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.

*If you know someone who could benefit from this message, please share it with them.

+If you enjoy this story and would like to read more like it, check out my new book What Does Your Fortune Cookie Say? from Ripples Media.

How to find your secret language and trade it for wealth and happiness.

My son Johann has always been musical. He hummed before he could talk. He sang before he got his first haircut. And he memorized lyrics to songs before he started preschool. Thankfully, my wife and I were smart enough to pick up on this. We started Johann on piano lessons when he was 5 years old. He took to it naturally. Before he even outgrew his baby lisp he was pounding out songs on our piano at home.

A few months after Johann started playing piano I was tuning a guitar at home. 5-year-old Johey walked past as I was strumming and said ‘That sounds like a G Dad.’  I stopped what I was doing and looked at him and said, ‘It is a G!’

But the question was, how did this 5-year-old piano player know this was a G on a guitar? And could he recognize other notes? I then plucked the other strings of the guitar and asked Johann if he knew what they were. Sure enough he named them all with ease. E, A, D, G, B, E.

I quickly researched perfect pitch. I learned that it is the ability to identify musical notes. People with perfect pitch can typically create the sound of a note perfectly without assistance or reference, and they can dissect the notes in a chord. In other words, they are freak shows.

I went to our piano and asked Johann if he could make the sound of middle C. He quickly produced a hum. I hit the middle C key on the piano and had a perfect match. Weird. Then, I tried what seemed really far-fetched. I asked him to face away from the piano. I then played two notes at the same time and asked him what notes they were. He nailed them both. I played 2 other notes. He nailed those too. Then I tried 3 notes together, and he named all 3.

Johann and his piano teacher Rita Shur, and a bunch of rectangles .

The Secret Language

It was then that I realized that little 5-year-old Johann spoke a language that I don’t speak, and very few people do. In fact, only about 1 in 10,000 people have perfect pitch.  That’s one for each lake in Minnesota. Typically, people who develop PP (#snicker) have musical training before the age of 6. Unfortunately, we lose our ability to develop perfect pitch after the age of 9.

Recognizing his unique musical abilities and interest, we have leaned into his natural skills and talents. He is now 11 years old, and plays the piano, violin and saxophone. He performs in state piano competitions. And he can do things with a harmonica that make me think he could follow in the lip steps of Willie Nelson, Bob Dylan or John Popper.

Your Special Language

We all understand a secret language that most others don’t. Music is just one example. For others it is finance, or sales, or compassion. For still others it may be baking, sports, mechanical interactions or makeup. We all have at least one rare language that we are born with a natural ability to speak and understand.

The key is for you to identify what that is, and lean into it hard. Become fluent. Add value to the world through your mastery of that language. And it is likely to bring you great happiness, and wealth.

Discovering My Language

Johann speaks the elegant and beautiful language of music. God gave me the ability to make wordplay out of anything. Which feels more carny than Carnegie Hall. But hey, I’ll take what I can get.

I knew as soon as I learned to read that I had the innate ability to create headlines. I loved reading them in newspapers and magazines. I loved the way they quickly summarized stories, with a clever twist. I always thought headline writer would be the perfect job for me. That and chocolate milk drinker.

When I took my first advertising class at the University of Wisconsin I was completely hooked. I got straight A’s in everything advertising related. I enjoyed the strategy and the creativity of it immensely. My college professors recognized my abilities and connected me with Paul Counsel, the CEO of Cramer Krasselt, one of the greatest ad agencies in America. Paul hired me, and I got my start as a writer.

Creating a Career

I have spent my career speaking my secret language. I have enjoyed it tremendously. Clients and coworkers value my thinking. As a result, fun and interesting opportunities keep coming my way.

In 2016 I launched my own advertising and idea agency called The Weaponry. We doubled in size in 2017. We doubled again in 2018. And we have unlimited potential ahead. All because me and my teammates are specializing in our secret languages.

Your Secret Language

You can do the same thing with your secret language. Pay close attention to that thing that comes easily to you. Discover it. Develop it. And do amazing things with it. It doesn’t matter if you are young or old. Tap into your secret language and you will have tapped into your path to greatest happiness, value and financial success.

Key Takeaway

You have a secret language that has been programmed into you. It enables you to perform at a very high level. A level that most people have no chance of ever achieving. Specialize in your secret language and play to your strengths. It makes you feel smart and strong. It makes you feel comfortable. It makes you valuable to others. And when you provide great value to others, it translates to both happiness and wealth. Which are two powerful forces we can all understand.