Patrice Tanaka, Founder & Chief Joy Officer of Joyful Planet LLC, interviews people who are actively living their purpose and contributing to a more joyful planet. This interview spotlights Rodney Lopez, Global Program Director, Dancing Classrooms.
PT: Rodney, what I love and admire about you is how you’re pursuing your passion and living your purpose, in part, through the amazing work you do as Global Program Director for Dancing Classrooms, the wonderful non-profit that teaches ballroom dancing to elementary school children as a social and emotional learning (SEL) program. Can you share your life’s purpose with us? I define a life’s purpose as one that leverages your greatest talents, experience and passion in service of people and planet.
RL: I’ve come to think about my life’s purpose less in terms of what I do, and more in terms of who I am. My purpose is about how I live, love and lead. I strive to live a life that inspires and increases generosity, gratitude, faith and service in the world. I desire to love with empathy and bring compassionate listening, speaking and humor to my work and relationships. I lead to expand abundant living, discover enlightened manhood and re-imagine our media landscape. I’m coming to the realization that if I can stay aligned with these principles, the work I do in any field will be purposeful and meaningful.
PT: Did knowing your life’s purpose help you decide to leave your job in communications and, before that, in public affairs to teach dance and, ultimately, work for Dancing Classrooms?
RL: I wish I could say that I thought of it in terms of purpose when I made that decision, but at the time it was just a job change. I was in my early 20s and feeling like I wanted a temporary change from the work I was doing in PR. I was intellectually stimulated by the work and variety of clients, but there was something in my soul that wasn’t being “fed.” I was teaching dance to adults in the evenings at Dance Manhattan and when I met Pierre Dulaine, the founder of Dancing Classrooms, he invited me to join the team as a teaching artist. I was expecting it to be a six-month gig. It’s fifteen years later and here I am. With hindsight I can say that there was a deep knowing that I was following my purpose to build a career of service, but I certainly couldn’t articulate it that way at the time. I thought I’d be back at a PR agency within a year.
PT: When did you discover your life’s purpose? Was there a triggering incident?
RL: It probably began with becoming a father. I have two amazing sons, ages 11 and 12. I think there’s something about having children that inspires you to think more deeply about your purpose. Perhaps it’s because you want to help create a better life for your kids than you had or you start thinking about the legacy you’re going to leave behind. It was also very important for me to reevaluate my spiritual life. I had been pretty religious as a young person and moved away from that lifestyle as an adult because I was disillusioned with religion. However, after a few years of being parents, their mother and I realized that we wanted to raise our kids in a faith community. It took a while to find one, but when we did it felt great. This faith community has been extremely intentional in helping me identify and articulate my purpose. They even give a class in finding your purpose, which I think is awesome!
PT: And once you determined your purpose did you find yourself begin to actively live it? How did you begin? What did you do?
RL: For me, purpose has evolved like peeling back the layers of an onion. There has never been one “A-ha!” moment. Starting my career in public relations allowed me to develop communication skills that are essential in all the things I do, whether professionally or on a volunteer basis. Transitioning to the dance and arts education world, gave me the opportunity to develop powerful teaching and training skills that are also useful in a variety of settings. It has also allowed me to gain a much higher profile, thanks to my appearance in the wonderful documentary Mad Hot Ballroom. This film has been a huge blessing both to me and to the Dancing Classrooms organization. I’ve been able to not only reach lots of people but serve as a positive role model for thousands of kids, particularly young men of color which means a lot to me personally. Lastly, my work with the church and organizations like Move The Crowd, which does “entrepreneurial soul coaching,” has helped me to realize that I have other gifts to offer the world. I’m currently working on a project that aims to help people have new conversations about generosity, abundance and financial peace.
PT: Did this/how did this change what you do in your professional life in any way? And, in your personal life?
RL: Once you feel inspired by your purpose that feeling can’t help but show up in your work. You start working on projects that feel meaningful to you and, hopefully, make a contribution to your work place. One of my biggest responsibilities at Dancing Classrooms is training and the professional development of our teaching artists. I had big shoes to fill taking over those responsibilities from Pierre, who is exceptional. While initially intimidated, I was able to find my voice and power once I came to a greater realization of my own purpose. My job wasn’t to imitate my predecessor, but bring my passion, power and perspective to the work while still honoring the legacy that he built. A strong sense of purpose helps you to do that.
PT: How does it feel to be living your life’s purpose? Specifically, how would you describe it in terms of the success, fulfillment and joy you experience?
RL: To me, living your purpose must feel like piloting an airplane. (I’m imagining it because I’ve never flown an airplane, but have read several pilots’ accounts of the experience.) A pilot sits in the seat and has clear sense of where he wants to go. He sits in the cockpit, takes off and has numerous systems under his control. And yet, he’s not in complete control. Weather conditions and other circumstances could affect the trip and cause the plane to go off course, land prematurely or stay in a holding pattern. That’s how I feel about living my purpose. There’s a lot I have to do with it – getting an education, working hard and building relationships. But there’s so much that’s beyond my control. The path isn’t always a straight line, but every part of the journey is meaningful, even if I can’t see it at the time. It’s also great to have a partner in purpose. My wife Noni is an amazing leader and educator and she supports me in reaching my fullest potential.
PT: What is the result of knowing and actively living your life’s purpose? Is there a power that comes from knowing your life’s purpose in being able to actively live it?
RL: Knowing and living your life’s purpose results in getting out of bed with energy and power as opposed to a feeling of resignation. It means that you know that the work you’re doing is making a contribution to the world. I recently read a book about the Life Is Good Company, which has a mission of spreading optimism in the world. The founders said that everyone in their company, even the person who does the most menial tasks, feels better about their work when they know the company is pursuing a mission higher than just sales. Sales are very important, but I know my work is about more than that. Every child who walks a little taller, feels a little more confident and feels a little better about his educational future because he experienced success in a Dancing Classrooms residency is the actualization of my purpose in this organization.
PT: What are your greatest hopes and dreams for the life purpose you have chosen?
RL: My greatest hope and dream is for a world that values service over profit, understanding that those two are not mutually exclusive. When each person is living their purpose, giving their greatest gifts and talents to the world and supported in doing so, our economy won’t be a problem anymore.
PT: What do you think you would be doing now if you hadn’t determined and then actively begun to live your purpose?
RL: Hard to say. It’s possible I would still be in the PR or communications world or possibly serving another non-profit organization. I’d like to believe that I didn’t find my purpose, however. Maybe it found me. : )
PT: How important is it for people to discover their life’s purpose? What advice would you give others about discovering their life’s purpose?
RL: Without trying to sound too dramatic, I think discovering one’s purpose is the only reason we’re here – without obsessing over it and trying to put timelines on it. I believe each person has a unique gift and it is each person’s purpose to release and give it. Richard Nelson Bolles is the author of the very famous book, What Color Is Your Parachute? The book is known as the bible of job and career readiness. However, before he gets into all the exercises and worksheets, he spends quite a bit of time writing about purpose. And he says that finding your purpose in terms of career is actually the last thing you should focus on. Finding your purpose begins with your overall purpose as a human being – your relationship with God, Source or the Universe and your sense of service to humanity. He gives a great example: How do you react when someone cuts you off on the highway? I’m from New York City, so we have a particular way of responding. He says that we can choose to respond with anger or with grace. I’ve done (and still do) both, but I know that I’m more at peace when I respond with grace. When those kinds of things are clear, the space is made for understanding your vocation, your calling. I strongly agree with Bolles. My purpose has become clear only after I’ve tended to my spiritual garden and did the important and difficult work of letting go of guilt, shame and negative feelings about myself. I’ve been able to do that in faith community. For others, it might be with friends and family. Either way, living openly and expressing yourself fully is, in my opinion, the prerequisite to finding and living your purpose.