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Lessons We Learned From American Idol and David Cook

As we bid a fond farewell to American Idol, I want to thank it for the entertainment, the memories, the great musicians we've found, but also the great life lessons along the way. And I'd like to especially thank David, for showing us how to think and act like a winner.
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A few weeks ago, we watched the finale of the 15th and final American Idol show. For many of us it was a nostalgic two hours filled with amazing contestants from all seasons.

Rising from its humble beginnings, the show became one of the biggest hits on television and had a huge impact on pop culture.

It gave us, the people, a chance to have a say in a musician's success and not leave it to industry executives. It gave many talented singers and musicians a chance to perform publicly and pursue a career they love.

Watching that last nostalgic show, I thought about the many lessons learned from Idol over the years. I'm sure there were lessons in how to make a television show successful, what makes people take the time to vote for their favorites and (as President Obama mentioned before the last show) how important it is to vote!

But there were more personal lessons, too.

We watched the contestants' lives before auditioning for Idol, their dreams, and their families' struggles. We watched them grow and learn stage presence, how to compete with grace and panache, how to work in teams, and how to be who they truly are as artists.

Idol helped bring awareness to issues like childhood illnesses, blindness, diabetes, Asperger and Tourette's syndromes, stuttering, child neglect, bipolar disease, homelessness, poverty, and many other worthy causes.

The idols that didn't win but still pursued their careers and success inspired us to not give up on dreams because of setbacks.

Many great lessons, indeed.
But what made a contestant win the show and win at life?

Season seven was a good year. The 12 finalists were all highly talented and I liked them all, but my favorite was David Cook. He was a talented singer, musician with a gorgeous voice; he was humble, funny and respectful; yet there was more to him.

In retrospect, what I noticed in him were qualities that help people deal with stress and enjoy life more, the very things that some of my clients come to me for help.


The top seven lessons David demonstrated through these qualities:

1. Be in the Present Moment.

When we get lost in thoughts about the past or the future, we lose awareness of what's happening here and now. Staying present grounds us and helps us focus on the task at hand, and not get distracted by anxieties and worries.

David sang each week completely present in the song, to "serve the song" (as he put it recently in an interview), and this allowed him to perform at his utmost best.

When he has meet-and-greets with fans, he's only focused on the person he's talking with. When asked about this, he said it's the only way he can be; it's what helps him deal with everything coming at him at once.

Cultivate Presence. It's a good thing.

2. Don't try to please everyone.

It's said that one-third of people will like you, one-third will not like you, and one-third won't care one way or another.

As a recovering people pleaser, I've become an expert at spotting people who are draining themselves by trying to please others.

David was asked once on Idol what's the best advice he'd ever gotten and he answered, "If you're pleasing or pissing off everyone, you're doing something wrong."

Since there's no way to please everyone, it's enough to just be yourself. No energy is wasted on worrying what others will think about you.

3. Take turtle steps.

That's what one of my mentors, Dr. Martha Beck, calls the importance of breaking down a project into small, doable steps. Trying to go for the whole enchilada is often overwhelming, but taking one small step at a time will get us there eventually.

When asked how he stayed the course during those intense competition weeks, David answered that his strategy each week was just to avoid coming in last. That's all. Not be first, but don't come in last. And when there were only two left, not coming in last won him the title, one turtle step at a time.

4. Know yourself.

Some clients come to me in complete burnout from trying to be someone else. They have a model of success in their minds that was handed to them at some point in the past and they never questioned it. They think imitating that will get them to their dreams. Wrong! They end up depleting their energy and suppressing their own unique creative talents.

David demonstrated this well on Idol. He chose songs to cover that fit him and his style. When he was completely out of his genre, he found songs that spoke to him but changed them enough to make them his own. He didn't try to perform a karaoke interpretation of the original. He inhabited the song as himself. That's authenticity.

You're the best you there is, and everyone else is taken. Get to know yourself and what gives you joy, what feels authentic to you, what feels like coming home. Be that person.

5. Have fun.

When you hate your work, it shows. Instead, find something about your job that you enjoy and have fun with. This will change your entire perspective and bring lightness to an otherwise heavy day.

David had a saying on Idol: Not only experience the experience, but enjoy it! In other words have fun! Idol wasn't just a competition or a TV show for him but something to relish.

The attitude of "I'm here, I might as well have fun with it" helps reduce stress.

6. Use your failures as learning experiences.

Society imposes a lot of "shoulds" on us. You should go to college, graduate and get a job making a living right away. Even if you hate your job, you should stick with it, tolerate it even if it's making you sick! Society isn't always right. Find something you love, what lights you up and pursue that.

There are usually many paths to our goals. If your goal is your passion, don't give up on it. Find a different way to reach it.

David could have found a 9-5 job doing graphic design. He loved making music though and decided to stick with it and see where it would get him. He had years when he couldn't pay the rent and crashed at friends' places. He used to play bars with just a handful in attendance, but he kept at it.

By not giving up on his passion for music, David found a different path into the business, in the most unexpected way, through a TV competition.

7. Use your talents to benefit others.

One of the ways we get out of preoccupation with our own problems, big or small, is to reach out and help someone else, or work for a cause bigger than us.

We're all in this life together and creating this kind of connection with others is always helpful.

David always said that when he was given the platform of American Idol winner, he would use it for whatever good he could bring into this world.

One of his top priorities continues to be bringing awareness and fundraising for a cure for brain cancer, of which his older brother, Adam, died. David has raised over $1 million for Accelerate Brain Cancer Cure so far.

Look beyond yourself and use your platform for good.

As we bid a fond farewell to American Idol, I want to thank it for the entertainment, the memories, the great musicians we've found, but also the great life lessons along the way. And I'd like to especially thank David, for showing us how to think and act like a winner.