When I was a young singer trying to start a performing career, I and all my fellow aspiring singers received tons of advice from people in the industry. Most of the time it was advice we paid for — summer programs, masterclasses, and endless coachings with pianists and teachers who had connections. Those in the know made sure that for every audition we had at least five arias ready that showcased proficiency in multiple languages, musical eras, and differing vocal demands. What clothing we wore for auditions was the subject of extensive scrutiny and discussion. Dress length, shoe heel height, jewelry and hair were micromanaged right down to details like “Don’t ever wear purple if the conductor is Italian; they consider purple bad luck.”
Desperate to succeed in such a small, competitive world, each of us tried diligently to embrace these endless lists of do’s and don’ts in an effort to win that coveted gig, competition or spot in a prestigious program. Trying to correctly identify what the audition panelists were seeking and how I could achieve that magic formula often left me exhausted and confused about who I was or, rather, was trying to become. For the most part, the often conflicting advice I employed didn’t result in consistently reliable outcomes.
I recently saw a Ted talk by researcher Bréné Brown. Ms. Brown is a professor at the University of Houston and has spent the last two decades studying courage, vulnerability, shame, and empathy. Much of what she has to say resonates deeply for me and connects to my idea of a successful artist. I believe great performers are the ones who tap into and share their vulnerability with their audiences. Ms. Brown defines vulnerability as “the courage to show up when you can’t control the outcome.” Many people who offer career advice are trying to help us fit in, to control the outcome, so that we will be offered a plum spot in that company, law firm, medical practice, or arts organization. But as Ms. Brown points out, fitting in is not the same as belonging. True belonging doesn’t require you to change who you are, to conform to what others need or want you to be.
In truth, when I was starting out as a professional singer, there was only one axiom that was necessary — be your authentic self, because that’s what makes you compelling to hear and watch. I think it’s good advice for any career choice. Be brave enough to allow people to see who you are. Sometimes, they may not be buying, and that’s okay, but they will still be drawn to your authenticity. In the final analysis, staying true to your authentic self is all you really need for success, any way you choose to define it.