One Lesson from Willie Nelson

Last night, I was watching Ken Burns’ newest documentary on Country Music. If you missed it, you missed out. This was right up there with Jazz, one of the best.

In the latter episodes, he tells the story of Willie Nelson, who originally became known in Nashville as a songwriter. His songs build in popularity – with other people recording them – but he wants to sing them himself. The Nashville music producers keep working with him, helping him polish his appearance and adding in the strings and background singers that were making many performers successful with the Nashville Sound in those days. They’d try this – and it wouldn’t work. So then they’d try that – and it wouldn’t work either.

There are some great old photos of Willie, looking distinctly un-Willie, in suits and ties or turtlenecks, clean-cut and clean-shaven.

He tries for years and years to fit in and, while others keep having success playing his songs, he can’t get across singing them himself. One night, after an evening performing and drinking and getting rejected by live audiences, he stumbles into the middle of four lanes of traffic and lies down in the middle of the road for a nap. He wakes up the next morning wondering how he had gotten where he was, both literally and figuratively, packs his bags and heads back to Texas.

But he doesn’t give up on music. He gives up on what everyone is telling him he needs to do to be successful in music. He gives up the suits and the turtlenecks, the smooth string background, the harmonious voices in the background. He goes back to the music, back to himself, and begins to find the Willie we know today. He plays his music, in his way, lets his hair grow long.

That is the beginning of his success.

He gets signed by a record company and they release his first album despite their best judgement, to prove to him that what he is doing won’t work.

“I was wrong,” the record producer said looking straight into the camera.

I hadn’t heard Willie Nelson’s backstory before and I’m glad I heard it now.

It’s a message to all of us to stop being what others tell us – either outrightly or through advertising and social media – that we need to be in order to succeed.

When we fail, we don’t have to give up doing the work that we love and we don’t have to give up being who we are.

We just need to be more of what we are. Tune out the chatter. Tune out the conflicting direction on how to eat and read and make to-do lists (or not) based on what Elon Musk or Jeff Bezos or Bill Gates does. What to post on social media to get views and likes. How many bullets to put on our resumes or our LinkedIn profiles with “quantifiable results” to prove to ATS systems and employers that they want us because we are already successful.

You’re not Elon Musk or Jeff Bezos or Bill Gates – what they do works for them, but to try to follow their example is like Willie Nelson trying to play the Nashville Sound. Or John Denver trying to be Willie Nelson.

Just be who you are.

At least, if you don’t succeed, you don’t succeed on your own terms, and you’re still yourself.

Because how much of a success are you if you are just trying to be someone else?

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