Audio elesson_2013-0520

One of the best things that ever happened to me was failing to accomplish a goal. My mother pushed her children to pursue music because it was a big part of her past; her mother was an opera singer in Europe. She got us into music by having us participate in school band. I started playing French Horn in the seventh grade, and continued practicing through high school, with increasing intensity, preparing for a music career. I was pretty good at playing the horn. Midway through my senior year, I participated in All-State Band tryouts, a litmus test I set for myself, to see if I was good enough. I didn’t make All-State Band. Fortunately I wasn’t good enough.

There’s a danger at being good at something. Yet that’s what we focus on when deciding careers. We ask “What do I want to do?” and then look at what we’re good at to answer that question. But this question is wrong in many ways. It leads to unconscious striving for what is comfortable so we can cope with life’s struggles.

A student of the famous German poet Rainer Rilke was confused about whether he should continue with his studies to become a writer. Rilke told him, “Write only if you have to.” It sounds like Rilke is telling him to search for anything besides writing, and if he can’t find anything, then choose the less desirable option of writing. What he’s really saying is write only if you feel you’d die if you didn’t write. In other words, writing is such an integral part of who you are that, if you didn’t write, your life would be meaningless and lack purpose.

When I didn’t make All-State Band, I was in a state of divine discontent. Up to that point, all of my attention was consumed with moving toward my goal of a career in music. I had tunnel vision. An interesting thing happens, though, when we fail to reach a goal. We become disillusioned. “Disillusioned” means we become free from illusion. When we become disillusioned, our attention broadens to include other opportunities open to us. For me, I noticed more people in my high school classes that were not in music. One person, Steve who sat next to me in English class, started a conversation with me. He was a climber and invited me to go climbing. Being disillusioned, I was open to doing something new, so I went with him.

I was excited about climbing the first day I experienced it. No one forced me or suggested I needed to create a career in climbing. I didn’t think about careers. I was just excited to climb. I couldn’t logically explain it. I didn’t have to ask “Should I a climb?” as Rilke’s student did. I climbed because I had to.

“What do I want to do?” is passive and receiving oriented. It’s also a logical process that causes us to make justifications and come up with reasons to support our decision. Those reasons will tend to be motivated by comfort. This approach focuses on what’s external to us, things we want to get to make our lives comfortable. Being good at something is dangerous because it builds confidence, that we then rely on, to justify our earlier decision. Being good at playing my horn gave me confidence that I’d made the correct decision to pursue music. It feeds on itself until the reality of not being good enough leaves us feeling like we’re living a meaningless life.

“What am I excited about?” is a more engaging question. It’s active and giving oriented. It’s also NOT logical; it’s intuitive. Knowing something intuitively doesn’t give us short concise answers. We can’t justify or come up with reasons why we want to climb; we just know at an intuitive level that we want to do it. That excitement isn’t motivated by comfort; it’s motivated by engagement, which is stressful. We aren’t just coping with life’s struggles; we’re actively engaging them with our whole being.

“What excites me?” is framed in feelings that are internal to us. We’re not climbing because we’re good at it, and we’re not dependent on being good to give us confidence to continue climbing. Our confidence comes from an unexplainable desire to climb. It’s something that pours out of us, needing expression. The danger of following something we’re excited about is that it’s insecure, rife with stress, with no logical reasons supporting why we should do it. Yet the insecurity will resolve itself as we engage the activity. Stress becomes raw material that gives our lives purpose and meaning. And who cares about the reasons anyway? Why should we have to explain why we want to do something?

“What excites me?” puts us in the middle of stress. We want to be there because that’s where the excitement is. We’re content with the ups and down, the happiness and sadness, because it’s all part of the process. This deep engagement draws out our essence and requires us to give our unique gifts to the world. “What excites me?” gives us meaning and purpose.

What’s paradoxical is that we’ll be good at climbing as a result of being excited about it, because it causes us to take action. Taking action is what’s necessary for becoming good. We don’t focus on being good, to become good. We focus on doing what excites us and become good as a result of our deep engagement in the activity.

This Post Has 8 Comments

  1. Jesse O'Neal

    Arno – thanks for this message. I’m at a crossroads in my work and need to hear this insight. It is true that I never, ever question why I climb. I climb because it challenges me like nothing I’ve ever done.

  2. Thomas Beck

    I think today’s e-lesson concise and insightful. Certainly similar to some of my life experiences.;”Taking action” being the key.

  3. EB

    I like this e-lesson. I also had a similar childhood experience. I was focused so hard on becoming a pilot, but then learned in college that I am partially color blind, making it impossible for me to fly for the US military. My life would have been completely different, but this shift in focus has opened my mind and life up in a completely different way. I agree, it really all comes down to “taking action” and really putting the nose to the grind stone to make what you are passionate about be a part of your life.

  4. Miguel Gallardo

    It was the same for me. I was obsessed with a promotion in what I was good at. But that didn’t happenned. So, instead of being disapointed I felt relieved. Now I am pursuing a complete different line of working. And I feel freer than I was before -and much less safe-, even though the perspectives now are not so good as they were back then. But now I ask myself, does this excite me? And of course it does. Now I’m out of my confort zone. And I really feel where the excitement is now. I’m “Taking action”.

  5. isabel

    Wonderful insight… thank you so much. I have finally surrendered to my passion for dance and I have learned to trust that our passions lead the way.

  6. Brian u

    As an artist who is not making much money some times I feel like a fool painting when I’m the only one who is all excited in the way the pigment is used to reflect light and the feeling of limitation in using pigments to illistrate light but when it works I don’t care about money it’s the work that’s important and this article speaks to that point it’s the work for the joy of itself that is what brings it value to me. My creativity is a reflection of a higher intelegence that also makes snow flakes and that makes me smile

  7. RJ

    Excellent points, Arno! I’ll definitely be using this in my presentation to woodcarvers in New Zealand in a couple of weeks. Your last sentence is perfect. I never thought of myself becoming a rock climber or a teacher, but I have pursued both merely because they were exciting. As I experienced success, I became more excited and more invested in the work, despite the discomforts or difficulties. We end up pushing ourselves to a level beyond where we had ever imagined because we get lost in the excitement of the activity, whether at work or at play. Perhaps that’s why I like climbers so much – we’re always pushing ourselves to greater heights, never satisfied with the status quo. We’re not lazy or boring, that’s for sure.

  8. arno

    it inspires me to hear all your comments. if these elessons help us all make connections beyond our current understanding of reality…then i’m pleased.

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