Sometimes I fall into a time-sucking YouTube-watching rabbit hole.
But sometimes there are treasures in the hole. Sometimes you stumble across a video that gives you courage.
Courage can stem from the most unlikely places and recently it came to me in the form of a TEDxBroadway Talk.
In it EGOT (Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, Tony) award winner Robert (aka Bobby) Lopez discusses his creative development as a songwriter. He begins by playing songs from his youth, and then moves through his own artistic maturity, sharing his lessons about what it takes to turn your art or talent into a profession.
Bobby, by the way, is the 12th and youngest EGOT winner to date and was named one of Time magazine’s 100 Most Influential People in 2014. He also co-wrote a little indie song you’ve probably never heard of called “Let it Go.”
He has the kind of bio you read and wonder how someone can accomplish all that in one lifetime, let alone in his first decade or so after college. It’s easy to write people like him off with that unattainable term of “prodigy.”
And maybe that’s true.
But what if it’s not?
What if there’s much to be learned from the way people like Bobby approach their talent, their work, their art?
It might not make us all EGOT winners, but what if it helps us share that thing we’ve been afraid to share? What if someone else needs it and we’re hoarding it because we’re afraid?
Being afraid does not make you weak. Sharing is scary.
In the TEDxBroadway Talk, Bobby describes the mental shift that changed everything for him, a story he credits with helping him rise from amateur to professional through having the courage to share more in his writing—to share the scary in hopes it might help someone else feel less scared, or perhaps share their own scary.
And yes, Bobby Lopez was once an amateur. His admission of that alone gives me courage.
When Bobby was in his early 20s, he started learning as much as he could about the origins of music and stumbled upon a myth that changed his entire perspective:
Arion, the “sort of the Billy Joel of his day,” as Bobby tells it, takes a boat to an island for a contest where he sings his original songs. He wins a bag of gold and on the boat home, his crewmembers decide to kill him so they can keep the gold. Arion is forced to walk the plank, but asks to sing one last song.
“He sang this beautiful song from the depths of his soul,” Bobby recounts, “and as he jumped into the water a dolphin who had heard the song jumped out of the water and he rode the dolphin back home.”
What matters more than the actual details of this myth is what Bobby gleaned from it: “[It] spoke to me…. Music is this thing that carries people over the sea, carries people over an ocean of trouble.”
And here is the part where Bobby’s mindset transformed:
“But I didn’t feel like my music was doing that for anyone…. I knew my parents liked it and my teachers liked it and everyone who had a stake in me as a kid liked it—but I didn’t feel like it was really serving a purpose for anybody; I didn’t feel like it was really carrying anybody over a sea.”
There are a lot of things Bobby could have done after this revelation. He could have said to himself, Whatever, this is just a myth! I’ll do what I want! He could have said, My art is my art and who cares if it helps anyone; it’s all about me!
But that’s not what Bobby thought. Instead, he started to seriously think about the purpose of what he was doing with his life, and wondered if he could find “a way for my music to provide a service to people… to serve society”—to carry other people over a sea, even if that just means giving them a chance to laugh for a few hours in a theater.
He describes the revelation and the relief. Maybe his music did not need to be all about him, that it did not need to be about impressing people. It was from this revelation that he began writing songs for Avenue Q, songs inspired from the problems he encountered as he transitioned into adulthood.
As I continue along this messy thing called adulthood, I can’t help but wonder if admitting your problems is the best way to help others over a sea. Sometimes I think all we need to help us over a sea is for someone else to say, “Hey, it’s OK, I’m terrified and feel like I’m drowning, too!”
I’ve never seen Avenue Q, but I read the book last night and it felt exactly like Bobby telling me, “Hey, it’s OK, I was terrified and felt like I was drowning and like I’d never live up to my potential, too!”
Avenue Q won three Tony awards. And as Bobby recounts, “Avenue Q changed my career.”
Maybe we can’t all be EGOT winners, but that wasn’t Bobby’s goal, either.
He just realized he should “sing on the plank”—that maybe singing when you’re the most afraid is the kind of singing that carries people over a sea more than anything else.
And, hey, maybe a dolphin will show up; maybe what you say will speak to someone. Maybe you’ll save them; maybe they’ll save you.
Or maybe you’ll drown.
That’s the thing—that’s a real possibility. If it weren’t, it wouldn’t seem so courageous to share your voice, your perspective, your ideas, your problems.
So why put yourself out there at all? Why not just walk the plank and keep your mouth shut? Or, better yet, why sing to begin with? Why travel to the island and enter the contest? Isn’t that where you went wrong? Maybe the lesson here is don’t put yourself out there. Don’t enter singing contests. Don’t trust anyone. Shut up and sit down and don’t ever share your voice—you will only be punished for it.
Sometimes that is heart-achingly true. Most people will not win an EGOT for sharing their voice. Some people are pummeled for it. I’d like to pretend that isn’t the case.
But that’s what makes it brave. That’s what makes it beautiful.
When you decide to be more vulnerable, share your ideas, put your perspective out there—whether it’s art or businesses or a project, a conversation, or even a social media post—it very well might receive feedback that pierces.
But I can’t help but think about all the people whose art, music, texts, projects, cooking, crafts, inventions and funny internet videos have carried me over a sea and how grateful I am they were willing to share themselves with me in the midst of chaos and uncertainty.
The promise of an award is probably not enough fuel to keep anyone going when things are at their most uncertain, most scary. Perhaps the idea that your work could help someone else is the greater, more effective fuel.
All I know is that when I’m most terrified, toes hanging off the plank, looking down into the ocean, sometimes the only thing giving me the courage to turn around and sing is the thought that maybe if I can just hold on, sing in the fear, maybe it will somehow matter to someone else.
Maybe it’s not about me.
Nothing gives me more courage than those five words.
By Isa Adney