I’ve had four deeply spiritual experiences in my life. Two were visions. One was almost inexplicable, but in simple terms, it forced me to confront the finality of death. The other spiritual experience happened at a jazz club in Seattle 22 years ago.
What happened at that jazz club? I saw the great drummer Elvin Jones, most famous for his pivotal role in John Coltrane’s quartet. I would eventually see Elvin play probably two dozen times. But when I first saw him, I didn’t quite know who he was. I had no real knowledge of Jazz nor did I understand how important his innovations were. All I knew was that I had been to a jazz concert a few weeks before, and even though I hadn’t loved that particular concert, I did love the drummer. I read in the local paper that Elvin was supposed to be one of the great jazz percussionists, so I decided to check him out.
This was the old, smaller Jazz Alley in Seattle, and when I came alone to the show they asked me if I was a drummer. I said “yes”, which wasn’t exactly true, but I was a musician who dinked around on drums in between playing the instruments I was actually good at. So they seated me right in the front of the restaurant, with a whole bunch of other drummers, directly underneath Elvin’s set.
His percussion was brilliant. His band played a gorgeous Thelonious Monk composition entitled “Mysterioso” that I still remember to this day. He would sometimes hit with such power that the whole drum set shook. I remember at one point the hardware he was using actually fell apart and he had to fix his drums. Remember, this is at a jazz club.
But none of that was what struck me most. What I most remember is that, the whole time he played, he growled/chanted over the music. And it made sense. And he kept it up, for two hour-long sets. That growling was hypnotic, and it was deeply emotional. A lot of the music the band played was over my head, but his growling, that I could understand.
After seeing him play, I started telling everyone that I had seen this amazing drummer, a giant of a man, incredibly tall and built, in his mid-forties, who could out-rock any rock band. As it turns out, he was in his late sixties when I first saw him, not his forties. And he’s short.
I also started telling everyone something that I believe to this moment. At that performance, on that night, God told me to become a musician.
Now since the title of this piece is, “How do I find my passion?”, you might think that you know where I’m going next. My good friend at Impact Theory, Tom Bilyeu, tells me that the question about finding one’s passion or purpose in life is the most common question he gets. So perhaps you’re guessing that I will now tell you that the way you find your passion is to have a spiritual experience, to get a mission from God, or to go after whatever hits you so hard emotionally that you are overcome with feeling.
God did tell me to play music. Writing songs, hanging out with other musicians, and being a performing artist added a rich palette of color to a life that could easily have been very black, white and grey–mostly grey. But God did not tell me to have a career as a popular musician. If I had succeeded at that musical career, I might very well be dead. And, thankfully, I never could have succeeded.
Let me explain.
As I pursued my musical dreams, I became close friends with a wide variety of other artists, including rock stars, composers, jazz greats, writers, sculptors, dancers and people whose art defies any sort of categorization. Some of these musicians (the rock stars) became quite famous, or at least very successful. When I listened to them talk about how fame and success changed their lives, I realized something.
I didn’t want that life.
This is bad. Because the road to success as an artist is risky, arduous, and filled with innumerable setbacks, failures and embarrassments. When you don’t even want the success, let alone all the failures, you know you’re on the wrong track.
Look, I don’t need to name names here. We all know the famous musicians who have committed suicide or had their lives cut short by alcohol and drugs. I am a mentally ill person, which I have written about extensively elsewhere. The music industry is not a good place for people like me. That’s been proven.
I survived failure as a professional musician with my mind and soul very much intact. Based on what I saw with my own eyes when my friends became famous, I doubt that I could have survived success.
Now, as I write this post, I am doing what I really want to do. I started my own business in 2009 from nothing–and I made it successful. I am a financial adviser, an entrepreneur, and a pastor. And I do not believe I could have succeeded at any of these things without going through the process of becoming a musician.
Way back when I was still a child, when I started playing music with that clarinet at 10 years old, it was music that taught me how to practice. It was through music that I learned that you could start off being terrible at something–have no natural talent whatsoever–but with steady, disciplined practice you could become proficient. It was through music that I learned how to really perform, and how to read an audience. The music business taught me the importance of marketing and branding. On top of all that, music taught me to improvise, to take risks, and to live according to my authentic self.
To this day, music still gives me a way to connect with my congregations. And music led directly to dance, which is now the central part of my ministry. Frankly, music and dance have kept me young, vital and in relatively decent physical shape.
On top of all that, through music I learned rhythm. There’s a rhythm to public performances, to client meetings, to every human interaction. I’m autistic, and I learned how to deal with my emotions by learning their rhythms. I learned to understand the emotions of other people by understanding their rhythms. Relationships, for this autistic person, are music.
But the most important thing I gained through music was a whole new group of friends, mentors and associates. These people were often much older or much younger than myself, of different races and genders, and from different social and economic classes (because I ended up playing just about every genre of music imaginable.) My musician friends came from radically different family backgrounds, had widely different cultural expectations, and many were from different countries. They had totally different dreams, ideals, and beliefs than I had.
As I continued through life I made more friends who were quite dissimilar from each other. When I started my own business I did a lot of taxes, and made good friends through the Washington Association of Accountants. Needless to say, these friends were not the same as my musician friends. My church was originally aimed entirely at people who had been released from prison. Again, quite a different group.
My perspective changed with each new group of friends. It became clearer and clearer who I really was, as my overall perspective got larger, and as I peeled away layers of social conditioning–social conditioning that was invisible to me until I met people who had grown up in completely different environments.
Think of it this way. Let’s say you want to become successful at something. Let’s say you go to one person who is successful at that thing and ask her, “What do you do every day?” You will learn something, certainly. But it’s hard to know, these things she does every day, are they just personal quirks? Or are they things that every successful person needs to do? Now let’s say you ask five successful people what they do every day. Whatever it is that those five people all have in common, you’d better do that!
But if you only ask one person, your perspective is distorted. You may conclude that something is deeply necessary, when in fact it is merely an element of that one person’s idiosyncratic style.
When your group of friends is too homogeneous, your information is distorted in much the same way. You can’t tell the difference between noise and signal. It’s hard to decide what are vital facts and what are just weird quirks of your little group. The feedback you are getting on your desires, your beliefs and your efforts is too biased. It’s stuck in one place, one time, one culture. If you want to find your passion you must be willing and able to get good feedback, and that means feedback from many different independent sources. If you have five friends who are all quite similar to each other, then you really aren’t getting feedback from five independent sources.
People who have trouble finding their passion often seem to have a very homogeneous group of friends and associates. If your friends are all around the same age, all from the same culture, all watch the same TV shows, all have similar opinions, then you are going to have a terribly difficult time distinguishing your own true self from the person that your group of friends perceives you as. As a result, one of two things will happen. Either you will just settle for being comfortable (which means being whoever your family/friends/community/lovers think you should be), or you will get stuck in a mindset that stays in the realm of fantasy (because the things outside of your narrow group perspective aren’t concrete to you.)
If your world is made up of people who are too similar, then it is highly unlikely that you will live up to your own highest ideals, your own highest self, your own highest purpose. Instead, you will end up either conforming to your group of friends or conforming to a media-fueled fantasy. And this is precisely the main thing that gets in many peoples’ way when they try to find their passion. The main problem is that people get stuck in fantasy.
See, I liked the fantasy of being a famous musician. But I could not have survived the reality. And I certainly did not want to put up with the grind.
Making a living as a musician has very little to do with the actual process of creating or performing art. Achieving success is about making and exploiting connections, traveling incessantly, dealing with manipulative managers and executives, walking on tip-toes around the egos of divas, signing autographs–and so on. The fantasy of being on stage is one thing. The day-to-day, minute-to-minute grind of slogging through 10,000 rejections while trying to book a tour where you will be sleeping on the floor of the clubs you play at is quite a different thing altogether.
Being a pastor, which I do truly love, is not about preaching sermons to an adoring crowd. It’s about sitting with a dying woman and reading Scripture passages, not knowing if she can really hear you. It’s about giving people rides to food banks. It’s about dealing with conflicts, dealing with alcoholism, dealing with injuries and childbirth and joy and agony and graduations and retirements and everything else in the world that your congregants think is important. Being a financial adviser is about listening so carefully to your clients that you know their deepest values as well as you know your own. Being an entrepreneur, for me, is about the fact that I never have to pretend to be busy, but I am working all the time. It means setting my own hours and getting things done, even when no one else is watching. It means getting judged on results, not on following rules. And I love it.
See, I love the day-to-day grind of being a pastor. I love the day-to-day grind of being a financial adviser, listening to my clients’ dreams and helping them reach those dreams. As an entrepreneur, I love having the freedom to work every single day on what I know matters most for my business.
What I’m telling you is that I love the grind.
And that’s how you know you’ve found your passion. It’s when you love the grind.
If all you want is to be on stage, that’s just a fantasy.
“OK Lauren, so how do I get there? Because right now my passions feel like they are just fantasies. How do I find that career where I love the grind?”
There is no short-cut. You have to “guess and check.” What I mean is, you have to try things, get feedback from many independent sources, learn from your experiences, and just keep trying until you find the right answer. The only way to learn, discover and build your passion is through guess and check. You just have to go out there, fail at things, and then learn from the failures. You must learn for yourself when to fight through obstacles and when to figure out that your body, your soul, and the universe itself is telling you, “this is not what you were meant to do.”
So let’s say I’m giving the younger me some advice. Will I tell the younger me to not pursue a career as a musician? Absolutely not! Even though my musical career was doomed from the start, even though it was always a narcissistic fantasy, I had to learn the lessons I learned. And there was nothing I could have done other than play music where I would have been committed enough to learn those lessons.
See, if you aren’t 100% committed, then how do you know whether you are really on the wrong path, or whether you just aren’t trying hard enough? As a business person, I try out new marketing strategies. Many of them I have grave doubts about. If I try a marketing strategy that eventually fails, but don’t commit 100% to it, then how do I know whether the strategy failed or whether my lack of commitment was the problem? I can’t know unless I commit 100%.
That’s the first step. You have to try something and be deeply committed to it.
“Alright Lauren, sounds great! Now how do I figure out the first thing to try?”
Well, if you are asking that, then I assume God has not told what to do next. Alright. I suggest that you do not look inwards, at your own emotions or experiences. After all, nothing feels better than playing music and dancing, and I have no desire to make a living at those activities. Most “find your passion” advice is horrible because it just puts you in the realm of fantasy, which is exactly where you do not need to be. That is the root of narcissism, fantasizing instead of living. It will lead you to isolation, anxiety and depression. During my lost years, when I was drowning in my mental illnesses, this is what was killing me.
Looking inwards never worked for me. I doubt it will work for you.
Instead, look outwards. Look at other people and look at the world. What is the problem that you would most like to solve, if you could? What is the form of suffering that you would most like to end, if you could? Feel free to think as big as possible when answering these questions. Then, break that big problem down until you find a step small enough that you can take it. Take that step. Keep thinking big, and keep taking small steps.
Here is a concrete example.
I have a good friend, we’ll call her Ivy, who lives in a mid-sized, fairly conservative city. She wants to start or be part of an environmental movement and is frustrated by the lack of response she gets in her home town. I asked her, if she could imagine doing something local to help the environment, what would it be?
She told me that what she would really love to do is start a “no-waste” grocery store. Now I will admit that I don’t quite know what that is, but apparently such stores are becoming popular in Europe. The idea is that the store would sell healthy, environmentally friendly food that is grown and produced according to fair labor standards, and would create an absolutely minimal amount of garbage.
I then asked her what was stopping her from starting that store herself. She mentioned a lack of experience in running a business (experience that she is currently gaining.) But then she said something that surprised me. “I have a lot of concern about being able to source products that meets all of my requirements. My main issue is not knowing how to properly research suppliers and the working conditions of their field hands, the quality of their product, their packaging methods and pesticide use, and a number of different factors that I don’t have the least idea how to go about figuring out.”
Now see here’s what’s fascinating. She has identified a clear, concrete problem. And she would certainly pay real money to just make that problem disappear. Well guess what? If she would pay to have that problem just go away, someone else will pay too. And hey, look. She can get started trying to figure out a business, a non-profit, or some kind of informal organization that could go about solving that problem right now. She doesn’t need a loan. She doesn’t need an advanced degree. She just needs to start hacking away and figuring out how to find the information she seeks.
She can start working on the problem in her spare time while she builds her business that currently supports her, or she can dive in head first. The point is that she can start working on the problem this instant.
If you are trying to find your passion, this is the sort of thing you need to do. Take the biggest problem you care about. Figure out, on a local level, what sort of business or organization could combat that problem. Then, start the business or organization. Is there some obstacle preventing you from starting that business? Alright.
Would you pay money to have that obstacle just disappear?
If the answer is “no”, then you need to get off your butt and make the obstacle disappear yourself. No one said finding your passion was going to be easy.
If the answer is “yes”, then look, someone else must feel the same way! Start a business, start a non-profit, start a community group to overcome that obstacle. If even that seems too much, then figure out what’s standing in your way. Start a business to overcome that smaller obstacle. And so on, until you eventually reach the stage where you can take a concrete step towards your goals.
You know what the goal for this website is? An end to stress, anxiety, isolation, depression, constant conflict, paranoia and rage. “Lauren are you serious?” Absolutely. And in order to reach that goal, I have to aim at a smaller, more concrete goal–an end to financial stress for the sort of people who find this site and are willing to put its resources into practice.
What is my fundamental belief? I can describe it in one sentence. People make decisions with their emotions.
That goal and that belief drive everything at Spend Smart Live Rich. And as you might have guessed, those goals and beliefs are fundamental to my ministry and my career as a financial adviser as well.
What is the biggest problem you want to solve? Knowing that all humans suffer, what form of suffering would you just eliminate, if you could? There’s your goal. Now, what do you know or believe about that goal that can serve as a guiding principle for all your actions? That’s your fundamental belief.
Alright. Now all you have to do is break that goal and belief down into tiny steps that you can take right now, tomorrow, over the next week and over the next few months.
Let’s review. Here are the steps.
Step One: Think big. What is the one problem you would like to solve?
Step Two: Imagine. What kind of organization, business or movement could solve that problem?
Step Three: Think small. What is stopping you from building that organization, business or movement right now?
Step Four: Analyze. What can you do, right now, to overcome the obstacles you identified? Keep breaking down the obstacles until you find one where you can build an organization, business or movement that will succeed.
Step Five. Do. Take action. And commit 100% to the actions you are taking.
Step Six. Celebrate. Each and every time you take even the smallest step towards overcoming the obstacle you have identified, cheer yourself on.
Step Seven. Engage. Meet and collaborate with the mentors, friends and associates that will lead you, follow you, or accompany you on your path. Remember that you may need more than an expanded group of friends. You may need entirely new social circles.
Step Eight. Reflect. Learn from the feedback you are getting. Learn to be comfortable being uncomfortable, and learn to quickly admit when you are wrong. If it’s time to change course, do it. If you simply need to work harder, do it.
Now return to step one as often as you need to, and make certain you never skip step five.
So since you have read this far, here is your challenge. Start with the biggest problem you can think of that you want to solve. Then keep breaking that problem down until you can act. Start thinking of your life’s mission this way, and see how things just seem to change around you.
Write down your mission. Write down your goal. Write down your fundamental belief. Write down what you will do right now to get closer to your goal. Write down the steps you will take tomorrow to get closer to that goal. Write down the steps you will take in the next ninety days to get closer to that goal. I don’t care how much closer. If you are still asking “what’s my passion” then you aren’t at the point where you should care how much progress you are making. You just need clearly defined progress.
When you achieve your action steps (not results, actions) then it’s time to celebrate. Please celebrate every single time you do something that gets you closer to your goal. You need to find out whether you can embrace the grind, and that means taking your absolute best shot.
When you find a grind you can embrace, through winning and losing, through success and failure, that grind is your passion. If you find that you hate the grind then that’s OK too. Learn the lessons you need to learn, make the money you need to make, and try totally new things that are outside of your comfort zone. Because that comfort zone is slowly killing you. Follow your fantasies if you must, just be ready to change. If you keep at it, keep up your willingness to put aside your ego, always admit when you’re wrong, keep up your spirit when the going gets tough, keep your ambition when success tempts you with comfort, and keep pushing forwards, you will eventually find a grind you can embrace.
When you love the grind, that’s your passion.