Howard Thurman is best known as a prominent early-twentieth century author, theologian and civil rights activist. Born in 1899 in a then segregated Daytona Beach, Florida, Thurman would graduate college as valedictorian, be ordained as a Baptist minister, found the Church for the Fellowship of All Peoples, the first racially integrated, intercultural church in the United States, become the first black dean of Marsh Chapel at Boston University, and write over 20 books, including Jesus and the Disinherited, a book which influenced Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and the modern civil rights movement.
Like Dr. King, who Thurman deeply impacted, Thurman was clearly on a mission, and this is evident in how he spent his time — engaged in Christian missions, mentoring and acting as a spiritual advisor to many civil rights leaders, and writing and preaching about equal rights and compassion. He was passionate about equality. It’s what brought him to life every day. He was self-aware and understood this about himself. It’s why he focused on such a challenging enterprise, and this knowledge is also why he was successful in his efforts. He knew this is what he was meant for.
Recognizing this in himself and what it allowed him to accomplish, he extracted and distilled this advice from his experiences for his friend and associate Gil Bailie:
Don’t ask yourself what the world needs. Ask yourself what makes you come alive and then go do that. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.
I love this notion of ‘people who have come alive.’ I imagine them as souls intent on ‘dying empty,’ as Todd Henry puts in his book of the same name, with every ounce of their energy, will, and spirit fully expended. Roald Dahl, the famous British novelist who wrote Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, once talked of what this might be like, and of why it’s important to not simply have interests, but to have passions.
Listening to my father… I began to realize how important it was to be an enthusiast in life. He taught me that if you are interested in something, no matter what it is, go at it at full speed ahead. Embrace it with both arms, hug it, love it and above all become passionate about it. Lukewarm is no good. Hot is no good either. White hot and passionate is the only thing to be.
The issue I have observed, in me in my youth, and often in other people now, is ambiguity over what it is that we really, really love doing. Nicole Belanger described this experience recently as a recurring misperception of what we actually love versus what we simply love the idea of.
Why is fixing this matter of distinguishing between what we merely like and what we love so important? Because when this is not defined, we waste time, energy, and mental resources on things that aren’t worth their effort.
To be sure — and this is what this piece is about — some of us are very sure of what we want to be doing with our lives, but we’re afraid of what we would need to demand of ourselves to embrace this calling. When this is what we’re suffering from, how do we move forward? “You have to decide what your highest priorities are,” wrote Stephen R. Covey, the famous author of The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, “and have the courage — pleasantly, smilingly, nonapologetically, to say “no” to other things.” (Can you do this?)
He continued, “And the way you do that is by having a bigger “yes” burning inside.” This means asking yourself openly: Is your yes really a yes? In considering that point, I suggest you marinate in the insights of Jason Fried and David Hansson:
When you want something bad enough, you make the time — regardless of your other obligations. The truth is most people just don’t want it bad enough. Then they protect their ego with the excuse of time. Don’t let yourself off the hook with excuses. It’s entirely your responsibility to make your dreams come true.
Yes, time. What we do with time says a lot about we really care about. And with the risk of drowning this post in quote saturation, I’d like to invoke Annie Dillard to remind us that, “How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives. What we do with this hour, and that one, is what we are doing.”
What are you doing?