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Portfolio of Passions--It's Not About Balance

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This chapter is from the book
For many Builders, their portfolio of passions launched them like juggernauts on historic missions that are a far cry from their beginnings, missions to get things done in parts of the world where things haven't gotten better for generations. For Builders, there is not just one thing to do with their life. Learn why every passion counts.

It's exciting to see how fast your kids learn and grow. I'm not too worried about them, particularly the ones who like to break the rules and don't follow instructions; those are the ones that will do just fine because they know what's important to them.

Michael Dell

To find your mission in life is to discover the intersection between your heart's deep gladness and the world's deep hunger.

Frederick Beekner

The moment she heard the baby cry, she was compelled to do the same. What poor 16-year-old single mother wouldn't? Yet mingled with her desperation were the persistence, hope, and drive that would mark her path to eventual greatness.

Maya Angelou1 would become the first bestselling African-American author (I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings),2 one of the most popular living poets of our time, an Emmy Award-winning actress and producer, a university professor,3 a mentor to Oprah Winfrey, a civil rights activist and Martin Luther King's protégé, and the first African-American woman admitted to the Directors Guild of America.

People hearing Maya read one of her poems at President Bill Clinton's inauguration in 1993 may know of her artistic achievements, but may not know that she was sexually assaulted at age eight by her mother's boyfriend; after which she turned silent for the next four years, refusing to speak to anyone but her brother. Nor could they know that to survive and support her young son, Guy, she had been a SF cable car operator, danced in night clubs, cooked at a Creole cafe, removed paint at a body shop, and even had been a madam in a San Diego brothel.

Angelou has come a long way from growing up in segregated Stamps, Arkansas, to where she is today. But, if there is a secret to her success, it was that she found many ways to feed her soul.

"You can't simply sit on the sidelines and bemoan one's outcast state; it's not enough," she told Mark Thompson over cookies and coffee in the living room of her Wake Forest home. "This experience, this life, is our one time to be ourselves."

This isn't spin—spin denies accountability for creating what you want. As Angelou encounters resistance to her dreams, she responds the way many enduringly successful people do: She finds new ways to look at the issue. "If I see something I don't like, I try to change it, and if I can't change it, I change my position of looking at it, and then by seeing it from a different angle, I might be able to change it; or I might find some good in it that I can use, which might make it change itself. If you find that the world just won't work the way you want it to—if you can't make things happen despite your very best efforts—then change the way you look at it."

The Reward for the Doing Must Be the Doing

When asked if that viewpoint included an awareness of when she started to have impact on the world, she admonished that it's not healthy to think that way. "It's best not to do that. The reward for the doing must be the doing." When people tell her they love her work, she responds with only a simple, "Thank you." And when called a "liar or hack or worse—I've been called all those things—I say, 'Thank you.'" If she buys into the adulation, it would make her vulnerable to a focus on outside opinion—so when she hears harsh criticism, she would be vulnerable to that as well.

Neither the toxic nor the intoxicating influences of celebrity status are helpful in achieving your goals. Angelou feels they both threaten to distract from the creative work. "As the African proverb says, I don't pick that up; I don't lay that down. Because, if I were to pick up the one (the compliment), I have to pick up the other (the acrimony). And I still have my work to do!"4

Success can be the worst thing that happens to you if you think it makes you right. "Being right can make you righteous," Angelou said, and we often stop listening to how we can improve. Success as traditionally defined doesn't mean we're right; it just means that whatever happened turned out to be popular. You're bound to suffer rather than enjoy life if you rely on the public to tell you how to feel.

Angelou carved out an extraordinary career and created a life that has great personal meaning to her, with or without good reviews. At the same time, she has had lasting impact in the world. But it has not all been an upward spiral. She has also been penalized for her audacity to define her own version of success. Now in her late 70s, she continues to be the target of both contention and admiration, yet she remains hugely popular.

How does Maya remain so prolific and make success last? She said it's her portfolio of passions. Few people have excelled at so many different interests, but Angelou believes that if she didn't indulge in many of them, she might have none of them. For Angelou, there is dance, singing, acting, writing, teaching, literature, sunsets, April showers, good food, great friends—and the list goes on without obvious synergies.

Although one passion usually dominates Builders' lives and defines their successes in the eyes of the world, it's a mistake to believe there is just one passion that must be pursued at the expense of all others.

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