Speech given 19th July 2011
It is London in the UK, the year is 1992 and I am 25 years old. I am standing on stage of Sadler’s Wells theatre just before the curtain goes up. It’s an autumn evening outside, wet, misty and cold. Inside the theatre is charged with the warmth of more than a thousand people, a packed house. We are about to perform opening night of Bizet’s best known Opera, Carmen, a production made up of young people in their 20s. In the Royal box sits Diana, Princess of Wales here for opening night as patron of the theatre company, obviously and prominently without her husband Prince Charles. The overture finishes, the curtain rises and I am down stage ready to sing.
Since being asked to come and speak with you about confidence and humility I really had to think hard about what to say. Finally, I decided to talk a bit about my own life experience and see if I could illustrate these two concepts as I have lived them. Hopefully you can then decide what you think about these two things that seem totally unrelated at first glance.
As you know I am a Psychologist in private practice in Mittagong. But for most of the years between 16 and 28 my one ambition in life was to make a career as an opera singer. I studied music and singing at school, then at Sydney University and finally in London. I worked for British Youth Opera then Opera Australia for a number of years. I made the front page of Opera magazine from an Opera Australia production of Monteverdi’s Coronation of Poppea in 1993. It may not have been Who Weekly, but it seemed pretty good at the time!
If you had asked my friends back then whether I was confident, I think most of them would have said “absolutely”! Singing had always come naturally to me; I was the lead in many school productions and enjoyed acting and being on stage. I had won several singing competitions. It seemed I was on the right path, but one thing kept getting in the way – my own voice.
Initially trained as a Baritone, I learned a lot of this repertoire, but several teachers insisted I was not a Baritone, I was a Tenor. So then I trained as a Tenor. But this is not as easy as it sounds. Many other good singers have crashed on the rocks of frustration and confusion trying to go from Baritone to Tenor. Over time it started to dawn on me that maybe I was going to be another one.
However, while this inward battle raged, outwardly I remember appearing confident. Good at showing others that everything was under control, I kept this up. In some performances at this time I was literally flying by the seat of my pants. I did not know from one night to the next whether my voice would hold. Mostly, thankfully, it did. But in rehearsal for an early Music performance at historic St James Church in Sydney, it became clear that I could not sustain some of the music. The director had a private rehearsal with me, heard what was going on, and kicked me out of the concert.
I realise now that much of my seeming confidence at the time was based on what I had done in the past or on my future potential. I could visualise singing the notes but at the time my voice couldn’t do it. It was the most frustrating thing I have ever experienced. Several other male singers who I had competed against were going on to careers in Europe and America and I was sure I had the ability to follow. But my voice didn’t seem to agree.
As a singer, your body is your instrument. Gradually, as I really started to take notice, it became clear to me that my body was either letting me down or telling me something. But still on the outside I appeared confident, right up until the point when I decided to quit professional singing at the age of 28.
Which brings me to important point No. 1: for true confidence, actions speak louder than words.
I finally learned that no matter how much I wanted it, just telling myself and believing I could make it as a tenor in a singing career wasn’t enough.
Life goes on. After some major soul searching and the support of my family and my girlfriend (soon to be my wife), I went back to University to start a degree in Psychology. I didn’t sing at all for 8 years.
The word confidence comes from the Medieval French and Latin words confidence or confidentem meaning ‘firmly trusting or bold’. The original Latin word fidere means ‘to trust or to have faith’. If you asked me the question today, “when you were working as a singer did you believe and trust in your voice?” I would answer absolutely not.
So why did I say earlier that I appeared confident to my friends? I think the answer is that I was not actually confident. What I had was a truckload of bravado.
This word comes from Spanish and Italian and means “to brag, boast or be defiant”. In the Opera even today, when someone sings well the audience yells ‘bravo, bravo’. To get up in front of an audience night after night you have to be brave, and looking back I know I showed a lot of courage. But what I know now that I didn’t know then is that bravado is not the same as confidence. Bravado is about defiantly (and sometimes desperately) keeping up the appearance that everything is ok rather than a quiet, rock solid trust in your ability.
Looking around today on the internet, on TV, movies, magazines and the whole world of popular culture I think it is easy to mistake bravado for confidence. In a time when people can become a pop star overnight after posting a video on YouTube I would imagine that many of you would be a bit confused about the difference too. Many of you, I would imagine, believe that you have to show your friends and those around you that you are confident by doing things that you are not confident about at all. Because that’s what confidence means right? And it’s really, really, really important to be confident, even when you don’t feel it, right?
Well, maybe not.
Don Bradman, the cricketer from Bowral, who you’ve all probably heard of a thousand times, was supremely confident. But he never felt the need to show off or prove himself to others. In fact, even though he became the greatest batsman the world has ever seen, he always seemed to have a lot of humility. That’s because, despite being naturally gifted, he also practiced for years, and years and years as he grew up. So when he played first grade and international cricket he knew that he could hit a ball to any place in the field he wanted. How? Because he had true confidence in his ability to do this and he didn’t even need to think about it.
Actions speak louder than words.
This brings me to important point No. 2: follow your bliss.
This famous phrase comes from the writing of Joseph Campbell, an academic mythologist and writer of many books, the most renowned being “The Hero with a Thousand Faces” (well worth reading by the way). Follow your bliss is so important as to be a universal truth in my opinion. What I have found is that true confidence doesn’t come from bravado, even though bravado can be very helpful to get you through some tough situations (hence the saying ‘fake it till you make it’). True confidence comes from following your heart in doing the thing that you love and then working hard, practicing and patiently building your ability to do it.
I would say I am confident now, as a psychologist and in my own ability, though I still have a great deal do learn. But I don’t feel the need to prove this to others as I did when I was working as a singer. I make mistakes every day because that is just the way things are and it is how I continue to learn. I became a psychologist because I followed my bliss and pursued a career as an opera singer … and failed. As I was struggling so much with my own voice, I noticed I was becoming more and more interested in listening to others tell their own stories about struggle.
In a speech from 2008 at Harvard University, the author J.K. Rowling talked about the crucial benefits of failure in her life and how she followed her bliss at university rather than doing what her parents wanted. But in failure she realised she had seen the bottom, had nothing left to lose and so followed her heart to do what she had always really wanted, to be a writer. Failing as an Opera singer has paradoxically led me on to the path that I feel deeply is my vocation. As a psychologist I have the immense privilege of helping people wrestle with tough, difficult issues so that they can shine a light into their souls and begin to understand the truth about themselves. This can often be hard, slow work but I get to help people create meaning and purpose where previously there had been brick walls.
So remember these two points.
Follow your bliss. If you know what it is you truly love in life then follow it, but be prepared for things not to work out the way you thought they might and keep listening to your heart and what life is telling you. And when you follow your bliss remember, for true confidence, actions speak louder than words. Don’t imagine things will all fall in your lap just because you are following your heart; you also have to work and work and work at it. But in your bliss lies the truth that your heart already knows.
I will finish by quoting Rainer Maria Rilke, a German writer, in his ‘Letters to a Young Poet’
Have patience with everything unresolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves as if they were locked rooms or books written in a very foreign language. Don’t search for the answers, which could not be given to you now, because you would not be able to live them. And the point is to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answers.