“‘Finding yourself’ is not really how it works. You aren’t a ten-dollar bill in last winter’s coat pocket. You are also not lost. Your true self is right there, buried under cultural conditioning, other people’s opinions, and inaccurate conclusions you drew as a kid that became your beliefs about who you are. ‘Finding yourself’ is actually returning to yourself. An unlearning, an excavation, a remembering who you were before the world got its hands on you.”
“I didn’t mind the misery of a vocation but I dreaded not being called.”
For most of us, our childhood is a fond memory that we cherish — We miss the open-mindedness, the spontaneity, the playfulness that we had as children.
As decades and centuries of insights in psychology have suggested, the events that happened in the course of our childhood ultimately shapes who we are as we grow older.
Traumas and wounds inflicted when we were little play a role in the unconscious fears and repressed desires we carry as adults — They become part of who we are, and as much as we want to, we couldn’t get rid of them. We could only be aware and recognize them when they surface, as we can try as much as we can to be at peace with them — And essentially, this is what makes us human beings complex, and difficult.
More positively though, our childhood is often the time when our calling makes itself present — A voice that leads us towards doing what we love, and what we’re meant to do. It’s a calling when you love a craft or a field so much that you just couldn’t explain exactly why, that it just makes you really happy — While others see it as work or as a jumbled mystery, you see it as play. Time seems to pass by quickly, and the world seems to stand quietly still as you’re locked into that particular activity.
Very often, our calling starts from a significant event in our childhood — For Albert Einstein, it was when his father gave him a compass to play with. As a young child, he was perplexed and entertained for long periods of time as he pondered on the imaginary forces that acted on the compass needle. For Leonardo da Vinci, it was stealing a few pieces of paper and a pencil from his father, who was a notary — Paper was a rare commodity then, and he would very much treasure it by spending time around nature and sketching the minute details he observed.
Maybe for you, it’s the time when you went to your first concert. Maybe it’s the first poem you wrote. Maybe it’s a book you read, or a musical instrument your parents bought for your birthday.
Not listening to this voice is the real reason you feel depressed at times as you trudge through a dead-end job or a study that you don’t like — Because you’re ignoring who you really are. These moments of depression are a call for you to listen again to your inner authority, your inner child.
In concert with Jeff Goins’s words, “Living in what Thomas Merston calls ‘the false self’, we fall out of alignment with who we are, and I can tell you from experience there is no greater pain than living a lie when the truth is buried deep inside you.”
Even the Losers (Get Lucky Sometimes)
“Talent alone cannot make a writer. There must be a man behind the book.”
Ralph Waldo Emerson
“I remember Tom saying, ‘My dad’s gonna kill me,’ ” recalls Tom Leadon, a neighbor and fellow musician. “He’d just gotten his report card. I was like, ‘What did you get?’ He tells me, two Ds and three Fs. I remember thinking, ‘Wow, this could be the dumbest guy I’ve ever met.’ I was fascinated. Of course, I soon found out he wasn’t dumb at all. But he sure didn’t do much to connect at school.”
As Warren Zanes interviewed Petty for his biography, Petty showed a personal side of himself that was deeply colored by a traumatic childhood, one made up of an overly stern father and physical abuse. At a young age, he built an inner fortress that distrusted authoritarian figures.
Petty’s brother, Bruce, reflected, “My father had this kid that was going a hundred and eighty degrees opposite of everybody else and their kids. And (my father) was trying to stop that with everything he could.”
Petty himself explained, “I’m not the best authority on the relationships fathers have with their sons.” He talked as if the past remained uncomfortably close; the beatings, the yelling, the hair pulling. When the topic of his father arose, more than once, he would get up and open the door of his recording studio lounge, and threw whatever dregs he had left in his cup into the bushes outside. He never refused to talk about his father, but he would just pour some more coffee before he started talking.
“I didn’t understand there could be a relationship,” he continues. “I thought a father just put shit on the table, made a living, and we owed him the respect because he put a roof over our head, because for some reason our mother married him or because we just owe him respect. I didn’t realize that there were kids who had really genuine relationships with their fathers. I remember when I was young that I didn’t want to spend time around any parents. If I was visiting a friend and his parents showed up, I was gone.”
On the other side of Petty’s traumatic childhood, though, was an intense love for music — A love so rife with excitement, promises, and comfort.
At age 11, his uncle brought him to see Elvis Presley during his filming of Follow That Dream in nearby Ocala, Florida — A firm handshake from the King of Rock and Roll left an unforgettable impression in the young child.
The next day, young Petty sold his favorite slingshot for a stack of 45 records. And not long after that, he found a cheap, almost unplayable guitar. He felt a sense of comfort holding it than not, and perhaps the best thing of all, that guitar brought songs.
“Once music got into my body, it never left,” Petty explained. “I never could think of doing anything else. It wouldn’t have mattered if I’d gone to school, or off to be a monk. It wouldn’t have mattered, I would have done the same thing. There was no control, no way to quit, no way to walk away from it, just to hope for the best from it. Hope that it takes care of me.”
Music was always in his mind — A place he found solace in, where he would be taken someplace free, away from his troubles. Zanes wrote, “Playing the songs meant getting inside them. Even that early, Petty could find clues about what made a song work, what made one better than the next. He was quietly taking it all in, no aspirations beyond the next gig, learning to play bass, learning to sing.”
Then, after watching The Beatles on TV, he was determined that he could make a living out of what he loved. “When I was a kid, I would have loved to have been a rock-and-roll star,” said Petty. “I just didn’t understand how you got to be one…But the minute I saw The Beatles on Ed Sullivan — and it’s true for thousands of us — there was a way to do it.”
“With a huge dosage of humanity, and an unerring sense of recording and songwriting,” journalist Cameron Crowe wrote, “Petty headed for the high-octane phase of his career.”
Petty retained his childlike creativity and excitement for as long as he lived, often having musical ideas flow through him almost seamlessly. He had a gift in writing sparse and simple lyrics that listeners could adopt as their own life stories.
Crowe wrote of Petty, “He was a young master of the confiding moment. That’s the moment in a song when the words disappear, and the song becomes a conversation, a confession of truth between friends.”
He added, “The songs easily broke down the barrier between rock star and fan. There was nothing self-consciously lofty about it all. These were meat-and-potatoes issues. Love. Anger. Desire. Fun. Youth. These were not tablets from Mt. Olympus. This was everyman poetry. Petty, you felt, wouldn’t just have a beer with ya…he’d bring two bottles to the table and shove one your way.”
As Petty achieved stardom, his father tried to make amends with his son, telling him that he, as a father, was wrong. Petty, who was once a disappointment to him in almost every category, was now someone to be very proud of — One that he would frequently mention and talk about over drinks.
“My father was nice enough to me in his old age,” said Petty. “In his way, he tried to apologize. But I think he always felt that he wasn’t supposed to get too close to his children. As a parent, you just made sure the kids didn’t die. You fed them and then you sent them out into the world. But you shouldn’t necessarily get to know them.”
But aside from the hit singles and the backstage hugs, there is a point at which the damage is done, and nothing could undo that. What happens in a young child’s life never goes away.
Petty’s songwriting from one point always mirrored a man who struggled to find peace within himself and with the world, from his childhood traumas and from his troubles. Though needless to say, he never let his scars get the best of him. “He had a lot of fight in him,” said his wife, Dana.
He always found ways to use the pains of his past as fuel, as he mustered the courage to be different, to stay true to himself, to stay stubborn on the path to becoming a musician, writing great songs and later braving through harrowing calamities such as his house being burned down in an act of arson, and a divorce.
Throughout all of that, he had found peace in his calling. He always had.
About a year before his death, Petty wrote a song with his side band, Mudcrutch, about how he had finally found in himself the strength to forgive, that he had finally found rest.
He sang, “People are what people make ’em, and that ain’t gonna change.
There ain’t nothing you can do, nothing you could rearrange. But I forgive it all, I forgive it all..”
“The deeper you get into it, the more sacrifices you have to make. Someone is going to have to go back to his childhood and think about what they really felt, really wanted before the fingerprints of their fathers and mothers got a hold of them, or before the smudges of school or progress..”
To quote Jeff Goins again, “The reason many of us never self-actualize is because it’s easier to play a role in life than it is to become our true selves. It’s easier to conform to what people expect than it is to stand out. But this is not the way great art is made, nor is it the way real artists are made.”
The reality is, listening to your calling takes courage. Often, a lot of it. You’re going to feel that the world is against your favor — Maybe it is, and that’s a test on just how important your calling is to you — And how important it is for the world too, in fact. Perhaps your obstacles aren’t the same as Tom Petty’s — You might not have an overbearing parent who squeezes you down to conformity.
Whatever your obstacles may be, remember that the most stubborn people we know are the ones who are most successful — Because listen to their inner child.
Life is kind of like driving a car, isn’t it? You can’t be undecided about which direction you want to take. Listening to your calling requires that you have a clear picture of where you want to go, and what you really want for your life — It’s about being stubborn on the right things.
Think about one thing that you love to do, that gives you a tremendous sense of joy — That gets you excited like a child, and you’d just get lost in the process because you’re having so much fun — Maybe it’s that thing you’d do if “you had more time”. Chances are, that’s what you should be working on for the rest of your life.
Why is it so important that you do this? Because it’s unlikely that you’ll make great discoveries if you don’t love what you’re doing.
Take a look back at Tom Petty. What made him so special was that he wrote from the point of view of the common people — The losers, the misfits, the rebels, the dropouts — And most of all, he captured the inevitable ups and downs of being a human being — Whether it’s being lucky to get a glimpse of a date in “Even the Losers”, searching for something more in life in “American Girl”, waiting and hoping for something that may never come in “The Waiting”, or roaringly standing up to adversity in “I Won’t Back Down”.
Because he had the insanely loving drive to pull himself through the intricacies of his craft, he was able to bring to the table something unique — Something only he could do.
Or, look at Leonardo da Vinci’s work. No one told him to make his work so lifelike and beautiful as they are — He did all those amazing things because he wanted to. He placed such a high standard on himself and worked so hard on his skills because that’s what he loved. Who else would write in his to-do list, “study the tongue of a woodpecker” — Probably a nutcase.
However, an important thing to note here is — Maybe you can’t quit your job or dedicate yourself wholly to your craft. You can always do what you can in your spare time every day, and that’s okay. Creating art takes money, and you can’t create any art if you’re starving.
Also, before you do anything, always listen to the world around you. Frederick Buechner once said that “The place to which God calls you is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.” — What he meant was, it’s not enough that you follow your calling — You have to present your calling in a way that it matches what people actually want.
Borrowing a concept from economics, you need to find that equilibrium point where supply meets demand, where what people want is in tandem with what you have in store.
So, you need to think first — What do people want that you can give, that would also make you very happy?
For Petty, he knew that at the time, rock music in particular was becoming a seven minute exercise, a complex art — He wanted to bring back the wisdom that you could say a lot more by playing simpler tunes, by doing less — And on top of that, he wanted to play songs that you could dance to — For that, he didn’t play rock music. He played rock and roll. As he said, in the latter, there’s a certain swing to it.
This is also the reason why publishing companies often require you to hand in a book proposal beforehand — So they could see if there’s any potential in your work, if people would want to read it — Rather than you hack away on your work for six months in a cave and come out of it with a finished manuscript — Only for no one wanting to buy a copy of it.
Tom Petty passed away in 2017 due to a cardiac arrest. Cameron Crowe wrote, “The kid from Gainesville who traded his slingshot for records, and kept making music, restlessly and beautifully for his entire life, might never have imagined how far the songs would travel or how much they’d be held close by so many. Or maybe he did know.”
Just days after his passing, 90,000 Florida Gators fans sang “I Won’t Back Down” in his honor in his hometown stadium.
Reminiscing that beautiful moment, Crowe wrote, “In my imagination, it was the sound of all of us, his fans, saying, ‘We love you, and we’ll take it from here.'”