Personal Writing

Leveraging Your Passion: or Getting a Job and Learning That You Care a Whole Lot About It

This is a version of the talk I gave at the Ladyboss summit in June 2019. Caution: it’s long because it was a 15+ minute talk and it’s not absolutely complete because I made bullet points where I wanted to just talk to the audience.

So if you know who I am, which you absolutely may not, you know that I run an organization called The Arts Partnership. If you’ve only vaguely heard of me, you know that I am somehow involved in the arts in the Fargo-Moorhead community. Ask various people around the community who I am and you’ll get everything from a fierce arts warrior activist to a pain in the ass; both are likely true, particularly depending on the gender of the askee.

I often get that second, searching glance from strangers because they know they know me somehow, but they can’t quite place it. I give them a second and then it usually dawns on them—they know me from my Forum columns or from television or from social media or from the myriad places where I am present. They’ll approach me and say, “Are you that arts lady?” I say yes. They are so relieved to have figured it out, and they say something like, “Boy, you’re everywhere!”

At this point in the talk, I told a very funny, and quite frankly amazing, story about being recognized by a complete stranger in Los Angeles this March. If you’re dying to know the story, let me know. Otherwise, it will likely become its own post sooner than later.

People who only know me through my position think I eat, sleep and breathe The Arts Partnership, which I guess I kind of do, in a way. But this role wasn’t always my burning passion.

25 years ago today, I was 21-years old, finishing up my junior year of college at MSUM in the theatre department. The world was my oyster:

  • I was at the top of my game in my department 
  • Off to the Catskills in upstate NY for the summer to study Shakespeare  
  • I was LA-bound upon graduation where I was certain to be a movie star. 
  • I also had an artist boyfriend who thought I was the greatest thing since sliced bread, so basically all was right in my world.

24 years ago today,

  • 22-years old, graduated from college with my theatre degree
  • living pretty close to LA in southern Utah performing Mormon propaganda summerstock theatre in a multi-million dollar outdoor complex nestled into the stunning red rocks of the desert.
  • I had targeted that gig because 1) I got hired there, and 2) it was close to Las Vegas, so I could fly back and forth cheaply to get my life situated for the final move to LA in the fall.
  • My best friend was performing there, too, so basically all was seemingly right in my world

Except there was an unanticipated third person in the mix. I was pregnant (here is the factual portion of the talk).

  • May 16th, I got pregnant (don’t ask me how I know for certain—I just do).
  • May 19th, I graduated
  • May 20th, I left for Utah 
  • May 27th, confirmed that I was pregnant.

I had 7 days of thinking, “This is the beginning of the rest of my life.”

They were a fabulous and exciting 7 days; I was on my way to my own life, to movie stardom and to the future! To any of you who have had more than 7 days of “grown up” bliss, I hope you have continued to experience the sheer thrill of having made it to…whatever that means to you, at least from time to time.

Because I can promise you that, 24 years ago today, I was not feeling blissful. I was exhausted, as only a woman in her first trimester of an uncelebrated pregnancy can be. I was overwhelmed by a million feelings: let me say that a young actor who has just realized she is not going to be able to pursue her dreams can really act the hell out of the early days of an unplanned pregnancy.

So now fast-forward about 5 years. 19 years ago today, I had a four year old son, whose life and antics somehow filled much of, but not all of, the hole that not getting to go off and be a movie star had left. In those five years, I had also:

  • completed both a two-year junior and senior high school English teaching certificate from Concordia
  • completed all the coursework and tests for my master’s degree in English from NDSU–just the paper to write
  • I didn’t know it yet, but I was about to start a pretty kick-ass local commercial acting career.

I was still burning to be a movie star. The Oscars wrecked me every year. I both craved and abhorred going to the movies because seeing other actors do the work I was certain I was born to do was like ripping stitches out of my heart over and over again.

Everything I did, with the exception of being an attentive and loving single parent to Quinn, was to be able to pursue this dream, this passion that burned so brightly inside me it was hard to breathe. I got certified to teach high school to pacify my mother; I went to graduate school to avoid having to get a teaching job (never mind that I taught for 10 years!). I only half joked that I was in semi-retirement. Really, I was just biding my time, making ends barely meet so that I was free to act when the opportunity presented itself.

In the ensuing years, I made a ton of regional commercials:

  • launched the Legendary ND tourism ads 
  • the voice of 3 or 4 banks across the state 
  • played a pediatrician, a psychologist, a bank customer, a cancer patient and countless other characters. 
  • never get cast as a mother because I looked too young. And people say art imitates life! 
  • had agents in Fargo and Minneapolis 
  • earned my Screen Actors Guild card–same kind of union actor as Nicole Kidman, Gwyneth Paltrow and Cate Blanchett. 

In some kind of funny way, I had sort of made it. Those commercials were paying bills and making me feel like I hadn’t totally given up my dream. In a lot of ways, I had a much better career than friends of mine living on either of the coasts. But I still yearned for LA and movie stardom.

So 14 years ago today, I had been to LA twice over the winter to see what I could see about moving us there. 

  • Created a part-time work life where I was adjunct teaching at the colleges and making commercials, maybe I could do that there?
  • I visited a number of elementary schools, and while they were all doing the best they could with their limited resources and incredible challenges, I couldn’t quite figure out how to ask Quinn to sacrifice his only childhood for my dreams. 
  • And so we stayed, and I kept making commercials and teaching, and somewhere along the way, about 12 years ago, I added professional writer to my resume, as well.

And then we get to 9 years ago today

  • have just been named the new executive director of an organization I had never heard of called The Arts Partnership. 
  • Linda Boyd took me to lunch and told me I should apply and 
  • the job description said it could be part-time.

Stunningly, I got this job, for which I was stupefyingly unqualified:

  • didn’t balance my own checkbook much less know how to read a profit and loss statement. 
  • had never managed staff 
  • actively raised money  
  • been strategic about anything except my determination to be a movie star, and I’m not sure strategic is the word you would actually use to describe my dogged determination.

My only negotiating point was that I still be able to act as long as it didn’t conflict with the core responsibilities of the job. I told the hiring committee that I thought it was important that the leader of an arts organization be an artist herself, and they agreed.

I jumped in blindly, with little care in the world…because I knew absolutely nothing.

  • somewhere along the way, I started to embody this role. I began to drink my own koolaid, so to speak, 
  • to really not just take in information about why the arts mattered to every facet and sector in life, but to establish my own thoughts around it. 
  • started articulating those thoughts and growing a body of supporters. 
  • had mentors who helped me shape and mold my ideas;
  • we wrote and received grants and 
  • became the principal go-to person for creative placemaking and arts as instrument of change questions. Not that there are enough of those questions being asked in our community, but that’s a different talk all together, and if you are curious to hear more on that, get a ticket to The State of the Arts next week!

My nearly every waking and most of my sleeping thoughts are now, after all these years, about the arts as an economic driver, community change-maker and integral problem solver across the board.

In short, I now burn for my role as President & CEO of The Arts Partnership. For a few years, I told people that this was my best character, my favorite acting gig, if you will. And in some ways, that was true. I was shaping a complex character who evolved with new information, who was listening and responding to conversations around her and who was taking charge of her path. It’s hard to find characters in scripts that interesting, but I was living it.

But what about my acting? My real acting?

Because this job is not a character.

  • People, my staff, depend on me for their livelihoods. 
  • Organizations and artists depend on me to raise more dollars for bigger grants. 
  • The sector needs me to be firm, measured and articulate and on my game at every moment because I am at tables no one else gets invited to. 
  • When I leave my office at the end of the day, my position doesn’t lie dormant until I pick it up again in the morning. And I don’t know what tomorrow will bring, but I can be pretty certain it won’t be the same as it was today.

So 1 year ago, 1 month ago, 1 week ago, 1 day ago from today, or as some people call that, yesterday, I’m looking at what’s next. 

  • an empty nester with a boy gloriously successfully launched out into the world because I didn’t ask him to sacrifice his journey for mine. 
  • have a fabulous husband who supports my passions, listens to my frustrations and is ready to dream big with me. 

I have learned that I eat, sleep and breathe The Arts Partnership because that’s who I am—I take on challenges whole heartedly, and I attack them from every angle. It just so happens that this job is the challenge I have spent the last nine years attacking. I am an arts activist, and I am fiercely proud to call myself that; I’m also surprised as hell because that was not a phrase I had ever even thought about much less aspired to for most of my life.

But I am also an actual artist, I am a writer and a real actor, and I have given up a lot of that to take on this character of my own making. And it’s time to find how to pursue more of that. Because the stitches on my heart are still present, and the dream, while not as white-hot as it was 25 years ago, has not totally left me. I have adapted it to fit my current state of mind, and I am slowly pursuing a parallel path that lets me explore some of it while still maintaining this position. But it will eventually become my first work priority, of that I am quite certain.

So my point in all of this story telling is to say that passion is good; I hope you all go to your jobs every day filled with anticipation, resolution and a burning desire to make it more than what it was yesterday. But that has not been my experience. Passion came to me over time and through a lot of slogging.

And actually, I never even got to completely pursue the one single passion that was my North star, but that’s been ok. I have found a way to make sense of my own journey, to find meaning in the work that has been set in front of me, and to continue to dream of what’s next.

And if you had told me that I would be standing anywhere on this planet, 25 years later, saying that not being able to pursue my one single passion has been ok, I would have told you you were a liar, or I would have assumed I had received a traumatic brain injury that rendered me a completely different person somewhere along the way. 

Take the job you are doing today and make it as much your own as you can. Gather up the skills and assets to add to your bag of tricks. If it’s sucking the life out of you, for God’s sake, move on. If it’s intriguing but not what you told everyone you were going to be when you were in high school or college, that’s ok.

Would I love to have been a movie star? You bet. Have I wasted my life because that didn’t happen to me? Only a few minutes here and there. And I’m not done. And you’re not done. And the path is long and windy ahead of us. And there are many passions to actively pursue, and even more to kind of fall in to and make your own. Keep your eyes open and enjoy the journey.

Photo: The Long Walk in Windsor, England. One of my very favorite paths.

Dayna Del Val is on a mission to help others (re)discover the spark they were born with through her blog and newsletter, her professional talks and the (re)Discover Your Spark retreats she leads. Dayna works with people to help them not just identify and articulate their dreams but to develop a framework to get going on the pursuit of those dreams—today, in the next few months and for the years ahead. She's at the intersection of remarkable and so, so ordinary, but she knows that pretty much everyone else is, too. She's excited to be sharing this extraordinary journey with you.


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