For nearly as long as I can remember, I’ve enjoyed music. I remember going to bed at night and falling asleep to Johnny Cash (on 8-track tape) when I was 4 or 5 years old. When I was 6 or 7, I started playing piano. Trombone came when I was in 7th grade, and piano eventually made way for guitar when I was 14. By the time I was 17 years old, all I wanted to do was play guitar. Most days, I sat in the basement of our house and played for hours; I even worked at a small music store where I gave guitar lessons and was able to practice when no customers were around.
Shortly after I started playing guitar, I joined my first band. Then, a year or two later, I started my own band with three high school friends. There were few things I enjoyed more than practicing and playing gigs. In fact, I enjoyed playing so much that I briefly considered going to college for music.
Why only briefly? Because, in time, “reality” set in, and I started hearing the voices. Voices from others who told me that “Music isn’t realistic,” “You can’t make any money playing music,” “You need to get a well-paying job,” “You can do better than that,” and so on. Eventually, others’ voices became the voices in my head, voices telling me that pursuing a career in music was just silly. So just as quickly as I considered music, I stopped.
I went to college at the University of Minnesota and started out as an electrical engineering major for all the wrong reasons: engineering is for “smart” people (I got good grades in high school), engineers make lots of money, I was good at math and physics, there would be lots of jobs available. None of my reasons for pursuing engineering, however, included interest, enjoyment, or prospects of long-term happiness.
By the middle of my sophomore year, my interest in engineering was low, and my GPA was even lower. I remember getting a letter from the university saying that I was on academic probation. My poor performance stemmed not from inability, but rather from indifference. But because I had chosen to be an engineering major and because others expected me to be “successful,” I trudged on. In an attempt to lift my spirits a bit–and because I was already scheduled to repeat an engineering class I had failed the previous quarter–I added an introductory music class and an introductory psychology class to my spring quarter schedule. This was just what I needed: an easy quarter, one that would boost my GPA and get me back on track.
I ended up with an A in the music class (which I, of course, really enjoyed), a B in the psychology class (which I enjoyed much more than I thought I would), and a C in the engineering class (which I disliked almost as much as the first time I took it). My GPA for the quarter was 3.00, the highest I had earned in a year. I was happy because my GPA was up (because, you know, that’s all that really matters. . . or so I thought at the time). But down deep, I still knew I didn’t want to be an engineering major.
That summer, I moved home and worked for my dad’s business. I was able to save some money for school, and I was also able to put the band back together. We played a few gigs, and I enjoyed them as much as ever. But the next school year was looming–and so was the displeasure that would inevitably come from taking more engineering classes.
Then, one weekend, fate intervened. Not surprisingly, I was in the basement, practicing guitar. My parents were upstairs, and I heard them call my name. I went upstairs, and they told me they wanted to chat for a bit. My mom asked me if I enjoyed what I was pursuing in college. After hesitating for a minute, I answered, “No.” They said they weren’t surprised, because they knew I was capable of more than what I was showing. What happened next was life-changing.
Like many parents who want their kids to be “successful,” they could’ve urged me to stick with it, knowing that it would take only 2 more years (which seemed like a lifetime to me) to finish my degree. After that, I could get a job, make decent money, and move on with my life. (That also would’ve meant spending 40+ hours a week doing something I seriously disliked.)
But much to their credit, rather than telling me to stick it out, they were supportive and asked me if there were other classes I might enjoy taking. I told them I had enjoyed my introductory psychology class. (The voices in my head said that music was still out of the question.) So they urged me to go back to school, drop my engineering major, and take some more psychology classes to see if I liked them, which is exactly what I did.
(On a side note… A few months ago, while visiting with my parents, I recounted this story to them. Interestingly, they had no recollection of it. Isn’t it funny how seemingly insignificant interactions can have a huge effect on others? It’s just something to keep in mind…)
After a few more psychology classes (and some excellent teachers who really piqued my interest in the subject), I was certain I had found a major I truly enjoyed. I decided that a career in clinical psychology was the way to go: I liked psychology, and clinical psychologists make a lot of money. So, why not? Obviously, I was still listening to the “external” voices, which were telling me that money was the key to happiness. But at least I was taking classes I enjoyed.
Over the next 2 years, my interest skyrocketed and so did my GPA. (It’s amazing how your performance improves when you go to class consistently and actually pay attention!) I graduated on time with a bachelor’s degree in psychology and an interest in pursuing graduate school. But I was burned out, and knew that I had to do a few things to increase my chances of getting into graduate school. I also wanted to be sure that pursuing graduate school in psychology was right for me.
So I decided not to apply for graduate programs right away. Instead, the following fall, I took two graduate-level psychology courses, which allowed me to stay in touch with professors who would later write me letters of recommendation; I also wanted to show that I was capable of performing graduate-level work. In addition, I worked full time at the University of Minnesota School of Public Health in the Department of Epidemiology. Much of the work I did centered around collecting data (usually by phone interview) for different research projects. I really enjoyed my colleagues, and I was good at my job, but I seriously hated the 9-to-5 grind. Every day was the same, and I quickly realized how badly I wanted to go back to school.
I applied for several graduate programs and ultimately ended up in the Department of Applied Psychology at St. Cloud State University, where I decided to pursue a master’s degree in behavior analysis. Within a semester, I knew that I was in my element. I was working hard, but I was enjoying every minute. I also started to realize that a career in clinical psychology might not be for me. At the end of my first year, I attended my first professional conference and got to meet some of my psychological “heroes.” Over the course of the weekend, I decided that I wanted to become a college professor. I imagined a career in academics where I had the opportunity to influence students the way my professors had influenced me.
In the fall of my second year, I applied for a number of PhD programs. After interviewing with several, I chose Auburn University, the place where my interest in pursuing an academic career would be solidified (and where I would meet my future wife). Over the next few months, I finished my master’s thesis, taught my first psychology class (which was much more enjoyable than I thought it would be), and readied myself for a move across the country.
I arrived in Auburn, Alabama, not knowing until then what real heat felt like. I remember at one point thinking to myself, “This doesn’t feel right. It can’t be this hot every day.” Much to my midwestern chagrin, this was summer in the southeastern United States. Over the next 4 years, I would acclimate to the weather. In fact, a year or two later, I remember putting on jeans one morning, because it was “only” supposed to be about 85 degrees that day.
During my third year at Auburn, I also started spending more time with Tracy. She and I had been friends since I arrived at Auburn, and we had a lot in common. One day, she ventured down into the basement research lab where I spent most of my days. She lamented that it was too loud in her office upstairs (which she shared with several other students), and I invited her to bring her stuff into the lab, where we could work without distraction. We quickly learned that we enjoyed being in each other’s company and started spending more time together. Over the next year and a half, our friendship blossomed into romance, and we decided that we were going to give “us” a shot.
As we completed our time at Auburn, we decided to look for jobs together (Tracy also wanted to pursue a career in academics). Somehow, we were able to obtain jobs together in the Department of Psychology at Stephen F. Austin State University, in Nacogdoches, Texas. Knowing that dual-career couples are a rarity in academics, we felt fortunate to be in the position we were. Over the next 2 years, we worked upwards of 80+ hours a week getting ourselves established. We enjoyed our colleagues and students immensely, but within a year or so, we decided that SFA and “Deep East” Texas might not be the best place for us.
Around that time, we learned about two job openings in the Psychology Department at James Madison University (JMU), a place with a reputation for outstanding teaching and where we happened to know some people on faculty. Although getting jobs there (and together!) would be a long shot, we felt we had to take the chance. Somehow we were offered the positions, and we jumped at the opportunity to be back in an area of the country that was within driving distance of Tracy’s family. We bade a sad farewell to our friends and students in Texas and made our way across the country to the state of Virginia.
Over the next few years, we once again worked hard to build our careers and to earn tenure at JMU, a goal we achieved 5 years later. During that time, we also got married. It was not long thereafter that we began talking about having kids. Although I always assumed I wanted kids, it was hard to think about. I kept wondering, “I wonder how having kids will interrupt my career?” I felt like I had worked hard to establish my career and (selfishly) believed that having kids might derail my momentum. We asked colleagues how they “dealt” with having kids. Over and over, we heard that there was never a good time and that once we had kids, it wouldn’t make a difference.
In the fall of 2007, we discovered that we were going to be parents the following summer. We prepared as much as possible for what would be, presumably, a life-changing event. Then, on July 30, 2008, Rylan was born, and I suddenly realized that my concerns about career development no longer mattered. I loved being a dad and wanted to spend as much time as possible with my family. Interestingly, although I scaled back at work, I was more productive than before. It took a conscious decision on my part to decide what was and was not important for my career (and my family) and to spend time doing things that mattered.
Over time, we figured out how to be parents (if one ever really figures that out), and we were able to establish a fairly consistent rhythm. But over the next couple of years, I started to add more and more to my plate. I started giving more professional talks on a new topic that I had been studying, and this required me to travel more. I also accepted the position of assistant editor for a professional journal. Around that same time, our department experienced a shake-up that required me to take on more responsibilities, one of which included coordinating a regional psychology conference, a real time consumer. In the midst of this all, I was offered a position at another university. It was a great professional opportunity, but it would’ve required Tracy to leave a job she very much enjoyed, and so I declined the offer. All of these things together created more professional stress than I had ever experienced before, and at one point, I wondered if I even wanted to continue being a college professor. I remember talking to Tracy after one especially horrible day and telling her that I would give it one more semester, and if things didn’t improve, I really felt like I had to do something else with my life.
By the way, did I mention that during all of this, we were expecting Baby #2? In March of 2011, we welcomed Dainen to the family. He was happy and healthy and made our lives even better than before. What more could we ask for than two healthy boys who have brought us such joy?
Although things had calmed down a bit, I was nevertheless still reeling from the stress. I wasn’t enjoying my job, and I’m sure that many of my students were not enjoying me. It was around that time that I started engaging in some serious soul searching.
At first, I thought it was an issue of productivity. Maybe I simply needed a way to get more done in less time. Eventually, I realized that wasn’t the answer.
Next, I came across Carl Honore’s book, In Praise of Slowness. This book was life changing. It discussed the concept of slowing down and the benefits that come from doing so. For years, I had been racing through life, not taking the time to smell the roses. I purposefully decided to slow down a bit. But even when I did so, I still had this nagging feeling that something wasn’t quite right.
I then began to wonder whether I was passionate about my job anymore. This led me to read everything I could on the topics of passion and life purpose, which included lots of books and lots of blog posts. At this point, things started to click. Maybe what I needed to do was really and truly assess whether I was doing things that mattered, things that lit me up day in and day out, things that made me jump out of bed in the morning. I wanted to know more about passion for myself.
But I also wanted to know more about passion for my students. Over the years, it seemed to me that more and more of my students were choosing careers for the wrong reasons–in fact, for the very same reasons I had chosen engineering 20 years before! Rather than pursuing a career that interested them, they were choosing careers because they “wanted to make a lot of money” or because their mom and dad wanted them to. I started to wonder how many of my students were choosing majors and careers they truly enjoyed.
Shortly after my 40th birthday, I came across a blog post by the late Christopher Peterson, a well-known psychologist at the University of Michigan whose work on signature strengths had previously caught my attention. In his post, Dr. Peterson discussed the concept of passion; he also discussed research on the topic by a psychologist named Dr. Robert Vallerand. I finished the post and then Googled Dr. Vallerand, who happened to have a website that contained links to most of his research articles on the topic of passion. I began to read them and realized that this was what I had been searching for–a program of research that used the scientific method to understand the concept of passion!
I spent much of the weekend reading Dr. Vallerand’s papers and then decided to ask the students in my research group whether they were interested in studying this topic. I told them a bit about it, and their answer was a resounding, “YES!” Together we embarked on a program of research designed to learn more about students’ passion for their majors and careers and what outcomes resulted if they were or were not passionate about what they did each day. The topic of passion for activities has been the focus of my research and teaching ever since.
But as my career has progressed and I have thought more about what I want to accomplish during the remainder of my life, I’ve realized that doing research on and teaching about passion may not be the best way to “get the message out there.” If I conduct a study on passion and publish the results, only a relatively small number of people are likely going to hear about and then read an article in a relatively obscure research journal. In addition, if I teach a class on the topic for one semester each year (as I am doing now), my class may only have 15 or so students in it. And even if I give talks on the topic to a group of 100-200 students (as I have been doing more recently), the number I’m able to reach is still relatively small.
Hence the reason I decided to start this blog–a large focus of which will be the topic of passion. I hope to write about the topic of passion (which is way more complex than most people believe) and to convince others that doing things you love is an important endeavor for a wide variety of reasons.
Which actually brings this long “about me” post full circle…
At the beginning, I mentioned how, when I was in my teens, I loved playing the guitar but eventually put it down when life got “real.” On my 40th birthday, while I was sitting in my house, alone with my thoughts, I started thinking about the topic of passion and how I used to love playing music. I have a house full of guitars, and for the longest time, I played none of them. I also thought about how much I enjoyed playing guitar when I was younger. With all I had been through over the past few years, I realized that it was time for me to let my passion loose again. Later that day, I found a guitar teacher in town and gave him a call.
I’ve been taking lessons for the past few years and am hoping to join a band soon. I want to re-experience the joy I felt when I played gigs during my teens. I can’t wait for that to happen.
You know, maybe I’m simply having a mid-life crisis. Maybe I just need to go out and purchase a Corvette. Or maybe I’ve simply realized that life is both too short and too long not to do something you love.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to go and practice.