When my brother and I were children, we loved being read to by our father at bedtime, most memorably, from the Oz books by L. Frank Baum. The pure, imaginative escapism of journeys to a magic country that no one could see from the outside, where inanimate objects were alive, animals talked, and even children had the power to create transformative changes was the most wonderful experience!
So when I recently discovered the book, Finding Oz, by Evan Schwartz, I was intrigued to find that this master storyteller and creator of one of the most influential American childhood books— The Wizard of Oz— had cycled himself through six failed careers by the time he was forty, when he began to get traction as a published author of children's stories. Prior to that, he was a chicken breeder, a traveling actor/playwright, the sales publicist of an oil lubricants store, the owner of a variety store, a traveling salesman of fine china, and a newspaper writer/publisher.
Winding through the twenty-three years he devoted to these career paths in hopes of making a steady income to support his wife and their family, was his own "yellow brick road"— his passionate love of making up and telling stories, particularly to children.
On your own path to finding work and a life you love, what can you learn from L. Frank Baum's journey on his "yellow brick road"— his dream path straight from the land of Oz?
Notice what blocks your path— Usually what gets in the way of finding work you love and making other life changes is fear of losing what is familiar, risking financial loss, fear of judgement by others, and uncertainty about the shape of the future. Baum's ever-present challenge was "the fear of failure" about how to make a profitable living, especially as the stakes got higher with a wife and four boys to support.
As Schwartz writes about Baum a few years before he wrote The Wonderful Wizard of Oz: "Frank was always in danger of becoming a slave to his fears, not unlike the famous traveling companions who enter the perilous land outside the Emerald City, where they press ahead in constant fright of both the known and unknown forces of the forest."
Recognize the golden road within yourself— What's interesting is the length of Baum's meandering career trail, and how long it took him to accept the gift of his true nature as a storyteller and author. In each of his undertakings, Baum— an optimist by nature— achieved some measure of success. However, his heart was not really in being a business owner, which he refused to accept until his journalism and final sales ventures collapsed financially.
His storytelling, he felt, had to come out the back door of the work he did for a living. He believed the overriding message of his time and his culture, that real work was primarily buying and selling material objects or necessary services. Storytelling was fantasy and belonged only to childhood. (Note that The Wizard of Oz was one of the very few American children's books when it was published in 1900.)
Interestingly, however, all of his six careers before becoming a published author required that he create and tell stories. This was his own golden road, the path of his authentic self.
In these occupations, his stories were for adults— about why people would live better, happier lives with his exotic chickens, adventurous plays, oil products for their new-fangled machines, products designed just for pleasure, and human interest tales. The environment he lived in did not make it easy for him to visualize a future as a well-paid author. For that, he needed the support of his spiritual allies.
Accept the support of allies to help make powerful changes— Who were the allies who most supported Baum's spirit through the long haul of his inner transformation? First, his sons, who adored their father and his wonderful stories.
His second major ally— his formidable suffragette and Theosophist mother-in-law, Matilda Joslyn Gage— had initially been more of a wicked witch in his life. She'd felt that he'd gotten in the way of her daughter Maud's being able to finish her college degree at Cornell (true) and that he wouldn't be able to support her daughter financially (not true).
However, as her own spiritual life evolved under the influence of Theosophy, she became the closest person in his life to see that Baum's "right livelihood" must have its foundation in what was quintessentially himself— in telling and writing children's stories. It was also she who discovered the growing trend in magazines for story writing for youth and got Baum excited about this new professional possibility.
Inspired by her insight into his true self and her support for his new career direction, Baum, it seems, transformed Matilda in his Oz books into Glinda, the Good White Witch.
Know when it's time to take the leap— and take it!
When he was 40, Baum was diagnosed by his doctor with a weak heart that could no longer take the stress of being a traveling salesman. Plus, his children were unhappy with him away so often. At this point, Baum took the leap and made the decision "that there was a future for him in crafting tales for children," and began writing stories for which he was paid and published.
Two years later, in 1898, following the death of his mother-in-law and fearless ally, Mathilda, "suddenly, this one story moved right in and took possession," as he wrote his publisher. Later, he said in an interview, "It was pure inspiration. It came to me right out of the blue . . . I believe the magic key was given to me to open the doors to sympathy and understanding, joy, peace and happiness." He drew on what he knew— the bleakness of the Kansas countryside in the 1880's, tornados/cyclones, oil as a means of bringing machinery to life, farms, witches (the denigrated power of women that Mathilda had written about) and the human spirit, embodied in the girl adventurer, Dorothy.
And so the story of "a yellow brick road leading to a city of emeralds" was born. As Schwartz writes, "[The yellow brick road] would be the path where the spiritual adventure unfolds." The challenges that Dorothy and her companions meet on the yellow brick road were the challenges that Baum himself met on his journey towards right livelihood, which also led him to self-awareness, confidence, aliveness, and well-being.
What is the destination of your yellow brick road?
What are your particular challenges on your yellow brick road?
What do you need to meet and transform these challenges into successful outcomes?