“I went through four hours of hair and makeup to listen to this bull—t?” This was Steven Tyler, complaining about the background noise at the USS Midway location for the San Diego auditions. He’s said some crazy things as a judge on American Idol. He also said something in an interview that was so brilliant that it felt as if he jumped out of the TV screen and shook me.
I think his insight is powerful, so I repost this article every year around the end of speech contest time. This article is not just about speech contests. It is about any competition that you may be involved in or about supporting someone who is a competitor.
First, though, a little background. When I was growing up in Boston, Steven Tyler, lead singer of Aerosmith, was our rock star. People in Boston saw his rise from the beginning, and I remember hearing of his playing in the local clubs before Aerosmith made it. I vividly remember my big brother listening to their song “Dream On” when I was just a kid.
Steven formed the band in 1969, and in 1972 he and his band signed with Columbia Records. They released 14 studio albums, 9 of which reached platinum or multi-platinum. Whether you like him or not, he achieved huge success in his chosen field. One of my favorite bits of trivia is that Aerosmith did not get a Billboard #1 hit until 1998. It was their ballad, “I Don’t Want to Miss a Thing,” featured in the film Armageddon. Hmm, they were famous and did what they loved as a career before they hit number #1. There is a message there for all of us. It’s also cool to point out that the fame of many one-hit wonders is fleeting. Just because they hit number one does not mean they have a career or that they can do what they love for a living. Think about it. Which would you prefer?
A while back I was flipping through channels and came across an interview with Tyler on Oprah’s network. Oprah had gone to Steven Tyler’s lake house to sit down with him and ask him some tough questions. His answers were honest and insightful. He spoke openly about the demons that he still battles today and the passing of his dad.
What really made me sit up and lean in was when he started talking about the contestants on American Idol, where he was a judge. Though his antics and statements on the show are controversial, his wisdom during this interview was insightful. It came from years of experience and overcoming challenges. Sometimes we forget that our celebrities of today were people who had dreams and struggled though challenges in years past to achieve them.
Tyler said that he often had to run off people on the show who had huge potential to become stars. He also said that many of the contestants had more talent than he had when he started. Wow. That is a statement. He seemed incredibly sincere. What really got me was when he said, “What I was judging people on was who is the real“American Idol” right now.” He was not judging who had potential. He was not making or breaking careers. He was simply judging who had the talent to be the best on the day that he sees them.
He said, “What they need is to go back into the clubs and fall down and get up again. They fall down and learn to get up again.” What I believe he was indirectly saying was that they need to learn to grow their talent through the best teacher of all: experience. Stage time is the best teacher and confidence builder.
“Personally, I believe when you go through it, you grow through it.”
People want their version 4.0 without releasing their version 1.0. I know that I became successful as a speaker because I was willing to look bad in order to get good. Are you? Are you willing to put today’s ego aside so that you can move audiences in a deeper way next year? How about ten years from now?
Whether you are an emerging speaker, a speech contestant, or someone with a dream, one point in time doesn’t determine your success. It is your continued growth. Being on American Idol may help your career, but it is not the be-all and end-all. Many of the contestants who did not win actually got music contracts. Winning or not winning a speech contest does not define you. It only brings clarity to one point in time. Getting a highly paid speech or losing that opportunity to someone else is only one point in time. It truly is our commitment to learning through experience that will determine whether we make it or not. If we do not get the outcome we desire, could it be that we need to “. . . go back into the clubs and fall down and get up again”? If you are not willing to do that, I assure you someone else is willing to learn the lesson and get the prize.
When I was frustrated early on in my comedy career due to lack of progress, I asked my mentor, Vinnie Favorito, “How do you know who will make it?” What I was clarifying was, “Am I really cut out for this?” His response was simple and powerful, “That’s easy. Whoever keeps going.” In 1998 I came in second at the division level at a humorous speech contest. I was mad at the world because the person who won did not use completely original material. I boycotted Toastmasters for a couple of years. I’m not sure if you noticed, but despite my boycott, Toastmasters went on without me. I took it personally. That was my mistake. In 2001 I rejoined the speech competition with much more maturity. I stopped trying to win and competed for my own personal skill growth so that I could give speeches for a living. Look beyond the speech contest, and find the lessons you need to learn from contests.
If it took Aerosmith that many years to get a number one hit, even though they were already considered a success, what about you? What is your hit song or signature story that may still be germinating inside you? No one needs a trophy for validation. You need a growing list of people who were moved because they heard you speak.
Is it possible you gave up too soon? Who wants to listen to a motivational speaker that gives up? Maybe you are not the American Idol today, but perhaps there is just one more lesson for you to learn, and you could be. What if . . . ?
This article was originally printed on 3/1/2012.