What A 12-Year-Old Ukulele Player Teaches Us About Authenticity In Our Work

I don’t watch reality television contests, because as a rule, the best participants rarely participate and when they do, they almost never win. Whether the over-commercialized, profit-over-art system is to blame—or the television audience, or both—I’d rather not suffer the invariable disappointment of an unjust outcome. But quite randomly, a 12-year-old ukulele player named Grace VanderWaal, inspired me to break my own boycott.

On our way to another channel, my family stumbled on America’s Got Talent a few months ago just in time to see one of my favorite instruments—the ukulele—adorning the neck of a diminutive blond girl. “Wait a second,” I said.

She’s clearly overwhelmed just to be there. “It’s crazy,” she says, as her voice cracks in response to the judges’ welcome.

“What are you going to sing?” asks the legendarily gruff host, Simon Cowell.

“I’m singing an original.”

“Really?” Simon says, eyebrows raised.

“Yes.” Confidently, but not defiantly.

It’s just her and the miniature instrument on the stage. And then she parts from reality singing contest convention launching into a song that she—as a 12-year-old—wrote herself. It’s not a tune that the crowd can recognize and cheer for. Judges can’t easily identify with it to help sway them in her favor. She’s on her own.

“I don’t know my name…” she begins. “I don’t play by the rules of the game.”

Indeed. Her uke is a little out of tune (but it’s almost impossible to keep them in tune). Her voice is interesting—quirky, but good. Her pace is variable, perhaps intentionally. But in her vulnerability, her apparent imperfection, she endears her way toward her own version of perfection.

In the song’s climactic stanza, she rejoices with soaring authenticity, “I now know my name.”

By the end, I’m visibly crying, much to my 10 and 12-year-old sons’ utter shock. (“You’ll understand one day, once you have children,” I assure them.) And to my shock, everyone loves her, the judges anointing her with instant superstardom. She, in turn, is shocked, overwhelmed that she put every bit of herself out there for the world to see—and the world embraced her.

But even more surprising is that in every subsequent show, working toward the final round, she played another original. At no point does she curry favor through the influence of another. With almost no accompaniment, she just keeps playing and singing her own brilliant, old soul 12-year-old songs.

Then, in last night’s final round of performances (prior to tonight’s minting of the new millionaire Vegas headliner), every contestant got an extended vignette as a prelude to their performance. You know, the tear-jerking journey that each performer has endured on their way to the big stage.

Grace, the final performer of the night (no pressure, right?), has a vignette that doesn’t feature her, so much. It’s a collage of YouTube videos featuring other people playing her songs, songs that even her middle school classmates hadn’t heard 13 weeks ago that have now gone viral.

Without an ounce of pretension, but with conviction in who she is and what she does, she brought the house down.

“On paper,” her voice couldn’t compete with the virtuoso opera singer. Her production couldn’t compete with the contortionist. She didn’t have an ounce of the showmanship of the Sinatra protégé,  and she was clearly the least experienced of the entire field.

But she was easily the most comfortable in her own skin. She seemed to need the praise least of all. “I’m just glad it’s over,” she said in response to the standing ovation. For the first (and likely last) time, I actually got on my phone to vote for a reality show contestant.

And despite all the commercialism, media manipulation and bias against true originality—God bless America—justice prevailed. She won.

But I’m not a music writer. My specialty is personal finance, of which career is a primary component, and the whole notion of vocation or “calling” is one with which I am fascinated. I believe that we each have a unique combination of personality characteristics, natural proclivities and honed skills that when employed in the service of others at the right time and in the right environment can bring uncommon fulfillment. (But be warned, it may not bring money, fame, or even a job.)

So what vocational lessons might we learn from this unlikely 12-year-old star?

1) There may be no stage in life in which it is harder to be authentic than middle school. If she can do it then, we can do it now.

2) Nothing conveys authenticity better than vulnerability. (But while life-giving, being vulnerable can be exhausting, and it’s never easy.)

3) Most of the work we do requires trust on the part of those we serve. Vulnerability—even the upfront acknowledgement of our faults and shortcomings—is the quickest path to trust.

4) We need not be free from constraints and the influence of others in order to exercise authenticity and our own brand of creativity. (This is something I learned from James K. A. Smith in his new book, You Are What You Love.) Many a tortured musician would spurn the mere thought of submitting him or herself to a venue as “establishment” as America’s Got Talent. But with innocence and whimsy, Grace was able to be fully herself—even while being constrained by a decidedly commercialist enterprise. You don’t have to be “out on your own” in order to be fully you. Constraints can ironically inspire creativity, and the best organizations welcome individuality in the midst of their communities.

5) We all have creative potential. Whether a plumber, priest or professional, we can all bring a certain artisanship to our work.

What does this mean for you?  What is the next step in authenticity, vulnerability or creativity that you could take?