Those are the three words that come to mind when I think of Jimmy Nelson.
Jimmy Nelson. Known to those of us in the art as, “The Dean of Ventriloquists”.
Jimmy Nelson passed away last night. He was 90.
Jimmy created the seminal ventriloquism educational record, “Instant Ventriloquism”. It was that record that taught so many this ancient artform. Among them, Jay Johnson, Jeff Dunham, and yours truly.
Of all of the many albums (and later CDs) in my collection, none were played as often nor listened to more attentively than that one.
I still have that record. It hangs on the wall in my office. Meeting Jimmy in person and having him sign that record was one of the stand-out moments in my life. To later reach the point where Jimmy knew me by name? Wow. Just wow.
Jimmy was a fixture at our annual conVENTion. He loved to encourage people in the study of ventriloquism. Being such an icon in our art, it was intimidating for many to approach him. Yet once you gathered the courage, you walked away feeling like you had just made a new friend for life – and you had. Jimmy had that way about him.
Jimmy was a true gentleman, an icon in our industry, and his legacy lives on.
God bless you, Jimmy. Thank you for all that you have given to the world. I am honored to have known you.
Last week my daughter treated me to a day at COSI, the Center of Science and Industry, Columbus’ science museum. It was a belated Father’s Day gift and well worth the wait. The main attraction was a special exhibit: “Jim Henson: Imagination Unlimited”.
We both greatly enjoyed this exhibit, remembering fondly the many things brought to life by this singularly creative individual.
“Singularly Creative Individual”. That is exactly what struck me the most as we went through the exhibit. Yes, these creations all came from “The Jim Henson Company.” Clearly, Jim Henson was the driving force behind them. But the Muppets and all of the rest of these fantastical creations were not done by one singular individual. They were brought to life by a team.
If there is one thing that I took away from this exhibit it is the importance of colleagues, friends, and collaborative partners.
While the Muppets would not be what they are without Jim Henson, they also would not be what they are without Frank Oz and Jerry Juhl and Jane Henson.
It was through the collaborative genius of these colleagues that we have the Muppets as we know them today. “Sesame Street”, “The Muppet Show“, “The Muppet Movie“, and “Fraggle Rock” all exist because of the partnership and underlying friendship of these individuals.
During my time in corporate America, the best times were when I had that kind of collaborative, collegial working relationships. The kind of relationship where you eagerly celebrate your collective successes, while also being able to tell each other when they are full of crap.
I often find myself jealous of those who have been able to sustain that level of deep, connected partnership through decades.
Have you seen the biopic movie about Freddie Mercury, “Bohemian Rhapsody”? There is a scene where Freddie gets back with his “Queen” bandmates after a somewhat failed attempt at going solo. To paraphrase, Freddie says, “I had plenty of studio musicians who did exactly what I asked them to do. And that was the problem. I need you guys to tell me when I’m wrong.”
Like any partnership, I’m sure there were times at The Jim Henson Company when the team did not all agree. I’m sure there were spirited debates and challenging conversations. These were not well represented in the exhibit. But, put more than one creative person together in a room and there are bound to be disagreements.
And that’s OK.
True creative types thrive on different ideas.
Do you have a collaborative partner in your work or life? If so, celebrate!
Do you have the beginnings of such a relationship? Nurture it!
Find a friend. Find a person with whom you can give and take; push and be pushed.
To be a singularly creative individual takes more than one person.
Harry Callahan, aka Dirty Harry, aka Clint Eastwood in Magnum Force
What are your limitations? Where do you draw the line?
Many years ago, when I was a low level executive with AOL, I had a conversation with my new boss where I laid out my limitations. I was based in Columbus, OH, with teams in both Columbus and Reston, VA. There had been increasing pressure for me to move to Reston. In my first meeting with a newly hired boss, I told him, “There’s something you need to know. I am not interested in moving. I will travel to the point of pain, but I’m not going to move.”
He reminded me of that conversation years later when I discussed taking a sabbatical (technically a leave of absence…). He asked, “What happened to traveling to the point of pain?” My response, “I’ve crossed the pain threshold.”
Side note: This second conversation is a great example of what made this particular boss one of the best I have had. He remembered things in great detail and did his best to accommodate his people’s needs, while still meeting the needs of the organization. The fact that he recalled my exact words from years before spoke volumes. Can your boss do that? Can you?
Business travel is one of those things I no longer enjoy. At least not if it involves airports. I’ll gladly drive 8 hours one way to avoid the hassles of air travel. This past January I drove to Olewein, IA, for a gig. That trip was 10 hours of drive time each way. Even in the middle of January, driving it was preferable to air travel.
That is my limitation. What’s yours?
It wasn’t always like this. I used to enjoy business travel. I enjoyed flying to San Jose’ every couple months to meet with the staff there who reported to me. I enjoyed the almost weekly trips to Virginia. It was exciting. I traveled so often I was on a first name basis with the woman in the Avis rental car booth at Dulles airport. (Hi, Marlena! How are you?)
Now? I get anxious just opening the airline ticketing web site. Ugh.
How about you? Is there something that you used to enjoy, but now dread? Has your line moved? Do you have different limitations than you once did?
Be aware of your limitations.
Feeling stressed? Maybe you’re bumping up against one of your limits. Maybe it’s a limit you didn’t know was there. Step back. Look around. Give it some thought.
If you’ve discovered a limitation, whether it is new or longstanding, what can you do to deal with it? Is there an alternative?
Sometimes all we need is a break. In my case, when I returned after my sabbatical, the pain of air travel had receded. It took years for it to return to its current level of abhorrence. And it is only when traveling for business. Vacation? Sure! Let’s go! Business? No thanks. I’d rather drive.
Take the time to look at your stress levels. Dig in. Look for the cause. It’s probably not what you think. You might think your boss is being a jerk. More likely they are asking you to cross one of your limit lines.
Know your limitations. Find a way to break through them, or a way around. Step one is the same: identification.
The full quote is, “Whatever you do, do it well. Do it so well that when people see you do it, they will want to come back and see you do it again, and they will want to bring others and show them how well you do what you do.”
Walt Disney’s motivation for this quote was about business. Deliver a quality product and people will come back again and again.
Ralph Waldo Emerson is credited with saying something along a similar vein.
“If a man can write a better book, preach a better sermon or make a better mouse trap than his neighbors, though he builds his house in the woods, the world will make a beaten path to his door.”
Ralph Waldo Emerson
This quote has been simplified over the years to become the adage, “Build a better mousetrap and the world will beat a path to your door.”
Both of these quotes speak to the value of doing good work. If we do good work, we will be rewarded – monetarily.
That’s fine. But is that the only thing that motivates you?
I have a different perspective.
To me, the highest reward we receive for being good at our craft is getting to hang around others who are good at theirs.
We earn a seat at the table.
It’s a whole lot more fun to hang around with people who are good at doing what they do.
Do you remember playing games on the elementary school playground? Do you recall how teams were determined?
Two team captains were appointed; usually by general consensus. Then those two captains would take turns selecting individuals to be on their teams.
When were you selected? First? Somewhere in the middle? Last?
It was never fun to be selected last. Believe me, I know.
Do you play a sport? If you are an avid golfer, do you enjoy playing with a horrible duffer?
Maybe tennis is your thing. Maybe you’re pretty good at it. Is it any fun at all to play with someone who isn’t?
While sports are an easy metaphor to help us understand the concept, this same thing plays out at work.
When we are truly excellent at our craft, we want to hang around with others who are excellent at theirs. Our crafts do not need to be the same. But our levels within our area do.
It is frustrating to be held back by people around us who are fumbling about.
Yes, we can expect to be better compensated when we “do it well”. But, even more important, it is more fun – because we earn the right to be with others who also do it well.
Do you panic? Do you completely freak out? Do you shut down?
I have a love/hate relationship with deadlines. I do my best work under the pressure of a looming deadline, and yet I hate that pressure.
Do you know people who are always prepared well ahead of time for everything? Me too. I hate those people.
OK, so “hate” is too strong a word. I simply don’t understand them. I’ve never been that kind of person. I procrastinate. Constantly. If I were told I must procrastinate, I’d find an excuse to put it off until tomorrow, or next week.
Then, as that new date approached, I would be the best procrastinator you ever met.
Or, at least that’s what I would tell myself.
I sing in the choir at our church. This is a relatively new experience for me. I was in a choir only once before. I didn’t enjoy the experience and it didn’t last long. This time it is completely different. I love being in this choir. So much so that when we have a week off from rehearsal, I miss it.
Our director is amazing. She is a highly skilled musician and an excellent teacher. But, what I most appreciate is her steadfast, calm, persistence as we struggle to step up to sing music well beyond our comfort level.
This year as we were preparing our anthems for Easter, it was clear we were being pushed in our musical ability. Our director is not a procrastinator like me. However, I definitely felt that we should have started learning these pieces much sooner than we did.
As the deadline of Easter Sunday drew near, it seemed like we would be better off starting over with something easy. But, she persisted. Calmly. Steadily.
Each week at rehearsal, our director comes in with her notes on specific spots that are particularly problematic in whatever we are currently preparing. Usually, this is a few well-spaced passages in the music. In this case, it was pretty much the whole thing.
And yet still, she persisted.
And we went along.
Slowly, steadily, it got better.
Easter came. We pulled it off. An Easter miracle.
It wasn’t perfect. But, it was certainly acceptable. Maybe even good. Perhaps a 6 or 7 on a scale of 1-10.
What deadline do you have looming? Are you in panic mode? Are you feeling like you should just throw out your lofty goal and start over with something easy?
Hang in there.
Be like our choir director: steady, calm, persistent.
Where do you draw the line when it comes to saving money?
For my wife and I, coffee is a big one. We make our own coffee, but we are particular about the brands that we like. It’s not always Starbucks, although that is our go-to favorite. We’ve experimented with cheaper brands. Every time, though, we come to the same conclusion: it’s worth it to us to spend a little bit more for the brands we like. So we watch for sales and stock up when we can.
Being just the two of us in our house now, we also tend to spend more for smaller packaging rather than buying the mega-packs that would be cheaper on a per unit basis. We view it as paying the stores to store the excess for us. We’ll come back and pick it up as we need it, thank you.
There is something satisfying about being able to spring for life’s little luxuries. These are different for everybody.
For some people, it’s Charmin ultra soft toilet paper. Maybe it’s Jeni’s Ice Cream. Or, perhaps it’s that specific type of ballpoint pen, medium tip, black ink, that only comes in 5-packs and can only be found at that one store.
I am fond of good quality legal pads. White paper. College ruled. Somehow writing on them just feels better. It makes the ideas that get scribbled there seem more important.
I could go on and on about my personal choices for which things I find worth spending a bit more vs. where I am willing to go with the cheaper brand. You might get a laugh out of the list. You would likely disagree with many of the choices.
What matters more, though, are the choices that you make. Only you can determine those items that are important to you.
If you are a compulsive saver, uber frugal, who finds pleasure in how much you save by buying in bulk, go for it. If you are fine with plain old stick pens, have at it. I am not suggesting you do otherwise.
However, I do think it is important to identify those areas where treating yourself, even if only occasionally, is valuable. It sends a signal to your brain that you value your self, that you see yourself as being worth it. And you are.
So, go ahead. Throw caution to the wind. Buy yourself the extra-bright colored super-sticky 3M brand Post-It Notes.
What did you walk away with from your last annual performance review?
Or, for those of you who do what I do for a living, what do you remember from the comment cards at your last event where you spoke or entertained?
Here’s my bet: You forgot all about the great comments, the compliments, and you are obsessively focused on that one negative comment.
In the annual review it is that one thing your boss gives you to work on going forward.
In the realm of the feedback cards, it is that one negative comment. It is the one score of 2 in a sea of 5’s.
Why do we give so much power to the naysayers? Why do we not give equal ranking to those who love us?
I am certainly not immune to this. Why else would I be writing about it?
I am still stinging from the feedback from one particular performance in recent memory. There were well over 500 people in the audience. All I saw from the stage were smiling faces. There was much laughter. The applause was loud and long. After the show there was a long line of people for the meet & greet waiting for an autograph and photo opportunity.
And then it happened.
While I was packing up, the organizer shared with me that she had received “a few complaints”. I take this seriously. So, I pressed her for details. I encouraged her to share direct comments with me and to encourage people who were displeased to email me directly.
In the end, it was hundreds of people who were thrilled by the event, eager to find an opportunity to see the show again. And 3 people who were not. Three.
You know where my mind spent all of its time over the next several weeks. Not the 500+ who are new (and renewed) fans. No. Those three.
Why do we do this to ourselves?
What are you holding back from trying out of fear of even a single negative comment?
That. That right there. THAT is the true crime.
You have something amazing to share with the world. YOU.
I don’t know what it is. But, I’ll bet that you do.
And I’ll bet you’re afraid. Afraid someone might laugh at you. Afraid someone will say something negative.
So you continue to hold back, keeping your fantastic gifts to yourself.
I vow to continue to fight this battle. Won’t you join me?
Let’s do this together. Let’s agree that we will share our gifts with the world. We will put ourselves out there. Give what we have to those who appreciate them. And let go of the need for a perfect scorecard.
Have you ever said to yourself, “It doesn’t matter, it’s just … (fill in the blank)” ?
I perform at a wide range of events. In the past year alone I performed at a private party with 20 people, corporate events with hundreds, and a 2000 seat theater with huge projection screens (see photo above).
As you would expect, the budget for each of these events was significantly different. A friend of mine, a fellow entertainer, recently asked me, “What do you do differently?”
The answer? Nothing.
That’s not a complete answer. Sure, there are differences. They’re different audiences with different tastes. I custom tailor every show to the specific event. And, different levels of events require different amounts of behind the scenes efforts leading up to them, which is where most of the differentiation happens.
But, my overall commitment to the event? My delivery in the moment? The same.
It wasn’t always this way. I am somewhat embarrassed to admit that.
I used to segment the events based on the fee. The most visible aspect to this segmentation was in what I would wear for the performance. I went from casual pants and shirt, to dress pants with dress shirt, to jacket. In my mind a script played out, “Well, for that much, you don’t get the suit,” as if the client would notice or care. Worse, I delivered a different level of performance.
My friend was incredulous. “Seriously? You do the same show?”
I totally get where he was coming from. We have this sense of fairness. How can it be OK to deliver the same product for a client who pays $X as the one who pays $10X ? How is that fair?
That is a valid and interesting question. But, it is not what I am primarily writing about.
Without going too far down this rabbit hole, consider the pilots flying a commercial airline. Economy tickets and first-class business tickets are priced vastly differently. Both will get you from point A to point B. If you’ve ever had the opportunity to fly first-class, you know the experience can be quite different. But, from the pilots’ perspective, all passengers are the same once the cockpit doors are closed. They do they’re job the same way, regardless of how much each individual passenger paid for their ticket.
The real point I am heading toward here is not the pay, or issue of fairness to the client, but rather our own attitude as we approach the task that is ahead of us.
What I have discovered is that it is better for ME to deliver my best possible performance each and every time, regardless of the previously agreed to paycheck. I am the worker in the field from the parable. Sometimes I am the one who went out first thing in the morning to work the whole day. Sometimes I am the one who was standing around idle until 5 in the afternoon.
When I show up at the end of the day and collect my pay with gratitude, having done what was agreed to up front, I am happier.
Naturally, by extension, it is better for the audience when I deliver the best performance I am capable of delivering. Ultimately, that is what it is all about.
When I mentally delivered a different product, begrudgingly holding back at events I knew were not paying as much, it affected ME. I became resentful. I’m sure that resentment showed through in the performance.
When I released that, separating the money from the event, and put all of my energy into delivering the best possible performance for that audience, feeling blessed to have the opportunity to share the gift of laughter with those people at that moment, it filled me with joy and gratitude to be able to do what I do for a living. I know for a fact that that joy shows through in the performance. It is the most frequent comment I hear after a show. “You look like you are having so much fun!” And I am. Every time.
The other interesting thing that I have discovered is that it is actually MORE work for me to deliver a lesser performance.
Have you ever experienced that? Have you ever noticed how much effort it takes to complain about a task and NOT do it, where simply doing the thing would have been so much easier?
How do you go about your daily work? Are there tasks that you begrudge having to do? Are there aspects of your job, or you life, where you feel resentment? Perhaps you feel that the task is below you, or you think, “I’m not being paid enough to do that.”
Catch yourself when you feel that resentment welling up inside. Change your thinking. Not for the benefit of whoever is asking you to do the task, but for yourself.
Act from a point of gratitude.
Is this a task at work that you dislike? Try being grateful for the big picture. You have a job. You’re being paid. It beats sitting in the unemployment line.
Is this a household chore you dread? Again, look at the bigger picture. You have a house.
There is a saying in the entertainment world, “There are no small gigs, only small performers.”
Treat every gig like a big one. Treat every audience like they deserve the best performance of your life.
It is mid-December as I write this. A season of giving. A time when many are making last-minute mad-dash scrambles to the shopping Mecca of their choice (including online retailers), trying to find just the right gift to show their loved ones how much they love them.
Is that what it takes?
Allow me to suggest an alternative.
When is the last time you sat down with your spouse, your child, your parent, or even a close friend, and gave them your full, undivided attention? No checking your watch. No glancing at your mobile device. Total, focused, connection with the person sitting across from you.
How long can you go? 5 minutes? 10? An hour?
For many of us, we can barely last as long as we can hold our breath under water. 30-45 seconds. 60 seconds tops.
There is much chatter in the media and among our friends about the frenetic pace of our world today. Everything is moving so fast!
What is your threshold of attention?
As we celebrate the end of another year of busy-ness, I challenge you to make time for those you love. Be wholly and completely present. Enjoy the time together. Put aside worries for what is happening next. Tomorrow will come, whether we stress about it or not.
If someone told you their name was Jerry, would you insist on calling them Gary?
Probably not. And yet, that is exactly the scenario with the pronunciation of “GIF”. It is properly pronounced, “JIF”.
Before you click away, understand that this post is about a much deeper issue than the silly debate over a hard vs. soft G. Stick with me a moment. It will make sense in a few paragraphs.
But, first, back to GIF…
Knowing that GIF stands for “Graphics Interchange Format”, it is logical to presume that it is pronounced with a hard G sound. However, if you ask the inventor, Steve Wilhite, he will tell you in no uncertain terms that it is to be pronounced with the soft G.
That should be the end of the story. And yet, even knowing this, people still insist that it is pronounced with the hard G.
What is something about which you formed an opinion, based on your own first experience, only to find out later that you were wrong? Was it difficult for you to accept it?
A couple decades ago, long before the movies, my family read the Harry Potter books for the first time. My wife read them out loud to our kids. If you are familiar with these stories, then you know that one of the main characters is Hermione Granger. We had never heard that name before. We read it as, “Her Me Oh Nee”. We thought that was how it was pronounced. With every reading of the name out loud, we became more convinced that was the correct way to say it. When we saw the first movie in theaters, we were shocked to find that it was pronounced, “Her My Oh Nee”.
To us, this odd pronunciation was simply wrong. How could they do that? Don’t they know the right way to say it?
Can you relate? Have you had that experience?
What both of these examples have in common is PRECONCEPTION. We form an opinion that seems logical; one that can even be defended as being a reasonable conclusion to have drawn based on the evidence available at the time.
noun 1. a conception or opinion formed beforehand. 2. bias.
Which of you believes that the Earth is the center of the galaxy, that all of the other planets and stars rotate around the earth? Which of you believes that the earth is flat?
We laugh at these notions now, even scoff at those who would have believed such a preposterous thing. But, had it not been for the evidence presented by scientists who came before us, we could be among those who had it wrong.
First impressions, first beliefs, preconceptions, are extremely difficult to overcome. We might have to admit that we were wrong. Gasp!
What if, instead, we viewed it as being unaware? Does that soften the blow? We did not have all of the facts available at the time we formed our opinion. We were not wrong. We simply didn’t know any better.
The real problem comes when we hold to these preconceived beliefs even after being presented with information to the contrary.
We can have fun debating how “GIF” should be pronounced. But, we cannot debate how its creator intends for it to be pronounced. From a New York Times blog posting:
“The Oxford English Dictionary accepts both pronunciations,” Mr. Wilhite said. “They are wrong. It is a soft ‘G,’ pronounced ‘jif.’ End of story.”
What preconceived ideas do you cling to, even in the face of evidence to the contrary?
Actively question beliefs you hold to be true. Be willing to adapt when new evidence is presented.
Be kind to yourself. Chances are you weren’t wrong. You just didn’t know any better. However, once you’ve become educated, accept the truth and move forward.