Every single one of us was born with a very specific set of skills and gifts. These skills are so specific in fact that there is nobody else that can be you except for…you. Think about that for a second. Nobody can drive a car exactly like you, eat a carrot exactly like you, solve problems like you…or even breath like you. No…body…else. This brings me to the song for this post, which is “Born With It” by Stevenson Everett. Listen to it on Spotify HERE.
Are you listening? C’Mon…turn it up…LOUD! Man…I love that bass drum intro.
Ain’t no doctor with a magic hand
Ain’t no spray that can make that tan
Ain’t no place where you can go get it
You gotta’ be born with it.
Ok…let’s get into it. I’m not just talking about being good at, say, writing code, or crunching numbers, being a fast typer, a good reader, a good soccer player, a decent public speaker, etc. Those skills can be learned by anyone motivated enough to spend time practicing. But the thing is, if you weren’t born with a love for that trait…if you weren’t born with a love for that skill, you could make yourself be pretty good at it but you will never be great and differentiate yourself in only the way you know how…and you will never be happy trying to be great at it. The only reason you would be trying so hard at something you don’t REALLY want is because you are doing it for somebody else, creating a false perception for the people around you, or trying to convince yourself of something fictional. You’ll probably be miserable somewhere deep down inside at night when you can’t sleep staring at the ceiling with beads of sweat on your forehead wondering why it’s so hot in the room right before your significant other decides to cuddle up because she’s cold…so you just lay there in a puddle, dripping, wondering how the heck you ended up like that.
So what? Well…I believe there is an epidemic in the world and it’s a big problem. Too many people are trying to be somebody other than who they really are. Some hide behind this limitation by dressing “different” to seem unique, or to be unique for the sake of being different. I’ve met some pretty unique people in my life, and the most eye popping one-of-a-kind-wanting-to-fit-in-or-stand-out thespians were the most miserable, angry, and insecure personalities I’ve ever known.
Authentic people, even the KUUKY ones, who are happy and in love with life, don’t view themselves as unique. They have a healthy appreciation and respect for themselves, and they just aren’t TRYING to be different…they just are. What other people think about them isn’t just something they don’t care about…it doesn’t even cross their mind. This fact makes them the strongest and most powerful people on the planet. These are the kind of people that change things. Why? Because pure authenticity cannot be defeated. The challenge, though, is that being purely authentic can be difficult and your determination to do so will be challenged at every turn. Doubts will cause you to second guess yourself until you reach the point where you…just…know…who…and what…you are. It’s a long road to get there, but if you make it, you can be unbeatable.
It ain’t nothing your money can buy
Ain’t no new age exercise
If you ain’t got it you best forget it
You gotta be born with it
Let me give you an example from my childhood of how using a one-of-a-kind-born-with trait can bring you farther and solve more problems than you ever expected. As you will read, I had good guidance. Nevertheless, since the fateful day in my upcoming story, the lesson I learned has always been a close friend hanging out in the back of my head screaming every time my life choices have deviated from who I really am.
Music was always something I was naturally good at. My parents decided to enroll me in piano lessons at a young age and by the time I was 10, I had graduated to a serious piano coach who decided she wanted to groom me for competition. I loved competing…I loved winning…still do. I didn’t so much love playing the piano itself, but I loved music and secretly wished I was learning the guitar. In the world of piano competitions in those days, I was a huge minority since most of the other competitors were from one Asian country or another. My teacher was Chinese. She had a daughter who was a bit older than I was. Due to the age difference, we didn’t have to compete against each other, and I remember her being very nice. I had a little crush on her back then but don’t tell anybody. Whatever…nice or not, cute or not…it doesn’t matter because when it came time for her to play, beads of sweat would drip off her piano like drops of rain off a lush green leaf as the sun peaks out after a storm. Crazy amazing stuff to watch and she always won her competitions. I wanted to play like her…so I could win.
There were two competitions I will talk about in this story. For the first one, we chose a piece by Mozart. I practiced hard, memorized it, and knew it like the back of my hand. There were, I believe, 8 to 10 competitors in my age group that day. I was so nervous I felt like crying and throwing up at the same time. I think my parents were more nervous than I was. My Dad paced around quickly snapping at my mom to keep up with him, and my mom just had this look on her face like she wanted cry. My teacher also joined us and we walked into the auditorium where I would be playing. There was a big stage with one black grand piano on it. Seriously!? They couldn’t make it a little more intimidating?
The other competitors were there with their families, coaches, and teachers. The judges sat in a row towards the front. Nobody smiled or looked each other in the eye. I was one of the last to be called to play, so I got to listen to the others as my nerves kept wanting to tell my Dad that I’ll be running out the door. Some of the competitors nailed their pieces, some made mistakes, and I remember one kid had to stop because he completely blanked out. Then they called me. The walk to the stage felt like a mile. I sat down, could feel my calf muscles shaking, and had a twinge of the “blanks” as I remembered the other kid, who was now crying audibly in the audience.
But, I shut out the world, and…just played. I thought I nailed it. I made no real mistakes and even moved my shoulders up and down to appear like I was so into the music and that it was flowing though me…you know…performing for the judges. Was it authentic? Kind of, but not really. Well, I ended up winning second place. That’s not so bad, but I didn’t go there to win second place. I saw the winning girl with her family. She wasn’t really smiling, and she looked full of herself. The part I found interesting though was that the looks her parents gave her weren’t really filled with pride, but more with “Well…I expected you to win…let’s go home.” I remember feeling a little sorry for her.
My teacher went to get some feedback and asked one of the judges why I didn’t win. The answer was “He played well, but we didn’t believe he felt the music and a different choice of music may have suited his style better. His playing lacked elegance for that piece.” Lacked elegance? Screw you! I mean…elegance has never really been my strength, but still, critical feedback, while very helpful, stinks. I was trying to play the piano like my teacher’s daughter, but that wasn’t authentically me. I was NOT born with a gift to play the piano in that way. My born-with trait and style was to power through anything. To be clear, I was never a bull in a china shop. I was very coordinated, which came in handy in my athletic future, but I lacked elegance. How do you win a piano competition by powering through a musical piece without elegance?
If you ain’t got it you best forget it
You gotta be born with it
My teacher, being very wise, told me that our mistake was that we chose Mozart. We needed to find a new piece that allowed me to power through it in a way nobody else can. We chose a piece by Johann Sebastian Bach. Why does that matter? Well, Bach’s music was so hard to play that very few 10-year olds chose to use it in competition. He wrote his piano pieces in a way where each hand was, sort of, playing a different song. It was a lot to memorize, too easy to make mistakes, and just…difficult. In order to play it properly, you needed to sound strong and powerful as you simply banged out the notes efficiently and with precision. At 10 years old, I was meant to play Bach.
At the next competition, many of the same competitors were there along with a few new faces. This time we weren’t in a big auditorium, but rather in a classroom, so it was a much more intimate situation. The winning girl from last time was also there…not smiling, not making eye contact, and intimidating the heck out of me with that stone hard look on her face. The first person was called to play and the competition began. Everybody so far had played pretty well that day. The arrogant girl nailed her piece…I mean she nailed it. She was so into it that I think she had tears coming out of her eyes. Not sure though…maybe I was the one crying. Then, suddenly, I heard my name and it was my turn.
I sat down in front of the piano and the audience got quiet. I remember thinking how I wished my hands weren’t so cold, and I placed them above the keys. My calves were holding up better this time, and…I went to town. It was like a boxing match. I punched, jabbed, hit harder, then even harder and faster…and I ate that piano. Then I was done and sat back down in my chair feeling sweat dripping from my armpits down the side of my torso underneath my sweater. Why would my mom make me wear a wool sweater? Zero mistakes…I nailed it, but still…I had no expectations of winning.
The judges started announcing the results. They announced third place…not me. Crap…I’m next. Second place…still not me. What?! Wait…there were still two people left to be announced…me and my nemesis, the emotionless statue. First place…still not me. What was going on here? Did they forget about me? Was my playing so ridiculous that they were going to blacklist me and tell me to never come back?
The judges paused. They went on to announce that every so often they, as judges, have the right to give an award to a player in the group that was heads and shoulder above everybody else on that day. The award is called Outstanding. Winning an Outstanding trophy was the coveted Holy Grail of 10-year old piano competitions and it wasn’t given out each time. It was given out only if the judges unanimously agreed to do so. Well…that day I won the Outstanding trophy…better than first place. Everybody clapped…I even saw an envious smile from my enemy. It cracked her face. I smiled back…she looked away.
So what’s the point? On that fateful day, I was authentically myself. I wasn’t feigning musicality and pretending to be something that I wasn’t. Were there better piano players than me in the competition? Probably. But there were very few 10-year olds who could play Bach like me and even fewer who had the courage to try. For that age group, playing Bach took guts because even one mistake cost you points with the judges. Rather than trying to hide it, I shined a spotlight on what may have been considered a weakness and turned it into my secret weapon. I could have faked it and maybe gotten third place, which still would have been pretty good, but on that final day of competition, I was ‘great’ because I played the piano in a way that only I could and I took a big risk that paid off. In the end, I was not only rewarded with a rare trophy, but also with something much more important and priceless: an invaluable life lesson.
Let’s take a quick look at two well-known people in history: Steve Jobs and Bill Gates. They are both known to have revolutionized the same industry. Did they do it using the same naturally-born-with skill? Not even close. Mr. Gates was a highly competitive coder and techie, and Mr. Jobs viewed himself as an artist who brought style to the personal computing space. Those are two very different skills and neither man could ever emulate the other. If Steve Jobs would have tried to compete by writing his own code, Bill Gates would have easily surpassed him without trying very hard. If Bill Gates would have tried to compete with style, Steve Jobs would have manipulatively taunted, bullied, and laughed him out of the room. They each, on their own terms, highlighted their one-of-a-kind traits and didn’t deviate under any circumstances. Love them or hate them, the lesson stands. Each man’s unwillingness to compromise his authenticity is what allowed both of them to take advantage of being born at a special time in history and eventually hitting it out of the park.
We’re all meant to be great…we just need to have the courage to admit it…be willing to display it…fail a few times…and give ourselves a chance. This applies to being great teachers, mentors, parents, senior care providers, friends, siblings, leaders, preachers, spouses, life partners, landscapers, writers, presidents, doctors, lawyers, musicians…I can go on and on. Don’t be afraid of failure. If you find failure embarrassing or something to ridicule, you should rethink things in your own life because the people who have the guts to fail are really trying…and you aren’t.
If you need a witness I’ll testify
If you ain’t got it you ain’t gonna get it
You gotta be born with it
What were you born with?