You’ve probably heard of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Born in Salzburg on January 27th, 1756, the youngest of 7 children. He would rise to become one of the world’s most influential composers. What you probably didn’t know was that he struggled into his early twenties. To put this into perspective, in the 18th century, most lived just into their 30s and 40s. In his twenties, Mozart was considered middle aged. Though he was a prolific composer at that stage in his life, he had been an organist and concertmaster in Salzburg to cover the cost of living. Underpaid, unfulfilled, and hemmed in by his frustratingly average gigs, he felt a burning desire to devote more time and energy to his art. After a period of doubt and deliberation, that’s exactly what he did. He quit his job, moved to Vienna, and embarked on what would be the most productive and creative period of his life. His works would influence legendary composers that were to follow, including the likes of Beethoven, Chopin, Schubert, Schuman and Straussand. Mozart would go on to change the world.
How You can Relate to Mozart
So you may not be the genius Mozart was. You may never hope to reach Mozart’s level of mastery, or have the influence he has had. But you may relate to his desire to break free from convention. Maybe you feel as though your job is tedious and enduring. Maybe you’ve done everything right—excelled at school, worked hard, and landed a good, high-paying job—but you’re tired of being just like everyone else. Maybe you yearn to achieve something that is unmistakably you. Maybe you seek to do something that will be remembered. Maybe you simply want to live a life of real, true, authentic purpose.
If you aspire to do more personally fulfilling work—perhaps, to found a start-up or flip a hobby into a full-fledged career—drafting a plan of action can be daunting. But it’s entirely possible to develop the wherewithal, nerve, and clarity of purpose to create your own version of Mozart’s Don Giovanni.
Embrace Your Skills and Don’t Set Out for Perfection
In Aristotle’s Way, Edith Hal describes the ancient philosopher’s belief that becoming conscious of our skills, talents, and aptitudes (dynamis) and then using our resources to make the most of them (energeia) is the foundation of living a good life. If you’re not working toward reaching your unique potential—as Mozart did—it’s normal to feel dissatisfied. In the words of Aristotle, “it’s your duty to make things right”. The philosopher John Kaag, author of Hiking with Nietzsche, agrees. “The self does not lie passively in wait for us to discover it… selfhood is made in the active, ongoing process, in the German verb werden, ‘to become.’”
What, then, is holding you back? Rich Karlgaard, publisher of Forbes magazine and author of Late Bloomers, argues that our culture’s obsession with early achievement dissuades us from pursuing our passions. Instead of having varied interests, studying widely, and taking our time—essentials for self-discovery—we’re encouraged to ace tests, become specialists right away, and pursue safe, stable, and lucrative careers. As a result, most of us end up choosing professional excellence over personal fulfillment, and often we lose ourselves in the process. Unless your job requires repetitive, routine tasks, being a specialist isn’t an asset. Having a wide range of skills and experiences is more beneficial because it allows you to be nimble and creative.
There are negative effects of early specialization in a study of people who came out of nowhere to achieve great success. In the book Dark Horses the authors make some very interesting observations on people that seemingly went from nobody to a great success. They write, “Despite feeling bored or frustrated, underutilized or overwhelmed, most dark horses reluctantly plodded along for years before finally coming to the realization that they were not living a fulfilling life.” Then, after a period of restless, quiet ambition, these seemingly average people—administrative assistants, engineers, IT managers—were able to transform their “cravings, predilections, and fascinations” into successful careers as master sommeliers, lifestyle entrepreneurs, and celebrated craftsmen.
Find Your Motivation
To prompt this kind of revolution in your own life, create a micromotive, or a goal tailored to an extremely specific activity that truly inspires you. For example, when Korinne Belock left her job as a political aide to form Urban Simplicity, a firm that declutters and redesigns homes and offices, her micromotive was “organizing physical space.” Note that she didn’t say “doing something creative” or “starting my own business.” Those declarations are too general and fuzzy to be acted on. Instead, she identified a task that sparked within her an outsized amount of curiosity and pleasure and used it as her guide.
As you move forward, there are a few things to keep in mind. First and foremost, it’s never too late to “become” yourself. Aristotle, for example, didn’t fully devote himself to writing and philosophy until he was nearly 50. There are many benefits to taking a long, winding path to self-fulfillment. Remember that age typically brings wisdom, resilience, humility, self-knowledge, and creativity. This is one reason the average age of founders of high-growth start-ups are 45. Citing the work of developmental psychologist Erik Erikson, Karlgaard writes, the “ages 40 to 64 constitute a unique period where one’s creativity and experience merge with a universal human longing to make our lives matter.”
The Journey is Long, but Worth It
Once you’ve decided to embark on the journey, it will take years, and perhaps longer than you think, to reach your destination. But as research has shown, small daily changes can have a compound effect and slowly, but surely lead you closer to the person you think you ought to be.
If you ever get stuck, think of Joanna, a creative and talented woman who bounced from job to job throughout her twenties. Working as a researcher, secretary, and ESL teacher with few options, depressed and of little hope, she felt like a total failure. But she made a decision to take that feeling of despair and use it to her advantage. Since she hadn’t succeeded in following the traditional path, she felt liberated to do what she’d always wanted to do: write fantasy novels for children. As she would later recount, “I stopped pretending to myself that I was anything other than what I was.”
You’ve probably heard of her. Her pen name is J.K. Rowling.
Keep Your Head Up
So the next time you feel like a failure because your dreams have hit a wall or would appear to be indefinitely on hold, it might just be the beginning. Remember, the most promising beginnings start with an end.
- Kevin Evers, The Upside of Being a Late Bloomer. Harvard Business Review, published: May-June 2019.