Is This A Confession?

May 26, 2008

An authentic life includes authentic work. Authentic work helps you realize your dreams. It comes out of your gifts and talents and excites your passions.

That was an idea so radical but so obviously true that it grabbed me in a bear hug when I first read it expressed in one of Barbara Sher’s books. I’m hearing it expressed more often now, showing me the power behind the truth of the statement. The first step in finding authentic work is to reconnect with your gifts, talents, and passions, and dreams.

Which is why I can now proudly talk about my “guilty pleasure,” a popular reality show that helped point me to what resonates with my soul.

Don’t stop reading when I tell you it’s American Idol. My discovery of how parts of the show spoke to my core self is proof that you can get to your deepest interests by following wherever your interests lead you.

It wasn’t until the start of this year’s show, season seven, that I took the time to think about what the show taught me about myself. I first got drawn into the show when it started its second season. I was on a business trip in Florida and saw lots of signs about the show, focusing on Simon Cowell being a “monster.” Then I saw the television ads of his harsh comments, plus out-takes of auditions. The humor drew me in.

The format of each season’s earlier episodes is to show the audition process. The producers choose from a variety of comical, strange, interesting, and empathetic people and create short features to introduce them. That’s a joy for me because I love documentaries. The focused features on individual contestants are developed by editing real, unstaged or barely staged footage into a story with a particular viewpoint and emotional tone. That is the heart of documentary filmmaking.

The early episodes include excerpts of auditions of some of the more talented contestants interspersed with the outrageous ones. So while the humor and documentary storytelling draw me in, I start to notice potential waiting to be realized. That’s the big one for me. My passion is advocating personal growth and development, participating in the journey from discovering potential in its unpolished form to seeing it expressed in amazing accomplishments. When people face their fears and stretch their wings to find out what they are capable of doing, I celebrate. So by the time the outrageous auditions are over, I am invested in watching which people will commit to the work of challenging themselves to grow beyond their previous self-imposed limits.

That’s when the documentary quality of the show shifts. From that point on, the individual tales are about people struggling to rise out of poverty, adversity, and lives planned for them by boxes-and-ruts thinking.

It’s also the point where a distinction arises between people who have decent talent but are pursuing fame and wealth above anything else, and those with talent who find joy in developing and expressing it. The former have arrogant attitudes and shun the hard work, blaming others when they fall. The latter find a way to do the best with the challenges they are given. In a few amazing instances some transcend a challenge by finding a very personally expressive and unique way to present a song from their artistic perspective.

The show is cheesy – it’s contrived, inauthentic, and corny at times. The contestants have to perform songs from before they were born in small groups for auditions. They have to perform medleys of songs in musical review style as a group during each results show. Then they are criticized when their individual performances on competition night sound like a show on a cruise ship or at a theme park – a musical review. They are limited to a certain collection of songs by one artist or in one genre, and then they are criticized when they sound like the original. But they are also criticized if the performance is too unique, straying from the way the song was written.

But in the midst of all that unnecessary and inherently conflicted chatter, and the variety show quality of a lot of the “filler” segments, there are beautiful jewels. This year Brooke White sat at the piano and sang Let It Be, and then cried with obvious joy as Paula Abdul – yes, jokes aside, she is capable of amazing insight – put into words what Brooke was experiencing. She was doing what she was born to do, and what she had been planning and striving towards for years, by performing in front of a large live audience and millions watching by television. Paula said, “This is your dream. You’re living it right now.” Brooke melted.

Runner-up David Archuleta provided a few gems along the way, too. His performances of Imagine and Angels were amazing from a seventeen-year-old. His performance under the highest pressure, the night of the final competition, was pretty close to flawless. When he sang Don’t Let The Sun Go Down On Me I thought he had just given the performance that would make him the winner.

But winner David Cook was the best gem of the entire season. Early on in live competition, he took risks with his song choices, and he used different arrangements of songs in a way that let him express his own artistic style very clearly. Throughout the voting portion of the show, he was increasingly a strong artist, a compelling performer, and a singer who knew his voice well enough to rely on his strengths to express a song and connect with the audience. During the final night of competition he was a little rough and his voice a little raw, but he had already shown the courage of expressing himself as an artist, so people were eager to vote for him.

David Cook was a bartender working in Tulsa, Oklahoma when his brother asked him to accompany him to the auditions in Omaha. He did it to support his brother. During the initial screening round, the producers talked to him about auditioning. He said he hadn’t come to audition, but they talked him into it.

Every time he received critique from the judges, he made eye contact, he listened closely, and he responded with humility. When he was praised, he expressed gratitude. When he was criticized, he never argued or challenged. He displayed maturity and strong character. And each week he got better.

Now he’s going to be doing what he loves and sharing it with millions of people. What’s not to love about that?

May You Know the Joy of Sharing Your Gifts,

Steve Coxsey

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