And we dance, To a whispered voice;
Overheard by the soul, Undertook by the heart;
And you may know it, If you may know it
Neil Diamond, Jonathan Livingston Seagull
Roles help us find ourselves
I’ve played many roles in my life: physician, professor, a college dean, a college president, a window washer, a retail store manager, consultant, and a guy who cleaned eyeglasses and hawked some anti-fog stuff for eyeglasses…yes, many roles and obviously not in that order.
You probably have played several, too. There is nothing wrong with playing these roles. But like we do in perfecting our golf swing or crafting the perfect cup of coffee, hopefully…eventually…we find a sweet spot. We find that one type of role within which we could stay in character for the rest of our lives.
Roles help reveal what comes easily to us. On a deeper level, we call these traits, talents, and strengths. Over time we experiment with different roles to determine our interests. I see roles as hugely important because the results of these experiences ultimately inform us about our deepest work.
The rest of this post is somewhat autobiographical. It discusses various phases in my life and the roles I played. It talks about the fractured process of discovering my strengths, talents, and ultimately, my deepest work and concludes with how you can avoid a similarly painful 40-year search for your deepest work.
The early years
The path to my deepest work has been anything but linear. As an aspiring actor in high school, I was the poster boy for ‘Most Likely To Succeed.’ My yearbooks were filled with remarks like, “Remember me when you accept your first Academy Award,” and “Be sure to sign my yearbook so that I have your autograph for when you’re too famous to remember me.”
It seemed that my destiny was to be a performer; to impact others with my ability to delve deeply into various characters and bring the intimate detail of their struggle to the screen, small or large. With roles to my credit such as the overbearing Lord Capulet in Romeo & Juliet, the mentally challenged Charley in Flowers for Algernon, and other lead and supporting roles, I was poised for greater roles and larger venues.
That didn’t happen
The dream of becoming an actor never was never realized because I gave up on it, far too easily I might add, not long after graduating from high school. I acted in a few student films, one for my close friend Bill, who today is Billy Dickson, A.S.C., an award-winning television and film director/cinematographer.
My fellow actor and high school friend, Brad ‘Taylor’ Negron also went on to appear in numerous films, write and produce plays, and perform stand-up comedy. Another actor and friend, Michael Mendelsohn, today is a performing tenor in the San Francisco Bay Area with several light opera and theater companies.
The chief reason I gave up before mounting any serious effort, was mainly that I had no support at home for anything but a traditional college trajectory. If I wanted to be an actor, I’d have to be enrolled in college; that was the edict from the parental units.
The gauntlet was thrown and the ultimatum issued; So I enrolled at Pasadena City College, about ten miles from where I lived. Unfortunately, my schedule didn’t include any acting classes, only algebra, English composition, and other general studies. These courses didn’t interest me in the slightest.
I was miserable every day I was there. I hated college so much that I withdrew and bought a ticket to England to lose myself in another country. And though the time I spent in the UK was transformative in many ways, it was a substitute for doing what I really wanted to be doing. I was still the same directionless, unmotivated kid I’d always been, just on another continent; the unfulfilled longing to connect with my art remained a gaping wound.
Before this seems like a pity party, let me state that it’s no one’s fault but mine. For years I blamed my parents for my lack of direction, for my fractured life, but the truth was evident. I simply didn’t want it as bad as my friends did, and who are today in the arts.
I feel as if I owe my friends a deep apology (my parents and I have long since discussed this in case you’re wondering). It was my own directionless state that I chose to remain in; it wasn’t like anyone had a weapon pointed at me. (Actually, that would happen later in a McDonald’s restaurant robbery in San Francisco, but that’s not important to this discussion.)
The young adult years
Fast forward ten years, and I found myself married for the second time, still substituting any kind of work for my unknown deepest work. I was a father of three, attending medical school (I ultimately did finish college with a bachelor’s degree in biology, though a bit later than my contemporaries) and I thought I was headed for an illustrious career in medicine. Certainly, that had to be my deepest work.
I graduated from medical school, completed a residency in foot and ankle surgery, and for a few years, all looked good. I wasn’t making much money as practice opportunities weren’t plentiful for new kids on the professional block – pre-HMO era. I loved the one-on-one time spent with patients and the intellectual aspect of medicine was certainly stimulating, but still there remained a visceral level of discomfort deep inside that I wasn’t able to articulate.
Needing to earn some additional money, and kind of on a whim, I answered an advertisement for a teaching position at a local college. I figured I could make some extra money teaching anatomy & physiology, a topic I was fluent in.
I loved teaching immediately. It was an immediate fit for me in that I found something I was as comfortable with as acting. My ability to lead students to explore new areas of knowledge and skill was a natural path. While medicine was intellectually thrilling, it lacked the fulfillment I had when acting and performing, and now teaching.
A part-time teaching position led to an offer for a full-time one. After some soul-searching and shedding a few tears mourning the loss of my anticipated medical career, I took the full-time teaching job. My youngest son, Jay, had just been born and I needed to provide some stability for my family.
I felt as if I’d betrayed myself
But in reality, I was on the right path, I just didn’t know it. In retrospect, if I hadn’t moved into teaching, I’d never have found my sacred calling or my most meaningful work.
I’d been teaching for a while when I was appointed Dean. This meant less time in the classroom and more spending more time on administrative tasks. I took the promotion because of the money even though I immediately missed the engagement in the classroom. The Dean’s position led to being named President of another college a few years later. That job was more of a headache than anything else; it lasted only two years. Part of my job was to oversee the writing of accreditation studies -think multiple volumes of writing and supporting documents- that kept Title IV Federal Financial Aid funding in place for students.
This was to be the link that introduced me to writing as a profession. It introduced me to the corporate side of writing, something I’d not experienced at that time. When my second marriage ended, I was awarded sole custody of my youngest son and we moved from Silicon Valley to Santa Cruz on the beach. I got a job -just a time filler, or so I thought- with a national engineering firm headquartered nearby.
I spent the next decade honing my business writing skills, something I’d always done well, as a project manager writing and managing proposals for complex infrastructure projects over $50 million in construction value. I was successful in winning projects that included the US/Mexico International Border Fences, numerous light rail projects like the Las Vegas Monorail as well as the California High-Speed Rail projects.
It was good work, it paid well, but it had little to do with my deepest work. I endured a toxic corporate atmosphere for far too long and my health suffered because of it. For the next twelve years, writing would become evident as a primary component of my deepest work and support my tiny family in the process.
I wrote for business clients, developed and taught online courses, and published books. I developed a loyal online and offline following, and over the next few years, enjoyed considerable success. In quiet moments I pondered how the transition from physician to Internet business owner was even possible. It seemed to me like a strange series of linked events, yet here I was living the reality.
I enrolled in online courses taught by experts that helped me drill into the deeper aspects of the work I enjoyed. I took several online courses of six months in duration and a longer 12-month program as well. I continued to explore those creative areas that seemed to put me in a place of peace and fulfillment investing well over $20,000 in my ongoing education over the next several years.
I knew that if I wanted to make world-changing contributions, I’d have to find and develop my deepest work.
Bringing all the pieces together
After forty years of working seemingly independent jobs, a pattern emerged. I started to see that my years in acting, teaching, and writing were a natural expression of who I was and were activities that produced flow. When I engaged any of these activities, I was in-the-zone, totally absorbed in my art.
Here’s what I noticed about this pattern:
- Acting and performing placed me in flow
- My years working one-on-one with patients awakened both a sense of compassion and a desire to alleviate their suffering
- Teaching and working with students one-on-one (another form of acting and performance) coupled with communicating critical information, allowed me to help others find their way to greater achievement
- Writing and publishing books, eBooks, teaching online courses brought all of these activities together
From this pattern, I derived a list of terms that I classified into types of work. I found they correlated to Abraham Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs classification. In the list below, my terms -in bold text- are followed by Dr. Maslow’s classifications in italics:
- Work – those activities that enable us to meet basic needs related to physiologic survival and safety
- Meaningful Work – activities that tap our natural strengths and talents and allow us to meet the higher level needs of esteem, love and belonging
- Most Meaningful Work – work that magnifies our ability to meet and exceed lower and higher level needs but also allows us to achieve the highest human need, self-actualization
I later added two additional types of work:
- Toxic Work – that work that detracts from our happiness because it interferes with our abilities to meet the higher needs of esteem, love and belonging
- Deepest Work – repetitive contributions to the world that are only made possible by engaging our Most Meaningful Work, leading us to prolonged periods of self-actualization
It occurred to me that before I knew my deepest work, I’d habitually settled for jobs that I’ve since classified as toxic work. They interfered with my ability to meet higher aspirations and needs for esteem, love, and belonging. I also considered those jobs that propelled me toward meeting these same needs and knew that these jobs were accessing aspects of my most meaningful work.
Now that I knew the difference, charting a course to make lasting contributions was a matter of working through the processes that led me there.
Evolving your deepest work
It took me 40 years of introspection, experimentation, and action to fully know my deepest work. I am convinced that each us has a sacred calling that’s coded into our very DNA.
Unless we do the work of discovering our deepest loves, favorite activities, talents, and strengths we will not reach that state of flow that accompanies self-actualization.
My deepest work weaves together all the most important themes I discussed above. It allows me to change the world.
Your deepest work allows you to change the world. When you know your deepest work, all limitations drop away and you’re empowered to change the world.
A chip off this old block
My youngest son Jay, who I mentioned earlier, is now 21 years old. He’s a talented musician and lyricist.
While he was growing up, I felt my sole purpose for living was to raise him to adulthood and see him occupy a place of autonomy and maturity. It was a responsibility and mission sacred as any in my life. Even now, when I write about it, it evokes much emotion.
I’ve said many times that during the darker times in our lives, it was he who saved me, and not the other way around; it was he who finished raising me instead of the reverse; that it was he who shared his innate luminescence and lit my path.
You’ll recall that I wrote above having no support in my aspirations as an actor. In Jay’s case, and for my older children as well, I decided early on to allow him to choose his path based on what he found that he loved to do more than anything else.
His music, his most meaningful work, his deepest work, is already evident and he is actively engaging it at 21. He has a lifetime ahead, as all of us do, but he possesses more direction at 21 than I did.
That is what I want for you
Your deepest work and your sacred mission might have everything or nothing to do with your current work. I know that astounds weird, right? The truth is that what you identify as your deepest work has a lot to do with what you’re excited about.
It doesn’t matter if your 18 or 80, retired, in a career, or in college or university, knowing your deepest work isn’t something you should go to you grave without discovering and fully embracing.