That’s It : Dealing with Adversity and Challenges in Your Career and Life

“You’ll never make it,” Joyce DiDonato said at the 109th Commencement speech at the Juilliard School in May 2014. She explained by pointing out to the graduating students, “It doesn’t exist.”

If “it” doesn’t exist, what does exist when you finish your education and you’re ready to take on the world? “It is about the journey,” DiDonato continued. How can you embark on that journey with joy while staying inspired by your goals?

Success depends on a myriad of factors. In his book Outliers, bestselling author Malcolm Gladwell refers to a study by Anders Ericsson about talent and achievement. Ericsson believes that the amount of practice and preparation is the main factor that determines success. “Once a music student has enough ability to get into a top music school,” Gladwell writes, “the only way to distinguish him/herself from peer students is how hard he or she works.”

Ericsson’s research shows that in order to become an expert in your field, you have to put in 10,000 hours of practice. That’s how much time it takes the brain to achieve true mastery. “To be thoroughly prepared for your audition and/or performance,” says Jeff Nelsen, associate professor at the Indiana University Jacobs School of Music and hornist with Canadian Brass, “simulate the entire performance experience 50 times, including, walking onstage, taking a moment to prepare in silence, and then performing. This amount of preparation will also lower your level of nerves.”
We all know, talent alone is not enough to achieve mastery. We also know that in order to become an expert in our field we have to work hard. “If you want to be an opera singer, you have to give up a lot,” said Ruth Ann Swenson in the Sept. 2007 Classical Singer cover story, “so if you can do something else, do it, because it’s really hard. If you don’t put every ounce of your soul and person into it, there’s no chance—but, frankly, the chances of making it are slim even if you do.”

Not very encouraging so far? You’ve got your talent and your (good) education. You are a hard-working person and you’re willing to work even harder. Now what?

In addition to the factors mentioned above, your success furthermore depends on how you deal with adversity and challenges in your career and life. It is important to know what your strengths and weaknesses are in order to become a healthy and balanced person and to advance in your career.

Have you ever made a list of what you’re really good at? How about areas where you could improve? Make an inventory of all your strengths and the assets you like about yourself and read them out loud every day. You need to be inspired and confident and believe in your own capabilities if you want others to believe in you. You could add to this the positive feedback you have received over the years―from teachers, families, and friends as well as from reviews, if you have them. Holding on to the positive makes you stronger inside. Remind yourself of your goals and simply take one step at a time.

A good dose of perspective will protect us against going astray when things fare differently from what we expect. Aiming for excellence will help us progress and get closer to our goal, but nobody learns without making mistakes. Acclaimed dramatic soprano Christine Goerke sang at the Tucson Desert Songs Festival this past spring and stopped twice in the second movement of Poulenc’s “La courte paille.”

“Sorry,” she apologized. “Singing fast in French can be tricky if you aren’t ready.” She kept her sense of humor and did not lose her composure. Instead, she continued with grace and sang beautifully.

Goerke is a perfect example of Daniel H. Johnston’s statement in his book, Lessons for Living: Simple Solutions for Life’s Problems. “The problem is not making mistakes but what you tell yourself when you make one,” he writes.

I asked Ms. Goerke what her “secret” is and why she didn’t seem to experience the slightest aggravation. “Laughter!” she told me. “We all make mistakes. If we can’t laugh at them, we’re done for.”

Why then do so many of us feel embarrassed, flustered, and crushed when we make an error?

“The only man who makes no mistakes is the man who never does anything,” said Theodore Roosevelt. It is not the error but our mindset that makes us feel unanchored. If we can see a mistake as an amusing incident and continue without putting a negative label on ourselves, we can learn from the error experience. On the other hand, if we call ourselves names like stupid, loser, idiot, etc., we won’t be able to learn from it but instead will feel abashed, frustrated, and ashamed.

We have 50,000 to 70,000 thoughts per day, according to the National Science Foundation (NSF). That’s an average of 50–68 thoughts in every minute that we’re awake! It turns out that 70 to 80 percent of it is unhelpful or even destructive. We reside in the past or in the future. We obsess about what went wrong or think ahead and worry about what could possibly go wrong in the future. Do you wonder if this might have an impact on your overall well-being? According to the Taoist tradition, we not only process the food and drink we ingest but also our own thoughts and feelings, which arise from our belief systems.

Dr. Candace Pert, an internationally recognized neuroscientist and pharmacologist, had already discovered in the 1980s that neuropeptides (certain brain chemicals), which she called “molecules of emotion,” act as messengers between the mind and the immune system. William James, an American philosopher and psychologist, suggested in 1884(!) that emotions are located everywhere in the body and not exclusively in the brain.

In other words, internal or external commotion can cause imbalances in our health. Have you ever noticed when you are overexcited or nervous for an upcoming performance or dreading a jury, you get sick on the day of the performance? If we don’t let go of worry, anger, and frustration, it will affect not only our mood but our health as well.

Emotions, even negative ones, are part of being human. Having the skills to learn from our feelings and move forward will help us reach our full potential. Bottled-up emotions can keep us from soaring and fulfilling our hopes. Therefore, we can make a clean sweep of our limiting and negative thoughts and let go of potential “internal pathogens” such as anger, regret, shame, worry, and fear. Emotions can be the driving forces behind our motivations. For this reason, let’s use them to our advantage.

Anger dilutes our energy and can frighten us because of the aggressive feeling of it. If we actually acknowledge and examine our anger, we will be able to take action in resolving or letting go of this powerful emotion and open ourselves up to more positive enforcement.
Regret keeps us stuck. It disables us from recovering from past stressful events and from moving forward. If we can accept and forgive ourselves, we can reframe regrets as valuable lessons for our next choices.

Shame comes from the conscious belief we did something wrong, weird, bad, or . . . fill in with anything that may make you feel ashamed. The emotion of shame can inhibit us to such a degree that we cannot dream and dare to be ambitious.

Hurt is a passive emotion and transforms us into victims. We can regain our power by acknowledging the source of “hurt,” realizing we are giving it permission to let us get trapped. We can gain wisdom through all the experiences in life. The choice to let go or drown is ours.

Worry and fear make us discouraged. It stems from our expectations and from being judgmental toward ourselves. Subsequently, expectations make us fall short and judgments make us critical and rigid. There won’t be room for any creativity. Aim, wish, work towards, and visualize your goals instead.

Remember that thoughts determine how we feel, not the other way around. We decide which voice we want to listen to—the one that makes the difference between quitting and perseverance.
We human beings often seek the approval of the people who are important to us rather than finding approval within ourselves. This is a “normal” way of survival in a world of competition. Especially in the performing world, our needs and the needs of others (read: agents, opera companies, directors) do not always match. Although we all like instant success, it might not serve us in the long run.

“Learn to say no,” advised Swenson in the same cover story. “Bring a score to your teacher and discuss the right repertoire. Just because you’re asked doesn’t mean you should be singing it. You won’t end your career by saying no.” We need to serve ourselves in every step on our artistic journey while keeping our dream alive.

The power of the mind, which has been known for thousands of years, is used in a variety of fields like sports, health practice, and psychology―and even more often for the stage. Brain circuits run on dopamine, a feel-good brain chemical, along with endogenous opioids like endorphins—the “runner’s high” neurotransmitters. Being in this positive mood range activates us to reach a goal. It is the circuit that keeps us working away at the small steps we need to take toward a larger goal—whether finishing a major project or a change in our own behavior, according to research by Professor Richard Davidson at the University of Wisconsin–Madison and founder and chair of the Center for Investigating Healthy Minds at the university’s Waisman Center.

Barbara Frederickson, a psychologist at the University of North Carolina, finds that positive feelings enlarge the aperture of our attention. They help us expand our possibilities and motivate us to work toward a better future.

“Think positively,” suggests psychiatrist Edward M. Hallowell. “It seems simple, but if your mind is clouded by negative emotion and fear, you’ll underperform.”

The way our thinking affects us emotionally, physically, vocally, musically, and dramatically—in other words, how it impacts our potential and entire being—is boundless. We can design our own paradigm for a joyful journey. We have the power to weed our thoughts and belief systems and create fertile soil for more positive and productive thoughts to work toward the future and realize our dreams.

That’s what “it” is.

Wilma Wever

Wilma H. Wever, recognized by The New York Times for being “attractive and engaging” in her world premiere of Jocasta, works as a professional singer, teaches voice at the American Musical and Dramatic Academy in New York and gives Performance Wellness workshops. She graduated from Mannes College of Music in New York.