The Weight Of The World

photo credit: © Paul Strikwerda

Last week, I did a webinar on blogging for members of The VoiceOver Network.

One of the things host Rachael Naylor wanted to know, was how I got from zero to over thirty-eight thousand subscribers.

Although I did not survey each and every reader of this blog, I do receive a lot of feedback from my “fans.” This gives me some indication as to why they return to my musings, week after week.

The one comment that comes back again and again, is that -even though this is a voice-over blog- people like that I write about more than microphones, making money, and the secret to winning auditions.

Ultimately, I see my work as a means to an end, and sometimes I feel more like writing about “the end,” than about the means to getting there. To illustrate the point, I ended my webinar by reading my blog post The Weight of the World, which -in light of the recent terrorist attacks- turned out to be terribly relevant.

After my appearance on the VoiceOver Hour, some of the students in the U.K. asked me if I could republish that particular blog post, because it really resonated with them. It had only been a few days since a suicide bomber had blown himself and twenty-two others up, during an Ariana Grande concert.

Last Saturday, terrorists struck again on London Bridge, killing eight people.

So, with great sadness and a heavy heart, here is The Weight of the World:

 

Paris. Kabul. Manchester. London.

On some days this beautiful planet is so full of hatred and hardship that I feel guilty writing about such trivial things as “work.”

It sure is fun to blog about freelancing, marketing, and microphone technique, but I have to ask: “To what avail?”

Does it lead to a deeper understanding of the human psyche?

Does it tell us why young, radicalized men stuff their luggage with glass and nails, before they blow themselves and innocent others to bits and pieces?

Does it explain why so many people still believe that violence is the only way forward to further a cause?

As a blogger, shouldn’t I be writing about those issues, instead of talking about home studios, auditions, and online casting companies? 

Whenever I ask myself these questions, I have to remind myself of where I came from.

Before leaving the Netherlands, I worked as one of those stone-faced newscasters informing the world of yet another tragedy. On air, I asked countless experts about the roots of evil, and I grilled politicians about their ideas on how to fix a broken world.

Day after day I reported on endless suffering and strife, and I was part of the sensationalist “if it doesn’t bleed, it doesn’t lead” gang, that determines what is newsworthy and what isn’t. On sunnier days I would be searching for that snippet of positive news we could end our program with, to remind the listeners that not all people are perverts, rapists, or suicidal religious radicals. 

Don’t get me wrong: I loved the excitement and the adrenaline of the newsroom. It gave me a steady income, a certain status, and a sense of purpose. A democracy can only function when people are able to make smart decisions based on hard facts, and I was in the business of providing those facts. My radio station also gave me a unique opportunity to hold the feet of the famous to the fire.

Yet, one day, it all fell apart when I noticed myself caring less and less about the horror stories I was covering. In the beginning I would blame my lack of response on the need to “stay professional,” meaning detached from the raw emotions that are part and parcel of every human tragedy. I was supposed to stay as neutral as our network professed to be, and not get emotionally involved. But it came at a price. 

I gradually developed a tendency to disassociate myself from all kinds of feelings. Positive and negative. That invisible screen I was using to shield myself from sadness in the newsroom, had become like a second skin. It protected me, and it numbed me at the same time.

Over time, I came to a frightening realization:

I had lost one of the very few things that separates humans from animals: the ability to empathize.

I’d seen this happen to veteran journalists who were trying to cope with the crazy demands of their job. Some became chain smokers, heavy drinkers, and lifelong cynics. Others filed for divorce. It was not a road I wanted to travel.

One day, after covering yet another disaster, I just knew I had reached my limit. Years of reporting had done nothing to change the world. If anything, the world had gotten worse. All I wanted was to get out of broadcasting, and do something useful with my life. Something exhilarating. Something inspiring. Something uplifting.

When I finally left the poisonous bubble that was the newsroom, it took me a while to adjust to a new reality. A reality that wasn’t nearly as violent as I had thought it would be. Slowly but surely I discovered a world filled with kindness and good people. It was as if someone had opened the dark blinds that had been filtering the light from the windows for such a long time.

I came to realize that the news I had covered for all those years focused on the exceptions; on the grotesque and the extraordinary. The thousands of planes that land safely every day will never be on CNN. It’s the plane that crashes that ends up making headlines. And if you add all those headlines up, it’s easy to get the impression that this world is rotten to the core. But it’s a deliberate distortion of reality, contrived to kick up the ratings. 

Reality is so much better and less sensational than the networks want you to believe. For most of us it is reassuringly unspectacular and ordinary. It revolves around friends, family…. and work. Ultimately, there’s nothing wrong with wanting to blog about work, even when evil forces are trying to fill this world with fear.

The question remains: how do we respond to those who want to scare us by causing panic, pain, and suffering?

How do we deal with the fact that -to quote Harold Kushner- bad stuff happens to good people?

All of us have to come to terms with this in our own time and in our own way. Life and death are mysterious teachers.

Let me leave you with what I think.

The only way we can learn to live with darkness, is to focus on the light, and to become a reflection of that light.

Whether we realize it or not, all of us were born with the ability to shine. 

Once we start taking that to heart, perhaps we can begin making this place a better world.

In Paris. In Kabul. In Manchester. In London.

Everywhere.

Paul Strikwerda ©nethervoice

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Why I Want You To Fail

cellist“Failure” is one of the dirtiest words in the dictionary.

In a culture where the notion of “being successful” is forced upon us from an early age, failure is hardly an option. Winners never fail, and who doesn’t want to be a winner?

Helicopter parents pressure their offspring to always be the best, and go for the A plus and extra credits. Their over-scheduled kids are expected to be brilliant at whatever it is they do, from horseback riding to playing the violin, to selling the most girl scout cookies ever.

If children don’t come home with a trophy, a badge, or high honors, what’s the point? What will you put on Facebook? “Sarah did okay in math?” “Brian got a B minus in biology?” “Sandy can’t keep up with the rest of her class?”

Heaven forbid! How would that reflect on you as a parent?

Out of this thinking comes the idea that we have to make it easy for our kids to succeed. We want to build them up, and make them feel good about themselves. How do we do that? By giving them high praise for mediocre accomplishments.

“She took two bites of oatmeal today, isn’t that amazing?”

“He brushed his teeth all by himself. I am so proud of him!”

“The soccer coach gave him a prize, just for showing up every week.”

When you set the bar really low, it becomes almost impossible to fail, but what you’re really doing is reinforcing behavior that is below average. It might give some kids a false sense of confidence and entitlement, which could carry over into adulthood.  

LIFE LESSONS

When I was a teenager, my French professor always gave us easy tests. Even the slowest of students would do well, and on paper it looked like this teacher was a genius. But during our school trip to Paris, no one was able to put more than two words of French together, and we got hopelessly lost in the subway.

At that point we realized that this great teacher wasn’t so great after all. The biggest shock came later that year however, during final exams. Compared to most other students in the country, we did miserably, even though our grades had been fabulous.

A cellist I know had accepted a new, young student who was rather full of himself. When he got to meet the parents, he understood why. Mom and Dad thought that their Daniel was destined to be the next Yo-Yo Ma or Mstislav Rostropovich. “Well, we’ll see about that,” said the cellist. Let’s begin our first lesson, and afterward I’ll tell you what I think.”

It turned out that the kid wasn’t very good, even though he played an expensive instrument. “It’s not the instrument. It’s how you play it,” said the cellist to the parents, but they wouldn’t listen, and neither would their son.

So, what did his new teacher do? He signed Daniel up for a regional competition. Even though the boy had several months to prepare, he thought he could wing it. His parents (who knew very little about music) were convinced he was doing really well. Filled with great expectations they took him to the competition.

BEING TESTED

You probably know what’s coming. Compared to other students, Daniel didn’t impress the judges that much, and he got low marks. When his parents found out, they were furious.

“You set our Daniel up for failure,” they said. “The boy is in tears. What kind of teacher are you?”

“Let me tell you something,” said the cellist. “Your son might think he failed. In my opinion he just didn’t get the result you were expecting, which, given his skills and attitude, was rather unrealistic to begin with. This is not an easy instrument to master. So far, you have been comparing your son to himself. This competition was an opportunity to compare him to other kids in his age group.”

He went on: “Parents and other family members are supposed to be supportive. There’s nothing wrong with that. But the people who are closest to us, aren’t necessarily the most knowledgeable or experienced. Most of them don’t know what they’re listening and looking for. So, if you want honest feedback, you need two things. Number one: make sure the test is tough enough. Number two: the evaluators have to be experts.”

THE RELEVANCE

Now, if you’re new to voice-overs and you’re reading this blog, you might be wondering why I am talking about learning French or a musical instrument. You’re trying to break into the business thinking you stand a good chance of making it. People have told you that you have a great voice, and why wouldn’t McDonalds hire you to sell fries? You’re auditioning left and right, but so far there’ve been no takers. What does that tell you?

First of all, if making money as a voice-over would be easy, anybody would do it, and the rates would be even lower. Something that comes easy, isn’t worth much. Secondly, do you even know if you’re good at this? Let me rephrase that: Is what you have to offer ultra competitive in a market that is pretty much saturated? How do you know? Are you able to recognize your limitations?

HEARING MYSELF

A few days ago I listened to some of the auditions I recorded in 2010. At that time I honestly thought I sounded pretty great, and I didn’t understand why clients wouldn’t hire me. Knowing what I know now, there is no way I would have hired myself back then.

After a year of trying, I was ready to call my efforts to become a VO Pro an epic fail. Yet, as you know, one of the reasons I write this blog is because I’m still in business. How did that happen?

It turned out that this year of trying was a big test. It tested my preparedness, my resolve, my talent, my nerves, and my ability to learn and grow from feedback. I needed at least a year of “failure” to work on my weaknesses, as well as on my strengths.

I also learned to reframe that word “failure.” I started looking at my situation in terms of results. Just because I wasn’t getting the results I had hoped for, didn’t mean I had failed, or that I was a failure. I began to ask myself questions like:

– What results did I get?

– What part of it was something I could  influence, and what part was beyond my control? 

– What did I learn from it that was positive and practical?

– What would I need to do to improve?

– Who could help me make those improvements? 

– How was this process helping me become the professional I want to be?

And finally, just as it can take many years to learn a foreign language or master an instrument, I knew that it would take me a while to get good at doing voice-overs, and running a freelance business. Every “failure” could bring me one step closer to success, as long as I used it as a chance to learn something new.

If you happen to be in the middle of that process, and things aren’t going so well, please remember what one of my teachers once told me:

“No matter where you are in life, never stop learning.

Quite often, the best students get the hardest test!”

Paul Strikwerda ©nethervoice

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Feeding Your Soul

Columcille Megalyth Park

Photo credit ©Paul Strikwerda

A few weeks ago, I gave you my “formula” for being less busy, and more productive:

Focus on what you’re good at. Outsource the rest.

People who run a successful business hire people who are smarter and more talented than they are, to take care of certain aspects of that business. These experts are able to do things better and quicker, leaving you with more time to focus on your strengths. That’s where the money is!

This philosophy has served me very well, and yet it’s only part of the picture. Today I am going to reveal something to you I haven’t told anyone else. At first, it will sound like a contradiction in terms, but I assure you it is not. It is something essential that took me many, many years to learn, and quite frankly, I don’t think I’ve mastered it yet.

Because it is seemingly contradictory, it confused me to the core, and at first I fought it tooth and nail. But once I discovered the benefits of this strange strategy, I came to embrace it.

TRYING TOO HARD

It all began some ten years ago. I was trying very hard to build my business, working 60 to 70 hour weeks. The idea was that the more I would put into it, the more I would get out of it. That’s only fair, right? It’s the same perverse philosophy that’s behind the torture that is cold calling. The more numbers you dial, the greater the chance of success. That’s what they say, whoever “they” are.

Well, this might be working for some people, but it wasn’t working for me. All that knocking on doors and auditioning for anything under the sun left me exhausted, and disenchanted. Bottom line: I had run into the law of diminishing returns. The more I tried, the less I accomplished.

Have you ever been in a situation like that?

People around me said: “You’re working too hard. Take break. You can’t force success.”

Did I listen? No!

Every time I took a breather, I felt tremendously guilty because I could have and should have been using that time on something useful and productive.

DREAM ON

This voice-over business was supposed to be my dream job. Dream jobs don’t feel like work, and they give you energy, don’t they? It’s the ultimate freedom from the 9 to 5 rat race so many people get caught up in. It was my chance to prove to the world that I could be my own boss, living life on my own terms and turf.

If all of that were true, why didn’t it feel that way? Why was I waking up exhausted before the day had even begun? Why had I become an irritable, self-absorbed, sad sack of a husband who could only converse about finding new ways to get new clients?

“Oh, the first three years are always the hardest,” I told myself and my friends. “Eventually, it is going to get better, and it will all be worth it!” (insert fake smile)

But things didn’t get better, and I didn’t know how to turn it around…. until the day I walked into my local bookstore, and picked up a random paperback from the self-help section. The next thing I did was such a cliché: I closed my eyes, opened a page, and looked at the first thing that caught my eye. It was a quotation:

You can’t give what you don’t have.

I don’t remember the title of the book or who wrote it, but it felt like I had received a message from the universe that could not be ignored. If my business was a flower bed, I had been watering and watering it, until the can was empty, and could not be refilled. No water: no growth. It was crystal clear.

So, what was I to do? Give up? Sit on the couch and watch TV all day long? Play video games?

I looked at the next few lines in the book, and the author had clearly anticipated my question. This was her advice:

“Replenish yourself. Do something that feeds your soul. Something that has nothing to do with work.”

STEPPING OUT OF IT

I’ve always been a lover of the outdoors. That was one of the things that attracted me to America. Endless forests. Majestic mountain ranges. Roaring rivers. Hidden trails.

The day after my revelation I put on my hiking boots, and I disappeared into the woods. For hours. There and then I realized how much I had missed my conversation with nature. I had missed the fresh smell of pine trees, the sweet sound of bird song, and the quiet rustling of the leaves. Not once did I think about my flailing business.

As I was trying to capture what I was experiencing, I thought of something else that was missing in my life: writing!

From the moment my mother taught me how to write, I was always scribbling words on pieces of paper. As a teenager, I would never leave home without a small notebook. In the last few years, however, I had been too busy reading scripts other people had written, and I felt I didn’t have time to put my pen to paper.

When I came back from my walk, it was as if a load had lifted from my shoulders. I could breathe again, and I went to the attic to find my favorite journal which was still half empty, (or half full, depending on how you look at it). Without even thinking, words started flowing from an invisible source within me, as if someone had opened a faucet filled with feelings and ideas.

Then it dawned upon me. What if I were to use my passion for writing, and start a blog for my business? It was something so obvious that I had never thought of it before. It’s like suddenly seeing something that is right in front of you!

And that is how this blog was born.

BOOSTING BUSINESS

In all the years that I’ve been doing voice-overs, nothing has been more vital to the promotion of my business as this blog. Colleagues read it. Clients read it. You are reading it right now.

Here’s the irony and the contradiction: the idea came to me as I was doing my very best not to focus on my business. I was relaxed. I was in the moment. I was feeding my soul.

All of us get stuck from time to time. We get worked up. We feel frustrated. We might even lose faith.

The question is: What should we do about it?

Take my advice. Let it go, and find what feeds your soul. For some this might be through yoga, music, or meditation. Some people paint, or work in the garden. Others start jogging, or get on a bike. There is no right or wrong. Whatever floats your boat.

In a society that is obsessed with work, and where people pride themselves on how many hours they put in, this is a radical shift. To me, it did not feel normal. I had to work hard on not working so hard.

But the moments I chose to feed my soul, turned out to be the most fulfilling and eye-opening moments of my life. They proved to be the answer to the question:

“What for?”

Ultimately, our work is just a means to an end, but to what end?

FINDING MEANING

As I was hiking on that wooded trail, experiencing the serenity of solitude, and the beauty of creation, I realized:

“This is what it’s all about.”

I don’t mean withdrawing from the world, but rediscovering an essential part of that world that is so easily lost. The part that’s more about being, than about doing

Look at it this way: there’s always going to be something in your inbox. You’ll always find a reason to do more work to please more people. But you can’t give what you don’t have. If you don’t step away from your business from time to time, it will take everything you have, and then some.

Candles that are burned out, can’t spread any light.

Please make time to create moments that matter. These moments will give you the energy to carry on, and the inspiration to evolve, personally and professionally.

The other day, my wife and I went to Columcille Megalith Park, in Bangor, Pennsylvania. It’s a park rooted in Celtic spirituality, and inspired by the Isle of Iona off the coast of Scotland.

If you’re not in a position to leave your computer right now to go on a hike, take a few minutes to absorb the pictures I took, and listen to the music.

Then get back to what you were doing.

I can almost assure you that you won’t feel the same!

Paul Strikwerda ©nethervoice

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Learning A Dying Language

Erin McGuirk, the author, Christopher Black & Chief Chuck Gentlemoon DeMund

To say that voice-overs are spoiled by technology is an overstatement, but one thing is certain. 

In less than ten years our business has transformed itself tremendously. 

Quality recording equipment is as affordable as it has ever been. We audition for projects from all over the world from the comfort of a home studio. 

We no longer have to mail our demo tapes to producers and agents. We can email thousands of contacts with the click of a mouse, and reach new target groups on Facebook for a few dollars.

Things have definitely changed. 

Back in my radio days, if I didn’t know the pronunciation of a name or a word in a foreign language, I would call an embassy. Now I go to Forvo, and other online resources.

But what if you get a script like this?

“Kewelamewemalhelameneyo ntakiyemena, shek yukwe luwehemo ntala kiskhokwehena teli nkaski tentehwenen, ntala alaihena teli mpatahwilsinen moni.”

First of all, can you guess what language this is? 

It is the dying language of the Lenape or Delaware Indians. Their territory included New Jersey, eastern Pennsylvania, southeastern New York State, northern Delaware, and a small section of southeastern Connecticut. 

The quote above is from a play written by Christopher Black, called Easton 1752: Founding of a Frontier Village. It’s performed by The Bachmann Players, a group of amateur historians and actors, based in Easton, Pennsylvania (where I live). We’re named after the Bachmann Publick House, one of the oldest buildings in town, where the plays are performed. 

In this production I’m playing the role of Conrad Weiser, a Pennsylvania Dutch pioneer, interpreter, and diplomat between the Pennsylvania Colony and Native Americans.

In the play I am translating for a Lenape woman portrayed by Erin McGuirk, so most of my lines are in English, but I do speak a little bit of Lenape. In order to sound as authentic as possible, we couldn’t just call an embassy to get the right pronunciation. There is an online Lenape Talking Dictionary, but it is limited, so we decided to get the help of an expert: Chief Chuck Gentlemoon DeMund.

In order to give us a “feel” for the language, he began with a few basics:

After that, we started working on our lines.

On the way back from the Lenape Cultural Center, I realized that my life has taken some unpredictable twists and turns. 

When I came to the Unites States from the Netherlands at the end of 1999, I brought two suitcases filled with memories, hopes, and dreams.

Little did I know that one day, I would sit next to an Indian Chief, learning a few words of a fascinating language that is almost extinct. And in June, I’ll put on a colonial costume, and recreate the history of my new home town in front of a live audience. 

With all the technology at our fingertips, there is still no substitute for human interaction.

So, if you ever get sick of the solitude of your voice-over booth, get involved in local theatre, take some improv classes, join a choir, or improve your public speaking skills.

It will transform you outside of your vocal booth, and (miraculously), inside your studio as well.

Wanishi!*

Paul Strikwerda ©nethervoice 

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*Wanishi means “thank you” in Lenape.

Performances at the Bachmann House in Easton, PA, are on Friday June 2nd • Saturday June 10th (SOLD OUT) • 7:00 PM $55 Includes 3 course colonial style meal and beverages.

Sunday June 18th, 2:00 PM matinee followed by talk back with the Players. $25 Includes light refreshments.

Reservations must be made at least 10 days prior to each performance. CALL 610-253-1222 for reservations.

Being Wrong About Being Right

Looking at the mirrorGo ahead. Do it!

After today you may ask me everything about the hypothalamic-pituitary-gonadal axis, and the early onset of puberty.

I promise you one thing: it will make me cry like a baby.

Normally, I don’t concern myself with gonadotripin-releasing hormones stimulating steroid secretion. But as a voice-over, people send me the strangest scripts with the weirdest words. My job is to sound like these words are my bread and my butter, even though I prefer to have other things for breakfast.

Just to give you an idea of my voice-over diet so far:

On Monday I was telling the world about how “metabolic programming” can change the genetic expression of young farm animals. On Tuesday I pretended to be the monotonous Swiss CEO of a company refurbishing projectile weaving machines. Tomorrow I’ll be talking about the art of selling on eBay in Germany.

But today… today was all about the regulation of the reproductive system in kids with central precocious puberty, and a discovery I made about myself. Don’t worry. I won’t take you back to my childhood in the Netherlands, where naughty boys are forced to stick their fingers in dikes, while eating insane amounts of cheese.

This story is about a medical script, and how easy it is to fool ourselves into believing that we actually know what we are doing. Well, I cannot speak for you, but I’m usually pretty confident about my skills as a professional narrator.

After years and years in radio, I always thought of myself as a solid cold reader. You can throw any text at me, and I’ll sound as if I know what I am talking about. It’s a dangerous skill to have, by the way. It’s like wearing glasses. Somehow, people automatically assume that the bespectacled among us, must be more intelligent. Those who sound like they know what they’re talking about, are mistakenly put into the same category, until they’re exposed as professional pretenders.

The medical script in front of me, came with a page-long pronunciation guide. It was like learning another language. A language of affliction, clinical trials, and a cure. It was about one of those medications advertisers want you to ask your doctor about. Some kind of pill that takes ten seconds to describe, followed by thirty seconds of rapid-fire contraindications and sickening side-effects.

It took me a while to record the 5000-word script, and even longer to edit it. I like doing my own editing. My voice gets a rest, and my ears and eyes can do some quality control. After all the files were cleaned up, separated, and properly named, I uploaded my work feeling confident about what I had accomplished. I was sure the client would be just as impressed.

Two hours later I got an email from the guy who had proofed my audio. “Great work,” he said. Out of thousands of words, I had only mispronounced about a dozen. But here’s the kicker: I had mispronounced the same word twelve times!

Instead of “pituitary-gonadal axis,” I had read “pituary-gonadal axis.” At least I was consistent in my mistakes.

What struck me the most was this: even though I had prepared the script, read the script, and edited my audio, I had missed my slip of the tongue again and again and again. I didn’t see it, and I didn’t hear it. Why? Because something in me believed that “pituary” was right.

I saw what I wanted to see, and I heard what I wanted to hear.

It made me oblivious to my errors.

It reminded me of the copywriter who was ready to distribute a press release about a local public market to hundreds of news outlets. He had been working on it for hours, and gave it to me so I could take one last look at it.

I said to him: “Nice work, but I hope you’re not going to send it this way. Look at the headline.”

“What about it?” he asked defensively. “It says:

Public Market Attracts Thousands Of Young Visitors.”

“No it doesn’t,” I said. “Look closely.”

He still didn’t see it, so I told him:

“You forgot the letter “L” in the word “Public.”

“Oh my gosh,” he responded. “I have been staring at that headline for hours, and never even noticed it. Who wants to send their kids to a Pubic Market? How embarrassing!”

Well, that’s how I felt after my pituary debacle. It also had me thinking.

Have I become one of those people who lives life guided by conformation bias? You know, the idea that we’re always looking for evidence that supports our beliefs (and we’re conveniently ignoring the rest).

I really believed the word was “pituary,” and I didn’t even see that the word in the script was spelled differently.

What if I look at people that way? That’s pretty scary. They’ll never be able to be any better or different from whom I think they are…. until someone points something out I had never considered. It’s all a matter of perception.

Perceptions are powerful. And they can be so wrong.

Perceptions tell us more about the perceiver, than about what is being perceived.

This afternoon, instead of being done with my medical project, I had to revisit every file with the word “pituitary” in it, and correct my mistakes. It was a humbling, uncomfortable experience that took up way too much time. It taught me one other lesson.

Sometimes, something happens that makes us change our perception of who we think we are.

In those moments, it is time to have a word…

with the person staring back at us in the mirror.

And after some reflection, please tell that person:

Everything is perception, but perception isn’t everything.

Paul Strikwerda ©nethervoice

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