Why I Hate That Howard Thurman Quote

You know the one. It’s ultra-popular in arts and personal coaching.    

Don’t ask yourself what the world needs. Ask yourself what makes you come alive and then go do that. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.”

It makes me squint.

Thurman was a visionary activist, one of the most hard-core, rigorous minds to shine light on what it means to labor in the service of virtue. He published dozens of works, gave hundreds of sermons, and inspired thousands of the most earth-shaking social justice leaders of the 20th and 21st centuries.  He was a thinker up there with MLK, Bertrand Russell, Audre Lorde, Thich Naht Hanh. He’s this guy.


But the only quote most of us know is this “what makes you come alive” thing.

And, really, I’m not even convinced it’s his. The first place it appears is actually 11 years after Thurman’s death, as a remembered snippet of advice in the forward of a book by THIS guy.


His name is Gil Bailie, and he doesn’t seem a bad sort. Still. It’s super weird that for most of America, what we know about Thurman is this one quote, often in a cute font, on a picture of a white girl playing with a dandelion.

The reason I don’t dig this piece of coaching advice isn’t just its dubious provenance.

It’s that I think it’s incorrect.

Imagine a football coach telling the QB not to look for who’s open, but just throw with all the joy he can muster, because what the game needs is more players throwing with joy.

Imagine telling a young teacher not to bother about what a child’s skills and learning needs are, but just teach whatever feels the most inspiring to teach, because what we need most is truly inspired teachers.

Imagine telling a med student not to worry about accurately diagnosing the patient, and instead just do the surgery that really excites you, because we need more surgeons who are truly excited about their work.

I’ll tip my hat to Joseph Campbell, but often this “Follow Your Bliss” stuff is like a lollipop of motivational advice:  not a meal, not even a snack.

Why is it all over the place?

Because you’ll never go broke telling people what they love to hear.

“Put yourself first.”
“Make more time for you.”
“Listen only to your inner voice.”

Mmm, yummy, doesn’t it feel good in your ears?

And yes, there are people in the world who do need to learn reasonable self-care disciplines.  (Though, there are way more people who THINK they need to do more self-care, because they’re addicted to self-care.)

And there are indeed some people who are so bored in their jobs that they just want to run away and join the circus, so they can “come alive.”

But here’s an even better solution:  learn to come alive WHILE serving the needs of the world.

What does that mean for performers?

From a career counseling view, it’s not deciding whether I should become an aid worker or make balloon animals; it’s asking how do put my clown skills to work in the world?  How do I use music to serve the dying?  How can my graphic arts change politics or save lives?

Moreover, from a technical performance view, the “don’t ask what the world needs” line seems to tell people to ignore their audience.  But connecting with an audience really DOES matter. I don’t need to be afraid of the audience or desperate for approval, but I absolutely DO need to care about their perspective, if I hope to communicate anything.

More about Perspective Taking in another post.  For now, I leave you to enjoy this bowl of “Go 4 It” meme candy.













Cuz Thurman would totally want me to buy this beach condo.