What am I supposed to do with my life?

What kind of job should I have?

Or how do I get this “dream job” I so desperately want?

Questions like these can fill the minds of artists (and everyone else, too). Before we look at our calling later in this post, I’d like to ask another question: who are you? Before we can discover what we were made to do, we need to know our identity—who we really are—which includes our dreams as well as our honest strengths and weaknesses. Once we can identify these, we will be able to live a life of freedom and creativity.

Dreaming Big

What are the deep desires and dreams you personally have for your life? Think big! What are you really passionate about doing? Don’t worry at this point about where the money or the time or the opportunity will come from. Just sit back and dream about what your career and your relationships might look like during the next ten or twenty years. A good marriage? Children? Where would you like to travel and live? Venice? Boston? Cape Town? Hawaii? You don’t have to tell anybody what you’re thinking about—just dream. Explore your passions and desires quietly in your own imagination. What are the social justice issues that you’d love to be able to communicate? If you were free to accomplish wonderful things, what would they look like?

Why are our dreams and desires so important? The answer circles round to the word belief. What do we believe about ourselves? If our expectation is small or we have no dream at all, we will certainly get what we expect. The surest way to not win an audition is to not show up at the stage door. All of us, especially in the arts, need to remember to believe that something wonderful might occur after we enter that stage door and do the best we can.

But we have to be cautious about sharing our desires and our dreams. If we randomly told everyone about our big-scale dreams, lots of people would quickly jump up to tell us that our dreams were impossible. They’d say: “You’d like to play with the Chicago Symphony? Forget it; you’re not talented enough and there are only a few openings each year.” “You want to write poetry? It’s impossible to make a living as a poet!” “You want a family? Artists never make any money, so how could you support them?” Some of this feedback may include common sense, but a lot of it is simply negative projection based on fear of failure.

Strengths and Weaknesses

We also need to identify our strengths and weaknesses, and to recognize that our strengths are gifts (a word I’m using deliberately). Let’s say I hand you a twenty-dollar bill as a gift. The word gift means you didn’t earn it; when you earn twenty dollars you are being paid for something you did, compensated for your effort. So a gift is not something you work to receive. It’s freely given.

Similarly, we were born with gifts. We have to learn to use these gifts, of course. It takes years of hard work in the practice room or the art studio or in front of a computer to learn how to use our gifts well. But the gift itself is something that we didn’t earn. Can a person refuse to accept a gift? Absolutely. Can a person accept a gift but then never use it? Definitely. So for artists, we are given the gift to dance or paint or write, and we can choose whether we use it or not.

The list of gifts we can have is expansive, and not limited to the arts. For instance, I know that one of my personal gifts is to open my home (and my life) to others. People feel safe in my home when they’re here for dinner or a discussion. And they most often seem to trust me quickly—it is a humbling gift to be considered trustworthy. I also have a gift of compassion: I feel the pain and joy of others very intensely, and this sometimes allows me to ask them questions that bless them. Another gift is my intense personal love for beauty and for artistic expression. I don’t brag about any of this: there is nothing I have done to deserve these gifts.

And not everyone has the same gifts. They are spread out among many people and we need to cooperate with each other so that the best plans can come to life. This is why knowing my personal identity—knowing my unique gifts and talents—is so important to my artwork and my relationships as well. The world keeps bellowing that we must do everything perfectly. I need to sort out what my strengths and gifts are, and what they are not. Then I can focus on what I’m designed to do well and let others do the things that I am not designed to do.

So where do your dreams meet your strengths? What are you passionate about and also good at? When you can answer these questions you’ll be on your way to identifying your unique calling.

A Shared Calling

But what do we do with our dreams and the gifts we’ve been given? I believe the answer is the same whether we are dancers, painters, authors, musicians, or any other kind of artist: we give them away. 

TWO STORIES

My wife, Donna, who worked as a professional ballet dancer, spent a substantial amount of time both in Switzerland and Italy with a person who was considered one of the greatest dancers of the age. His picture was on the cover of Time magazine. (I do not want to mention his name, but I am not referring to Mr. Baryshnikov.) This dancer was a fabulous performer, but he was an extremely difficult man to work with, constantly wanting all the attention to be focused on him. He told close friends that unless he received applause every day, he was miserable.

Once when Donna and I saw him leave La Scala Opera House in Milan after a performance, he didn’t immediately get in his limo. Instead, he stood by the car for a long time, waiting for people on the street to notice him and run up to tell him he was wonderful. A friend told me that on another occasion this dancer waited completely naked in his dressing room after a performance, inviting people in so they could comment on how beautiful he was. My friend was there, invited into the dressing room, and personally experienced the event.

Tragically, this amazingly talented artist was totally self-absorbed. Every decision he made was based upon looking good and receiving adulation. His life was totally self-serving, and from what my wife and I observed, he was a very unhappy person and consistently made those around him miserable as well. I believe he suffered from massive insecurity; he needed to prove to himself hour by hour that he was famous—the best. And sadly, he kept expressing his need for assurance of his identity in very negative ways, hurting himself and many people around him.

But not all famous people are insecure and self-serving. In 1964, just after I graduated from Northwestern University, I worked as the production stage manager at the Ravinia Festival, the summer home of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. Part of my job was to personally take care of all the visiting artists, both classical and pop. That summer the famous jazz trumpeter Louis Armstrong played two performances.

Mr. Armstrong was at the zenith of his career. There were 16,000 people at each of his performances. He, too, had made the cover of Time. As Ravinia’s stage manager, I stood in the wings, down-stage right, watching what was happening on stage and occasionally calling light cues.

Watching Mr. Armstrong was a delight. He probably did a hundred or more performances like this every year, and yet he was totally involved with the music-making that was happening on stage. It seemed to me that he genuinely enjoyed playing with the other musicians each night. Of course, he flashed his famous big toothy smile for the audience, but I could see his genuine smile as he looked up-stage at his sidemen. He was giving to his colleagues on stage and he was giving to his audience as well.

The biggest lesson I learned from Mr. Armstrong happened after his first performance. His road manager asked me to have the stagehands set up a table just inside the stage door entrance. When I asked why, the road manager said, “Pops (which was what all the band members called Mr. Armstrong) wants a place to sit and sign autographs.” That’s exactly what happened after the jazz legend cleaned his trumpet and rested for a few minutes. He came to the stage door, took a seat behind the table, and asked me to sit beside him, in case he needed help of some kind. When the door opened, hundreds of people were waiting in a long line.

Mr. Armstrong was in his seventies and had just finished a strenuous two-hour performance. When a fan handed him an item to sign, the musician didn’t quickly scribble his signature and move on to the next person. He talked to every single individual, asking their names and answering their questions. He did the same thing after the second performance. Louis Armstrong knew how to give—he was truly a servant-artist.

I believe that all artists are called to be givers. To be clear, when I say that one of our goals as artists is to “give art to others,” I’m not suggesting that we should not get paid. I firmly believe that our art is valuable and we should receive a monetary reward for our efforts, just like any other kind of work. But I do believe that artists are meant to serve the world with our gifts, with the beauty and truth of our creations.

Artists are trained by the world to believe that we learn to use our gifts so we can look good—in other words, get applause. If we receive applause and fame, we should be grateful for these good things. But the truth is we do not always get fame; in fact, we do not always get paid. Ultimately, this is not in our control. What we do have control over is whether we use our gifts at all, and whether we use these gifts to serve others or for our own self-serving purposes.

What is your artistic calling?

All artists are called to GIVE. If this is our purpose, we find freedom: freedom from building our identity on being, not doing or performing (remember the pyramid?). When failures come, they do not become a part of our identity. And even when the world does not value our gifts, we can choose to give away beauty and truth to bring joy to both ourselves and others. 

***

I have lived a long and amazing life as an artist. For more on how I have personally found and pursued my calling, keep reading: How Do I Hear from God as an Artist?

And don’t stop there! Reach out to us if you have any questions and follow Artist Set Free for more blog posts about how to find freedom as artists.

Photo credits: Ben Sweet on Unsplash; Jess Bailey on Unsplash; Tim Mossholder on Unsplash; Kristina V on Unsplash

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