We Can’t All Be Shakespeare--And That's OK

A couple of disc jockeys on a morning radio show in New York making jokes about some recent comments from Clay Aiken caught my attention. Apparently Aiken had been on Bravo’s Watch What Happens Live with host Andy Cohen and in a segment called Plead the Fifth was asked, “What current pop singer do you think wouldn’t make it past the first round of American Idol?”

“Oh God, there are too many, too many,” Aiken, an American Idol runnerup, replied. “Current pop singer? I stopped listening to them ’cause they can’t sing. Rihanna has some pitch problems, for sure.”

Let me interject here that I have never seen American Idol and wouldn’t know Aiken if he sat down next to me. But as I listened to the guys on the radio recounting this story, they marveled at how Aiken could have the audacity to critique Rihanna. They were far from the only ones, as words like “disses” and “bashes” and “slams” began appearing in headlines.

So Aiken chimed back in with qualifying comments on ABC News Radio:

“I love all of [Rihanna’s] stuff … [but] as a live vocalist, I don't think I was inaccurate …There are people who aren’t great live ... Hers is the name that came to my head, but it should not diminish the fact in any way that I love her product, I love her music, I think it’s great.” Then he added with a laugh, “I don't think she'll be singing 'Ave Maria' anywhere necessarily.”

Some saw this as backtracking on his original statement. I saw this as an astute observation with wisdom that goes beyond Rihanna and singing. What Aiken is saying is that Rihanna is not Luciano Pavarotti or Maria Callas. Well, duh.

Reality check, folks. Not every writer is William Shakespeare or Virginia Woolf. Not every photographer is Annie Liebowitz or Ansel Adams. Not every painter is Renoir or Van Gogh.

You get the idea.

The reason this is important is because in my coaching experience, I find this is something that stops people from pursuing the writing, the photography, the painting, the singing or whatever is it is they want to do. They often feel they have to be perfect or aspire to be at the level of someone they feel is at the top of the profession. Or they don’t recognize that their talent is markedly different from what is already out there and that that should be honed and celebrated.

In Julia Cameron’s classic The Artist’s Way, she talks about how so often student filmmakers compare their first endeavors to Star Wars instead of comparing them to George Lucas’ student films. After all, how often does one come out of the gate with blockbuster brilliance?

One of the best lessons of being a daily journalist for a newspaper for longer than a decade was having to work through perfectionism. The story is due in an hour and must be released by deadline. That’s it. Task completed to the best of my ability. Until the next day, when it starts all over again. As a sports writer that probably meant another gymnasium, another basketball game to chronicle, another story to tell. Not everyone can do that.

But there is a place for more precise, exacting turn of phrase, perhaps in technical writing, a gift I certainly don’t have. That probably wasn’t a strength of Shakespeare’s either. Nobody is mistaking Jackson Pollak’s signature splotchy style for a Matisse goldfish. A Walker Evans photo will not resemble a Richard Avedon one.

There’s a confidence – and a high, really – in figuring out where you belong. Some are meant to carve out something never before seen. Some are supposed to keep alive what has already been created. Think about how much joy you’ve experienced following a beloved cover band, for example. Let them sing Beatles songs or Motown hits to their heart’s content and we’ll be on our feet clapping and reminiscing. They’re not Bruce Springsteen or Madonna. They’re not supposed to be.

I enjoy illuminating this for coaching clients, witnessing that aha moment when they realize that small steps toward finding their niche, their voice, their sound, their look is all they need to focus on. It seems so obvious when I use these examples, but sometimes it’s hard to see it in our own lives. It is so rewarding to then see them work on building portfolios and record CDs and go on auditions.

I think we can all agree Rihanna is doing well for herself making music her way. Aiken was just keeping it real.

Nancy Colasurdo is a practicing life coach and freelance writer. Her Web site is www.nancola.com and you can follow her on Twitter @nancola. Please direct all questions/comments to FOXGamePlan@gmail.com.