Being Good at Something Doesn’t Mean You Should Be Doing It

In the first week of the 5th grade, our class had a special music afternoon. It was our opportunity to try out the different instruments in the school band. We were to make a decision, that very day, about which instrument we would play almost every day for our school music careers.    

I was so excited. I had been busy deafening my parents for years by creating high-pitched squawking melodies on my "recorder", the closest thing we had to a wood instrument at home. On band day I was so excited to finally get to see and hold a genuine, shiny flute in my 10 year old hands.

I picked it up, my eyes gleaming, and held it to my lips. "Pfffffffffffffffffffft." Nothing. I tried again, blowing into it like the 12-year-old owner of the flute had showed me. Again, nothing but a music-less "Pfffffffft." I couldn’t believe it. My heart felt heavy in my chest, and tears pricked at my eyes. I gave up, and handed her back her flute.

Next, I decided to try the clarinet. It wasn’t the flute, and I wasn’t a huge fan, but at least it was still in the part of the orchestra that got the pretty melodies. "Honk-screech!" Everyone around me covered their ears.

Feeling even worse, I made my way to the back of the room where the brass instruments were. Someone handed me a French Horn. I held it to my lips, and out came a full, rich sound totally recognizable as belonging to a musical instrument. I shrugged, and wrote down "French Horn" next to my name, as by default this was obviously my instrument.

I played the French Horn for five years, including the first couple of years of junior high school. I hated the thing. I never got the good parts of any musical piece (other than in one song, which I’ll always remember: the theme song for the TV show "Dallas").

The horn came in this huge awkward case, and I lived on the slope of a mountain above the school. Every day I dreaded lugging the thing home, and only ever had any relief when snow came and I could drag it along behind me like a sled.

My father even worried that all the tuba-like blowing would wreck the shape of my face.

In my second year of junior high school, my apparent "rare talent" for this instrument got the attention of a professional French Horn player in the city. He even offered me free private lessons after school. (It really was so kind of him to do that, I hope he never reads this)

The plan was that I’d play in a major youth orchestra, and eventually play professionally. Heaven help me. How I dreaded those dark afternoons in the dimly lit band room after everyone else had gotten to go home.

I don’t remember how, but somehow I managed to quit the darn thing, despite everyone’s excitement about my supposed talent. I didn’t get much respite though, as fairly soon after I got sucked into the vortex of being a "gifted student in the Sciences". I was finally spit out by the system at the age of 28. By then, I was not surprisingly a suicidally depressed Emergency Medicine resident. Same phenomenon, different vocation.

People don’t mean any harm by identifying talent in kids and giving them opportunities to develop that talent. If the child actually enjoys the activity, this is a fantastic thing. A friend of mine in junior high was discovered by a professional ballet company, and within weeks accepted an offer of a a full scholarship at the best ballet school in the country. She dances professionally today at a well-respected company. But she loves ballet – this is the difference.

I so wish that some grown-up had encouraged me to choose the musical instrument that I loved passionately, along with the reassurance that I could learn how to play it. I wish that someone had seen past my "gift for science" and paid equal attention to how much I loved my creative writing classes. I wish someone had noticed how obsessively and joyfully I practiced for my unforgettable one-time class dance performance in 7th grade, that was my peak experience in grade school.

Can you relate to any of this?

You can only go so far on talent alone. If you’re good at something, it gets noticed and valued by others, and it certainly opens doors. It can generate much-needed income, which can be important. Yet when it comes to truly fulfilling your potential and knowing the joy of doing what you were made to do, the only thing that will give you that experience is what you love.

I’m nowhere near being a great flamenco dancer and don’t know that I ever could be, even if I focused on it exclusively. Yet I have been paid surprisingly well to perform – often more than I earn per hour as a doctor – on multiple occasions over the years. Apparently there’s something unique I bring to performing (audience members have often told me that), the value of which has everything to do with deep passion and much less to do with technique.

My dance performances are among the most cherished moments of my life. They’re "I could die happy now that I’ve done this" moments. I feel the same way about having published a book, and having spoken in front of thousands of people about subjects I’m deeply passionate about.

I still work a handful of hours a month as a general practitioner in a medical clinic. Patients that I treat often tell me that they wish I would practice full-time so I could be their family physician. I’m extremely grateful for my education, the knowledge base and the ability to earn income practicing medicine, but it would break my heart if it was the only vocation I was limited to. I’m quite sure I’d get very depressed again.

No, what makes my heart sing is this: writing, public speaking, media work, dancing, and even just posting educational/inspirational Facebookposts and Tweets that help improve the lives of my online community.

I fully appreciate that you can’t always do what you want. Economic realities are what they are, and it would be foolish for many people to abandon the job that pays the bills in order to pursue their passion. Then again, there are plenty of people who have done just that, and have done very well.

If you know what your passion is and there’s a potential to earn income doing it, and have gotten "stuck" in a job or career on the basis of ability versus passion, you might want to do what I did and transition over gradually. For years I was a full-time doctor by day and a salsa and flamenco dancer by night, I look back on that season of blooming with so much fondness.

Regardless, if you’re honest with yourself about what your true passion is, you owe it to yourself to pursue it in some form, even if you never quit your day job and you never earn a penny doing what you love. The key is to do what you love, somehow. And you know what? When even a tiny part of your life is spent doing something you love, you would be amazed how bearable it makes everything else in your life that you "have to" do.

I’d love to hear your story—did you get accidentally funneled into a career or job that you don’t really enjoy, because you happened to be good at it? How would you earn your income, if anything were possible? Let us know, in the Comments section below.

The best part is, you would likely be amazed by what might actually be possible for you. Life can be so full of delicious surprises, if you’d only just step out and give it a chance!

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  1. Katie says:

    Hi Susan! I strongly relate to this post in an ironic way. I grew up singing and loved every minute of it but continued following my “passion” because it was just following that next step, then another step, and eventually I found myself in a large city surrounded by thousands of people in the same exact circumstances and journey to how they got there. I would not be doing anything else if I could go back to age 8 and trade in my tap shoes for a math book (never!!!!!) but, I have recently opened up my heart to OTHER things that I am passionate about which has rocked my world. Opening up to what ELSE I am passionate about has not only enriched my passion for singing, but has brought about other opportunities that I never would have thought possible. I believe that those who earn their income through their passion are very, very blessed people and if I get to that place where I pay my bills through only singing-I will not receive that position lightly!

  2. Gail says:

    OMG -ha – what a flash-back! I was also ‘stuck’ with the french horn in high school rather than getting to play the flute that I so wanted to! My teacher said ‘you have an ear for music’ so I couldn’t figure out why she was punishing me with that instrument (sorry french horn lovers!). I remember asking her over and over to change me to the flute (didn’t happen). As a teen, hauling the case for an hour walk home didn’t help matters either! The only fun I had with it was blowing it when my dog walked up to it – would scare the heck out of him! Although I love music and played piano afterwards, that outside push to play something I didn’t want to definitely carved a bit of dislike towards playing music for me and I honestly think I might have really liked it! Hmmm…

  3. Jodie Morrison says:

    I have chronic migraines and was asked to retire early by my last employer. So I played at what I love, Dogs, Pottery, hiking, looking after people near and dear to me. Now I have to decide if I should try school again. Yes I need an income, but no I do not what to work shift work again. School starts May 14th and it’s more tuition $$ than I have. If I can get throughout this with my disability then it might work, but It is not doing what I love nor even close to what I like. So sad when one has to decide to live life or drag ones self through (hopefully). I am inspired by comments in Dr. Susan’s book. It gives me courage. Yet, to do all that I enjoy with what I have to do is impossible as I am only allowed so many migraine free days. Nice to find a cure… :sigh :sigh

  4. Bill says:

    Hi Susan, What if you have struggled your whole life trying to figure out what your passion is? What if you think something is wrong with you because you can’t figure it out. What if the thought of identifying your passion terrifies you? Can you still help someone like me?

  5. Dr. Susan Biali says:

    @Gail – your comment made me shout with laughter, so hilarious and so fun to hear of a similar story, I know you feel my pain! Sounds like you might want to get back into music again…

    @Jodi – hang in there, keep going. If you need to do this school for the time being to gain skills that help you bring in income to survive, it’s probably worth it. I imagine there’s a reason you’ve chosen this particular direction? There must be? Really look after yourself, keep making those BEAUTIFUL urns, do what you need to to pay the bills and create the best life you can as you go along…it’s a journey.

    @Bill – I wonder if the word “passion” just has too much pressure around it for you. The word “purpose” can be the same. Really, all a passion is is something that you enjoy (I pretty much call anything I really enjoy doing a passion). Surely there must be some things in life you have fun doing? Travel can be a passion, for example, it’s a HUGE passion of mine, I do it as often as I can (things are not a passion, so I don’t shop much, for example – so I have money to travel!). Really what this is about is identifying things you enjoy doing and finding time to do them. Passions/interests can also come and go as you go through life. You don’t have to earn income from them at all, for some people this even wrecks the passion. Part of why I still practice medicine (which isn’t a passion, though preventive health is), is that it pays some of the bills and reduces the pressure on the other income earning activities that I really enjoy, my passions so to speak. I believe that every human being has some activities they naturally enjoy that make them unique (no two people love ALL the same things). Does this help? Forget about the pressure and just ask yourself how you’d like to spend your time. Write out an example of your “ideal day” in your life, if you could have ANY circumstances you want. Doesn’t have to be fancy, might give you some clues to what you would enjoy more of. Keep in touch and let me know how you’re doing!


  6. Faina Sechzer says:

    I have MSEE (Masters in Electrical Engineering) only because I was the straight A students and good at math. After six years of study, I knew exactly what I never want to do -be an electrical or any other engineer. I still consider the experience and valuable.
    What I liked to do in school, was talking:) That was a big problem for the teachers and not an asset in any possible way. I spend years consulting to Fortune 500, something I liked and earned good money doing.
    It was after being diagnosed with breast cancer, I started doing what I love. I coach women to build businesses that support their life and doing what they love..[URL=]

  7. Raji Menon says:

    Hi, Susan,
    Just came across your blog. I totally relate to your experience.
    It is amazing, that we often get stuck in situations where we reach. Initially, as children, we have little control over where we are led. We are dependent on adults, who do what they think is best for us.
    The problem is that by the time we are grown up, there are so many ingrained beliefs that need to be changed that most people don’t even know about!
    Once they figure it out, then it becomes a breeze. It is the figuring out, that takes time, and either a tragedy, or unbearable circumstances, that want them to change everything around.

  8. Mike says:

    Thanks for this wonderful article, Susan. It brought tears to my eyes. When I was young, all I did was sing and pretend I played an instrument. I did a mean Elvis impersonation! In 4th grade, my school had open auditions for those who wanted to play an instrument. I was so excited! We were told no experience was necessary as they teach you everything you need to know. Somehow, I was not picked to play an instrument (and I wanted to play the Tuba badly!). I was devastated. In my early 30s, I took a few months of singing and piano lessons but always gave up. I did the same in my 20s with guitar. Now at age 38, I have finally realized that I am a musician at heart and am finally serious about sticking with it! I have a 6-week old son and I want him to learn that he can do whatever he wants in life and that his Dad is not a quitter! Amazing how something that seemed so small had such a significant impact on my life for decades. Now, years of low self confidence are gone- I am doing what I am passionate about and finally figuring it out! Thanks for all you do- you are truly an inspiration!

  9. Dr. Susan Biali says:

    Mike, your comment brought tears to MY eyes. I can’t believe that a child would NOT be picked to play an instrument, that is criminal! Every child should get a chance, at least that was a good aspect of my school when I was young. I am so glad to hear that your son doesn’t have a quitter for a dad, what a great example you are. It’s never too late, and your story is all the more inspiring and valuable for the long road you’ve traveled to finally get to do what you love. Thanks so much for sharing!

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