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American Idol Castoff on Failing Forward

“You can’t sing. You can’t dance. So what do you want me to say?” – Simon Cowell

With those words, American Idol judge Simon Cowell could have seemingly broken yet another aspiring singer’s heart.

But to understand why those words didn’t break one singer’s heart, to understand why the performance ended up sparking his career and to understand why it matters to you, it’s important to heed the advice that led to the audition in the first place. Let me explain.

Mom’s Guidance

William Hung grew up in Hong Kong. 

While many of his peers were criticized harshly by their parents for even minor mistakes, his doting mother offered different advice. She would remind William daily, “It’s OK to fail as long as you try your absolute best.”

With that encouragement, he thrived through childhood without sweating his occasional misstep or negativity from others along the way. William did well enough in school to achieve his dream of attending University of California, Berkeley. As a freshman, he learned of a campus-wide talent show the following weekend and enrolled to participate.

As a young man who had never spoken in front of a large group – let alone performed before one – William took the stage and looked nervously out at a packed theater. He then remembered the advice his mother tattooed on his heart: “It’s OK to fail as long as you try your absolute best.”

With the unapologetic zest of a child, William began passionately singing and dancing to his favorite song, “She Bangs” by Ricky Martin. And that evening, in a UC Berkeley talent show, the freshman engineering student from Hong Kong was the runaway winner.

Shortly after, William heard American Idol was hosting auditions nearby. His willingness to put himself out there led to a chance to step into a brighter spotlight, being broadcast on national television, performing before Randy Jackson, Paula Abdul and Simon.

William walked on stage, smiled at the three judges and the music began to play. He let his natural love of the song and joy for life take over. As he sang, Randy lowered his head and covered his face to mask his laughter. Paula playfully and mockingly moved with the music. And then there was Simon – who didn’t even try to hide his scorn.

After the judges insisted the music stop, William looked at them with stunned disappointment. With the music off, the room quiet, he spoke softly, “I have no professional training.” 

Simon looked up and contemptuously responded, “Nooooo….There’s the surprise of the century!”

Simon then tapped the final nail in the coffin by adding, “Listen: You can’t sing. You can’t dance. So what do you want me to say?”

William stood before the judges ridicule and laughter, and responded with words ingrained in him by his mother. They guided him through school, into a completely different culture halfway around the world from the one he was raised, through his experiences at UC Berkeley and even onto the set of American Idol: “I already gave my best. I have no regrets at all.”

And that was it.

William walked off the stage, head held high. The experience was over. 

Until the show aired. 

Winning Our Hearts

Despite being sent home, the passion with which he sang, the goofiness with which he danced and brilliance with which he handled the negativity won over audiences worldwide. His video went viral, he was invited onto major media interviews and even landed a record deal. 

[I recently spoke with William on the Live Inspired Podcast about that experience. We chatted about taking chances, the courage to fail forward, the desire to be perfectly who you are, becoming a champion by choice, and smiling every step along the way. Check it out here.]

My friends, none of us desire failure. We don’t wish for a treasured relationships to end, or to endure the ache of them never even beginning. We don’t long for missteps professionally, or foolish mistakes financially. 

And yet, as we look back on our lives, we frequently observe that what we originally thought was us being rejected from something good, ends up preparing us for something even better. [Tweet this]

Today, as you step into your week, expect to step toward something even better than yesterday. But also heed the advice that it’s OK to fail as long as you try your absolute best.

This is your day. Live Inspired.

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