Success and Luck

I have several people in my life that I would consider career inspirations. It’s not so much what they do, but how they enable themselves to do what they do that impresses me. I deem them to be so inspirational because they do the one thing that I want to do more than anything: monetize doing what they love. It’s not their particular field, or even necessarily how far advanced they are within their field. They are successful merely by never giving up and being able to pay their bills working within a field that they feel passionately about.

What amazes me more than anything about their careers, however, is that a vast majority of them describe themselves as “lucky.” Several of my friends will say that they “just happened to be in the right place at the right time,” or that they were lucky to meet a person who connected them with their current employer. This is not meant to belittle their efforts, it’s just that they view some of their accomplishments to be in the realm of luck.

It’s this concept of luck that I think leads to much frustration on the part of some of my more unsuccessful acquaintances. And it’s particularly an issue within the performing arts fields. There are so many stories of performers getting “discovered.” They read like fairy tales. A young singer crooning along to a song at a record store, a dancer breakdancing on the corner, a horn player playing for tips on a busy street. And over night they’re the next sensation.

It took me a long time to realize that theses stories are falsehoods. It’s not to say that some person didn’t happen to see them performing in a surprising setting. That is entirely possible. The falsehood lies in the fact that the endless hours of training and preparation are left out of the equation. Not to mention the process of simply deciding to dance or play on the street.

Take my friend Bethany Laska for example. I’ve known Beth for about 8 years now and during that time she has been “lucky” enough to land a job as an Artistic Technical Trainer for L’Oreal Professionnel, meet several of her own career icons, including Jo Blackwell-Preston (Senior Portfolio Color Artist for L’Oreal Professionnel and owner of Dop Dop Salon in New York City), and attend and even teach at numerous seminars. She’s even done the hair of a leading anchor on CNN. That’s the lucky part.

The success part, however, is a much bigger story. I met Bethany pretty much straight out of beauty school. She went to college with my husband Dan for a few years before deciding to do hair instead. While she was at Greenville she was the go-to girl for her friends’ hair and after graduating from International Academy of Hair Design, she used that clientele to really build up her experience. She took a job that was more like an apprenticeship at a high-end salon in St. Louis and worked her tail off, often calling me and other friends in for “model night”. Her life motto was practice, practice, practice! And after a year at that salon she moved on to Dominic Michael Salon in Clayton, MO (ranked among the Top 20 Salons in the United States, according to Elle Magazine in 2010).

This is where she really came into her own. Now decidedly beyond the basics, in a stable job, she could have simply chosen to stagnate. She could have gotten comfortable. Instead she pushed herself even harder. She attended seminars, entered competitions, and spent her weekends on portfolio projects. And she surrounded herself with like-minded people, fashion designers, photographers, makeup artists, and most importantly, loyal clients. She built up an amazing support network and together they built themselves amazing portfolios.

It was this network that led her to the CNN anchor. The anchor was in St. Louis for a story and her usual stylist was stuck in a snowstorm. The anchors assistant happened to be from St. Louis, so she called her mom hoping to find a stylist familiar with textured hair. Of course she recommended her own stylist, Bethany Laska, saying “she’s just this little white girl, but she can do some hair!”  While some might consider this luck, I attribute it to Bethany’s unrelenting desire to learn.

After 4 years at Dominic Michael she applied for the job at L’Oreal Professionnel. The main part of the job was as a traveling trainer, going to salons in her region to give presentations on L’Oreal’s color treatments and products. I remember the weekend before her big interview she invited some of her friends, myself included, over to her house, served us wine and gave us her presentation. And by the end I felt like I understood everything about L’Oreal’s products!

Since she began working for L’Oreal “luck” just keeps coming her way most recently culminating in meeting Jo Blackwell-Preston through a L’Oreal seminar. As if working for and with one of her career heros wasn’t enough Bethany joined her for tapas at a restaurant and “talked shop,” picking the brain of her mentor. She actually had the opportunity to sit down and talk with a mentor for a casual dinner, a situation I think everyone would consider to be a stroke of luck.

Another one of my friends, Cindy Henry has recently launched her own fashion line Rebel Tart. She is another go-getter. Cindy has many accomplishments under her belt, winning the Project:Design! People’s Choice Award during St. Louis Fashion Week, and the top honor at St. Louis Science Center’s Eco Expo fashion show three years in a row. Due to her domination in the show, she has since been asked to judge the show to allow other contestants the chance to win. She never says no to an opportunity and just submitted her audition video to Project Runway!

My “luckiest” friends were in the right place at the right time because they asked the right questions, learned the right skills and materials, and connected with the right people. I sat around St. Louis for nearly 4 years waiting for the right band mates and players to fall into my lap. And they never did. It wasn’t until I decided to meet with Lola Van Ella and take stage presence classes at Van Ella Productions that I finally started to see that my career was up to me and not up to Lady Luck.

For 8 weeks I met with Lola privately, going over the same song for an hour at a time once a week. I performed My Man countless times until I had finally shaped it into a meaningful act. Then I was asked to participate in her Student Showcase. I brought the house down, earning my very first standing ovation. I had done it! After that came a gig at her annual burlesque festival Show-Me Burlesque. I sang as part of the live band for two featured performers. And in the months following Lola was kind enough to book me at several variety productions at Jumpin Jupiter. Lola taught me a lot about confidence and presenting myself well. But she taught me an even more important lesson, the value of meeting the right people and then putting a ton of work into my craft.

During that time I also met Kevin O’Connor. He’s a super-talented multi-instrumentalist that was playing drums at Show-Me. He is in my opinion equally skilled at playing and ear training. He has been incredibly helpful in showing me the ropes of performing around St. Louis. He never hesitates to answer my questions, and I have a lot of questions. He has been like a guiding light through this whole process.

Another stroke of luck was when I found that book Beyond Talent. I went to the library to browse chord books and jazz theory books and was putting some books back on my way out when I stumbled on it. It has been the most incredible resource! It is like my career-bible. I carry it with me every where and if I need some courage or pointers it never fails to point me in the right direction. After I return it to the library I plan on downloading it digitally to keep on my iPhone.

My most recent potentially lucky situation just occured on Monday night. My wonderful husband scored tickets to a very intimate Fiona Apple concert, (one of only 6 to take place this year)! We were waiting patiently for the opener to start when a waitress mentioned that he was sick and would not be performing. So I marched right up to one of the guys in charge and said “I realize the answer is probably no, but I heard that you guys were without an opening band and I just wanted you to know that I’m a jazz singer and I would be happy to help out if needed.”

Now, I KNEW that the answer was 99.99% likely to be a no. I really did. BUT I also knew that if I didn’t say anything at all it would be a 100% chance that I wouldn’t be performing. And that .01% chance that someone would say yes was worth it to me to risk hearing the word no. And of course the guy did say no. BUT he also said that he really appreciated my “balls” in coming up to ask him, and he gave me the email address of the guy in charge of booking.

Some people would look at that scenario and view it as a failure. But  all I saw in that moment was opportunity. And for once I was actually prepared to meet said opportunity. And that to me is a complete success. A year ago I wouldn’t have felt even close to prepared for such a situation. But I’ve grown a lot this past year. And for the first time in my life I feel like the future is in my hands. Of course I can’t predict outside influences, but I can control my reaction to them.

Also, due to said trip to see Fiona Apple, I was unable to complete a new video recording for this week. So I decided to include for you TWO old videos. The first is the video that started it all, Lola Van Ella’s Student Showcase. The second is from an opportunity I had to sing with Everett Dean . It was another one of those situations where opportunity meets preparedness!


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