Years ago, when I was a professor, I felt deeply empty despite my success. It seemed that everyone — my parents, my teachers, and my colleagues — expected me to have an academic career.
But the truth was, I wanted to be a rock star. Crazy, right? Following that dream would mean I had wasted four years at Princeton getting my Ph.D. in psychology. How could I change now? Wasn’t it too late?
I kept thinking about how happy my students seemed to be whenever I gave them permission to be their true selves. I got up the courage to join a band, and soon found myself leading a dual life as a professor by day and singer by night. Within a year, I left my solid teaching position to follow my dream.
Making that big leap changed the trajectory of my life. But do you know which small step was equally important for making my dreams come true? I needed to break the bad habit of giving up too soon when things get tough.
Arianna Huffington says, “Change your habits and you quite literally change your life.” In my case, I needed to replace my pattern of quitting with the new habit of looking for other ways to reach my goals when the chips are down.
You see, only one week after I packed up my office to start my new career as a rock star, my band broke up and I had to cancel a summer’s worth of gigs.
The lead guitarist in my band had just driven to LA to pitch our songs to a record label with which he had ties. The A&R representative listened to one of the tunes I had written all the way to the end (a rare event) and declared it to be the sound of the nineties.
Why did my band have to stop NOW?
According to Joseph Campbell (The Hero With a Thousand Faces), I had run into a “threshold guardian.” This mythological fringe dweller appears the moment you cross over into the land of your dreams to determine whether you’re really committed to doing what it takes to get what you want.
Threshold guardians are often easy to pass by if you just keep going. In The Wizard of Oz, for example, a blustery old gatekeeper at the Emerald City barred Dorothy and her friends from entering to see the Wizard, but eventually changed his mind once he noticed her ruby slippers.
After I received the call that my band broke up, I curled up into a fetal position on the couch and ate nothing but peanut butter and crackers for two days. I repeatedly listened to the song we’d recorded that was getting so much traction in LA. I felt like quitting. But threshold guardians show up to test your resolve, right?
Then I had an “aha” moment.
My song featured my voice and guitar playing, not my bandmates. Perhaps my sound was stronger as a singer-songwriter than it had been as the lead singer of a rock band. This setback could be a clue for what I needed to do to succeed.
So, I reached out to the lead guitarist (who still wanted to play with me) and asked him to explore the opportunity further. The A&R rep was excited to hear more songs, and asked a million questions about me, including my age. My guitarist casually mentioned that I was 30 years old and the rep ended the meeting on the spot.
Another dead end. I was too old. What was the use? The world seemed to be against me. I was ready to give up again.
But then I remembered a concept I’d taught in my psychology classes. When you try something new, you often “fail” at the beginning. However, if you examine the learning curve below, you’ll see that it’s normal to be below par at first (lower left-hand point). If you hang in there, you’ll inevitably improve and succeed (upper right-hand point).
So I chose to persist rather than quit. I didn’t buy into the theory that I was past my prime. I looked young for my age, so I kept performing and recording music. I supported myself by lecturing at the University of California, Santa Cruz, where I was voted “Most Inspirational Professor” by the students.
I attended local songwriting events to take my game up a level. I can’t tell you how many times I cried in my car after receiving harsh critiques. Still, I listened and learned. For a couple of years, dozens of my songs got picked up by publishers and record labels in LA and Nashville.
But nothing came of it.
Instead of giving up, I started thinking about alternative pathways to reach my goals. What were some fresh ways I could get my music out?
My manager was South African. Why not put all my best songs in an album and shop it outside the U.S.? That’s just what we did. My debut CD got distributed through a major label in South Africa and produced a top 10 hit when I was 35 years old.
My second CD was distributed in Europe when I was 41. My Madonna spoof — which I’d recorded for a children’s album with the alias “Mad Donna” — became a number 17 single in the U.K., beating out J Lo, when I was 45.
Clearly, I was born to sing. What about you? What trail would you blaze if you set your soul free?
Just like Dorothy always had the power to go home, you’ve always had a unique gift to share with the world. Reawaken your buried dreams, honor what makes you different, and keep looking for new ways to reach your goals, and you will create a life you love.
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