And the winner is…

Have you noticed how much competition is going on around us right now? From the Rose Bowl to the pro football playoffs in January we segue to the Super Bowl and the Winter Olympics in early February. Meanwhile, a new season of “American Idol” is getting underway, and a cavalcade of entertainment award shows — Golden Globes, SAG Awards, People’s Choice Awards, and Grammys, are here to prime our anticipation (or not) for the Oscars in March.

I’m less interested in the outcomes of these various competitions than I am in the way we discuss the competitions themselves. With athletic and artistic contests so prominent these days, I’ve been thinking a lot about the differences between those two types of competition narratives.

Here’s what occurs to me: in a traditional narrative of (non-pharmaceutically enhanced) athletic competition, the individual is acknowledged to have primary control over his or her performance. The disciplined athlete who prepares thoroughly (physically and psychologically) for the event is regarded as the agent of his or her success. In addition, narratives of athletic competition are rife with episodes of the triumph of the human spirit – episodes in which an athlete falling behind is able to “dig deep,” make a supreme effort, and emerge a winner. The essence of the athletic competition narrative is that the individual’s combination of ability (sometimes labeled as talent honed by practice) and effort (sometimes labeled as character or, most commonly right now, “grit”) wins the day. In a contest of equals, the athletic narrative also often refers to the winner as the one who “wants it more,” who has the “eye of the tiger,” and is able to put aside all other commitments in order to attain the prize. The film “Rocky” is a great example of a classic athletic competition narrative.

Ability and effort also matter a great deal in artistic competitions like auditions or award contests, but this realm, it is widely acknowledged that the outcome is quite likely to be subject to factors outside the artist’s control. An actor can “kill” at an audition, but not get the part for any number of reasons. Casting agent Amy Berman discusses this in a blog post titled “26 Reasons Why You Didn’t Get the Part.” Here are a few examples:

* You’re too tall

* You’re too short

* You were the first one to read that day

* You were the last one to read that day

* You look too much like the lead

* You remind the producer of his sister, and he hates his sister

When we stop to think about it, we understand that different types of competition exist and that they have different governing narratives.

Sometimes, though, the nature of a particular competition is unclear. Sometimes, participants enter a contest thinking it is of the athletic, “I’m the agent of my success” type, when in fact the contest is of the artistic, “my ability may be a secondary factor in the outcome” variety.

I thought about this “narrative confusion” recently, as I watched the documentary film “20 Feet from Stardom.” The film (which I highly recommend) looks at the lives of backup singers and the challenges of making the journey from singing backup to being the lead.

Merry Clayton, one of the profiled singers, seemed a sure bet for solo success. She had everything going for her – a fabulous voice, a contract with a top record company, and an outstanding producer who had guided many singers to stardom. She also had a keen desire to be a star – as Darlene Love (another profiled singer) put it: “I think you do, number one, have to have the kill spirit, to really want it. Merry Clayton got the kill spirit.”

And yet, Love continued, “I don’t know why she wasn’t a superstar.”

No one interviewed in the film can say why solo success eluded Merry Clayton. Clayton said that her producer and her record company did a great job promoting her solo albums, and her producer (Lou Adler) echoed this, saying “we did everything possible and it just didn’t take.” There is moment of pathos when Clayton says : “I felt like if I just gave my heart to what I was doing, I would automatically be a star.”  

As portrayed in the film, Clayton’s story illustrates a collision between athletic and artistic competition narratives. It seems as though Clayton entered the artistic contest thinking that the athletic narrative applied – she expected that her own talent, effort, and desire would propel her to success. To succeed in an artistic competition, though, you need all that – and more.

As Sting says, a bit later in the film: “It’s not a level playing field, it never is a level playing field…It’s not about fairness, it’s not really about talent. It’s circumstance, it’s luck, it’s destiny – I don’t know what it is.”

Clayton’s lack of success as a solo artist is as inexplicable as a superbly talented student’s “deny” decision from a selective college, and a similar confusion about the nature of the competition applies in each case.

The college admissions process is framed as an arena in which the most critical elements are individual ability and effort, with the result that students enter the process thinking they will have more control over the outcomes than they do. They expect that the path from input (all the elements of the application) to outcome will be as straightforward as an athletic competition.  In fact, the admissions process often resembles more closely an artistic competition, in which the outcome is much less clearly related to the visible input.

That’s a tricky thing to explain, though. Individual ability, effort, and desire surely do have an impact on admissions decisions. But so do many factors beyond the applicant’s control. The admissions process (especially at selective and highly selective colleges) is an odd hybrid of a race and an audition.  This is an especially important point to keep in mind when decisions are received.  Students who, despite their outstanding ability and effort (not to mention an abundance of the “kill spirit”) receive waitlist or deny decisions often feel they have lost the race because of some personal failure.  If they can be encouraged to see the admissions process as more of an audition that didn’t go their way for reasons they couldn’t control, it could save them a measure of heartache.    

As I work with families approaching the college admissions process, I try different ways to help them understand the nature of the competition.  So far, portraying the process partly as a race and partly as an audition has been useful. People seem to relate to those tropes.

With that in mind, the advice Berman offers to actors can be equally relevant for college applicants. Swap the ‘audition and casting’ language for ‘application and assembling a freshman class’ language, and see what you think.  

What you must understand is that your only job in an audition is to do your best work. Everything else is not up to you. The role you are reading for is one piece of an entire jigsaw puzzle. It must fit with the rest of the puzzle or the puzzle won’t work. The casting director, producer, and director are fitting pieces of the puzzle together all day long. Your only job is to be the best “piece” you can be. Whether your edges fit in the slot for that piece is not up to you.

Just go to your audition. Do your best and let it go.”