When singer-songwriter Leonard Cohen passed away on November 7, he left behind a brand new, highly-acclaimed album and an audience wanting more. It was a fitting farewell for Cohen, who spent many years searching for an audience that would appreciate his words and, in the process, discovered a talent he didn’t realize he had.
- Even the best have failed on the path to realizing their calling.
Leonard Cohen is known as one of the most literary songwriters for good reason: in his early years, he was a poet and novelist. After winning multiple literary awards in college for his poems, Cohen believed he had found his life’s calling. Between 1956 and 1966, he published four books of poetry and two novels. The books were released to mixed reviews in his native Canada and were largely ignored elsewhere. After a decade of hard work, he was still struggling to make ends meet, and had reached a crossroads. He wanted to write more than anything, but with no audience to hear his words (or pay his bills), he was disheartened.
- Find out what the world wants, and then figure out how your gift can fill the need.
Rather than give up, Cohen drew upon his creativity to invent a new career option. It was 1966, the folk music boom in America was turning slowly into the singer-songwriter movement, and Cohen decided to travel to New York City’s Greenwich Village to check out the folksingers. He sat in coffeehouses and watched performances, listened to records and studied their songs. He’d taken flamenco guitar lessons as a teenager and had even formed a country music band in high school just for fun, but he’d never considered himself a musician. Slowly, Cohen began playing guitar, starting with simple things and then using his old flamenco skills to craft more intricate melodies. He wrote a few songs. He thought they seemed professional enough, so now he just needed someone to play them to.
- Find a mentor who can push the limits of your creativity and ability.
In the Village, Cohen met folk music superstar Judy Collins. He told her he wanted to write songs and asked if she would hear songs he’d written. When she agreed, he played those early songs, including the haunting “Suzanne.” She was floored by his talent and surprised when he told her that he didn’t plan to perform them. He only wanted the songwriter’s credit, because he didn’t think his singing voice was good enough. Collins pointed out that Bob Dylan had made it possible for unconventional singers to perform their own material, and praised Cohen’s voice along with his songs. She encouraged him to play live in front of an audience.
- Recognize that even when you’ve found your calling, you will have challenges.
In his first live performance, Cohen panicked onstage during his first song, which happened to be “Suzanne.” He left in the middle of the song, and only agreed to go back on when Judy Collins volunteered to sing the song with him. They walked back onstage before the cheering crowd, and when he saw how much the audience loved the song, he was calmed. His new calling had found him.
Thanks to Judy Collins’ covers of his songs on her successful albums, Cohen quickly scored a record deal. His debut album, Songs of Leonard Cohen, was released in 1967. He went on to have a very successful career as a singer-songwriter, releasing new music regularly until his death.
- What you become can evolve from what you are now.
Finding what you were meant to do doesn’t have to mean starting anew. Cohen’s journey to becoming a songwriter began when he let go of his old dream, but it also incorporated the things that he knew he was good at. In the end, he took some of his early poems and set them to music, recording them along with his new songs. He synthesized his early love of music and playing guitar with the desire to write, and found a new avenue for his talents. Even if he had been a successful poet, it’s likely his “poems” were heard by many more because he was willing to be flexible with how he delivered his talents. The result was that he found the audience he’d always wanted.
Most people won’t remember the journey Leonard Cohen endured to become what he ultimately became. They’ll remember his gifts, and the joy and meaning they brought to so many. So if your own journey in trying to go from a mere job, to a career, to a calling has been a struggle–that’s OK. Embrace the journey of getting there but stay motivated by the end result that awaits the world.
And when that happens, “Hallelujah.”
That’s a sentiment Leonard Cohen would heartily endorse.
This article was published by Scott Mautz and Natalie Hastings
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