.

       I agree! Whenever I talk about this I’m always careful to point out that for some passions are income, for other they just light up their life outside of “working hours”. Either way it’s important to have them, and passions come and go as we go through life. Life is wonderful.

  • Scott Parker

    Glad you have pursued your dreams. I am a very busy doc who has dreams of doing other things, but have a heck of a time doing that. Any suggestions?

    • Dr. Susan Biali, M.D.

       Work less. Seriously : ). Life is too short to work long hours and miss out on your dreams. We often think our dreams may be selfish, yet when we follow them we bless others in surprising ways, that has been my experience. I live a very simple life, no mortgage payment etc., in order to have relative freedom and minimize the amount I “need” to work. Much of the work I do now feels like play anyway…

      • Scott Parker

        Okay, I will give it a try. Thanks!

  • 1990CC

    I was not honest with myself when I decided to pursue nursing as a second career.  I had some hesitations but just brushed them off and told myself not every job is perfect and even if I don’t love it, I could certainly handle a few negatives. I am smart, capable and caring, it will be fine, right? No way.  I handled it for about five years before I snapped out of it and allowed myself to finally acknowledge nursing is not my life’s work.  Yes, I still work as a nurse, not bedside, and care very much for the quality of my work and how it effects patients, however, I am more and more comfortable with that fact that while I am a nurse it doesn’t mean I have to do it forever and it won’t define me. When I started to be a bit more vocal with family and friends about not being in love with my profession, I always got the same response, “It’s such a great career, you help people, it’s so rewarding, you will always have a job…” In other words, what’s wrong with you and whatever it is – get over it.   This made me feel even worse and really discouraged any honesty with myself. Again, not being truthful with myself, I responded to these comments and kept making myself try to like nursing.

    Finally, I just couldn’t stand pretending to be someone I was not anymore.   I started being honest with myself and things really started to make more sense. It wasn’t a pretty process but it’s right and good and I just went on from there. I have no idea when I will leave the profession all together as I can’t just start over tomorrow but I am backing out slowly and gracefully and am pursuing other interests when I can. 

  • Janice_Flahiff

    Up until 20 or so my educational path was more out of duty (this was post Sputnik with a heavy emphasis on math and science careers). 

    In college (I was basically floundering in the science classes, but managed to graduate) I was thinking about counseling, specifically genetic counseling (late 70′s)..but didn’t mention it to anyone..did not think I could get any support a change in career path.
    Lo..o..oong story short, job hopped, ended up as library assistant, became a part time librarian after getting my Master’s in Library Science.
    Now volunteering, screening clients at a social service agency.  Love talking with folks, and giving them direction and encouragement…Still feel nudged toward counseling…never too late to go back school? 

  • Robert Luedecke

    Thank you so much for sharing your story with us.  When I went to medical school my passion was to be a family doctor.  Then when I actually had a chance to follow some around and see the very broad field they had to keep up with, I decided my passion had too high of a cost and I would not be satisfied knowing I could not master the entire field. It was when I rotated through anesthesia that I met people a lot like me and decided this was a much better fit.  I cannot imagine a job that could be more enjoyable than practicing anesthesia, which I have done for the last 28 years.  I very much like to write, but only as a hobby.  It seems to me that the pressure to produce would take a lot of the fun out of writing for me, and practicing medicine gives me the income and time to also follow a hobby. I also have minimized expenses to prevent being “trapped” into needing a certain income. 

  • Chris_39

    I can relate! In 5th grade I was lugging a cello to school to play in the band. My grandmother’s instrument of choice, not mine. I wanted to play “unladylike” drums, saxophone, or accordian. Later on in life I played (with some success) the flute and guitar, my choice. Overtime I gave them up for new interests – running to maintain physical health; writing poetry and co-authoring a book to maintain mental health.  As a kid my passion was taking care of sick animals, even had a mini-clinic in a farmhouse wood shed. That led to a career in nursing (remember back in the olden days it was be a nurse, secretary or teacher). After years working as a full-time Mom, part-time to full-time nurse, I finished advanced education (at age 60) with a master’s degree in nursing and  family nurse-practitioner (NP) certificate. During those years I did maintain a half-passion in healthcare (the bill-paying day job), but the other half-passion was (and is) in writing. Today (at age 73), I’m an NP part-time and a writer part-time – the perfect brain balance!

  • Zoann Murphy

    Thank you so much for sharing your story, Dr. Biali. I laughed and cried as I read it this morning, seeing my own story in light of my passions through the years. I have been very fortunate in that I had a mother who told me from the time I could toddle that I could do anything I wanted to do, and supported me in everything I tried, even if she didn’t always agree with my decisions. As a result of the self-confidence that attitude instilled in me, I have been able to follow a multitude of dreams, aspirations, passions, and just plain foolishness throughout my life! Did I ever have an outstanding talent? Well, I was an excellent language student in high school (French, Spanish, German and Italian) and was planning on a career as an interpreter. A major head injury my first semester in college derailed that plan and I floundered for several years trying to find another niche or passion to pursue. Theatre and bookselling were my passions in my 20s and early 30s, then another injury forced me into sitting down and re-evaluating my life goals. This led to following an old dream and becoming part of the emergency medical services world. My mom was an ER nurse; I grew up on gory stories and spent lots of time hanging around the local ambulance service, even getting my first CPR card at the age of 10. For over 10 years I was part of the Alaska EMS family first as a non-care-giving volunteer with the local borough EMS, then getting my Masters degree in Public Health and working in the State EMS office. Along the way I taught first aid and CPR classes, became a first responder and safety coordinator for the local high school football team (kids’ head injuries are scary things), and traveled all over Alaska giving presentations to local EMS providers on injury prevention, poison control, and pandemics. Fun? Exciting? Passion-filled? YES. Then a severe illness forced me into retirement and full disability status in 2007 and since then I’ve been fighting my way back to a semblance of health. Am also doing yet another re-evaluation of life goals and dreams and passions. Where do I go from here? I don’t know. But my mother keeps saying I can do anything I want to do – so whatever passion shows up, I will be ready to tackle it to the best of my abilities!

  • Krystal Reynolds

     This was a great article and I too have wrestled the issues you mention, why didn’t someone see and help me to be that thing.  I know the feelings you bring up and I feel like they are a part of why we seek the solace of doing things we really love as hobbies or jobs.  I had to learn to love what I was doing, at one point in my life, until I was able to change my career path.  It made life much better.  Great post.  Thank you. I made decision to start a blog two weeks ago, I didn’t start it yet.  You’re article gives me a little more courage to get going.

  • DrJoe Kosterich

    It is so important to be honest with yourself. Even if you cant change things straight away at least you are setting a direction to move in

  • Laxmi Ghimire

    Great story! Thanks for sharing. I am a resident and I am still hopeful that I would be able to transition into the work I love which is other than full time medicine. Your story gives me some hope and enthusiasm to go for it.

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