How to still be your best when the pressure is high.

My son Johann is a talented musician. He is involved in a lot of musical activities and I’m not sure how he keeps them all straight. Here’s an example of one of his weeks this spring. On Wednesday evening he played violin in the all-district orchestra concert in Mequon, Wisconsin. (My daughter Ava and son Magnus played violin and cello in the same concert.) Thursday evening Johann played tenor saxophone in his school band concert. And I won The Father Of The Week Award because I missed both of those concerts due to work travel. Boo.

To cap off his musical week, Sunday morning Johann had his annual regional piano competition at UW-Milwaukee. Johann, who has been playing piano since he was 5 turned 15 on Monday and is a really great piano player if I do type so myself.

But despite the fact that Johann was extremely well prepared, things didn’t go as expected. In fact, we could have never predicted what unfolded during his competiton.

Here’s The Story

Johann competed in 2 different piano categories. First, there was a piano concerto in which Johann and his piano instructor play a piano duet. They play on 2 different pianos, so it is not quite like Stevie Wonder and Paul McCartney playing Ebony and Ivory, side by side on the piano keyboard. But it’s close.

Then Johann played in an individual competition, where he performed 2 more solo pieces. All 3 songs were completely memorized. He practiced for months to prepare for this competition.

Johann and his wonderful piano instructor, Rita Shur.

Part 1

The competition started with the Concerto. Johann and his instructor went into the audition room. The room judge shut the door and they warmed up on their pianos. I was outside the room, listening in. There are no interlopers, parents, or groupies allowed.

I waited for the warmup period to end. Then I began recording the audio from the hallway with my iPhone as they played their actual competition piece. It sounded great.

Plot Twist!

But after 30 seconds the music stopped. Confused, I figured that they were still warming up. So I stopped my recording, deleted my video and prepared to record again. But after 15 seconds they started playing again, but not from the beginning of the song. I was thoroughly confused. They played the song to the end, got up and walked out of the room.

As Johann’s instructor emerged from the room she had a panicked look on her face. She turned to me and said, ‘One of my pages of music was missing! When I turned to play the next sheet, it was not there. So I stopped to look for it. But could not find the music. So I tried to play by memory.’

This was not how you want to start the piano competition that you have spent months preparing for. Suddenly I felt like the nervous emoji that shows a lot of teeth.

His teacher turned to console Johann and said, ‘You played wonderfully.’

Concerned, Johann asked, ‘Do you think I will make it through to the state competition?’ She replied that she hoped so. She added that as they finished she told the judge that the mess up was her fault because she didn’t have all of her music.

Part 2

We tried to shake off the rocky start to the morning as we headed upstairs for his individual performance. We arrived at the room right on time for his audition, only to discover that the competition was running behind. The person to play before him still hadn’t been called into the room. So we waited for Johann’s turn. But when the other competitor and judge emerged they announced they were dealing with technical difficulties. Apparently it was that kind of day.

Finally, they called for Johann. The judge invited Johann into the room to warm up, but warned that they were trying to straighten out some technical challenges. Johann entered the room. So did a gaggle of other judges and official-looking people. They shut the door. Johann went to the piano to warm up. And 6 adults gathered around a laptop, looking as if there was nothing but bad news on the screen.

Through the window in the door, I could see Johann warm up. And then look up at me. Then look over at the judge scrum. Then back at me. This went on for a minute. Then 2 minutes. Then 5 minutes.

After Johann had been sitting there watching the tense judges for a long time his instructor said, ‘This is not good. They make the poor kid sit there for 10 minutes, just getting more and more nervous!’

Plot Twist!

But just then I heard something interesting coming from the room. As the huddle of tension continued, Johann began playing a song on the piano. But it wasn’t one of his competition songs. I instantly recognized the playful and bouncy track as Glenn Miller’s In The Mood. It is one of the most fun, upbeat and happy songs ever written. It was the 1940s equivalent of Pharell William’s smash hit Happy.

I could see Johann smiling behind his mask. Then I saw the instructors. Struck by the playful music, they immediately lightened up. You could see their posture change. Muscles relaxed. Toes tapped. And they began bouncing and dancing to the playful music.

The mood in the room completely changed. Because Johann changed it. He sent a message to the instructors that he was cool. That they were cool. That everything was cool.

Within a few minutes, the judges either solved the problem or figured out how to move forward without solving it. I don’t really know. But the additional problem-solvers finally exited the room, and the attention finally shifted to Johann and his performance.

Johann played his 2 memorized songs, stood up from the piano, thanked the judges, and exited the room. His instructor greeted him, and she told him he did a very nice job. She told him several things that he did very well. Then Johann asked, ‘Is there a but?’ (I snickered on the inside.) He was wondering if there was some bad news to accompany the good news? She said there was not.

We gathered our things, walked down the hallway, down the stairs and exited the building.

There on the sidewalk in the quiet of a Sunday morning on a college campus, I stopped Johann and said,

‘I am so proud of you Johann. I don’t really care what the judges say about your performances. You went into your Concerto, got thrown a major, major curveball and just kept playing and did all that you could do to perform your best given the circumstances.

Then, during your individual competition you had to not only shake off what just happened in your first performance, you had to deal with the delay and technical difficulties.

But then, when the room was the tensest, you, the kid in the room who had the most reason to be tense and nervous, you did something remarkable. You read the room, knew what was needed, and you lightened the mood by playing a fun and playful song to pass the time.

In the process, you showed composure, emotional intelligence, a sense of humor, and you got to show them that you are a freaking great piano player who has some jazzy tunes up your sleeve.

Whatever happens, I want you to remember how you responded to this adversity. And I want you to carry this reminder with you the rest of your life.

-A Proud Father

I could tell that Johann absorbed the lesson and appreciated the support. He thanked me for saying what I said.

We walked to the car and drove home to enjoy the rest of our Sunday.

The News

The following Tuesday I got a text from my wife Dawn. It was a screen capture from his instructor that said:

Good evening! Congratulations!!!

Piano Concerto – Superior level, and going to State!

Piano Solo – Superior level and going to State!

I am Soooo PROUD of our terrific Boy!!!


-Johann’ Piano Instructor

Follow Up

Last weekend Johann competed in the Wisconsin State Music Festival in Milwaukee. Once again, he showed up well prepared and performed at his best. This time there were no curveballs. There were just 5 excellent piano players and 3 judges determining the best of the best in each competition.

Soon after his competitions we got the great news that Johann won both his concerto and individual competitions. I am a very proud father. And now he also has some state championship trophies as symbols of his hard work and dedication. But the real wins were the life lessons he learned about preparation and composure along the way.

Johann and his proud parents after his State competition.

Key Takeaway

Life is going to throw unexpected challenges your way. That is part of the game. It is all a test. Prepare as well as you can. Be ready for things to go wrong. Stay focused on what you can control. Keep your cool, and good things usually happen. It is your response to the challenges, the mistakes and the curveballs that make you great at life.

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Why you should embrace your tipped canoes.

In early June of 2020, following a week of heavy rains, my family of 5 went on a paddling adventure on a swollen creek in Wisconsin. Notice I said creek, not river. A creek is a narrower body of water. Rain and high water create dramatic changes on a creek. If this were a podcast the ominous music would begin right about now…

This particular creek was littered with fallen trees. The tangled trees were like traps set to snare kayaks and canoes. Paired with swift water, the trees created very dangerous conditions for paddlers. (Cue the dueling banjoes…)

After several close calls, my family flotilla of 4 boats (3 kayaks and a canoe) came upon the most dangerous section of the river. The bend in the creek and the trees it collected forced us to navigate a narrow Z-shaped course in the river. (Which is Z most difficult to navigate.)

The last of the boats in our convoy got swept into the trees at the top of the Z. I quickly tried to turn my canoe around and paddle back upstream against the current to help.

In our attempt to help free the trapped boat, my 10-year-old son Magnus and I got swept into another tree. The rushing water soon broke over the top of the upstream edge of the sideways canoe. The force of the water tipped the canoe. (And Tyler too.) The boat instantly filled with water and sank below the surface of the rushing water.

Magnus and I were tossed into the current. Thankfully, we both held onto the canoe and quickly freed ourselves from the trees by swimming under the branches which dangled to the surface of the water.

We swiftly corralled all of our belongings and swam downstream with our submerged canoe until we found a creek bank where we could unload the soaked contents of our canoe, and flip the 17-foot vessel again to purge the water.

After a few minutes of rest, we reloaded the canoe and climbed back into our seats in the bow and stern of the canoe. We pushed off from the creek bank, caught the current, and resumed our travels downstream in the canoe.

The experience provided a few important lessons:

  1. It was a reminder that things can go wrong at any time.
  2. It is how you respond when things go sideways that matters most.
  3. Teamwork matters most when the stakes are highest.
  4. If you keep your head things will be okay.
  5. A little planning ahead, like packing your smartphone in your dry bag, makes you feel smart and well prepared when you open the dry bag to find your dry phone.

Now Magnus and I have a fun story to share and a stronger bond thanks to going through the experience together. We have seen how the other person stepped up in a crisis. Knowing that we can trust each other in difficult situations has brought us closer together. Which is the long-lasting reward for going through challenges with others.

Key Takeaway

Don’t be afraid to take risks. We learn more about ourselves and others in hard times than in good. Adversity is when character is revealed. And when relationships become strongest. The best memories and greatest stories are created when things don’t go according to plan. Embrace the challenges and mishaps that come your way. They will teach you how much you are capable of.

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Why you should embrace the bumps and the resistance.

Humans are full of potential. We are loaded with more energy and ability than you can possibly imagine. Unless maybe you are John Lennon.

Thomas Edison said, “If we did all the things we are capable of, we would literally astound ourselves.” It was that type of enlightened thinking that enabled Edison to invent both the modern light bulb and the ‘How many does it take to screw in a light bulb?’ jokes.

As you work to become all that you can be, like the United States Army, you will encounter bumps and resistance along your journey. It is important to recognize the full value they provide. Because humans are like matchsticks. #RobThomas We are meant to be set on fire. It is the bumps and the friction we encounter that create the sparks and the heat that ignite us. It is the adversity and struggle that strengthen us and bring out our best. Like Budweiser in 1984.

Key Takeaway

Embrace the struggle. Value the resistance. Don’t avoid it. Go through it. It helps reveal all that you are capable of.

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***If you think 3 asterisks are too many, you are probably right.

What to do when you find yourself in a blizzard.

I woke up this morning to one of the heaviest snowfalls I have seen in several years thanks to winter storm Orlena. The lake effect snow machine is in full effect here on the Wisconsin side of Lake Michigan. On top of that, the winds are whipping like the Dazz Band. And I say let it whip.

I love this kind of weather. Unlike hurricanes, tornados, floods and wildfires that leave massive destruction in their wake, a blizzard leaves the world better and more beautiful. After Orlena transforms the midwest and northeast into a fresh powder playground, images of the snowfall will be trending on social media like Gamestop. Or Grumpy Bernie.

My Daughter Ava sent me this pic from her room this morning.

Life Is Full of Blizzards

It’s useful to think of the challenges in your life like blizzards. They can be frustrating and disorienting. But once they pass, they often leave you better than they found you.

The Startup Blizzard

When I was first launching my advertising and idea agency, The Weaponry, the swirling uncertainty of startup-ness surrounded us. And that can really mess with you. Here is something I wrote about the experience we were going through 4 years ago.

From June 10th, 2016

Today I had a long talk with a co-worker who was having a hard time at work. Which is understandable. Because startups are kinda hard. Launching a startup is like walking in a blizzard. Wind and snow are all up in your grill. It’s cold. Visibility goes into the toilet. It’s difficult to navigate in these conditions.

In the middle of a blizzard, your survival instincts tell you to seek shelter. It’s natural to want to escape the relentless wind, disorienting snow and mounting drifts. Sitting by a crackling fire, drinking hot chocolate is far more appealing to most people.

But I like walking in blizzards. I like being out when no one else is. I like doing things that build my character, my will and my personal legend. In the same way a callus rises as the result of repeated friction, strength grows from pushing against resistance.

If a blizzard confronts you on your journey you have to keep walking. You must have faith that you know where you are heading. You have to take steps forward, even when it is hard.

Blizzards of the wintry, professional and personal kind are temporary. Eventually, the snow will stop falling. The wind will chill the eff out. And the sun will come out again.

When that happens, where will you be? It’s a matter of what you did during the blizzard. If you keep pushing, you will find yourself far ahead of where you started, far ahead of those who sought shelter, and closer to your ultimate goal. You’ll find the ultimate rewards far outweigh the hot chocolate you sacrificed along the way.

Key Takeaway

Blizzards are a part of life. They will make life hard for a while. But keep going anyway. Everything is more beautiful on the other side.

Follow Up Note

The Weaponry will turn 5 years old in April. Today we have 23 clients. Because we didn’t stop walking when things were hard.

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