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3 Career Lessons We Can Learn From Legendary Performers

Topics: Career Advice
career lessons
Hugo van Gelderen, via Wikimedia Commons

Years of reading publications like Rolling Stone and Billboard made me fall in love with the stories behind legendary musicians’ careers and songs.

In fact, it’s hard to say whether it’s the songs or the story behind them that intrigues me the most. We can glean useful career advice from these musicians’ stories. Their persistence and resilience provide career lessons for every professional.

Right away, I think of Aretha Franklin and her career, and how many of us, like her, will work as long as we can. She was a national treasure and a musical hero because of her pure talent. She also worked hard, even during the last year of her life. When there were rumors of Aretha having cancer several years ago, she was still as passionate as ever in her desire to tour. She was a great example of resilience and perseverance.

We can learn from performers how they moved through obstacles, and how resilience fueled their desire to create. We can apply these lessons to our mindset for career advancement:

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1. Our Mistakes Can Become Monuments and Gain Momentum

One of the most popular songs of the day, “Mack the Knife,” was well known by every popular music fan in the world by 1960. Bobby Darin and Louis Armstrong sang their versions in concert and made popular recordings.

Then, one of the best jazz singers ever was to perform “Mack the Knife” in Germany. The concert was to be recorded for release. As she introduced the song to the audience, she indicated that she hadn’t quite mastered the lyrics prior to the performance.

Yes, Ella Fitzgerald, the first lady of jazz, sang the first few lines … and then forgot the rest of the song. Instead of stopping and going on to the next song, she improvised. Not only was the audience thrilled by her ability to keep “Mack…” going while the band played as if nothing happened, but also she received a Grammy award for “Best Female Pop Vocal”!

Career Lesson: We need to persevere in spite of our mistakes, which can occur even when we have worked hard on our craft. Our missteps shouldn’t deter us from our path to career advancement. We’ve all been forced to improvise. We shouldn’t stop the band from playing while we are in the moment, as we need to find ways to create value and opportunities.

2. We Can Fail Forward to Find Fame

Guitarist Carlos Alomar played in a James Brown session for a song called “Hot (I Need to Be Loved)” but was fired. He was then picked up by David Bowie for a record he was producing. During the rehearsal, guitarist Carlos Alomar played a riff Bowie liked. The guitar riff by Alomar became the driving force behind Bowie’s song, “Fame!

Career Lesson: We can fail in one job only to succeed in another. Being resilient means looking forward for a chance to redeem ourselves — and understanding that sometimes success comes down to fit.

3. Constraints Can’t Limit Real Talent

An entertainer, who once recorded “What Kind of Fool Am I?” was asked to do a pop record with children. He resisted, saying that the song in question wasn’t intended for kids. His record company insisted. Not only did Sammy Davis Jr. record “The Candy Man” in one take, but it also became a number one song and the biggest hit of his career.

Career Lesson: Davis later admitted his record company wore him down. Similarly, there are times when professionals need to cope with constraints in their career. Like Davis’s record company, our employer might want us to work on a project that doesn’t really appeal. But even if we’re stuck complying, we don’t need to resign ourselves to uninspired work.

Davis’s record company might have been right about the song’s merits, but it was Davis’s talent that made “Candy Man” a smash. Likewise, our skills are what matter. Always look for a chance to let talent shine through.

Tell Us What You Think

Which performer has inspired you most in your career? We want to hear from you. Share your story in the comments or join the conversation on Twitter.

Mark Anthony Dyson
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