I never watch American Idol, or other talent shows. I think I got my fill of them in the 1970s, watching year after year of the mind-numbing Miss American pageant. But there was too much hoop-la with Susan Boyle on Britain’s Got Talent, so I had to see what I was missing. I ended up watching her audition fifty times. Because every time I'm feeling slow or unmotivated or depressed, the clip cheers me up.
Last night she sang in the semi-finals, and what struck me most while watching her is how much we can learn about our own careers from watching Susan Boyle's. For example.
Everyone loves to be a shepherd of talent.
The act of finding a mentor is actually the act of showing someone you have talent and they can help you find it. It's very, very hard to land in the limelight on your own. So many studies of success — from Fortune 500 executives to startup entrepreneurs — all show that a key factor is finding people to help you navigate a system that requires many more skills than any one, single person could have.
If you ever wonder what you bring to someone who is mentoring you, look at the faces of the three judges when they realize (after four or five notes) that Susan is phenomenal. The joy on their faces is contagious. That's a big reason people like to watch that video clip: the moment when you see someone is very talented is so rewarding. It's a moment full of excitement and promise and you get to be a part of it because the person is asking you for help.
This is why mentoring is magical and electrifying to both sides. And seeing the moment on Britain's Got Talent reminds me that I should continuously seek out mentors and show them I perform well with the help they give me.
You can only shine if you set the bar high.
Susan sang a very hard song: I Dreamed a Dream, from Les Miserables. Not that I know anything about opera. But after watching the video of her at least 50 times, I got curious about how other people sing the song, I Dreamed a Dream. Then I started seeing all the places the song can trip up a singer.
If you watch the clip 50 times, you catch Simon Cowell saying, “That's a big song.” It's an important thing — that she picked a big song. Because if you want to be seen as someone doing something big, you have to pick something big to do.
Seth Godin writes about The Dip. It's the time when things look too hard. It's the time when you are trying to do something big, and it is not happening, because doing something big doesn't happen right away, it takes work. And it's very hard to do a lot of work if you don't know what will come of it.
Most people quit. That's Seth Godin's point: That you have to try something big, and you have to accept that anything big and huge requires you to have a dip — a point when you are wondering if it is worth it. And that's where most people quit. For the most part, you cannot do something big without going through this process.
I think I'm in a dip right now. With my company. I am lucky, because I have Ryan Healy reminding me that we're in the dip, doing something big, and we can't quit. And I'm lucky because I have been in the dip twice before — when I struggled to get on the professional beach volleyball tour, and when I was trying to finish my novel and still did not know that I would eventually get a publisher.
So this is what I know about the dip. There is no big win if you don't suffer through it. And the first part of the process is to pick a big song.
Settling for a day job does not destroy you.
We all love stories of early success. Child actors discovered in Mumbai, three-year-old girls whose singing makes you cry. In the tech industry, being a young founder is so legendary that founders have lied about how old they are. And in mathematics, it's always news if someone discovers something later than age 30 because it so seldom happens.
We love the stories of early, magical success. So when we find ourselves having to take a day job we don't love in order to do what we do love on the side — this is not the narrative we hope for in life.
But Susan Boyle is evidence that this narrative works as well. Huge talent can shine through at any age, and the world will respond. Susan Boyle did what so many people do who are not getting paid to do what they love. She kept singing, while she worked day jobs. She sang because she loved singing, and she got better and better and better.
A hallmark of talent is loving to practice. And Susan Boyle's story is the narrative of the hard work that talent takes. Our lives are first, and foremost, about getting up every day and practicing what we love. What you get paid for, what you get honored for, that is secondary. And success comes for those who work hard.