On my first day of class as a freshman at college, I headed to the music department to begin theory. I was (am) terrible at music theory, but it was the first step in a holistic musical education, that would make me a full-fledged musician.
I’ve always loved singing. Apparently, my singing was also tolerable to others, a fine bonus for sure. For a kid with no strong ideas about “career path” that seemed good enough to me. I went to a school with a great music program some mentors recommended and began my path towards musical excellence.
I was surrounded by the most talented musicians I had ever met, while I myself was far from even comfortable calling myself one. Sure I had an ok voice, but my theory, musicianship, and writing were sorely lacking. So the doubting began; around the start of my sophomore year, to be exact, but there was something else. Something more, gnawing at me.
In a meeting with a professor, he asked me a question that changed my life:
“If you could do anything and you knew you wouldn’t fail, what would it be?”
If the question changed my life, it must be because it was the moment where I was finally honest with myself, doubled down on music and set out on a path that would make all my dreams come true. It must have been a moment so honest, I found a freedom I had never known.
Well, unfortunately for me it was the exact opposite. In fact, the moment was so important because I had never been more dishonest with myself.
I responded with a half-hearted “I don’t know”. Honestly, all I had ever wanted was to have a decent job, raise a wonderful family and give back to my family who had sacrificed so much to get me where I was. Two immigrants who sacrificed so much of their own happiness and resources so that I could get the chance to follow my dreams. To be whoever I wanted to be.
It should be noted that the professor saw through that facade instantaneously and did everything he possibly could to get me to believe in myself. Eventually, he gave up because I was probably the most stubbornly unambitious dreamer he had ever come across and he deserves tons of credit for trying. If I was him, I would have gotten up and shaken myself until I figured it out.
We all carry reasons as to why we want to give back. Why we want to give forward. I am a first generation, only child of two immigrants. I grew up comfortably, but not without sacrifice on their end. We, the sacrificed for, don’t always realize that in the moment. It’s in hindsight that the extent may become clear and with that, the desire to do something about it.
In that office, I thought it clicked: There I was, at a fine institution, choosing to pursue music (creativity), rather than some other, noble industry. Setting myself up for a life of personal accolades, maybe, but financial peril according to everyone else. It made sense that because of their sacrifices, the noblest thing to do was whatever it took to honor, whatever that meant to me. In that moment, I told myself that following my (creative) passions did not accomplish that goal.
I’m willing to bet this is how so many of you feel about creative entrepreneurship.
It’s such an honorable thing to feel. We all should be aware of the sacrifices made on our behalf. We should want to honor them. We should be empathetic and thoughtful. We should want to give back. As long as we are being honest with ourselves about how and why.
There is a quote by John Adams, that I used to rattle off when I dropped my music major to study business instead:
“I must study Politicks and War that my sons may have liberty to study Painting and Poetry Mathematicks and Philosophy. My sons ought to study Mathematicks and Philosophy, Geography, natural History, Naval Architecture, navigation, Commerce and Agriculture, in order to give their Children a right to study Painting, Poetry, Musick, Architecture, Statuary, Tapestry and Porcelaine.”
It sounded really good to other people, in the way that quoting John Adams probably would. It sounded important and noble and purposeful and it felt that way. Most importantly it was justification for my decision. My parents were the first step. I am the second. If I’m lucky and all goes according to plan, I’ll be extremely successful and my children will get the privilege of studying painting, poetry, music, and all that good stuff.
I remember the faces of my mentors as I explained to them, each knowing what I couldn’t know then, but accepting. I remember my parents, still so supportive, though they didn’t know the true reasons why I left. If I had told them, I know they probably would have advised against it.
Now, I should pause for a moment to clarify that life doesn’t always pan out the way we want. We aren’t always able to pursue our dreams. Sometimes, we just shouldn’t. There are responsibilities, hardships and burdens that necessitate decisions we may not want. None of this is meant to take away from that reality. If that is where you are; if the Adams quote really does apply, then you deserve all the respect in the world. My hope, however, is that those of us conditioning ourselves to live in a mindset of obligation, when the reality is so different, would see that.
I went from vocal performance to music business, to business admin, to a job as an executive with Target out of college.
When I look at that, I see the trajectory of someone giving up on themselves. At the time, I thought I had cracked the code by landing a job with a good salary, benefits, and security, right out of school. I could pay off my loans, set myself up and finally start helping my parents the way I wanted.
Instead, my parents saw me toil for a year under the weight of something I absolutely hated. The only thing that got me up every morning was the thought that if I just kept going, I would be able to honor that noble desire of mine. Every day, my parents begged me to quit. Told me, that there was nothing they wanted more than for me to pursue my passions. That the best way to honor their decisions and sacrifices was to do exactly what I wanted. So one day, I asked myself “If you could do anything and you knew you wouldn’t fail, AND you knew it would honor those who have sacrificed for you what would it be?”
It’s a question I want you to ask yourself, today, right now. Are you treating your creative passion like I did my music degree? The passion that could be the thing you know wakes you up every day, or makes you happiest? The thing that you would do, if only it wasn’t for how hard it would be to make money, or be secure, or give back. Wouldn’t it be selfish?
Odds are, the people you’re trying to serve by forfeiting your own passions, just want you to do what makes you truly happy.
Creative entrepreneurship is daunting enough, without the added pressure we place on ourselves. Pressure to be successful enough not just for ourselves but for so many others. Wanting that success is not only ok but totally achievable in this new creative landscape. Achieving the level of success you want is going to take believing in and fostering your passion, not feeling guilty because of it.
Eventually, I had had enough. I left Target, determined to figure out what it was I really wanted to do. When people asked me what my dreams are for most of my life, I said I hadn’t really thought about it much. I was a liar and a terrible one at that. My mind would race from possibility to possibility until ultimately, I decided my calling was to be a lawyer and to help those in need. Less super cutthroat, famous prosecutor and more down to earth, there for the little guy. It seemed like it would accomplish two big criteria:
Here’s another tip: you can trick yourself into thinking that something you "should be doing" is what you really want to do.
I know this because a few months after I began prepping for the LSAT, before I was set to start an amazing internship at the city prosecutor's office in downtown LA, I started working part-time for this couple who started a new software company called Dubsado. I didn’t really have any idea what they wanted me to do when I showed up my first day but figured it was a good chance to work while I studied. It was just the two of them and me, in a little corner of an office, with just a small community of users at the time. And I loved it.
I loved working with this whole industry of people committed to pursuing their passions. I loved working for a company that basically existed to help those people pursue their passions. I loved the stories and the people. The risks and the rewards. When it came time for me to decide whether I wanted to go to law school or stay with Dubsado, I was torn. I had no idea if this company would last, or if I would be secure there, or if there was even a place for me in the future. The funny thing is that the only people who weren’t torn were those I felt obligated to.
My parents begged me to stay at Dubsado and not go to law school. They knew.
My soon to be fiance asked, “do you believe good things are allowed to happen to you?” Basically, if I stayed at Dubsado did I believe it could actually work out for the best?
This was my final hurdle as it is for so many of us. Do we believe good things can happen to us? If you launched your photography business today or started work full time as a graphic designer, do you believe that it would not only work out but be what others want for you?
These are the hard questions of creative entrepreneurship, but the ones that are worth asking. There are a lot of things we can lift up in order to justify decisions based out of fear. A lot of them are noble of noble intent. We must, however, be able to identify where our decisions are coming from. Is it necessity or obligation? Passion or fear?
Never make a decision out of fear. Believe that the people you are trying to honor will feel honored if you make the most out of this life you are given. Take a leap. You might just land in the thing that puts you in the best position to do all those things you had always dreamed of.
I left my internship, stopped studying and joined Dubsado full time in February 2017 and it changed my life forever. You can make countless decisions based on them looking or feeling like “the right one” and never feel at peace. If you’re making those decisions as ways of justifying not doing what you know deep down you’re called to, they’ll never feel right.
All it takes is trust in yourself and one honest decision to change everything. It might be the one you’ve been trying to make all along.