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Are you being true to yourself?

07.07.17

It was late in the evening a few weeks ago when I struck gold in my channel surfing.

This was no ordinary spin through the likes of Colbert, Fallon or Kimmel.

Instead, I stumbled on the epic concert film, Woodstock.  And, for me, it shone an unexpected light on a useful business lesson.

The movie documents ‘three days of peace and music’ at Max Yasgur’s farm in the summer of 1969. While I was too young (eight years old) to remember Woodstock when it happened, I’ve always been fascinated by the concert event that defined a generation.

In watching Woodstock dozens of times over the years, there’s one performance that I find most captivating. It’s by Richie Havens, the folk singer who opened the festival.

Havens was one-of-a-kind.

He played acoustic guitar with an open tuning in a racing, almost manic, manner. He added foot-stomping and a gravelly voice that fused folk, blues and gospel in an eclectic African mix. Later on, when I learned acoustic guitar myself, I was curious to see if I could come close to replicating this style. (Not possible.)

No one knew that Havens’ performance would catapult him to stardom that day. 

He cut his chops playing small clubs in New York. Over time, Havens gained a following, but never became a true headliner. He was at Woodstock mainly because the promoters needed acts to fill time slots for 18 hours a day, three days straight. (Crosby Stills Nash & Young performed at 3:00 a.m. on Sunday.) Many performers (including Led Zeppelin) couldn’t appear due to scheduling conflicts or disputes over fees.

So Havens was there as B list filler.

But then the mother of all traffic jams changed everything.

Instead of attracting the 50,000 people they expected, the promoters were overwhelmed by close to 500,000 concert-goers. (This was 40 years before social media!) Traffic came to a standstill and closed the New York Thruway. Some bands – including Sweetwater, the opener for the festival – had to be helicoptered in.

In a pickle on a sweltering Friday afternoon, the promoters approached Havens and literally pushed him to the front of the stage to kick things off. Not only that, he was asked to extend his set and buy time to let the delayed performers arrive.

Talk about pressure.  

Havens went from jamming in a coffeehouse the night before to opening (with this song) in front of half a million people… and then holding their attention for more than two hours, about triple the length of his planned performance.

You’d think this would have thrown Havens off his game. Or caused him to try too hard. Or pushed him to stand even taller (he was 6’6”) in front of a massive, once-in-a-lifetime audience.

But take a closer look at the photo above. It reveals the same simple set-up – three stools, bongo drums and a guitar accompanist – that he used at the much smaller venues to which he was accustomed.

Havens quickly launched into his signature style, as if he was playing a tiny club around the corner.  There were no big moves.  No slick tricks.  No over-reaching to grasp the moment.

Nothing changed.  Only the crowd size was different.

Havens stuck to his lane and stayed true to himself.

The lesson for you and me?

Staying true demands both discipline and courage.

  • Being authentic means staying committed to who we really are – our essence, the core of what we do. It means sticking to our knitting. (There’s a reason surgeons aren’t general practitioners.) It means not straying. It demands focus.
  • And it also requires that we be unafraid to show who we really are. To put ourselves out there (maybe vulnerably) and proudly say, “This is who I am.”  To confidently declare.

None of this is easy, mind you.   When I started my own business 20 years ago I often found myself using “we” language instead of “I” to explain who I was and what I did. I thought it was important to appear bigger than I really was. Wouldn’t this be more impressive?

But I wasn’t being true to myself.

Over time, I realized this served no purpose. It undermined my own authenticity. I came to appreciate that many (not all) clients preferred the accessibility and approach of just me instead of a bigger agency. It let me show my true colours.   Figuring this out wasn’t easy, but it helped me be true.    It’s a lesson I learned again from watching Richie Havens on late night TV.    In his biggest moment, he stuck to his lane.    And stayed true to himself.

So ask yourself:

  1. What’s your lane?
  2. Are you sticking to it?
  3. Are you being true to yourself?

~ Craig

P.S.

One final proof of Havens’ truth: he had the courage to take on a classic song (like this one by The Beatles) and re-arrange it in his own style. We can debate all day whether it’s better (my vote) or worse than the original, but it’s unmistakably different. It showed his true colours. And it was his biggest hit.