My mom had a really beautiful singing voice. While she was dusting or washing dishes, she would sing. Quietly, so you had to listen to hear it. I was never sure if she sang so softly because she was shy or because it was just for her.
I was curious, so I asked her one day. I said, "you have such a beautiful voice. How come you never did anything with it?" For her, the question seemed to come out of left field. I don't know whether she was surprised I liked her voice, surprised by the question or surprised that her singing was happening out loud. Her answer was essentially that it had never really occurred to her. It just was never something she cared to pursue...no choir she wanted to join, no gin joint she wanted to sing torch songs in, no stage she wanted to perform on.
At the time, it was an important question to me. I was probably 16 or so and was struggling with similar questions myself. It seems there are two schools of thought—either you find something you're good at in life and pursue that. Or you find something you're passionate about in life and pursue that.
There were so many things my mother could have done with her life. She was intelligent and very well suited to many paths. Whenever we lived in Washington, DC, she worked in politics. And she was good at it. At times when we lived on military bases and my father was a big deal, her job would be to be his wife...a first lady of sorts, entertaining and leading the wives of the men my father led. And she was good at it. And when we lived elsewhere, she raised six children and cared for my father. And she was good at that.
I spent a lot of time with my mother during the last months of her life and I don't think she died with any regrets. But at the time I asked the question, I was looking ahead in my life and struggling within myself...do I do what I'm good at or do I do what puts a fire in my belly? By being a writer, I think I ended up doing a little bit of both. But there were a lot of things that I was good at and passionate about at the time. I also loved to act and sing, which was a special thing my mother and I shared—our love for the performing arts. I was also good with numbers and science and other more intellectual pursuits. But those things didn't capture my excitement and imagination the way writing and, at the time performing, did.
So I struggled. I wondered if my mother was happy or just compromising...or if it was a question she even asked herself. And my father was very practical. He was an engineer and I think he liked engineering, but his career choices were always driven more by practicality than passion. He was very successful...a two-star general. But I think he did what he was good at, not what he was passionate about. He might have preferred being a mechanic or a fishing boat captain, perhaps.
So there I was, wondering how I should go. Certainly being an actress wasn't considered practical or smart, nor was being a writer. Somehow I managed not to listen to the "practical" side and, instead, chose to pursue my passion. This didn't make my dad very happy, but my mother at the very least suspended disbelief and supported me.
One of my areas of specialization as a marketing person is higher education branding. I often think about how kids struggle with what they want to pursue in college. Not that the two have to be mutually exclusive, but do they go after what they're good at or do they become good at what they're passionate about? I would always recommend the latter, because I think that when you're passionate about something, you can be excited about learning ever more about it every day of your life. I've been writing ads and headlines for 27 years now, and I still have stuff to learn...and I'm enthusiastic about learning it. There is no currency as valuable as that.
When I was growing up, people who were passionate about something and who just wanted to live a happy life were called hippies. They were looked down upon for opening their silly small businesses and speaking at environmental and human-rights rallies and growing organic foods and whatnot. They were seen as non-contributors to society, but time has affirmed many of the missions they held dear.
The pressure and pull of how society seeks to shape us can often be so strong that we lose the very things that make us special in the process. I wouldn't have been a very successful songstress or actress. I know that now. And I get why my mother never even really considered being a singer. Just because you're good at something is not a reason to do it. But I do think if you're not happy doing what you're doing, that there's value in revisiting those dreams of the past and seeing what they have in common.
A few years back, my job had me interviewing executives and identifying that common thread that ran through their dreams. It was a branding exercise to see what really drives the people in that company to excel. But the interesting thing that came from it was that they all had the same passion...to help others create a greater impact in the world. Whether they liked their jobs or not, they were pursuing their passion. And chances are, you are too. And if you're not happy with it, then the adjustment you need to make isn't as big as you think. Identify that common thread and find something else you can do that might make you happier.
For me, most of my threads have to do with somehow affecting, touching or healing people with my words and ideas. It's what I do now as a copywriter (well, maybe not the healing, but that's the hole this blog fills) and, as I look toward the future I see me continuing to do it, but in a different way. It's a theme in my life that reaches back to my first pleas for an audience as an infant. My mother's theme might have been in helping others shine and feel good, so she was following her passion whether she knew it or not. My father's might have been in problem solving. Again, that's what he ended up doing in his life, whether he realized it or not. You have a theme, too. All it takes is to look back at what you've always loved, find the common thread and follow it to what brings you joy and fulfillment.