At the Aspen Music Festival in 1971, a 17-year-old girl with dreams of becoming a professional pianist capable of playing the world’s greatest stages, realized she would never be good enough.
She had grown up playing piano her entire life, learning to read music before learning out how to actually read. Her grandmother taught her piano every day from three years old until she entered the University of Denver as a music major at 15. She practiced diligently and daily, with dreams of playing Carnegie Hall. But upon attending the summer music school at the Aspen Music Festival and hearing her classmates play, she had a revelation. There was an intangible element these other prodigies had she simply didn’t possess. She watched her 12-year-old counterparts play a piece of music by ear it had taken her a year to learn.
She returned to the University of Denver that fall, looking for a new dream and a new major. It was then that she walked into a class on international relations with a focus on the Soviet Union. This class sparked a fire of interest in her which led to a highly successful career in academia, business, and most notably, politics.
Instead of growing up to become known as a world-famous pianist, she grew up to be addressed as “Condoleezza Rice, Secretary of State.” Though she failed to accomplish her childhood dream of becoming a world-renown pianist, Secretary Rice became the first African-American woman named to the post of Secretary of State, and at the time she left office, held the record for most miles traveled in the office of Secretary of State. On one special occasion, she even played piano for the Queen of England.
Rice said in an interview with the University of Denver Magazine in 2010, “I’ve often said, sometimes your passion finds you instead of the other way around. I think this is a case where my passion found me.”
Never give up. I’m pretty sure every pastor, leader and speaker has put together a speech around those words at some point or another. Why? It’s probably because it makes people feel good. If you’re trying to motivate a group of people to move toward a vision you’ve set, the temptation to give up and team fatigue are a reality every leader has to face.
But I believe telling everyone to never give up can be misleading, and in some cases, irresponsible. Leaders should actually develop the ability to know when they, their followers and the organization should indeed give up on something they’ve been casting vision for. Vision has the ability to quickly become mundane, outdated and irrelevant. We can easily create emotional attachments to the vision, mission and core values on our website that were put together by a branding company or simply copied and pasted from another organization we admire.
At some point, a leader has to step back and know when it’s time to give up on antiquated verbiage, systems and processes so they can actually be effective and relevant in today’s culture. At some point, a leader has to have enough self-awareness to know what they need to stop doing and what they need to start doing.
As Condoleezza Rice discovered, in order for a person to be a great classical pianist, she must possess certain characteristics: an excellent work ethic, diligence and commitment to the craft. She must also have an in-depth knowledge of musical theory and the ability to read sheet music quickly. However, to be one of the greatest pianists in the world—one who is capable of selling out historic theaters like Carnegie Hall—a person must possess one more quality: she must be a prodigy. The best of the best possess an unteachable ear for the music, and a hand-eye coordination not found in the majority of the population.
Although she never played at Carnegie Hall, Rice found exactly what she should have been doing and what she had to put on the back burner. But how do we do the same? I’ve created what I call the Sweet Spot Matrix for leaders.
This is going to help you truly know if you’re leading in your sweet spot. Your sweet spot is where your passion, skillset, opportunity and purpose intertwine. Let me explain.
Do you love what you’re doing? Are you fueled by what you do? It’s hard to fake passion. We feel in it relationships when a partner is faking it. And I guarantee you, followers can feel the same with their leaders.
In his book, Everything Is Spiritual, Rob Bell writes, “It’s as if from an early age there is always someone pointing to a ladder and telling us to climb.” He expounds on the various ladders we climb and then writes, “Very few of us ever took a class that taught us how to know: Is this ladder even leaning up against the right building?”
It would be a shame if you ended up doing a lot of climbing to land a dream job you have no passion for. It would be a tragedy if you woke up one day and realized you’ve been playing a character in somebody else’s dream all along.
What’s the thing you have natural energy for? What gets you in the zone? What’s the thing that gets you out of bed in the morning with no Starbucks? What is the thing that you lose track of time doing? We’ll often spend decades giving our time and energy to what other people want us to do. We’re taught at an early age to pursue what we feel like we have to do to survive so much that we’ll often neglect what we actually want to do.
What are you gifted to do? What is your organization gifted to do? We can all fall for the trap of trying to be like someone else, but it’s important for you to zone in on what you’re uniquely designed to do.
I actually have many passions. I have a passion to sing, play guitar, play basketball, cut hair, blog, write, do standup and podcast but I’m not gifted in all of the above whatsoever.
Some people have underestimated their abilities and skillsets. They’re better than they think they are. They’re amazing vocalists who are too shy, modest, and humble to ever go on American Idol.
Some people have overestimated their abilities and skillsets.
They’re not nearly as good as they think they are. Their mom has told them their whole life they’re the best singer she’s ever heard, and they end up on the blooper reel for American Idol.
I don’t think I’m a great speaker. I just know I keep getting invited to speak to large and small groups of people, and the places that invited me seem to think the messages went well enough to keep inviting me back to do it again.
I’ve noticed something interesting, though. When I speak, sometimes I’ll burst into a song when telling a funny story. People rarely have said, “Man, you can really sing. You’ve got a great voice.” Most of the compliments I get in my career are around something I said, and almost never what I sang.
Passion can only be verified by you. Skillset often is verified by others. For you to have a proper evaluation of your skillsets, you need someone credible besides your mom to authenticate that you are gifted. We’ve all followed a leader that overestimated their strengths and underestimated their weaknesses. You don’t want to be that leader. You and your organization want to operate in a lane that lines up with your passions and skillsets.
What doors have been opened for you to walk out your passions and skillsets? Passion and skillset without an opportunity is a good spot, but not a sweet spot. If you have a passion for missions, a skillset and expertise in understanding global challenges, and an opportunity to make a difference in countries and nations most people don’t, then you’re finding yourself moving into a groove you can manage for the long haul. But I know leaders that get the urge to start stuff because they want to compete with what they’ve seen online. That’s a horrible motivator that doesn’t produce a clear vision for other people to follow.
Pay attention to the “you should”s.
You guys should start a conference.
You should write a book.
You should start a podcast.
If you only hear 5 of those, don’t pretend it’s 50. Wait until you hear it from many people who aren’t even in your inner circle to verify that it’s truly something you should do.
Has God called you to do it? Does it serve His purpose for your life and your organization? We can come up with all sorts of reasons to do events and create platforms, but I believe we need a rubric that gives us the ability to know when we need to let go of what’s not working and pick up what can be effective. So, it’s not, “Never give up.” It’s, “Never give up-ish.”
This article was extracted from Issue 5 (Spring 2021) of the AVAIL Journal. Claim your free annual subscription here.
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