Aretha Franklin’s Tough Choices
on the Way to Success

I was heartbroken to learn of Aretha Franklin’s death yesterday. It was the kind of loss you feel based on some wish that I’d had a chance to get to know her. Like now the (irrational) opportunity was definitely gone. I’ve always kind of seen her as a mama bear. As a kid I listened to the Oldies and Aretha was a big part of my soundtrack. There were definitely R-E-S-P-E-C-T singing sessions in front of the mirror. 😉 What I hadn’t known about until yesterday was just how hard Aretha Franklin’s life had been.

She just had that power, confidence, and strength to her voice—something I did not feel like I had.

When any famous person dies, we all know that there will be a deluge of all things Aretha for a month or so. While I don’t hold any secret knowledge of her, yesterday I was struck by a few facts about her that I hadn’t known before.

There is no question that Aretha had reached heights so many dream of. Many of us have our own personal connection to her songs. But I am always interested in the personal lives behind massively successful celebrities. I mean, I guess we’re all interested in that or there wouldn’t be so many biographies and shows like Keeping Up with the Kardashians, right? Americans are especially interested in how the wealthy and successful live.

I’m not so interested in that part though. What interests me is what she did to make her dream happen, while life was still pounding her with hardship.

The truth is that Aretha was very private. So maybe I’ll never know how her own mindset really fed into her career and life. But there are a few facts about her life I hadn’t known before her death, things that make me think.

A few milestones in Aretha Franklin’s Life:

Her parents’ relationship was strained and her mother left when she was only six.

Her mother died a few years later, just before Aretha’s 10th birthday.

Aretha was a pre-teen mom. 

She had her first child at twelve-years old. And her second at fifteen. Can you imagine what may have led to two pregnancies when she was just a child? I don’t know and I won’t assume, but it’s a helluva thing to be a mom when you’re still a child.

Despite losing her mother and becoming a mother so very young that she was able to set sights on her dream and continue to pursue it at such a young age. Her first album came out in 1956, when she was only 14. That was IN BETWEEN having those two children. Wow.

Her first husband abused her and their marriage ended in divorce.

Anyone whose been through a divorce knows how devastating the ripples of that shit-storm can be, let alone when abuse is involved. But she kept going. And not just in her career…

She was very active in the civil rights movement, even while her career was just taking off.

She and her family were friends with Martin Luther King, Jr. and she toured with Harry Belafonte to raise money for the movement. Her commitment to activism despite a life of complications, pain, triumph, and complexity astounds me.

When she signed on with Atlantic in 1967, she adamantly took creative control over her work.

She made sure that she had the final say on all lyrics and that no producer could usurp her vision for a performance.

Not only did she have an incredible gift that she used to the absolute fullest, but she fought for things she believed in, and kept going despite myriad of setbacks and personal pain that would knock any one of us on our asses. To me, that is even more incredible than her voice.

Her backstory—or rather the little bits of it we have access to—both inspires me and scares the shit out of me. 

I’m deeply inspired by her commitment to her dream and the incredible things she had to overcome to keep going. But I’m also daunted by her seemingly superhuman abilities.

On the one hand, I look at my own life and the things I’ve had to overcome (teen motherhood, abusive relationships, financial issues, mental health issues, etc. etc.) and feel a kinship in her story. A sort of, if she could overcome what she did, than I can overcome my own stuff, too.

On the other hand, I think we all have different gifts and abilities, and frankly, desires. I know deep down that there are certain things I don’t want bad enough to pursue come-what-may, while there are other principles that I would die for. Maybe my road and my capabilities are different than Aretha’s were—okay, not “maybe”—but I know what I want and what I’m willing to do (or not do) to pursue it.

The thing is, if we give up the things we aren’t really willing to give up in pursuit of our dreams we won’t be genuinely happy. Conversely, if we try to keep everything we want, we may endanger our dream by never stepping out of our comfort zones and making necessary sacrifices.

So I ask you (and myself) this:

What do you want so badly that you won’t allow anything to stand in the way?

What are you willing to give up, let go, or compromise for it? And what aren’t you willing to compromise on?

I think this is one of those considerations most of us avoid thinking about—like taxes, or your final will and testament. I think it’s also a major reason many people don’t pursue their dreams. They get stuck in the murky, sticky, paralyzing indecision phase so long that all of the sudden they’re 65 years old and wonder why they never pursued that dream that was so important to them.

There are always reasons or excuses to NOT do something. It takes faith and guts to risk in pursuit of dreams, but also decisiveness and a knowledge of boundaries.

I want to keep running confidently in the direction of my dreams. There’s a freedom in knowing ahead of time what you’re willing to compromise on, and what you’re not. Maybe that’s the only security when it comes to pursuing something that seems impossible—knowing what you’re willing or not willing to do.

I’ve been thinking about this and will continue to do so. I encourage you to do the same. Spend some time getting clear on what you really want, and where your boundaries are with what you’re willing to do or not do. Even if you’ve decided in the past, it’s good to revisit and adjust.

We only get this one life, so in the years we have left, how do we accomplish the dreams we hold most dear while still juggling the struggles too?

I believe it starts with figuring out where our boundaries are and just how badly we want to pursue the things we care about. And then, commit to them.

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