03/26/2013 11:07 am ET Updated May 26, 2013

Let Go of What Doesn't Work -- and Find Something That Does

"What do you like about piano?" I asked my daughter a few years ago when we were on our way to register for her ninth year of lessons. "Being able to say I haven't quit," she told me.


"What do you not like about it?" I continued. She didn't hesitate: "Practicing. Lessons. And recitals."

So... all of it.

My professional life flashed before my eyes.

I thought of a career consultant friend who was helping a teacher chart a new course for herself. "What do you like about teaching?" he'd asked her. "Long vacations and summers off," she'd told him. To which he'd replied, "No. I mean while you're there..."

For much of my adult life I'd chosen jobs that sounded good in answer to the question, "What do you do for a living?" I'd made those choices without taking into account how much I'd hate what I'd be doing on, say, a random Tuesday afternoon.

The thing you should like about something -- as the career consultant I just mentioned pointed out -- is the thing, not some supposed offshoot of the thing. That's why I think the best hiring advice goes something like this: "Find someone who loves the work for the work itself. You won't have to babysit him because he's filling a need of his own with the job. And you probably won't be dickering about an extra sick day or whatever it is, for the same reason."

When I was a freshman in college, one of my favorite engineering professors gave a speech I'll never forget. "It's about now," he said, "when a lot of you will want to quit." No kidding. Engineering students, as a friend put it, were dropping like flies. "Before you do," the professor suggested, "make sure you're running to something and not away from it."

Whether it's a job or a course of study or even piano lessons, sometimes the right thing to do -- even if you hate it -- is to stick with it until you find something to say yes to. But sometimes the right thing to do is to let go of what isn't working... to make room for what could.

Katie and I showed up at registration, to quit. She was suddenly excited to start high school, knowing she'd have more time for the things she loves -- like drama -- without the drag on her spirit the music lessons had become. "I don't know why kids would take drugs to get high," she offered, "when they could just quit piano."

It had been a couple of years since we discussed that possibility. Katie didn't like practicing, but she didn't want to quit taking lessons. She aspired to a career in music back then, and piano was part of that plan. What if I'd assumed the plan hadn't changed? What if I hadn't bothered to ask how she felt about piano lessons now? We both guess she would've slogged through another year, just because.

That was close!