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How American Idol Changed My Life

Chris Daughtry on American Idol


March 4, 2006

The other night, watching American Idol, I enjoyed it as I usually do. Despite it seeming too pop culturish or teenybopper for my style, it has been a guilty pleasure for me since the first time I turned it on last season. For quite a while I was actually very embarrassed of my enjoyment of the show. However, I was hooked when I saw and heard Carrie Underwood sing for the first time and knew somewhere deep in my gut that she would win. When the final came between her and Bo Bice, I was just loving it. They were both incredible performers, people whose talents deserved recognition, and if it took some pop culture phenomenon like American Idol to bring that recognition then that was fine with me. The important thing was that justice was done and their talents were seen.

As this season started, I was even more excited to get to see the whole process from the beginning. I instantly started picking my favorites, really priding myself on my ability to spot the talents, pitting myself against the judges and seeing how my assessments compared with theirs. Early on, I thought Paris Bennett was a definite top four candidate. I loved Taylor Hicks’ attitude and authentic love of music. I didn’t really notice Chris Daughtry that much. I thought he was good, but that was all. He didn’t stand out to me yet.

However, after the first week of this season, when Chris did “Wanted Dead or Alive”, I was hooked. I watched the clip over and over again and was convinced that it sounded every bit as good as Bon Jovi’s version. And as I watched it, a familiar yet somewhat inexplicable feeling arose in me. I desperately wanted to share this clip with everyone. I felt absolutely compelled to show this great performance to my friends, family – everyone I could show it to.

The second week, Chris performed “Hemorrhage” by Fuel. This time I was even more impressed and absolutely on fire with excitement. The philosophy of my company, Emergent Associates, LLC, is that anytime a person feels strong energy of any kind, whether pleasant or unpleasant, they are being given an opportunity to access some deep lesson about themselves and who they are at their very core. In the mental health fields, the focus is usually on unpleasant energy. When we are in pain or suffering, then a mental health professional tries to apply some therapeutic process to “fix the problem”. This is known as the “problem-based” paradigm, and is in direct contrast to the “appreciative” paradigm that informs my work with clients. In the appreciative paradigm, pleasant energies – passion, excitement, joy – can offer just as powerful growth opportunities as unpleasant ones. So, true to my beliefs, I got on the phone with my business partner, Mark S. Meritt, and he coached me on this energy.

That night, as I told the story of how Chris’ performance had affected me, we identified the energy as “driven to help people realize talent”. This really spoke to me. My entire life I have felt chills seeing great talent of any kind. It doesn’t even matter what the particular talent is. I can stand in awe of a great computer programmer as well as a great singer or actor. The common thread is simply talent. As my partner, Mark, has explained beautifully in his essay, Forcing the Balance, it was the author Daniel Quinn who first made the connection for us that the best talents that we have been given, the things that come most naturally to us, are in fact as close to a sign from the universe as any of us will ever receive. Whatever it is that you are able to do very well, at which you are a natural, whether it’s cooking or dancing or coordinating an organization, that is the best indication you have of what evolution had in mind for you on this planet.

Mark asked me for the best story I have of being driven to help people realize talent and I told him the story of my favorite band for many years, Counting Crows. As a teen, I listened almost all to rap music. I had a lot of defenses against opening up my emotions and the strong rebellious tone of rap really spoke to me. However, Counting Crows was one of the first bands to touch me deeply enough that I was forced out of my emotional cocoon. Their songs of love and loss and memory were too poignant, the lyrics too familiar and passionate, for me to defend myself against. I fell in love with their music and felt an enormous drive to share it with others. I would tell anyone I knew about this great band, and I desperately wanted to meet the band and tell them myself how much their music had impacted me.

While I’m not sure if I told the other stories that night with Mark, there have been many of them throughout my life. One of the strongest was the case of a local band called Knee Deep Shag. My friend, Craig, told me to go see them many years ago back in college and when they came to Ann Arbor, I went. The minute the lead singer opened his mouth, I felt I was in the presence of great talent. For years to come, I did anything I could to promote them. I told everyone about them that I could, I went to a show and taped it and played it for many people, including my parents and my brother. I even wrote the band to tell them how much I appreciated their music and just last year wrote the lead singer telling him that he should try out for American Idol. He told me he was too old, and it wasn’t possible. But the passion I had for trying to help them and others realize their talent was enormous.

Mark then looked at the story of Counting Crows and we identified the theme of the story, the reason that I felt so driven to help people realize that band’s potential. The answer was that it was real. It was emotionally honest and authentic, and this was the same thing I felt with Chris Daughtry’s performance. In fact, I didn’t even realize it at the time, but upon playing back the clip of it, Simon Cowell, in explaining why Chris’ performance was the benchmark for all the other contestants, used the word “real”. So then Mark asked me to tell the best story of something or someone real. My first instinct was to talk about my friend, Rob, who is definitely the most real person I know personally. However, before I could really tell that story, another story jumped to mind that was even more powerful to me, the story of Martin Luther King, Jr.

I’ve already documented the power that Martin Luther King, Jr. has had over me in my life. Every year, on the eve of his holiday, I watch the PBS special about his life and it makes me cry in both sadness at his death and admiration of what he did. And what touches me most about it is how incredibly courageous he was in remaining true to his beliefs. Even in a situation where his life was on the line every minute of the day, he continued to be authentic and speak for what he believed in without fear. It is this fearless quality that inspires awe in me, and that became what we call the “positive core” of the session. Fearlessness is at the root of being real and authentic and when I see those qualities in someone, I am driven to help them realize their talents.

Mark asked me what I could do to nourish this drive to help people realize talent. I said it starts with myself. For far too long, I have not truly appreciated and respected my own talents and been fearless in really pursuing them. I said that I have to do that and that it starts with being more open about my own stories, writing them, telling them, sharing them without concern for the judgments of others. This essay is a prime example of that. He asked what I could do to take a step toward fostering my drive to help people realize talent and it came down to telling my story more often. Then, as is customary to end the session, I went back in my imagination and talked to myself as I was watching that powerful performance on American Idol. I imagined what Martin Luther King, Jr., a model of fearlessness, would tell me if he had been there. I knew that he would encourage me to be fearless in pursuing my own dreams, and I even imagined that he might say that in his “I Have a Dream” speech, when he described his hopes that his children would one day be judged by the “content of their character”, that this was equivalent with hoping that people saw the “real” them and that they could have an opportunity to fully realize their talents in this country.

This session really reinforced the importance of appreciating and developing talent in myself and others. The very next day, I was at work at my part-time non-profit job, and my boss and I got in a bit of a disagreement. It centered around my feeling that my talents were not fully appreciated there, nor were the talents of others in the office. Bolstered by my growing confidence from weeks of internal development, and right on the heels of another strong nurturing experience during that most recent coaching session, I stood up for myself more than I ever had before. My boss and I agreed that I needed to begin to transition out of that job. And so, just after this great insight about the importance of appreciating and developing talent, I was starting the journey out of a job that was not modeling that for me. This would finally begin to open up more freedom to build my company so that I could spend more of my life focused on the development of talent.

The word talent has been used in many cases relevant to my life. The school programs that I was often put in for my advanced skills were often called “Gifted and Talented”. And it’s no surprise that soon after leaving medicine, while considering other careers, I strongly considered going into counseling of the gifted and talented. I even put together a school program that was designed specifically to help foster the unique talents of every student. But so much of what I was doing to that point was projection, focusing on helping others develop talents while still neglecting my own. Another experience, catalyzed by the very same American Idol performance, pounded this home in a way I won’t soon forget.

Tonight, I continued to replay the Chris Daughtry performance of “Hemorrhage” over and over again. It continued to give me chills every time and I kept sending it to people and wanting to bring recognition to it. I also know that I liked the idea of people recognizing me, perhaps, for my own talent in seeing the talent in others. This concept of one’s own talent being talent discovery and development is captured in the lyrics of the song “Talent” from Stephen Sondheim’s musical “Bounce”, which Mark shared with me, knowing how relevant it was to me. Here it is along with Mark’s commentary:

(The character is at first interested in being an artist of some kind)

So many talents,
Wasn't I blest!
A few of them good,
A few of them better,
None of them best,
Just enough talent to know
That I hadn't the talent.
So I put my dream
And my self-esteem
To rest.

...I merely had to find out what I was meant to be.

...(then eventually the character is inspired to found an artists colony)...

So many talents,
Gathered en-masse!
Painters and poets,
Artists and dreamers,
Watered like grass.

And if the talent I have
Is for nurturing talent,
Then succeed or fail,
I will see they sail
First-class.

And my father can go stick it up his ass.
As I continued emailing and instant messaging people sharing Chris’ performance, I realized that I was not being true to my beliefs. When I have energy that strong, I really try to be mindful and use my coaching process, and this was some of the strongest energy I’ve ever felt in my life. So finally, I had the presence of mind to shut down the chat programs and get to the coaching. The session began the same way, describing the performance and my feelings, and at first I thought the topic would be the same – driven to help people realize talent. However, soon it hit me that I had had the same feeling of drive in a case where the issue wasn’t talent. When I first learned about Instant Runoff Voting (IRV), I felt it was a crucial idea that had great potential to improve our political system. I was on fire with the desire to spread the idea and worked very hard through my organization, Ferndale for Instant Runoff Voting (F-IRV), to do so. I wrote, spoke, even went door-to-door for months in favor of the idea. I did things like speaking on the local radio and appearing on the local news that may have made me nervous before, but excited me to no end because of my passion for the idea. I realized that it was more than just a drive to help people realize talent, it was a drive to help people realize potential – any kind of potential, whether a singing talent or a great idea that could really improve life.

I then asked myself for the very best story I had of being driven to help people realize great potential. I not only told the story of all of the speaking and writing and organizing that I did in the service of promoting IRV, but also the passion with which I tried to promote Knee Deep Shag to people in my life. The theme of the stories was “Strategically Speaking, Writing and Demonstrating To Bring Something Great the Recognition it Deserves.” This topic hit home and anyone who knows me will recognize this theme in my life. It is part of what has driven me to put up this very website, to form my company, and to do almost every project I have taken part in in my life. But neither IRV nor Knee Deep Shag provided the ultimate example of me using these activities to promote something great.

As I’ve detailed more times than I can count, the day I read Ishmael by Daniel Quinn was a milestone moment in my life. And over the years, as I read Quinn’s books over and over again, I became almost evangelical about promoting them and sharing them with the world. I started a local group. I founded a larger organization. I helped create a website. I traveled to conferences. I spoke, I wrote, I did everything I could to bring attention to his work. I felt, and still feel, that more than anyone I’ve ever read, his ideas have the potential – if conveyed in enough diverse ways to different people – to truly improve the world in a significant way. The key theme was really the formation of the organization because it provided the platform from which I could do all of the other things that I did to promote Quinn’s ideas. “Creating an Organization to Strategically Speak, Write, Organize and Demonstrate to Bring Something Great the Recognition it Deserves” was clearly the theme.

I imagined that in several months, I was very actively helping people realize great potential through the creation of an organization that would support me in speaking, writing, organizing and demonstrating to bring recognition to something great. The picture was as clear as day. My company, Emergent Associates, had redefined itself from simply a coaching, consulting and training company – something that sounds very academic and dry – to an organization focused on helping people discover, develop and nurture their full potential. Even as I read that rewording of the company’s concept I got another pang of the same feeling I had when watching Chris Daughtry. I knew that I had hit very close to the center of my being and of everything that was behind my life in the last several years. I also knew I had hit on the very thing the lack of which had caused me the greatest pain in my life.

Going into medicine, a field I was pressured into, and for which my talents are not suited, was one of the most painful experiences in my life. The pain came not from the difficulty of the path, but rather from the constant awareness that I had some other calling that I was not following. I couldn’t put a finger on what it was, and even if I had, I didn’t have the confidence to follow those other talents at that time anyway. It has been a very long path to get to the point where I truly understand and appreciate my own talents. While Chris Daughtry’s performance was just one of many great displays of potential that I’ve seen, it just happened to be the "tipping point" for me. Due to a great deal of coaching with Mark, as well as my friends Devin and Damion regarding other things going on in my life and years of growth and development all leading toward this milestone moment, tonight when I watched his performance again and again it catalyzed that last bit of energy to make me realize that, just as he was doing, I had to believe in myself and focus on the very core of what I was best at.

I knew instantly that the next step I had to take to make my dreams reality was to reframe Emergent Associates as a company dedicated to appreciating, discovering, defining, nurturing, developing, supporting and promoting the potential in human systems of all kinds - from individuals to couples to families to groups. My positive core is the process of helping others live out their positive cores. It is a paradoxical mission, yet clearly the message of my life to date is that this is indeed my mission.

So as I write this essay, I feel I’m taking a big step toward where I am supposed to be in life. Through recognizing the talent of one powerful singer on American Idol, I have come to recognize my own talents much more clearly, and to express my story fearlessly on this page. I look forward to being part of the process of many many people and groups all over the world feeling the passion that comes from this same process of coming to know and believe in yourself. Who knows? Perhaps I can be part of that process for you.

Dr. Howard Ditkoff is a personal coach, group/organizational/business consultant and trainer through his company, Emergent Associates, LLC, which shares its unique knowledge, understanding and tools to support health in human systems of all types. Howard helps people discover and develop their deepest talents and potentials, bringing greater satisfaction to all areas of their lives, ranging from health to career to relationships, while helping groups, organizations and businesses of all kinds achieve greater success. For more information, or to contact Howard about setting up a Free Introductory Consultation, visit Emergent Associates, LLC's Website or email him.

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