Hello, my name is Don and I watched almost every episode of American Idol this year.  They say the first step to recovery is admission, so there, I did it.

I think I started watching because AI held my regular dinner time slot in addition to inviting a new judge for Season 10 in Aerosmith’s Steven Tyler.  I’ve been a fan of Aerosmith and Steven Tyler’s Aeroscreech vocals going way back to my childhood.  I once remember playing “the drums” on an ottoman as I watched them rock out on the Midnight Special TV show circa 1976 when my babysitter let me stay up way past my bedtime.

Until this year, American Idol had been the butt of my jokes and a punch line during seminars.  I used to consider the show an example of the “dumb-sizing” of America, as more people voted on AI than did in most major political elections.  That was, until I saw Steven Tyler stealing the show with his antics, Steven-isms, and one-liners.  It was actually an enjoyable and entertaining break from the often negative and moribund stories seen on national news shows and so-called TV dramas.

In addition to the entertainment value provided by the unpredictable Tyler, curt Randy Jackson, and surprisingly knowledgeable and personable Jennifer Lopez, I also noticed certain trends unfolding with the AI contestants.  Some of the patterns and events reminded me about how much of a microcosm AI actually was in relation to today’s real world at work.

So if you’re a fan of the most-watched TV show in America or just want to see what all the AI fuss is about, here are 4 things that I learned or confirmed about the real world at work by watching Season 10 of American Idol:

1- Don’t let your “disability” hold you back.

It doesn’t matter what your “disability” or unique challenge is.  We all have challenges; they’re just more evident for some people than others.  One Season 10 AI contestant in particular caught my attention: James Durbin.  Durbin battled Tourette’s and Asperger’s Syndrome most of his life, often being picked on and beat up just because he was “different.”  But when he hit the stage on AI, he seemed to transform himself into another person altogether.  His stage presence was amazing and entertainment value sensational as he sang and hit notes not heard since the 1980’s hair band days. Durbin toughed out his demons and performed superbly for tens of millions each week, not letting his deficiencies stop him or slow him down.  I think his defining moment came during his rendition of Uprising by Muse as he let his true talent shine through, ending up in the AI final four.

2- Get creative and employ a multifaceted approach.

Pia Toscano was the best pure singer in Season 10 of AI, hands down.  In terms of vocal talent, it was not even close, Pia was the best.  However, in an AI shocker, Pia was voted off during Week 9.  Even Las Vegas (yes, there are betting odds on American Idol) had her pegged as the odds-on favorite to win the entire competition.  Though Pia’s singing voice was stellar, her act wasn’t.  Week after week she pounded out one power ballad after another.  At first she shined, but I believe the American voting public became bored with her one-trick-pony act and eliminated her based on lack of creativity.  Most job seekers and professionals fall into the same trap.  They either stick with what is easy or what is comfortable for far too long, even when their results are mediocre at best.  It takes guts and courage to make exciting changes, to choose a different course, and to learn new skills.  To stay sharp and employ what’s working in the current job market and in our current industry, sometimes we need to take a chance and do what is uncomfortable, risky, and scary.  Maybe it’s taking that class, attending a networking function, or volunteering for the lead on a new project.  The key is to ensure your skills and “act” are not getting stale. Minimize the chances for getting “voted off” by your employer and have a plan for professional growth and development consistent with today’s market conditions and industry needs.


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3- It’s not always talent that wins – popularity counts.

The old axiom, it’s not what you know but who you know, certainly held true for Season 10 of AI.  Scotty McCreery was an extremely mediocre singer but with a huge following.  He typified the good ‘ol boy persona and rode average performances coupled with boyish good looks and a massive fan base all the way to the AI winners circle. Certainly, others in the contest were more talented.  But it was Scotty’s smile, attitude, and demeanor that won him huge tracts of votes—especially among AI’s target TV voting audience.  In the real world at work, you can’t run or hide from office politics.  They can be found in all companies from 5 employees to 5000, so learn how to master them — and your reputation.  Remember that skills and expertise count, but so do forming constructive relationships.  Take time to get to know those who can help you (and whom you can help) move forward, advance toward your goals, and get things done.  Having a high PQ (Popularity Quotient) is just as important as having a high IQ when it comes to getting paid more and promoted faster.

4- Bring your A-Game by being true to yourself and your natural talents.

Haley Reinhart was often criticized by the judges on AI for not “knowing who she was” and singing off key.  I couldn’t have disagreed more.  Haley did know who she was and maximized her natural talent, playing it all the way to a third place finish.  Despite the judge’s (Randy Jackson in particular) constant panning of her music selections and vocal range, Haley stayed true to her roots of bluesy, raspy vocals that brought back memories of Janis Joplin and Melissa Etheridge.  Ironically, it was Haley’s dedication with being true to her unique sound and singing style that enabled her to finish so admirably.  We all have unique talents, skills, and traits.  But how many of us actually follow them and develop our career around them? The vast majority of people are overtaken by their fears and play not to lose as opposed to playing to win.  Don’t be the person that looks back twenty years from now for another chance that’s just not there.  Follow your true skills and natural talents and go as far as you can with all that you’ve got.  Maybe it’s in your current occupation or maybe it requires a career change, side business, or full-on entrepreneurial shift.  Take the first step in determining just what your unique gifts and talents are (and we all have them) and how you can contribute.  The key to a fulfilling career—and life—is to then use our unique talents and to work in an area that we’re truly passionate about.

American Idol is cheesy, grandiloquent, and bombastic.  Ryan Seacrest smiles way too much and the show is over-dramatized.  AI is also good fun and solid entertainment.  Some principles for success and achievement continue to stand the test of time and are proven over and over again, whether we’re talking about you gaining that promotion at work or a young contestant being voted off of America’s most-watched TV show. And if you enjoy stories about beating the odds, overcoming challenges, and making a comeback, tune in to AI sometime to watch Steven Tyler work an audience just like he did back in ’76 when I was beating the drums on the ottoman in my Underoos.