Let me start by saying I can’t sing.
If this seems trivial, you need to know that for a period of my life it was crushing me.
I was a terrible singer, and I knew it. Not just because my choir teacher asked me to lip sync at concerts, though, that really didn’t help. No, I was like a lot of creative people who experience a talent gap. I knew what I liked, but I didn’t like what I was making.
The things I made were rudimentary, lacking, not good enough. When I sang, all I could think about was how bad I was. I let it get the best of me.
My nervousness would overwhelm me. My legs would shake, and my knees would jerk back and forth like I was running in place with my feet glued to the floor. My skin would shrink. My eyes would float above my head and it seemed like I was watching myself in slow motion, right before a crash.
I hated the feeling.
Ira Glass is the one who helped me realize this gap between taste and talent is pretty common. I wasn’t a failure. I wasn’t in this alone.
This was the way of things. Unfortunately, I didn’t see this video until years later. I also hadn’t learned the importance of selective quitting.
I was seventeen, and auditioning for theatre training programs. I wanted to sing in musicals. I really did. And, I wanted to be trained at the best program that would accept me. The kind of school with a rigorous audition process. The kind with ties to a professional theatre. The kind that cuts students from the program to keep it competitive. This is what I wanted, at least on one level.
On another, I wanted to follow the one thing in life I was passionate about to see where it would take me. My philosophy was that I only get one spin around this planet, so I’d better make the most of it.
The problem was my absolute inability to sing. There was no way a competitive program would take a singer like me. Still I tried.
One of my top ten, all-time, best failures was my rendition of The Way You Wear Your Hat at a college audition. Shortly after I ruined the song, the dean of the college asked why I wanted to be a musical theatre major.
I told them it was because I didn’t want to give up singing.
I answered the question I thought I heard: Why do you want to be a musical theatre major instead of an acting major? My monologues were good. I thought the question was why not just be an actor and forget musicals?
It wasn’t until three days later that I realized they were asking:
Why do you want to be a musical theatre major instead of an engineer?
Why do you want to do this crazy, insane thing instead of having a normal career? Why is it worth it to you to follow your passion? What do you have to offer this? What do you want from it in return? What fuel will get you through the hard times?
“I don’t want to give up singing” didn’t begin to do answer the question.
This next part still amazes me, because it required a leap. The very difficult, and now familiar, leap from having an idea to doing something about it. I called the school and asked them to connect me with the chair of the department. Luckily for me, she wanted to talk.
For the next hour and a half, we discussed the program, what I wanted, and what I really meant to say. It was one of the hardest, and one of the best, conversations of my life.
I had a spot in the program before we hung up. Not the spot I originally imagined, but a spot nonetheless. A way forward. I was just learning that my dreams aren’t the goals themselves. Dreams are solutions to problems. Roadmaps. My dreams are the way I see myself getting to my goals. Giving up on a dream that’s holding me back, quitting something that’s not working, is sometimes the best way forward. Not by giving up on the thing I want, but by inventing a new way to get there, by creating a new dream to follow.
It’s only looking back on this experience that I’ve learned I don’t have to close all the talent gaps in my life. Some dreams can be re-imagined. Loosing tactics can change. For the times when the best way forward is sticking to it, closing the talent gap, I’ve learned to embrace my allies, patience and persistence.
If I could give you one piece of advice it would be…
Get out of your own way. Let yourself change. Do whatever is necessary to move forward. This is what it means to find your voice.
Alex Miles Younger makes things beautiful. His business card will tell you he runs a graphic design studio, but what that really means is he solves problems for creative professionals by helping them execute their ideas and promote their art. Highlights include: launching The Domino Project (a publishing house founded by Seth Godin and powered by Amazon), and freelancing with Crispin, Porter + Bogusky on photo shoots for Burger King, Coke Zero, Geek Squad, Old Navy, Microsoft, Nike, and Volkswagon. Alex was born in a state known for bourbon, horse-racing, and bluegrass music. He believes we should all be more sincerely curious. You can say hi at firstname.lastname@example.org or @unozip.
Photo by Kfabrizi (Own work)[see page for license], via Wikimedia Commons