How many of you remember The Rose? The movie where Bette Midler plays self-destructive rock star (I know that seems redundant, but back then none of us knew Mic Jagger would still be singing “Satisfaction” at 70 or that some kind of voodoo would keep reanimating Keith Richards.) who fatally overdoses on stage at a performance?
The band I was touring with at the time went to see it in the theater (after VHS but before DVD made films watchable at home). We were somewhere in Alabama. It was a cool night. We wore jackets against the wind, but it was the movie that brought tears to the two girl singers eyes. They thought the tragic ending was “horrible.” The two other boys were trying to act macho, probably to impress the girls (or themselves) with a lack of emotional response. But having always be skewed at least 10° from the rest of the world, I took a different message from the ending.
I Was Inspired!
The Rose had died doing something she believed in, something she thought was important. You just can’t go out any better than that.
Okay, there was the overdose thing and the tragedy of the music she would never make…not to mention the psychological impact on her fans. But still! How many of us waste our lives drudging after a paycheck and how many get to spend our lives doing work we think is important and that we love doing? Do you?
The Rose taught me that maybe being a rock star wasn’t really what I wanted. Knowing what isn’t your real passion is a big step toward finding out what is.
If You Love What You Do…
A more positive lesson came a bit later when I was visiting my parents, who had by that time retired to a small ranch near Cuero. It was almost Christmas. Dad and I were walking the property when it started to sleet. We came upon the neighbor fixing a strand of barbed wire that had broken. He was sucking the blood off the back of his had from where he had cut himself uncoiling a new run of wire. Here was an 82-year-old man shedding his life’s blood to fix a strand of barbed wire in the sleet at sundown when that minor task that could have waited until the next day. Dad immediately lent a hand. I didn’t know what to do but stay out of the way, so with the accumulated wisdom of my twenty-something years, I asked, “Isn’t it a bit late to be doing work like that.” Even then I had enough sense to leave off the politically incorrect, “At your age.”
The neighbor gave me a knowing look as if he’d heard the omitted phrase. “If you love what you do, it ain’t work.”
“If you love what you do, it ain’t work.” That echoed something I’d read from Robert Heinlein just a few days before. He said, “Happiness lies in being privileged to work hard for long hours in doing whatever you think is worth doing…. Contrariwise, if you are looking for shorter hours and longer vacations and early retirement, you are in the wrong job. Perhaps you need to take up bank robbing. Or geeking in a sideshow. Or even politics.”
Once again I found myself in the wrong job, but this time it was one that would help me find the right one. I ended up spending most of the next 30 years teaching adults how to do various jobs. That meant I got to learn how to do them well enough to help others learn them. I’ll tell you right now, there’s only one reason to become a teacher of any kind: because you’re passionate about helping others learn. Teaching is one of those underappreciated, underpaid callings—like nursing and parenting. In the corporate world, where I worked, it is only funded when growth makes failure to do so too costly, and it is one of the first areas cut in a downturn. I once heard a corporate executive ask in all seriousness, “Why are you asking for six weeks to do training? It’s only one bullet on the project plan.” Umm… because we’re training 40,000 people on six continents and we’ve got to train almost a thousand trainers first?
Even today, I spend much of my time training others. I no longer get paid directly for it, I just can’t seem to stop.
The Power of Passion
Now for the most important reason to only do what you’re passionate about: It can help you live longer.
This is the most positive example of the power of passion.
Almost everybody knows of Stephen Hawking, the super genius who some say “invented black holes.” Well, he mathematically predicted them rather than discovered them. Then he went on to refute some of his earlier work with the concept of Hawking radiation, the radiation that black holes emit when they’re not feeding (AKA black hole evaporation). If you don’t know him for his science, you probably still know him as that silver-wheeled scientist who talks through a computer.
Hawking was diagnosed with ALS, a disease that kills most of its victims within two years of diagnosis, just before his 21st birthday. As of this writing, he has just turned 76 and still has one of the most active minds in science. Whether you believe that longevity is because he has an extremely rare, slow-progressing form of the disease or because the power of his mind and passion keep driving his body, as the biographical movie seems to suggest, is up to you. I believe we can accomplish just about anything we focus our minds on doing. (I hear the naysayers. “So why do we still all die?” Because eventually the effort to stay alive becomes too tiring, and we don’t want to keep up the effort.)
In 2000, NPR ran a series on people who live for more than 100 years. Producer Neenah Ellis said they all had three things in common, including a fierce sense of independence and deep connections to the community and family. But I believe the most important of these, one that may derive from the other two, was that they all want to be alive. They have a passion that keeps them moving. For one woman it was to manage the farm that had been in her family longer than she’d been alive, that and a desire to go skinny dipping in the cattle pond on foggy mornings.
And I don’t want to hear the “I’m too old excuse.” Sue Ann and I will be sixty this year. This week she started the course to become a Texas Master Naturalist, a volunteer program that comes with a textbook big enough to smash a budgie, although a TMN would never do that! The point is, whenever you find your passion, do it. And your passion will naturally change over time.
As Shakespeare put it, “In the end we’re all food for worms.” If you’re not doing something you love and that you think is important—no matter what that is—you’re wasting your life. Stop it! Do something that matters to you. As Garth Brooks put it:
There’s two dates in time that they’ll carve on your stone.
And everyone knows what they mean.
What’s more important is the time that is known
In that little dash there in between.
Let’s all do our best to make that dash meaningful.