What We Might Have Been

A question – did you end up doing what you wanted most to do in your life? Here’s the safety net to your answer… if you didn’t, not to worry. Many, maybe most people didn’t. And that’s okay. It’s okay even if you didn’t try. I wanted to be a jet pilot, or a pilot of any kind, but I didn’t even try, as I simply didn’t have the tools to be a good pilot. No math skills, bad eyesight, even the wrong temperament to be cool under pressure, which is a must for a good pilot. So no, I didn’t even try. And strangely, that is going to fly in the face of my gentle criticism of a few of my friends and associates who also didn’t try, or gave up… for different reasons.

Now granted, this kind of thinking is for the 60-and-over crowd. No apologies, as I represent the 70-and-over crowd. At this stage of life there is much we can no longer do, so we tend to sit more and think more, and remember more. Self analysis becomes an almost everyday exercise, and sometimes it pays to be careful how deeply one is willing to go. Again, I’m pretty comfortable with all that, as I had a good and fairly successful professional life. Oh sure, sometimes my brain kicks up at 4 a.m. and starts remembering, and sometimes listing, the many stupid things I’ve done and said in my life. I could actually quantify them, but what’s the good in that? I’m usually able to chalk it all up to simply being a dumb shit who got into some elements of life in over his head, and nearly splashed all the water out of the pool trying to get out of it. The end result of much of that present angst has taken a positive spin for me… aka “at least I tried.” And I don’t give a fig about what Yoda said, “Do or don’t do, there is no try.” Love you to pieces, Yoda, but that’s bullshit. In my mind there is “try and succeed.” “Try and fail.” “Try and try again.” “Try, fail and learn something in the process.”
Sorry, Yoda, but attempting or “trying” something without knowing the outcome is a reality of life.

But let’s call a quick and happy end to this self-analysis and instead pick up the reason for this diatribe in the first place, which is, why and How did a few of my peers somehow slide by their passions and/or talents to choose a more practical, perhaps less satisfactory occupation. I have friends who are multi-talented… doing well in wildly different fields. Occasionally, being versatile, especially in the arts, is the key to success and security. We might as well note here that security is the element that most often defines where we turn, and what we turn to. How much security a person needs in their lifetime is always an individual assessment, though as Americans we nearly all want more than we need. My friends and acquaintances have often made the secure choice for their life’s work, and in most cases, having a family required them to be more careful, more practical. I get that. Of course there are myriad reasons one might leave his talent and pursue a different course. My friends were easily smart enough, and resourceful enough to make many alternative vocations work for them. And I could end this right here, for all intents and purposes. My point’s been made, but it’s my fate to ponder friends’ decisions and their consequences. In truth it’s really none of my business… I know that. But it’s too interesting to leave alone.

I know this – there is something inside some of us, something that demands, pleads, insists we follow it. It is a force not understood by many Americans, There are some who are born with it, who feel it but don’t understand it, don’t follow it. And they live out their lives feeling as though they’ve missed something, yet never figure out what it is. Those who have followed it, who have had the insight, the self-discipline and the courage to follow invisible powers into the unknown, have reaped many rewards, far beyond their imaginations. They have resisted or ignored the temptation to follow the more secure path, and instead have followed their hearts into the unknown.

Many have a sense of their future, which is predictable, mostly safe and secure. Others, however, know only their starting place; though they might dream of their bright future, they cannot see it, but forge into that misty future with energy and a belief that they can find their way through the fog to fulfill their dreams, and beyond.


Those who are wildly talented in an area, and especially those who are talented in multiple areas, have the toughest decisions to make. Sometimes the smartest, most talented of us are driven more by logic than passion. I know at least three guys like that, who began pursuing their various abilities and passions, only to ultimately decide on the practical route. And none has ever confessed to regretting it. Perhaps they don’t.

You could say it was easy for me, I didn’t get married ’til I was 42, and had tons of time and freedom to chase my dream. And you’d be right. I knew that, and most of my friends probably saw me as a leaf blowing in the breeze, lighting only temporarily, as his dream and career often whisked him away to a different location, and to a different group of friends. In a way I was happily trapped by my musical talent, and I’ve since come to realize that if not for music, I would have been a gas station manager or a grocery store stocker. I simply had no other measurable talent/ability.

One of my friends was a water color artist, a jazz bassist and an inventor. He was talented in all three, and finally made his bundle through inventing. I keep trying to imagine the magnificent water color paintings he would have created by now.

A friend of mine, a copywriter for an ad agency in Atlanta, once told me he would never try writing a book because he knew he could never write like, or match the quality of his favorite writer, Cormack McCarthy.  I tried to gently remind him that we all had heroes in our fields that we could never hope to emulate, and that it didn’t matter. Our personal attempts in art would always be unique because of who we are, and how we see life. Comparison to our heroes is poisonous if it restricts us from spreading our own wings. Hell, I had peers who played circles around me, and always would, and that I continued on my own path anyway. But I never could change his  mind on the matter.  

Another friend was in law, was a writer, a carpenter and a woodworking artist, and terrific in all those endeavors. Yet I would question whether he feels fulfilled at this point in his life. Another flew fighter jets in the Air Force and is a fine guitarist and singer. Very fulfilled. Yet another friend was an actor, set designer and stage manager who became a teacher. He would have/could have become a fantastic actor. To this day, I wish he had pursued it. All the above were honorable men, somewhat driven, knowing what their passions were. Some saw those passions to the end. Some didn’t.

I like what Sidney Poitier said. “There’s something inside me – pride, ego, sense of self – that hates to fail at anything.”

Which leads me to think, “Right, Sydney. And if one doesn’t try a thing, it’s impossible to fail at it, isn’t it?” And at some point, “not failing” often becomes more important than “not trying.”

Tennessee Williams once said in an interview with James Grissom in 1982, “I don’t know what to tell you. A statement is easy, and here it is: Be yourself. Try to matter. Be a good friend. Love freely, even if you are likely–almost guaranteed–to be hurt, betrayed. Do what you were created to do. You’ll know what this is, because it is what you keep creeping up to, peering at, dreaming of. Do it. If you don’t, you’ll be punching clocks and eating time doing precisely what you shouldn’t, and you’ll become mean and you’ll seek to punish any and all who appear the slightest bit happy, the slightest bit comfortable in their own skin, the slightest bit smart. Cruelty is a drug, as well, and it’s all around us. Don’t imbibe.
“Try to matter. Try to care. And never be afraid to admit that you just don’t know, you just don’t fucking know how you’re going to make it. That’s when the help–the human and the divine help–shows up.”

Do I have any friends who found their passion, their strength, and followed it, stuck with it throughout their lives? Sure. A graphic artist who still does it, and makes beautiful music, to this day.  Another is a film and video producer, multi-talented, who is still doing it today.

One of my boyhood friends went to college at U of Montana and became a cost accountant for NASA for a time., then an auditor for the Dept. of Energy in Texas. For the next 22 years he became Chief, Retail Management Division for USAF Fuels Program.  He was responsible for the preparation and execution of the budget for Air Force fuels – worldwide.  The program required the expenditure and recovery of approximately $3 Billion annually.  Monthly briefings were prepared and delivered at the General Officer level.  Extensive travel was required as the office also supported 46 Foreign Countries. During that time he visited 39 Foreign Countries.

He then built his own company, auditing oil companies in Texas. From there he became a high-ranking and much-respected civil servant for the Air Force, visiting American air bases around the world and getting under some generals’ skin. He started his own company to assist the Dept of Defense in the recovery of unpaid fuel bills owed by commercial companies.  At one time he had 17 Financial Analysts working under contract. During the period 2006 to 2010 his team recovered $9.1 million which was deposited into the US Treasury.  He got to meet the Secretary of the Air Force who told him “Thanks Rick, even the USAF can use $9.1 million”.

Focused? Yes. Passionate? Absolutely! Did he love what he did, and provide well for his beautiful family? Indeed he did, in spades.

And then there’s this guy who got a business degree at George Washington U. His interest turned to primate behavior and he worked with capuchin monkeys at Emory U. In Atlanta for 5 years. From there he gravitated to a job at Ted Turner’s environmental foundation, giving away his money for wildlife conservation, ecosystem protection, environmental advocacy and litigation in the US, Canada, Brazil, Argentina, etc. After four years there, it was out to Montana for a new job running a wildlife fund through the Wildlife Conservation Society’s office in Bozeman, which is where I met him. While there, he got a Masters in public administration at Montana State U.

Back in Washington D.C., he landed a job as WCS’s global climate adaptation lead, which he held for a short time before switching jobs to help run the Climate Resilience Fund with friends which he holds to this day. He, his wife and two beautiful kids live on a large farm on the East Coast. He is one of the happiest, most fulfilled people I have ever known.

I share these two stories of dear friends of mine to show the best examples I know, of where passion, commitment and the ability to change can lead a person. They both made the most of their natural abilities, while learning new abilities along the way and adapting to new circumstances, willing to take on yet new challenges. These are two men who have taken their abilities about as far as they could, with great successes along the way. I am immensely proud of both of them. They remain an inspiration for me and for many.

And there are others… Buster O’Connor, George Hirthler, Larry Gardner, Jon Lodge, Bob Drayer, Lyn Deramus, Craig Herndon, Bill Hatcher, all who took their abilities all the way, stuck with them, and did so successfully. My hat is so off to you all, gentlemen.

I would guess that we seldom end up doing exactly what we started out to pursue… life usually doesn’t work quite like that. Most of us steer right, then left, following opportunity and circumstance to our best advantage while trying to keep the dream somewhere in sight. In my case, the dream was to be a jazz pianist in a swanky room in a tall building back East somewhere. Ha. I ended up in a major recording studio in Atlanta, a composer/arranger of jingles and industrial film scores. I began my career, and 35 years later ended it as a jazz pianist. In between, my main source of income and security came from composing and arranging. I still played out occasionally, but from ’80 on it was only as a sit-in player in the small groups around Atlanta.

Do I feel I turned my back on my first passion? Hell no! In my mind it was more a matter of accepting new challenges that led to a different, and better direction. And I would guess my friends feel much that same way.

Can a person’s passion change with time? Of course, and for many reasons, one of which is some experience with our endeavors which can lead us to realize that, though we love it, it’s not right for us. Happens all the time, to nearly everyone. Both the medical and law professions are good examples. Many fine artists have had to sideline their passion for other, more practical pursuits. I did that, several times. It’s not a crime, nor does it necessarily define one as a quitter. Artistry and practicality have never been compatible, and very few have been able to utilize them both successfully. It’s possible, of course, but always a neat trick.

It’s so easy, after we retire, to reflect upon what we might have done, what we didn’t do. I sincerely hope all who read this and reflect will cut themselves much slack if they find regrets among their memories. Life’s momentary circumstances usually play a larger part in those early decisions than we realize, and it should be fun to be able to now see how far our lives landed from our original dream. It’s all just a big game anyway, right?

Steve Hulse

2 Replies to “What We Might Have Been”

  1. Steve,

    This is an important and kind-hearted perspective. One that could use more “air-time.” So much of current self-improvement, popular culture writing emphasizes “following your dream” and doing “what you love,” which, although tantalizing copy, is NOT necessarily realistic life-advice. Especially for artists. It’s a great starting point, but as you mentioned, sometimes “life happens!”

    As you say, “ Many fine artists have had to sideline their passion for other, more practical pursuits. I did that, several times. It’s not a crime, nor does it necessarily define one as a quitter. Artistry and practicality have never been compatible, and very few have been able to utilize them both successfully.”

    THAT, my friend, is wise counsel. Hope you submit this essay to other outlets so more can benefit from your worldly wisdom.

    All the best for you and yours in the new year, my friend!

    Cheers, Martha Moore

  2. Mr Hulse: I found your article to be quite inspirational and certainly not because you included a story about me. Rather, it is the “intangibles” that you brought out in each of your stories that made your article such a joy to read. You note that most of us seldom end up doing what we originally start out to do. That comment was spot on for me. I wanted to be a history teacher and ended up being a financial manager. Those in the teaching business would utter -“Thank God”!
    Yes, I achieved a certain level of success but that was mainly due to the fact that I hired good people. But my crowning achievement was because I married a beautiful Irish redhead, who, also happens to be smarter than me.
    Thanks for writing such a terrific story!

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