Also known as the “Lead with What You Love” speech.
I was a 28-year-old assistant professor of Economics at The University of Texas and I was trying to figure out how to play big. I loved teaching, I spent a lot of time reading voraciously – devotional classics and books about spirituality, and I went to the theater and the movies and absorbed art. And what I was not doing was any academic research of any kind whatsoever, which, if you’re on the tenure track, is a problem because it’s effectively an oncoming train. I figured I needed some sort of intervention.
So I sought out a wise man – Will Spong – a professor at the local seminary who had a reputation for insight and tough love. And I said, “I need a moral authority. I love business education, I love theology, and I love theater. So will you tell me what to do? Do I hold my nose and do the research and get tenure? Or do I move to New York and write plays until I’m discovered? Or do I give it all up, join the seminary, and become a priest? Whatever you say, I am going to do.”
He said, “This is the stupidest question anyone has ever asked me.”
He said, “You’re telling me there are the three things you love and you want me to tell you which two to cut off so you can limp along on the other one.” He goes, “This is not how things work. The advice I have for you is ‘don’t discard.’ Find a way to keep all three of these things in the mix.” I said, “Yeah, but what am I going to do for a living?” He said, “You’ll find out. Right now what you do is spend two hours a week wholeheartedly engaged in all three things. They’ll talk to each other in your life and something will begin to happen that is unique and powerful.” Now this made me really angry because what I came in was for a shot of cortisone and what I got, in effect, was some sort of weird homeopathic thing.
And I trusted him because, when you look at him, you see in his face this confidence, generosity, insight, this weird mix of warm and firm, and a personal authority that I found completely compelling. So I did it. I started taking classes at the seminary in theological ethics, I started taking creative writing classes at UT and going to open-mike nights on Sixth Street to perform monologues, and I started paying attention to what my students were trying to do so that I could figure out how I could help.
And then something weird happened. By the time I showed up to resign my assistant professorship, it wasn’t like I had made any big decision. I was simply acknowledging what had already, in fact, happened. After my chairman asked what I would do for health insurance, the next thing happened: I was hired back to teaching — only this position paid 50% more. So I had more latitude and I loved this.
And as I got into a regular rhythm of engaging these reliable sources of inspiration, I started getting better at them – which felt really good. What didn’t feel so good was having to respond to the question: What do you do for a living? Because instead of a career, I had a loose collection of hobbies. And I remember Will Spong saying to me, “You don’t need a career, you need a calling and right now you’re listening.” It’s interesting how he framed this puzzle: There’s this technology for finding your own way to play big that doesn’t involve making a bold sacrificial commitment, but rather involves being determined to keep all the pieces in play, trusting the wisdom in that, and waiting for your calling to take shape.
Perhaps this is what the theologian and writer, Frederick Buechner meant when he said, “You find your calling where your deep passion meets the world’s deep need.” It’s probably also the inspiration for the business guru, Jim Collins, who found that companies that are really great are the ones that are doing what they love, doing what they’re good at, and doing it in a way that people will pay money for – that is, they meet some need. So I found very quickly that these sources of inspiration that were active in my life were starting to talk to each other. For instance, I was using improv techniques in my economics classes. I was using technology from the classroom in my theater pieces. People loved overhead projectors onstage – remember, this was the 90s – it took audiences back to a very vulnerable place in their life. And I also discovered that since money is god to most of us, an economist has a lot to contribute to a seminary. In fact, at one point, the seminary dean came to me and said, “Would you be willing to teach a class on the spiritual power of money?” And I didn’t even have to think about that. I said, “Yes, yes I will.” And I went home and somehow the syllabus came together and I got to be part of the lives of the divinity students and that was very, very satisfying. These lines began to blur and cross and the next thing I knew, one of the local theaters wanted to produce an evening of my monologues.
Then things got really weird: I got a call from a businessman, for whom I have great respect, who was organizing a conference for technology executives and he asked if I’d write a play for the occasion. And I said, “No, I’m not entertainment.” He said, “We need someone who can reflect on the spiritual significance of the technology stock market bubble.” And I thought, “I’m in. I can do that!” If you’d told me when I was 18 that I could get a job as a corporate-spiritual-playwright, I would have majored in that.
As things started to fit together, I was concluding that part of playing big was the small ways of demonstrating what you can do well, small ways to package your intention, and get it out in the world. We might call it “lead with what you love.” And when you do that, people who are further down the path, who are wiser and better connected than you are, see what you’re trying to do and make ways for you to do more of it. I have never been any good at networking. I’m shy and I resist anything that feels like celebrity stalking. But by putting the best representations of my best intentions out there, I kept making connections that helped build what I was really trying to do.
I then discovered another practice in the beautiful book by Julia Cameron, The Artist’s Way: In the morning, get up and write three pages every day because that’s creating the pool into which the disparate streams of your life can flow and mingle. If you show up to that page every day, you will teach yourself how to put things together. Now some of us do that through exercise, some of us through meditation, some through service, and some of us do it through conversation with the people we trust. But it is this regular showing up to this place, where you have hospitably cleared the way for stuff to come together and teach you, that produces this result.
Now I found that, after the novelty wore off, I didn’t really like this because the stuff that was showing up on the page made me anxious. I didn’t want to look at my own emotional seaweed. I didn’t want to look at how slowly things were coming together. I didn’t want constant reminders that I was behind the curve and my friends were getting ahead. I didn’t like the mirror and I didn’t want too much reality – and the page was a lot of both. But when I overcame my resistance, I kept showing up, and this practice started to drop me down to a deeper connection to life. And that was affirmed when life got urgent and other demands stepped in the way. And I stepped away from that practice and I noticed that dimensions started to shut down. I found myself getting impatient more inclined to complain and be sarcastic. And taking less delight in other people’s success. This showing up to the page every day became critical to what we might call “mental health.” It’s what kept me going.
So this idea of showing up and overcoming resistance: Don’t care about the fact that you’re not moving fast enough. Don’t let the big that you aspire to be a barrier to the small that’s going to get you there.
And then what happened was another connection occurred: A businessman and teacher who had seen a little class that I did at the Seton Cove Retreat Center, called and said, “I’m starting a business school and we’re going to try and care about the students who come back to school because they’re confused and disappointed, and they really need to find a way to put their lives together more powerfully. And I want you to teach a class for us called “Life of Meaning.” And I said, “I’m in.”
And I showed up for this class and the students loved the idea of finding a calling. And they knew the parts of themselves that they’d cut off and discarded and sacrificed for the sake of their narrow notions of success. They just didn’t know how to make this bigger thing happen in light of the constraints they faced. So they started coming up to me in about the third session of class, and say, “Yes, I want a calling. Yes, I want this kind of integration. I want to play big, but I’m afraid I won’t make enough money if I do that.”
So what we did next is a little exercise: How much do you need? And they’d go home with their spreadsheet and they’d work together and they’d come back and most of them would find that it was surprisingly less than they thought and they’d get this new degree of freedom. So immediately they’d react and say, “I’m cool with that, but my spouse would never go for it.” So then we’d ask each other, “When was the last time you talked to your mate about what it is you’re doing together?” And although we didn’t do this at the height of graduate school when the mate is doing the dishes –we’d save this for one of the breaks — the students would come back and say it was one of the best conversations they’d had.
And these degrees of freedom would start to open and when they opened, the students would see, “I can do more than I thought.” And the magic payoff of an extra degree of freedom is you suddenly see needs that, before, you were blind to. We defended against big challenges that we didn’t believe we could do anything about because it was just painful to see them. But as we created degrees of freedom, more room to maneuver, when we simplified our lives, and realized, “I can get by with a little less money. I realize that some of my notions about my relationships can be re-thought.” All of sudden, this freedom pays off in the ability to see things that we couldn’t see before.
So then my students challenged themselves. “How can I overcome my addictions? How can I renegotiate relationships that are stuck? How can I free other people of my felt need to have them affirm me? How do I get the degrees of freedom to go further in this thing that proving reliable?”
I went back to see Will Spong and I said, “Tell me what to do about homeless people. When I pass them on the street, do I give them money or not? Whatever you say, I will do.” He said, “Why are you so worked up about this? It doesn’t matter whether you give them money or not. Look in their eyes, because that’s where the answer is.” I said, “I don’t want to do that, that’s creepy.” He said, “Well stop complaining about this then. I’m telling you this is what you’re trying to accomplish.”
So I started doing it. I’d walk down the Drag and if someone asked for money, I’d just look them in their eyes and sometimes I’d give them money and sometimes I said, “Friend, I don’t have anything for you today.” And one time, I took a guy and bought him a bus ticket to a place that I wasn’t even sure existed. And sometimes, I’d sit on the stoop at the Baptist church and they’d tell me jokes.
Things happen that are unpredictable. One day I was the intersection with the people who will work for food and saw a man. And we looked at each other, I looked at him and he looked at me. I had just come from the grocery store and I had a pop-top can of tuna, and I don’t know what possessed me, but I just reached in, got it, and handed it to him. And he looked at me, stunned and surprised. And then we laughed because somehow we had beaten the racket and made a human connection. I was excited, and when I got home, I told Eugene the whole story and he got excited, and we both started carrying tuna around in our car. And we told friends about it and the next thing you know, we’re part of this informal tuna network of people playing big in a weird improvisational way.
And I wonder: when we start to see things and really look at them, playing big becomes about something else. The poet, Rainer Maria Rilke, stayed with August Rodin in Paris for awhile. You can only imagine how this vexed Rodin, an established mature artist, to have this kid running around who was trying to prove himself, anxious to be recognized for his genius. And it’s just wasn’t happening. His poetry was too self-absorbed and silly. Finally, Rodin picks him up by the scruff of his neck and says, “Go to the Paris Zoo, pick an animal and stare at the animal until you can’t help but write, but wait until that very last moment, don’t give in at the early urge, but hold off until you can’t help it.” Of course, Rilke picked the panther and we got the beautiful poem that launched his career.
If we want to play big, we’ve got to cultivate the habit of staring at things until they inspire us. Not when we get that first itch. “Ah, this is my silver bullet, this is my quick fix, this is the shot of cortisone. I know what to do, just do it.” But sit. Let it inform us until it becomes, in us, what it has to be. Now think about this when you spot something that might be your missing piece. You know how it feels — that excitement, that exhilaration, that romantic attachment, that instant sense of possibility. It’s like falling in love and you want it now. You want to do something impetuous and passionate – and it’s not such a good idea. It’s not such a good idea because before you marry a fantasy, you should take it on a couple of dates first. You want to listen to it, let it inform you.
So when I heard we were going to talk about playing it big, I started thinking to myself, “What is playing it big?” Because there’s a way of thinking about it that’s heroic, the one big roll of the dice, putting it all out there, doing something bold and courageous – and that sort of bravado is usually driven by our deficits. That’s often trying to escape the truth. That’s often a response to mortality and denying death and just trying to keep ourselves from facing what’s real.
And then there’s this organic way of playing it big that’s really about practice. It’s about paying attention, it’s about not discarding. It’s about leading with what you love. It’s about making degrees of freedom so the work the world wants to do through you can happen. And, as I’ve said, trying to decide what to do next. As I find myself at this point in my life, I find myself drawn to the folks who are about half a generation ahead of me. And some of them seem so disappointed at life and bitter that life has not given them what they deserved. And they’re still waiting for a silver bullet and relying on some charisma that’s starting to play out. They didn’t get what they wanted. And there are other people, people who you can see survive with their aspirations intact; they came through this adventure with so much of themselves. They still have spiritual flexibility, they still have moral authority, and they still have a capacity for joy. On their faces you can see lines of rich experience because they’re capable of showing it and expressing it. And that’s what I wanted. That’s what I really wanted. Playing big is about practicing smart. It’s about showing up. It’s about not discarding. It’s about leading with what you love because then you have the joy of seeing and feeling what the world wants to make through you.”
Steven Tomlinson teaches at the Acton School of Business where he teaches the popular Life of Meaning course, among others. If you liked this speech, you might also enjoy these posts he wrote about not fearing failure and finding your calling.
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Photo courtesy of BigAlTaz.
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