What a 12-Year-Old Ukulele Player Teaches Us About Authenticity In Our Work


What vocational lessons could we possibly learn from the 12-year-old viral sensation who just won America’s Got Talent?

I don’t watch reality television contests, because as a rule, the best participants rarely participate and when they do, they almost never win. But quite randomly, a 12-year-old ukulele player named Grace VanderWaal, inspired me to break my own boycott.

On our way to another channel, my family stumbled on America’s Got Talent a few months ago just in time to see one of my favorite instruments—the ukulele—adorning the neck of a diminutive blond girl.

It’s just her and the miniature instrument on the stage. And then she parts from reality singing contest convention launching into a song that she—as a 12-year-old—wrote herself. An original.  It’s not a tune that the crowd can recognize and cheer for. Judges can’t easily identify with it to help sway them in her favor.  She’s on her own, and begins with the confession, “I don’t know my name.”

Her uke is a little out of tune (but it’s almost impossible to keep them in tune). Her voice is interesting—quirky, but good. Her pace is variable, perhaps intentionally. But in her vulnerability, her apparent imperfection, she endears her way toward her own version of perfection.

In the song’s climactic stanza, she rejoices with soaring authenticity, “I now know my name.”

By the end, I’m visibly crying. Everyone loves her, the judges anointing her with instant superstardom. She, in turn, is shocked, overwhelmed that she put every bit of herself out there for the world to see—and the world embraced her.

But even more surprising is that in every subsequent show, working toward the final round, she playedanother original. At no point does she curry favor through the influence of another. With almost no accompaniment, she just keeps playing and singing her own brilliant, old soul 12-year-old songs.

Then, in the finals, each of the 10 contestants got an extended vignette as a prelude to their performance. You know, the tear-jerking journey that each performer has endured on their way to the big stage.

Without an ounce of pretension, but with conviction in who she is and what she does, she brought the house down.

“On paper,” her voice couldn’t compete with the virtuoso opera singer. She didn’t have an ounce of the showmanship of the Sinatra protégé,  and she was clearly the least experienced of the entire field.

But she was easily the most comfortable in her own skin. She seemed to need the praise least of all. “I’m just glad it’s over,” she said in response to the standing ovation. For the first (and likely last) time, I actually got on my phone to vote for a reality show contestant.

She won.

I’m not a music writer. My specialty is personal finance, of which career is a primary component, and the whole notion of vocation or “calling” is one with which I am fascinated. I believe that we each have a unique combination of personality characteristics, natural proclivities and honed skills that when employed in the service of others at the right time and in the right environment can bring uncommon fulfillment. (But be warned, it may not bring money, fame, or even a job.)

Here’s what this little girl teaches us about making the most of our pursuits, passions and professions:

1) There may be no stage in life in which it is harder to be authentic than middle school. If she can do it then, we can do it now.

2) Nothing conveys authenticity better than vulnerability. (But while life-giving, being vulnerable can be exhausting, and it’s never easy.)

3) Most of the work we do requires trust on the part of those we serve. Vulnerability—even the upfront acknowledgement of our faults and shortcomings—is the quickest path to trust.

4) We need not be free from constraints and the influence of others in order to exercise authenticity and our own brand of creativity. Many a tortured musician would spurn the mere thought of submitting him or herself to a venue as “establishment” as America’s Got Talent. But with innocence and whimsy, Grace was able to be fully herself—even while being constrained by a decidedly commercialist enterprise. You don’t have to be “out on your own” in order to be fully you. Constraints can ironically inspire creativity, and the best organizations welcome individuality in the midst of their communities.

5) We all have creative potential. Whether a plumber, priest or professional, we can all bring a certain artisanship to our work.

What does this mean for you?  What is the next step in authenticity, vulnerability or creativity that you could take?

This commentary originally appeared September 14 on Forbes.com

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