I don’t typically blog about my personal life on my professional blog, but sometimes the two worlds intersect. After my grandfather passed away last spring, I realized that some of the most important professional lessons I’ve learned were from him. I pay especially close attention to lessons my grandfather passed down, because he achieved so much in his own life--so I figure that anything that was good enough for him, is good enough for me! (I’m including a link to his obituary here.)
Focusing on a few endeavors is enough.
In the days after my grandfather died, many people came up to me and the rest of my immediate family to tell me the ways he impacted their lives. I realized that there tended to be about five different things that were repeated over and over (in no particular order): his contributions to both nature conservation and evolutionary biology, his impact as a professor, how he gave other conservationists the tools to do their own conservation work, and how he was a loving family man (married to my grandmother for 63 years, with two daughters, and two grandchildren). Hearing these five things repeated over and over again made me realize that focusing your life primarily to a few different endeavors is enough to lead a meaningful life, and even to potentially make a transformative impact. You don’t need to spread yourself thin—a few is enough.
When you’re going on a path that has no map, an internal compass will be what carries you forward:
It’s easy enough to look back on his life now, and take his successes for granted. However, he put his academic career on hold to pursue an endeavor that had overwhelming odds towards failure. There was no guarantee that the SPNI would last, much less have the impact it ended up having. When you’re pursuing goals that don’t have one set roadmap nor guarantee to success, the thing that will carry you through is an internal compass: unwavering belief in what you’re doing. It won't always be easy, and it will involve standing by what you believe in during difficult times. However, regardless of the outcome, it’s highly unlikely that you’ll come out worse off, or that you’ll fail to make any impact at all, when you're doing work that matters.
Life is lived in the day-to-day details, not successes and failures.
When I think back about my grandfather, I think of the countless research trips he and my grandmother took, early mornings they took to observe Arabian Babblers, and cups of instant coffee they shared afterwards to talk about what they saw that day. That made me realize that it’s in these day-to-day details that life is truly lived. Both successes and failures aren't the norm—by definition, those moments will be the outliers of one’s life. When I think back on my own (albeit short!) life as a singer, I think mainly on my practice sessions and lessons that have shaped me both as a singer and a person—in short, the things that make up the daily life of an opera singer, rather than peaks and valleys. If you pursue a career in any endeavor, do it because you love the things involved in the daily life in that career, not for any peaks that might come along the way.
Finding meaning in what you’re doing is enough.
A couple of years ago, I was about to do an important audition, and I spoke with my grandfather by phone the night before. He ended that conversation by saying that “so long as you’re happy and enjoy yourself along the way, that’s what matters.” That one phone call summed up what I felt from him throughout the entire time that I knew him: that all he wanted was for me to be happy doing work I felt mattered. It wasn’t important what career path I followed (even when I briefly considered following in his footsteps as a scientist back in grade school), nor did it matter to him whether I ever achieved x, y, or z. All you needed to live a meaningful life is to believe in what you’re doing, whatever that may be. I felt this from him, regardless of which career path I would choose. The example from him in that was that one needn’t pursue a career path in order to please others, nor for any other reason that might sacrifice your own integrity in the endeavor—you can absolutely have that, and make a meaningful impact at the same time, because I saw him do just that.