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The Secret to Doing What You Love (and Being a Runaway Success at It)

03/27/2015 05:40 pm ET | Updated May 27, 2015
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"When you get into a tight place and everything goes against you, till it seems as though you could not hang on a minute longer, never give up then, for that is just the place and time that the tide will turn." -Harriet Beecher Stowe

"Do what you love" may be the most overused advice in the career-improvement world. A blog post on the complexity of this directive went viral on Jacobin last year. It was shared 57,000 times on Facebook and riffed about in the New York Times Opinionator by Gordon Marino.

I know all this firsthand. Once upon a time, I turned my back on a half-finished MBA and a corporate job with its maddening pace and rigid hierarchy. The fact that my boss gave my job to her newly-unemployed husband didn't help. I escaped to do what I loved. In my case, the passion was writing.

The act of quitting made me subversive. And that alone fueled creative expression. I mapped out chapters, the content. Figured I'd have the manuscript written in six months, employ an editor, find an agent, become a bestseller, Oprah would call, the whole bit.

Four years later, I found myself gazing into my monitor not knowing whether to put a period at the end of the sentence or keep going with a comma. I'd lost my home in foreclosure, gone bankrupt, written 300,000 words, revised the body of work four times. And while I was slurping away at my second or maybe 87th Cosmo, I understood what I was really missing -- a mentor. A guide. A coach. Someone who'd gone before, knew how to shape art into something saleable and would come along with a tribe of like-minded people with whom I could collaborate. I didn't want to go back to school. What I was looking for was beyond the confines of academia. I needed someone to touch what the poet Mary Oliver called the "wild silky" part of myself and, finally, make it palatable to the world.

Mentors are necessary. Hemingway had Stein, Beethoven had Neefe. The true challenge once you know the secret lies in finding a mentor is how to find that coach who can make your passion work in the world. This is like how to find a raindrop in a rainstorm. There are thousands of coaches out there. They're like doctors and lawyers. But here's what I learned (the hard way): Some coaches are competent, some are lousy -- even soul crushers. I dropped coins in wishing well after wishing well. One wore a floral patterned dress that matched her bonnet and tried to make me into a mystery writer; another one was always throwing theories at me I couldn't apply; one promised me the stars, took my money and then never contacted me again.

How do you find your coach? Here are five helpful hints for the girl or gal who wants to (or maybe has) dropped everything to do what she loves:

  1. Go with the gut. Have a bad feeling even though her website's copy seems like a projection of everything lying dormant in your heart? That's your intuit talking. Run. There are too many fantastic coaches out there who have integrity and know how to move you forward.

  • She's part of your tribe: if you see her write a post in a publication you love or show up in a group on social media with whom you share a vibe, chances are you have similar taste, so you might want to take a shot at it. I found my coach through my Reiki teacher. My coach had helped a fellow Reiki student get an agent and a book deal. She's now distributed with Random House, has been on NPR, has speaking engagements, the whole nine yards.
  • She has street cred and success: When I went on my coach's website, she had testimonial after testimonial from people who had published books, made a career out of writing, had gotten bylines with top media outlets and had life-changing experiences after being with her. She was also successful in her own right. An internationally-acclaimed author with lots of kudos to her name, she's made her living writing, which is what I wanted to do and so I knew she could trail blaze a path.
  • She gets you, every single part of you. The secret to my coach's success is that she works in the Gateless method, a very specific method based on brain science, craft tools and community that moves creatives to places they'd only imagined. Through this method, she helps all of you rather than just the part of you working on your craft. That divorce you haven't quite gotten over? Could be a barrier to next step on your career path. The trauma you suffered as a child might be the thing that needs to be coddled before you begin to really allow yourself to go big. Make sure your coach isn't just about deliverables, numbers, list building, ideal clients and great gallery gigs.
  • It doesn't happen overnight: I know, this one sort of sucks. But anyone who promises you the world in thirty days or even six weeks isn't really helping you make lasting change. It took most of us years to get here and the true unraveling and resetting can take a while to grab hold. Something magical did happen with my coach, everything my shaman has been teaching me about the process absolutely broke through, and while it felt like it happened overnight, it's too deep and long lasting for that. Now I feel seasoned at this writing thing. But first I had to undo a lot of the conditioning I'd learned in my corporate gig.
  • Since working with my coach I've been shortlisted for prizes, published in the top online media outlets and have been picked up by prestigious lit journals, but more than that? I understand that often those who fail at doing what they loved just didn't have the guidance they needed to learn how to soar.