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My Most Moving And Miraculous Year

by Paul Strikwerda in Articles, Career, Freelancing, Gear, International, Internet, Journalism & Media, Money Matters, Pay-to-Play, Personal, Promotion, Social Media, Studio 6 Comments

Paul Strikwerda

Counting correctly, this is my 49th entry this year. Wow!

You may have read them all, or you may have read a few. Anyhow, I’m glad you’re here so I can remind you of the stories you have memorized, as well as the ones you may have missed. As always, blue text means a hyperlink that takes you straight to the story.

Apart from the usual musings about clients, colleagues, and the ins and outs of running a for-profit freelance business, things took a very serious turn some nine months ago. March 26th was the day I almost died. It was hard to imagine that only a few days before, I had been a presenter at VO Atlanta, which I didn’t like, by the way. I LOVED it, and I’ll be back in 2019!

After my stroke, the blog entries kept coming, but I disappeared from your radar screen, so I could focus on my recovery. One of the things I had to work on was getting my voice back, which is not as easy as it sounds.

People going through major, traumatic, life-changing events often ask three questions:

– Why me?

– Why this?

– Why now?

In Life’s Unfair. Get Used To It, I’ll tell you how I deal with these questions. Stories like these are examples of what I’m trying to do with this blog. Many assume that since I work as a voice talent, this must be a blog about voice-overs. That’s only partially true.

For me, the world of voice acting is just a lens through which I observe and comment on the world. When I write about customers, colleagues, and communication, what I really write about is relationships and human interaction.

A story like Filling In The Blanks, is not only a tale about what happens when you start to second-guess what you think your clients want to hear. It’s a story about perception and projection. About making assumptions, and finding true meaning.

In Getting In Our Own Way, I describe two types of voice talents: the narcissist and the masochist. They are two types of people who are very hard to teach. Take a few minutes to read it, and tell me if it only applies to the world of voice acting.

One more example. Are Clients Walking All Over You? is not just about dealing with difficult clients. It’s about how to handle conflict and getting a spine. That’s something many of us struggle with on a regular basis.

Some of my stuff is explicitly written for those who are thinking of becoming a voice-over, and those who are new to the business. When it comes to these people, here’s my general approach: I tell them what they don’t want to hear. As you can imagine, that makes me very popular in certain circles.

Stories like Entitled Wannabees Need Not Reply, Ten Lies Voice Overs Tell, and 5 Reasons Why You Should Never Become A Voice-Over are perfect examples. Bored Stiff, about the unexciting parts of being a VO, is another one.

This December I wrote a 3-part series called Why is doing voice-overs so difficult? (here’s a link to Part One, Part Two, and Part Three). If you ever have the “People told me I have a great voice” conversation with a wannabe, and you’re lost for words, please point them to this series.

Now, whenever I write these cautionary articles, there are always one or two commentating newcomers who still believe I’m trying to denigrate and disparage beginners.“You must be threatened by us,” they say, or “You were once a newbie. Why are you so mean?” It’s as if I personally reject them.

Although I’m convinced The Voice-Over World Needs More Rejection, it is never my intention to spitefully discourage people who are talented and truly committed to becoming a voice actor. In fact, in my blog I give those folks tools and strategies to help them navigate a new career in a competitive market.

Take a story like Surviving the Gig Economy, or 4 Ways To Get From Good To Great. The Secret to Sustained Success is another example. As a blogger I want to warn and welcome my readers to this fascinating but tricky line of work. Not to scare them, but to prepare them. If you don’t get the difference, you’re probably too thin-skinned for this business.

Speaking of business, without customers, you would not have one. Blog posts like Is Your Client Driving You Crazy? or Learn To Speak Like Your Clients were written to help you manage the delicate relationship with the hands that feed you.

In Would You Survive The Shark Tank? I invite you to take a good look at your business to see how well you would do in front of cash-hungry investors. If you want to cut expenses, read Becoming A Frugal Freelancer. If you need to increase sales, turn to How To Sell Without Selling. If you’re struggling with getting fair rates, read Stop Selling Yourself Short.

As a voice-over coach I’ve encountered a common problem that’s keeping talented voice actors from making a good living. They have the right training, the right gear, and promising demos, and yet they’re struggling. Why?

Because they are subconsciously sabotaging their success. They might be stuck in the Perfectionism Trap. They might be suffering from Mike Fright, or they might be held back by other fears. In other cases they are lacking a support system, or they may need some serious rebranding.

This year (like any other year), I could not resist writing about gear. Check out Picking the Perfect Voice-Over Microphone, and Equip Your Voice-Over Studio For Under A Thousand Bucks. Start spending those lovely gift cards during the post-Christmas sale! I know they’re burning a hole in your pocket.

What was my greatest gift this year? I’ll tell you: it was your ongoing support when I needed it most. Thank you for reaching out after my stroke, and for showing me that you’re not just a colleague or reader of this blog, but a true friend I can count on when times are tough.

My recovery made 2018 a miraculous year.

Your help and encouragement have moved me more than words could possibly convey.

I wish you a very happy and healthy New Year!

Gratefully yours,

Paul Strikwerda  ©nethervoice

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Why is doing voice-overs so difficult? Part 3

by Paul Strikwerda in Articles, Career, Personal 12 Comments

Leap of FaithClick here for Part 1, and click here for Part 2.

One thing I am sure of.

Human beings have a hard time dealing with uncertainty.

From the moment we’re born till the moment we die, we have a need to know.

That’s why we spend a lifetime answering questions, such as:

  • Why am I here?
  • Is there a God?
  • Can I be happy?
  • Why does evil exist?
  • Is there an afterlife?
  • McDonald’s or Burger King?

Not knowing is often worse than knowing. That’s why TV shows take us from cliffhanger to cliffhanger, and millions tune in to find out who the next American Idol is going to be. We cannot live with the suspense of not knowing.

Where does this innate urge come from? I believe it has to do with control. Subconsciously, people assume that the things they know for sure, they can control. We cannot measure and control the things that are unknown.

Two friends of mine love going on vacations. Let’s call them Jack and John. Both have traveled the world in ways that couldn’t be more different. Jack’s a free spirit. He likes to improvise, and takes life one step at a time. Jack is the person who’d buy a ticket to Rome and a Lonely Planet guide to Italy, and he lets his gut feeling determine where and when he goes to explore the country.

John would absolutely hate that. He prefers to tour Italy with a group, knowing exactly where he ‘s going to be, and where he is going to stay from day to day to day. And if things wouldn’t go according to plan, he’d get very nervous and upset. “If you fail to plan, you plan to fail” is his favorite saying.

Ask yourself: Are you a Jack, or are you a John?

That’s a question anyone should ask before deciding to become an independent contractor. It’s exactly the sort of thing that makes it so hard to be a professional voice-over. I’ll go one step further: the answer to that question is the number one reason why most people who are going freelance, fail.

I’m not making that up to rain on your parade. The Small Business Association (SBA) estimates that 30% of new businesses fail during the first two years of being open, 50% during the first five years, and 66% during the first 10. Those cold numbers camouflage dreams dashed, families in turmoil, and the burden of bankruptcy.

I’ll be very clear: those who eventually become successful at doing voice-overs, are great at handling uncertainty in an economic system that favors predictability.

So, what kind of uncertainty am I talking about?

For starters, you’ll never know where your work will be coming from, and which job you’ll land, and which job will go to a colleague. If you’re not selected, you’ll never know why.

When you audition, you won’t know what the client is looking for. Many clients will tell you: “I’ll know it when I hear it.” The job description is purposely vague: “Male/Female voice, Neutral English, Young Adult to Middle Age.”

You’ll never know how much the client has budgeted for the job you just auditioned for. They all plead poverty. These days you won’t even know how much a particular job is worth anymore, and what your bid should be. You’ll be bidding on jobs in many countries and many markets for all sorts of media. There will always be an idiot who will do more for less.

Once you’ve accepted the job, things don’t get any clearer. Nine out of ten times you’ll be recording by yourself without a director, so it’s up to you to read between the lines and interpret the script as best as you can. It’s a hit or miss process.

The whole thing feels like running a restaurant where you are the owner and chef. The client comes in and wants food. “What would you like?” you ask. “I’ll know it when I see it,” says the customer. “Go to the kitchen and work your magic. But make it quick.”

Half an hour later you proudly present your finished dish. The client smells the food, turns green, and waves the plate away saying: “That’s not what I ordered! I’m not paying for that.” Or worse, they’ll eat everything and disappear without leaving a check.”

You see, that’s another thing you’ll be uncertain about. As a voice-over, you run an international business that’s based on trust. The client trusts you to take care of the job. You trust the client to pay you for the job. On time and in full.

Good luck with that!

The Freelancers Union estimates that 7 out of 10 freelance workers face nonpayment, and freelancers are stiffed an average of $6000 annually.

Who is going to protect you? So far, New York is the only city in the United States to adopt the Freelancing Isn’t Free Act which extends unprecedented protections against nonpayment for millions of New York City’s freelance workers.

But what do you do when that client in Mumbai or Shenyang doesn’t respond to your payment requests? They wanted your audio files yesterday, you sent them, and now they’re MIA. You have no leverage. The only thing you can do is publicly shame them, and demand payment up front the next time you work with an unknown client.

Given the fact that you don’t know what you’ll be working on, when you’ll be working, how much you’ll be working, how much you’re getting paid, and when the money will be coming in, how do you know you’ll be able to pay the bills?

Try getting a mortgage on a freelance income, or any other loan for that matter. If you’re just getting started you need the money the most to pay for all that equipment, your demos, website, home studio, marketing materials, and coaching sessions. And you have nothing to show for it but good intentions.

No matter how much or how little is coming in, your insurance company expects you to pay your premium on time, your rent is due the first of the month, and your credit cards need to be paid, as well as your taxes. John would go crazy going from month to month.

You may be able to live with uncertainty, but what about your family?

Now, in the past I used to say that the only factor in this business you can count on and control, is YOU.

That sounds nice, but based on my experience, most people who try their hand at voice-overs lack the knowledge, the drive, and the discipline to run a business. They can handle it as a hobby, but that’s it. Let me give you an example. As a VO-coach I can quickly tell if someone has what it takes by the way they handle my assignments.

Those who need a lot of hand-holding don’t impress me. Those who don’t do their homework and make all sorts of excuses, tend not to do well. Those who say “Just tell me where I can find work,” are likely to fail.

Many are interested. Very few are committed.

Here’s the problem: as someone who is self-employed, no one will tell you what to do. No one will hold you accountable. No one cares if you sleep in, or waste your time surfing the web.

And then there’s this.

Until March of this year, I thought I was in control. I believed that I was the certainty my business was based on.

Then I had a stroke.

I woke up weak, exhausted, and without a voice. During many months of rehab I lost thousands of dollars in work I was unable to do. Some of my clients with whom I’d been working for years, found other talent and never came back.

Instead of building my business, I am rebuilding it, piece by piece. But if it weren’t for my amazing better half, my business probably would have gone bust.

At the end of the day, running a business is about risks and rewards.

Too often, newcomers focus on the rewards, and forget about the risks.

So, if you’re seriously thinking of becoming a voice-over, are you a Jack or a John?

I know you want the rewards, but are you certain you’re ready for the risks?

If so, you are in for a most rewarding career!

Paul Strikwerda ©nethervoice

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Losing My Voice

by Paul Strikwerda in Articles, Personal 28 Comments

At speech therapy wearing a TENS device

The facts are sobering.

Every forty seconds, someone is struck with a stroke. It is the fifth leading cause of death in the U.S. Most people will never make a full recovery, and more than two-thirds of survivors have some kind of disability associated with the attack.

Those are the statistics.

It’s a good thing I don’t believe in numbers. I believe in proving them wrong. The history of the world is filled with people who were told “It can’t be done,” and yet they persisted and succeeded. Against all odds.

I believe that people don’t equal statistics.

Going by the stats, it seems reasonable to believe that I would never fully recover from the stroke that struck me six months ago. But I chose to be unreasonable.

Last week I wrote about my road to recovery, and I promised you to open up about the one thing that terrified me most. It was something I didn’t want my colleagues or clients to know, because it could ruin my career.

HOW IT STARTED

Let me take you back to March 26th, 2018, the day I woke up on the floor of my voice-over studio wondering what the heck was going on. In hindsight I had the classic signs of a stroke: a sudden and pounding headache, loss of coordination, and blurry vision. One side of my body was paralyzed, my face was drooping, and I had trouble speaking.

That last symptom manifested itself in two ways: I had difficulty speaking sentences that made sense, and my speech was slurred. This usually means that the part of the brain that controls language is not getting the blood supply it needs. It was in fact dying.

As I was being transported to the hospital in a helicopter, my wife got a phone call from the surgeon who was on standby to operate on me. “When Paul comes in, I probably won’t have time to introduce myself,” he said, “so I want to take a moment to speak with you now. I’ll be totally honest. Everything we do will depend on the results of Paul’s CT scan, which will show us what parts of his brain are still intact when he arrives. Timing is crucial.”

He continued: “Be prepared that he might not make it, or that he’ll end up being severely handicapped and dependent on others for the rest of his life. If the scan looks good, we can do a thrombectomy to remove the blood clot from his brain, and take it from there.”

Since you’re reading these words, you already know the outcome. I guess it wasn’t my time to go, and I beat the statistics. Annually, out of the 1600 stroke patients that arrive in the hospital I was admitted to, only 80 are eligible for a thrombectomy.

THE RECOVERY BEGINS

So, my surgery was a success, but this did not mean that all was well between my ears. The scans showed a black area on the right side of my brain where cells had died. Those cells do not grow back. In order to compensate for the loss, the brain has to rewire itself and have other parts take over the function of the cells that are lost. To make that happen I needed at least five things: a positive attitude, a solid support system, plenty of rest, healthy nutrition, and therapy.

Even though I no longer sounded like a drunkard, clear articulation wasn’t my forte in the first few months after my stroke. I suffered from dysarthria. That’s a fancy word for unclear speech caused by brain damage. It’s a weakness or lack of coordination of the muscles of the tongue, lips, palate, jaw, and larynx. On top of that I had word-finding issues, indicative of memory loss.

By far the weirdest symptom of my post-stroke condition was the fact that I didn’t sound like me. My speech had become rather robotic and monotonal. It came in little bursts of language, just like the thoughts in my head. In the weeks to come, I discovered that I had the hardest time infusing my words with emotion.

No matter the subject, I sounded as passionate as a concrete wall. After I came home, I tried my hand at a few voice-over scripts for existing clients. It took countless retakes before I was somewhat satisfied with the result, but clients were noticing that something was off. The feedback I consistently received boiled down to this: “Once more, with feeling, please.”

The problem was that I had no idea how to access those right brain feelings. No matter how hard I tried, I seemed incapable of translating instructions like “confident,” “warm,” or “excited” into sound, whether in my studio, or in ordinary conversations. This was infuriatingly frustrating. I felt like a soccer player unable to handle the ball, or a painter who can’t hold a brush to add color to his canvas.

Would I ever be able to reach these emotions again, or were they part of the right brain that was destroyed by the stroke? What would this mean for my voice-over career?

Twice a week I went to speech therapy to learn how to improve my articulation. With my therapist, I also worked on regaining memory, and on sharpening my information processing skills. Very soon I realized that all of this wasn’t going to be as easy as flipping some internal switch. It needed time, energy, and lots of practice at home.

Speaking of home, on top of her busy schedule my wife became my designated driver, my patient advocate, my caregiver, my personal chef, and my hero. She made sure I got to all my appointments, that I took all my medications, and that my recovery would be pretty much stress-free. Her delicious meals were almost always based on fresh, locally sourced and unprocessed ingredients. You can’t have a healthy mind without a healthy body.

MORE TROUBLE

In the weeks after my hospitalization there was something else about my voice that concerned me. For some reason I was hoarse all the time, and I had no vocal stamina for long conversations and even longer scripts. I was tired, and I sounded like it. Something told me that if I didn’t take care of this, my career as a professional speaker would be over.

In May I went to see an otorhinolaryngologist who specializes in working with actors, singers, and public speakers. She performed a flexible fiberoptic laryngoscopy whereby a small endoscope is inserted through one nostril and guided through the nose to the back of the throat. It’s a funny feeling.

This revealed a slight laryngeal tremor. That’s an involuntary tremor of the vocal folds that causes changes in the voice. My ENT also concluded I had laryngopharyngeal reflux (LPR), a.k.a. “silent reflux.” Why silent? Because it doesn’t necessarily trigger the usual symptoms of acid reflux, such as heartburn. It does lead to hoarseness, coughing, and throat clearing because stomach fluid travels back through the food pipe to reach the back of the throat.

It is likely that the laryngeal tremor was caused by the stroke. Perhaps it will go away over time. Perhaps it won’t. I’m treating my LPR in several ways. I avoid spicy and acidic foods. I limit my intake of chocolate, coffee, alcohol, citrus fruits, mints and tomato-based products. I’ve stopped snacking before bedtime, and I’ve lost about twenty pounds. I’m also taking omeprazole which decreases the amount of acid the stomach makes. A new wedge pillow raises my head in bed, and keeps the acid down where it belongs.

Experts estimate that forty percent of the population may have undiagnosed LPR. If you’re experiencing hoarseness, a need to clear your throat, a sore throat, difficulty swallowing, or a red, swollen, or irritated voice box, please see an ENT to get to the root of the problem.

POSITIVE RESULTS

The good news is that after months of speech therapy my articulation and ability to focus has greatly improved, and the robot voice is gone. Only when I get really tired, it becomes more monotonal. I’m relieved that my speech has become more expressive, allowing me to continue to work as a voice talent. I’m also back to doing four-hour shifts as one of the announcers at the Easton Farmers’ Market.

Twice a week I work on strengthening my vocal folds and building my endurance with my speech therapists. I’m not yet where I want to be, but I’ve started recording longer scripts again.

RECOVERY CONTINUES

It takes a positive attitude, plenty of rest, healthy nutrition, and therapy to recover from a stroke. Add to that a support system; a network of caring people who provide you with practical and emotional support. Reading and responding to your comments on last week’s blog post, I realize how lucky I am to have such a supportive group of friends and colleagues!

Thank you for your kind words, good thoughts, and prayers. Your positive vibes revitalize me, and give me energy to keep on beating the odds. The process of healing goes on, which means that I have to be careful not to do too much, too quickly. So, if you don’t hear from me within 24 hours, and you don’t see me on social media, rest assured that I’m doing everything I can to take care of myself.

I hope you will do the same.

Paul ©nethervoice

Important: the information presented here does not substitute for medical consultation or examination, nor is it intended to provide advice on the medical treatment appropriate to any specific circumstances.

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Why I Have Disappeared

by Paul Strikwerda in Articles, Personal 53 Comments

Six months ago I was on top of the world. And then my world collapsed.

I remember being in Carnegie Hall on Thursday, March 22nd to hear Itzak Perlman and Pinchas Zuckerman play. During the intermission, I checked my phone to see if one of my agents had news about an audition. Seconds later I learned that I had landed a national spot for IHOP. The recording session was the very next day.

That night my wife and our companions went home without me, while I stayed at our friend Peggy’s, an oboist who shares a small apartment in the city with her cat Boston. The next morning I took the subway to Heard City at 16 W 22nd Street, a boutique audio post production facility. After two intense hours of takes and retakes the job was done, and I felt fantastic!

Very soon this obscure Dutchman, who came to the States with no contacts and no career, would be selling Hawaiian French toast all over America. Life was sweet! Little did I know that in three days time, I would be toast, as doctors were fighting for my life.

I’ve documented the story of my stroke in “I’m Still Here.” It starts with me, waking up half-paralyzed on the floor of my voice-over studio, a rescue by friends followed by a bumpy helicopter ride, a thrombectomy, and a two-week stay in the hospital.

But that was just the beginning.

CHANGING MY LIFE

From the moment I came out of the ER, it was clear that from now on two things would be crucial. I had to Rest and Recover. Anything else was secondary. This may sound easy, but for a busy bee like me it required a disruptive but essential change in lifestyle and in attitude. For me, the hardest part was this: Being okay with being incapacitated.

I’ll be honest with you: I was anything but okay with that concept. For years and years I had gone full speed ahead, sitting in the driver’s seat of my life, frantically holding on to the wheel. I couldn’t stand that after the stroke I felt weighed down by an overwhelming fatigue, unlike anything I’d ever experienced.

Trapped in my lethargic body, and held back by persistent brain fog, I observed myself becoming dependent on the help and kindness of others to heal from this stroke of misfortune. My prospects for recovery were unclear.

One neurologist casually informed me that the dead brain cells would not regenerate. “What you’ve lost will never come back,” he said. “You just have to learn to live with it.” I hate it when people use the word “just” in that way, don’t you?

Another doctor told me to trust the amazing ability of the brain to reorganize itself and form new connections between cells. It’s called neuroplasticity. As long as I did my part, the grey matter between my prominent ears would do the rest. Now, there’s a concept I could embrace!

SIDE EFFECTS

Apart from feeling tired and overwhelmed all the time, there were other signs that the stroke had done a number on my body and my mind. I’ll mention a few, but please note that these “side effects” are by no means typical. It all depends on which parts of the brain are affected by the stroke, and to what extent. That’s why they say: “Different strokes for different folks,” I guess.

My stroke had wiped out a part of my right brain, which affected the left side of my body. At times that side felt rather uncooperative and weak. If you and I were to go for a stroll, you’d see my left foot dragging, and my left arm refusing to swing. After six months, I still have an interesting time picking things up with my left hand.

Surprisingly, my eyesight was also impacted. For the first time in my life I couldn’t read all the letters on the ophthalmologist’s chart, which is why I now permanently sport a pair of stylish bifocals. As it turned out, my brain was also ignoring part of the left side of my field of vision, which requires bi-weekly vision therapy. Driving a car was out of the question.

Overall, I found it hard to focus in other ways too, especially in an environment with lots of things going on at the same time. My brain would quickly reach stimulus overload and tune out. Supermarkets and department stores were places to avoid, as well a large gatherings of people.

Social situations became particularly awkward for me. I can’t explain why, but instead of taking part in a conversation, I found myself becoming a disengaged observer. It was as if my brain had trouble connecting and downloading the information. Should you and I meet and strike up a conversation, please don’t think I’m bored as my eyes start drifting away and I stop responding. It simply means it’s challenging for me to process the information and the environment, and my wheels are churning.

Anyway, I don’t want this to be a litany of complaints, so, before I talk about how my stroke affected my voice and my career as a professional speaker, I’ll tell you how I approached my recovery.

GETTING BACK ON MY FEET

From the moment I landed in the hospital, I knew I had one job and one job only: to heal my body and my mind. Everything I do and not do, has to serve that purpose. I use present tense, because the process is ongoing.

One of the first things I had to wrap my brain around is that it is okay to be unproductive. Healing from a stroke requires rest. Lots of it. In the first few months, I spent hours and hours in bed. At night and during the day. Even though my body told me to take it easy, my mind felt terribly guilty for not doing my share and pulling my weight. Talking to a neuropsychologist made me realize this was unhelpful, to say the least.

I learned to listen to my body, and accept that I was (temporarily) unable to contribute much to the household. I learned to accept that other people would pick up the slack. Daily afternoon naps are now part of the program. I also learned to avoid things that would drain my energy.

On any given day, you and I spend a lot of time worrying about things that happened in the past, or things that might happen in the future. As a result, we’re barely in the moment. It’s like going out to dinner in a fancy restaurant. During the main course we’re still evaluating the appetizer, or we’re already wondering about dessert. Meanwhile, we ignore what’s on our plate and in our mouth.

The truth is: the only reality is the here and the now. The rest is imagination. Yes, even memories are figments of our imagination because they’re nothing but personal interpretations of what we believe has happened in the past.

Recovering from a stroke is teaching me to be here now; to savor the moment, and not let worries about what may or may not happen suck the life blood out of me.

STAYING FOCUSED

Next, I had to decide how to deal with distractions. To me, a distraction was anything that would keep me from my main goal: to rest and recover. This meant putting my voice-over career on a back burner, and (temporarily) disengage from my community. So, no more Instagram or Twitter, and very limited time on Facebook. I’d stay out of discussions about the state of our industry, and I stopped writing a new blog post every week. In short, I practically disappeared from the radar screen, and I have to tell you: it was bliss!

If you’re active on social media, you know that it can be quite stressful to have to produce new content for the world to see. It’s a monster that’s always hungry for more. On top of that you have to keep up with all the content produced by others on a daily basis. The trick is to control “it” before it controls you.

As I’m taking a social media break, I am reevaluating to what extent I should maintain my presence. Is it a good use of my time? Does it keep me healthy and sane? And most importantly, does it make me and others happy? Having a stroke reemphasized that our time on earth is by no means guaranteed, and certainly not unlimited. It’s what you do with it that matters.

Work wise, I took a long and beneficial break from doing auditions. I only record for existing clients, and for jobs that land in my lap. It’s all I have time and energy for. But don’t think I spend most of my days in a horizontal position. It’s amazing how much time goes into doctor’s visits, medical tests, endless follow-up appointments, and therapy sessions. Getting well has become my day job, and my night time activity.

Every time I go to rehab and see other stroke patients, I realize how lucky I am. I’m not in a wheelchair. I can communicate. My brain still works, and I have a wife and friends who are there for me, every step of the way. Every week caring colleagues check in with me, wanting to know how I am doing. And when I meet people that haven’t seen me for a while, they are surprised how well I seem to be doing.

However, there’s one thing I haven’t told you about: how the stroke has affected my voice. I’ve kept this quiet because I didn’t want my clients to know and look elsewhere for talent. But since I’m on the mend, I’m ready to share that story with you next week!

Paul ©nethervoice

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Are Clients Walking All Over You?

by Paul Strikwerda in Articles, Career, Freelancing, Money Matters, Personal 18 Comments

Angry manAs a freelancer, I’ve had to learn many lessons.

Some of these lessons came easy. Others were excruciating.

Out of all the things I picked up along the way, these two were perhaps the hardest:

1. How to deal with conflict.

2. How to stand up for myself.

I grew up in a very protective environment, and was taught never to raise my voice. The main philosophy in our house was this:

Most people have good intentions. If you treat them with kindness and understanding, they will treat you in a similar way.

So, when my best friend asked if he could borrow some money, I immediately gave it to him. I think I was eight years old at that time, and I had earned a few bucks by helping out around the house. “You’ll get it back tomorrow,” he said, and I totally believed him.

Of course he never returned a penny, and I couldn’t figure out why. Was it something I had said? Was it something I had done? You see, that was one of my patterns. Whenever something negative would happen to me, I started questioning myself.

This made it harder for me to confront my friend and ask for my money. Part of me didn’t want to risk losing him as my best buddy. Part of me was just too scared to challenge him. “Don’t cause conflicts,” said that little voice in the back of my head that sounded very much like my mother. “People might not like you when you start arguing with them.”

A LOSING STRATEGY

I have to tell you right now: this approach didn’t work for me as a child, and it didn’t work for me as an adult. It left me with no backbone, and it made me vulnerable. Yet, when I started my own business, I did everything I could to avoid conflict by becoming a people-pleaser.

If you’re offering a professional service like I do, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. You want your clients to be happy, and their wish is your command, but there are limits. I found it very hard to say “No,” even when clients made unreasonable demands.

“Could you cancel all your plans and come to our studio for an audition tomorrow? Let’s make it nine o’ clock.”

The next day I cursed rush hour traffic on my way to New York for a cattle call in some obscure basement. I would spend half a day on the highway, and a small fortune in parking fees to audition for a $250 job. It was madness.

“Since you’re a Dutch native speaker, could you check the translation of the script we sent you, just to make sure everything is the way it’s supposed to be?”

Unable to refuse, I would spend the next two hours proofing and correcting a horrible script that had been translated by stupid software. All of this for a cheap client who never said “please,” or “thank you,” and who expected me to do this at the drop of a hat, and for free.

“If I don’t do it, I might lose the job,” I told myself in those days.

Five minutes later, the phone would ring. It was one of my late-paying clients.

“Paul, we’re having some cashflow problems. Is it okay if we pay you in about… six weeks?”

“I’d rather get paid in six weeks than not being paid at all,” I said to myself, and I told the client not to worry. I was going to be the easiest freelancer they would ever work with!

MR. DOORMAT

Looking back, I had all sorts of people walk over me, and I found it increasingly difficult to put on a professional smile, and be okay with being treated like a dirty disposable doormat. Even though I began to resent being disrespected, there were three things I forgot.

1. Ultimately, my ultra-accommodating behavior gave me something I wanted: a way to avoid conflict. I would be seen as the amiable hired helper who always went above and beyond. Who wouldn’t want to work with me?

2. I wasn’t a powerless victim of those who took advantage of me. I was an active participant in the process by allowing people to walk all over me.

3. By behaving the way I did, I created certain expectations. I taught my clients how to treat me.

At the time, I didn’t see it that way. I saw myself as the always accommodating Mr. Nice Guy, smiling on the outside, but suffering in silence on the inside. It was only a matter of time before the last drop landed in the bucket.

PUSHING MY BUTTONS

I had finished recording a technical script for a high-maintenance, unorganized client who always needed everything yesterday. Even though I was swamped, I managed to meet his deadline. Two days later I was getting ready to go to a wedding, when he called me with some drastic changes to the script.

“Don’t blame me,” he said. “I don’t control the people I work for.”

He basically expected me to drop everything and help him out, and here’s the worst part: he wanted me to do it at no charge.

Already in my tuxedo, my frustration finally reached a boiling point, and I snapped at this man with an indignation that had been building up for years. I’ll tell you: when I was done, I felt so relieved!

My client, on the other hand, was speechless. Once he composed himself, he just said a few words:

“I wouldn’t want you to miss that wedding. We’ll go over everything tomorrow, and I’ll make sure you get paid for your time.”

Just like that!

I was stunned.

I looked in the mirror and thought:

“So, that’s what happens when you put your foot down!”

I later apologized to the client for losing my temper, and I thanked him for teaching me a valuable lesson.

BOUNDARIES

This all happened quite some time ago. Eventually, I came to realize that I had to set some professional boundaries. Now, if you’re going through the same things I experienced, you might wonder:

How do you know where these boundaries are? They’re pretty much invisible.

It’s simple, really. You know where your boundaries are by the amount of BS you’re willing to put up with in your life.

As long as you’re okay, no lines are crossed. But if someone or something makes you angry or upset, it’s probably a sign that your boundaries have been violated. You’re likely to find out during some kind of crisis. That’s when you discover who you are, and what’s important to you.

Over the years I have developed very strong boundaries when it comes to rates, professional standards, and the terms and conditions under which I am willing to work with a client or a student.

I no longer drive to New York if a job pays less than $500. My agents know that, and they understand. Most of them will ask a producer if it’s okay for me to send an MP3 audition, instead of making me go to a cattle call. Usually, that’s no problem either.

If clients want me to translate or proof a script, they’ll have to pay me to do it, and payment is expected within 30 days after the invoice is received. I’m happy to record changes to the script after the initial, approved text was recorded, but not for free. 

NEW RESPECT

Did I lose a couple of clients because I refused to put up with their BS? Of course I did, but I was glad to get rid of them. Now here’s the kicker…

Because I was putting my foot down (ever so gently, of course), people started to respect me more.

As my self-confidence increased, their confidence in me increased as well. To my surprise I discovered that being clear about my boundaries lead to less conflict. 

My rate was no longer seen as expensive, but as a sign of professionalism. These days, many clients are willing to do a lot to accommodate me, instead of the other way around.

All in all I’d say that standing up for myself has made me feel better about myself in general, and it has brought more clients to my business.

However, there’s one thing that keeps on bugging me.

Not long ago, the childhood friend I told you about in the beginning, found me on Facebook, and now he wants to connect. It’s been more than forty years since we last spoke, and I’m curious to find out how he is doing. However, I’m reluctant to honor his request.

After all, the guy still owes me money!

Paul Strikwerda ©nethervoice

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Filling In The Blanks

by Paul Strikwerda in Articles, Career, Personal Leave a comment

bartender“It’s too risky, too challenging, too expensive, and you’ll be very lonely”.

That’s what people told me when I announced that I was going to become self-employed. This was many, many moons ago.

I’m sure these folks meant well, but what struck me most was the fact that these self-appointed business coaches were all working in some nine to five job, making money for someone else. They had no clue what it would be like, to be one’s own boss. The idea alone probably terrified them. I say “probably” because I’m not sure.

What happened in these conversations was something that is universally human, and universally flawed: people projecting their own life experiences, values, beliefs, fears, and attitudes onto the life of someone else. Not hindered with practical experience or specific knowledge, they’ll tell you:

“I know precisely what you mean. I know exactly how you feel. I totally get it.”

The question is: Is that really true?

UNDERSTANDING AND BEING UNDERSTOOD

When you hear a seemingly innocent phrase such as “I know how you must be feeling right now,” let me tell you what is actually going on. With a few simple words, your friend, colleague, or family member has become a mind reader, and has managed to shift the conversation away from you and onto them. Hence the prominent use of the pronoun “I.”

They have taken what you wanted to talk about, and used it as an opportunity to refocus the conversation. Perhaps not on purpose, but they did it nevertheless. 

By saying “I know exactly what you mean,” people are also comparing their personal situation to your unique circumstances, as if these two are equal. That is hardly ever the case. Even when situations seem very similar, they rarely are, and people respond to them in their own way. That’s what makes us so interesting, and at times unpredictable.

When people say things like “I know exactly how you feel,” most of us don’t make a big deal about it, unless it concerns something very personal, and there’s a need to be understood. Let me give you an example.

WALKING IN SOMEONE’S SHOES

You may know that my wife has multiple sclerosis. It’s a nasty disease which manifests itself in different ways on different days. One of the most common symptoms is fatigue. Fatigue is different from being tired. It is often described as an acute lack of energy; an unusual and utterly overwhelming whole-body tiredness not relieved by sleep, which prevents a person from functioning normally.

So, when my wife told one of her friends that she was exhausted, and the friend (who doesn’t have MS) responded by saying “I know exactly how you feel,” my wife said:

“Actually, I’m glad you don’t. I would not want to wish this on anybody.”

I remember going to an event where friends and family members were educated about multiple sclerosis. To give me a sense of what it might feel like to experience MS symptoms, a facilitator put weights on my legs which affected my sense of balance.

Blurred vision is another MS symptom, so they had me wear strange goggles that made the world around me look distorted. I could not read a simple text they asked me to read. Then I had to wear thick gloves, and I was instructed to unbutton my shirt, which was totally impossible.

I still remember the frustrating feeling of helplessness as I was wearing this weird outfit. The things I had come to rely upon: my sense of balance, my eyesight, and my sense of touch, were seriously affected. I needed the help of other people to get around and get things done, and I hated losing my independence. For a moment.

Luckily, after a while I could take all these gadgets off, but I tell you: I never looked at my wife in the same way. Never again would I tell her: “I know exactly how you feel.” Even after my limited MS symptom simulation I can’t say I know what it’s like to have an incurable chronic disease. And I hope I’ll never find out.

PERCEPTION AND PROJECTION

Now, this may be an extreme example, but extremes can make things clear. As a human being it is hard not to compare and project. We constantly have to make sense of the world around us, and we use our own experiences as a frame of reference. Based on that I have a few questions for you:

• How often are you aware that your perception is based on projection? 

• How often do you really know what a client means or a what friend feels?

• What would happen if you’d stop filling in the blanks based on your model of the world?

It doesn’t matter if you’re in a personal or in a professional relationship. If you are using your own experience to interpret the world, you are severely limiting yourself, and you’re not doing the other person justice. You’re not even focused on the other person because you’re too busy working things out in your own head.

Or as they say in the East: “You cannot pour tea into a cup that is already full.”

A LEARNING EXPERIENCE

When I give a voice-over student a script and ask him or her to read it as if they were hired to be the narrator, I can predict what is going to happen. The student just starts reading the text. A few paragraphs later I ask them:

“How did you know to read it the way you did? How did you choose the tone, the tempo, the volume, and the accent?”

And most of the time they tell me: “I thought it would sound good this way. That’s all.”

Then I ask:

“Is this what the client wanted?”

“I have no idea,” the student answers. “It’s just a guess. How was I supposed to know?”

“Well, did you ask?” is my response.

And then the coin drops.

You can’t give a client what s/he wants to hear, if you have no clue what it is. You might think you have some idea, but that perception is based on your projection. It’s like asking a bartender to fix you a drink, and he just starts mixing something. Unless you asked to be surprised, you might not like what you are getting, let alone pay for it.

“Am I making any sense?” I asked my student.

“Absolutely,” she said. And then she added:

“Believe me… I know exactly what you mean.”

“Believe me,” I answered.

“You absolutely don’t.”

Paul Strikwerda ©nethervoice

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photo credit: via photopin (license)

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Life’s Unfair. Get Used To It.

by Paul Strikwerda in Articles, Career, Personal 3 Comments
Father and son at the sea shore

My Dad and Me

Jake was a model employee. He’d been with the same company for 45 years, and never missed a day. At his retirement party, he received a farewell gift: a trip for two to Aruba. It was something Jake and his wife had always dreamt of.

A week later, they were on their way to the airport. While going through security, Jake suddenly collapsed, and died of a heart attack.

Jenny was a model athlete: tall, muscular, and motivated. From the age of fifteen she’d won practically every triathlon she took part in. At her Olympic qualifier she crushed the national competition. Two more weeks, and she would be on her way to represent her country.

Friends threw her a farewell pool party. That night, Jenny slipped over an ice cube, and landed on the edge of the pool. With a broken tibia, she could kiss her Olympic dreams goodbye. She never reached her old level again.

A few years ago, Folkert, my father, was diagnosed with prostate cancer. One of his doctors told him he was in the final stages, and advised him to get his affairs in order.

My father began a breakthrough treatment to which he responded remarkably well. Instead of a few months, he was given a number of years. Then he started experiencing new symptoms, completely unrelated to his cancer. Before long he was diagnosed with ALS.

DO YOU HAVE THE ANSWER

What do you make of these stories? How do you respond? What can you possibly say to Folkert, Jenny, and to Jake’s wife?

Is there a satisfactory answer to the question why bad things happen to good people?

Some have tried to come up with something, as if knowing the answer would somehow soften the blow. It doesn’t work that way. In fact, I get very uncomfortable when people attempt to make a wrong right. On what authority are they speaking? What do they know that I don’t?

Please don’t tell me that “everything happens for a reason,” or that it’s “for the better.” Don’t tell me there is a G-d who orchestrates cruel things out of love for his unruly children. Don’t tell me that Jake, Jenny, and Folkert deserved their fate because of some colossal cosmic conspiracy we call karma.

It doesn’t help.

It only hurts.

Yet, in the back of most people’s minds is the belief that we reap what we sow. We get what we deserve. It’s at the heart of the American Dream. If you study, apply yourself, and work hard, you can go from foster care to self-made millionaire. That’s only fair, isn’t it? If you are a good person, good things will happen to you. Good boys get rewarded. Bad boys get punished.

But what about all those bad boys who end up on top? The higher you climb up the corporate ladder, the more selfish, cutthroat executives you’ll encounter. They didn’t get there by playing nice. In certain circles, success knows no mercy. It’s either eat or be eaten. Sharks in fancy suits walk all over gentle Mr. Goody two-shoes, the docile doormat.

WHAT ABOUT YOUR CAREER

A few days ago I had a serious conversation with one of my voice-over students. In the last twelve months, she had invested a nice chunk of change in her studio. She bought a great new mic, a lovely preamp, and even a new computer.

I believe in her, and more importantly, she believes in herself.

When we started our session, she sounded peeved.

“Paul,” she said, “Over the past couple of years I have worked my butt off. You know that. I promised myself to give this voice-over thing a good shot. When I listen back to some of my early recordings, I can tell that I have grown. And when I listen to what else is out there, I know I have something to offer. You said so yourself. But get this…

The other day I told one of my voice-over friends that I was going to audition for that commercial we talked about. I really poured everything you’ve taught me into that audition, and I sounded pretty good, if I say so myself. Guess who got the job? My friend! The one who has zero personality and zero experience. She even let me listen to her audition, and it was mediocre at best.

Be honest with me, Paul. Did I just waste years of my life? Should I sell my equipment? What good did all of that training do if I get beaten by a newbie? It’s so frustrating, and it makes me mad! How long do I have to wait for my big break?”

THE MYTH OF OVERNIGHT SUCCESS

When I heard her question, I had to think of actress Jenna Fischer. You probably know her as Pam from the American version of The Office. She always wanted to be an actor, and she eventually moved to Hollywood to pursue her dream. She fully expected to be working in movies within a year of coming to LA. It didn’t happen that way.

Jenna worked as a temp, she took acting and improv classes, and she borrowed money to make ends meet. At one point she had to wear a pair of shoes with a hole in them because she couldn’t afford anything else. It took her more than six long years before she finally got “discovered.”

Jenna Fischer is a perfect example of the adage that it can take years to become an overnight success. She knows from experience that the (voice) acting business is without guarantees, no matter how talented and motivated you are. When asked about it, she had this to say:

“This business is not fair. It is not like other businesses where if you show up, and work above and beyond everyone’s expectations, you are pretty much guaranteed to move up the ladder. I don’t know why it works out for some and not for others. And when you move here (Hollywood, P.S.) you have no idea which camp you are going to fall into.”

JUST BE FAIR

“Fair” is an interesting concept. Most dictionaries define it as “in accordance with the rules.” Most rules civil societies live by, are practical, logical, and even reasonable. They’re an example of cause-effect thinking: If A, then B. Without rules, life would be chaotic. 

Most of us have unwritten rules that guide our hopes and expectations. To name a few: “If I train hard, and do my very best, I will be successful.” Or “If I live a healthy life, I will live a long life.”

Here’s the problem: those rules aren’t always reasonable, and they are rarely absolute. They only seem that way. What makes sense, and what seems right from our limited perspective, doesn’t necessarily happen. Kind, innocent people die young. Selfish bastards live to be a hundred. No explanation given. 

Secondly: Most people don’t play by our rules. They might not even be aware of them. Perhaps they’re playing a different game altogether, and we don’t even see it. Many decisions that affect us, have nothing to do with us. 

Third: Life isn’t logical. It’s not a matter of “If A, then B.” Usually, it’s: “If A, then D or Z.” People are emotional beings, and what they do isn’t cold and calculated. We forget. We make mistakes. We act impulsively, and break all the rules.

Last but not least: Even though we often think we are, we’re never one hundred percent in control. If we’re physically and mentally healthy, we can control our actions to a great extent, but we cannot control the outcome. Life consists of too many variables. Even perfectionists have to admit that…. at some point.  

NOW WHAT?

So, where does this leave us?

Are we hopeless and helpless leaves in the winds of chance? Should we stop trying to accomplish things, simply because the outcome is uncertain, and likely to be unfair?

I’ll tell you what I think we should do.

We should begin by skipping the question “Why.” “Why me, why this, why now?”

Asking “Why” is asking for a logical, reasonable explanation which you won’t always get. I hate to break it to you, but your rules, conscious or unconscious, don’t apply all the time. 

My student did everything she could to win that audition. There was nothing she could have done to change the preference of the client.

Jenny missed the Olympics because she accidentally stepped on that ice cube. It wasn’t part of some devious celestial plan.

Jake had earned that dream vacation, but he died at the airport because his heart stopped working. Period.

My father did nothing to deserve ALS. There wasn’t anything he could have done to prevent it from affecting him. The question “fair or not fair” wasn’t going to change his condition. He had to learn to live with ALS, and he eventually chose to end life on his own terms.

One last thing, if I may.

Most people tend to contemplate the issue of fairness when they believe they’ve been wronged, tricked, or were denied something they felt entitled to. That’s when they will ask the question “Why?”

When things go really well, and life smiles upon us, we hardly ever ask the question “Why me, why this, why now?”

We take our good fortune for granted.

Think about it.

Is that really fair?

Paul Strikwerda ©nethervoice

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Turning Resistance Into Results

by Paul Strikwerda in Articles, Career, Personal Leave a comment

push upEvery January I see them walk in.

The men and women who told themselves: “I can do this!”

They’re sporting brand new workout clothes, and are wearing fancy gym sneakers that have yet to be broken in. Water bottles in hand, they flock to the eight o’ clock spinning class lead by Helga, a platinum blonde transplant from Germany. Her voice is as muscular as her thighs.

As the newbies adjust their exercise bikes, the regulars look at each other knowingly. We’ve seen this sad ritual many times. Give it a few weeks, and it will all be over. 

BAILING OUT

February has barely begun, and half of the new recruits have already given up. “It wasn’t really my thing” they tell their friends with a faint smile. “But at least I tried, and that’s worth something, right?”

Luckily for them, they only paid for a trial membership. It’s the ultimate cop-out for those who can’t or won’t commit. How do I know?

A few years ago, I belonged to this group of dropouts, and I’m not proud of it. But last year I made a courageous comeback, and today I feel like I’m part of the LA Fitness furniture. To me, a gym workout is the ultimate stress-busting, fat-burning, energy-boosting experience. Here’s something else I discovered along the way.

The microcosm of the gym is a powerful metaphor for the real world. In fact, there are lots of parallels between my professional life as a voice-over, and what’s happening on the gym floor. Do you think this is a stretch? Let’s talk about machines!

1. The best equipment does not guarantee results. It’s how you use it that matters.

People hurt themselves on the gym floor all the time, because they don’t know how to use the equipment. They start lifting, pushing or pulling, without adjusting the machines first.

Willful ignorance leads to lack of results and could be damaging.

This is true in so many contexts. Whether you’re a professional photographer, a graphic designer, or a musician, you need good tools to get the job done. But owning a million-dollar violin means nothing if you don’t know how to play it well. 

In our tiny voice-over bubble, we love to talk gear. Some colleagues seem to be forever searching for the Holy Grail of microphones or preamps. What they’re currently using is perfectly fine, but somehow they think that getting that shiny new mic will give them a tremendous leg up over the competition. 

In my opinion, it’s much wiser to spend your money on a coach who can help you get the most out of your equipment and your performance. But how do you know which coach is right for you? 

2. Effective coaches are role models who practice what they preach.

Let me ask you a question. While you’re at the gym, would you want to be guided by an overweight, uninterested, uninspiring coach? 

Of course not!

I’m sorry to say that many “personal trainers” at my gym just seem to phone their sessions in. There’s no enthusiasm. No encouragement. No pride in the work they do. They’re merely going through the motions, counting the hours until their shift is over. Some seem way too young and inexperienced. That’s probably because they are.

The word “mentor” means “wise advisor.” It comes from the Greek noun “mentos” meaning “intent, purpose, spirit, and passion.” A great coach or mentor embodies all these notions. Wise people are much more than an experienced source of information. They know how to apply that information with purpose and with passion. And they’re not afraid to give you a hard time and hold you accountable for your progress, or lack thereof! Here’s why:

3. Resistance makes you stronger.

Fans of the diving board know that they need the resistance it offers to jump to the right height. In the gym, resistance training increases muscle strength by making the muscles work against a weight or force.  

If you’ve ever tried to get into shape, you know that you sometimes get to a point where you run up against the limits of what you believe is possible. Your body cries out: “no more,” and your mind tells you to quit. Those moments are critical. During those times you need to push through what feels uncomfortable in order to gain strength and grow. Otherwise you’ll always remain in your comfort zone and coast.

Success doesn’t come naturally to those who are always playing it safe. 

Now, as you’re reading these words, something in your personal or professional life may seem to work against you. This leaves you with a choice. You can see these moments as threats, or as opportunities. Obstacles can become stepping stones, although you might not directly see it that way. Here’s some good news.

At certain times you don’t necessarily need to feel discomfort to know it’s time to up your game and go to a higher level. Here’s my rule of thumb (and I use this in the gym as well):

If it becomes too easy, it’s time for a new challenge, and time to raise the bar.

There’s one last thing I learned from going to the gym:

4. Use others as your inspiration, but never as the measure of your success.

It’s human nature to contrast and compare. When I first entered the gym, I was a bit intimidated by all these lean bodies pumping iron. I wondered how long it would take me to get into shape. I had no desire to look like a bodybuilder, but I wouldn’t mind a bit more muscular definition, and a lower number on the scale.

Then I realized that these guys and gals were once just like me. Over time they developed a routine that worked for them, to get into the shape they wanted to be in. They made changes in their diet and lifestyle, and they had trainers who held them accountable.

Above all, they consistently kept coming, rain or shine. They used persistence and resistance in combination with the right equipment and the best mentors.

If they could do it, I could do it.

And I’ll tell you what:

If I can do it, you can do it!

There’s only one question:

How soon are you going to start?

Or will you be walking out the door within a month?

Paul Strikwerda ©nethervoice

PS Be sweet. Please retweet!

PPS Interested in working out? My colleague Rick Lance has published a series of “Fitness Tips from a 32 Year Fitness Novice.”
photo credit: Zac Aynsley Natural Fitness Models 1 via photopin (license)

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The Perfectionism Trap

by Paul Strikwerda in Articles, Career, Journalism & Media, Personal 9 Comments

Drummer“Practice makes perfect.”

It’s one of my least favorite sayings in the English language. Yet, last year, this expression topped a poll of words of wisdom Britons picked up in childhood, and continue to use well into their older years.

It did better than “the grass is always greener on the other side,” and “good things come to those who wait.”

Why do I dislike “practice makes perfect” so much?

First of all, as is true for most clichés, it is a broad generalization. Secondly, perfection is a very loaded notion. Some people believe we should reserve that qualification to describe the divine. 

“Practice makes perfect” assumes that those who work hard will be rewarded. If only that were the case! Life isn’t fair, and hard work doesn’t necessarily lead to success. The millions of Americans who are working their butts off for minimum wage can attest to that.

And finally, I don’t believe we are created equal. Not everyone was born to win Wimbledon, or write a best-selling novel, no matter how hard and how often they may try.

But let’s start at the beginning by looking at the notion of practice.

GOOD INTENTIONS. BAD ADVICE.

People who tell you “practice makes perfect,” are usually trying to be encouraging, but they rarely define what they mean by “practice.” Of course the general idea is that the more one does something, the better one gets at it. As if repetition alone will lead to positive results.

Practicing can be very helpful, but it won’t make you a gold medal winner, or a world-famous musician. There’s one thing that consistent rehearsal will do, though. 

Practice tends to make permanent, but is that always beneficial?

If you practice the wrong things over and over again, you’ll only become better at what you’re not good at. It’s hard to unlearn bad habits.

If you really want to master something, you have to have a natural talent; you have to develop that talent from an early age, and you need what Swedish psychologist K. Anders Ericsson calls “deliberate practice.”

Deliberate practice is a type of practice that’s rich on feedback, aimed at correcting mistakes. Ericsson says it’s the only factor that explains differences in performance in sports, arts, sciences, and intellectual games. Deliberate practice is not something you can do just by yourself. You need precise guidance, evaluation, and accountability.

MORE THAN REPETITION

Guillermo Campitelli is a lecturer at Edith Cowan University. He investigates individual differences in performance, judgements and decisions.

Campitelli has been involved in a study that re-analyzed previous research in the fields of chess and music, including data from Ericsson’s original deliberate practice study.

Campitelli’s research in chess expertise has shown that there is a huge variability in the numbers of hours of individual practice required to become a national master. One player he studied achieved that level after 800 hours (or 2 years). Another did it after 24,000 hours (or 26 years). A significant number of players dedicated more than 10,000 hours of individual practice, and never achieved that level.

His re-analysis showed that, on average, practice only accounts for 30% of the skill differences in music, and 34% of skill differences in chess. Campitelli concluded that deliberate practice is important, but other factors should be taken into account as well. Factors, such as our working memory capacity.

Our working memory capacity or executive functioning, is the ability to store and process information at the same time. Some of us are better at it than others, depending on the gene pool we came from.

People with high levels of working memory, outperformed those with lower working memory capacity in tasks such as piano sight reading, even when the latter group had extensive experience and knowledge of the task (source).

THE FLAW OF FLAWLESS

Practice isn’t all it’s cooked up to be, so let’s now turn to the notion of perfection. I think striving for perfection puts unnecessary pressure on people to achieve something that isn’t necessarily humanly possible, or even desirable.

One way to achieve perfection is to avoid errors. What could possibly be wrong with that? Well, avoiding errors can lead to people sticking to what they already know by playing it safe. That’s boring, and it stifles growth and creativity. Those who are trying to avoid something are usually motivated by fear, which can take away the pleasure of accomplishment. 

If we really wish to make progress, we need to push ourselves out of our comfort zone, take risks, and accept that we will make mistakes along the way, from which we will (hopefully) learn. To me, steady progress is a better and more enjoyable outcome than perfection.

There’s one last reason why perfection isn’t such a great goal.

LISTEN TO THE BEAT

In a lot of popular music, live drummers are being replaced by drum machines. These machines don’t make any mistakes. They’ll give you a consistent, perfect beat every single time. That’s something professional drummers cannot do.

Professional drummers aren’t robots. Even when playing to a super steady metronomic beat, they tend to fluctuate slightly. According to researcher Holger Henning, these variations are typically small, perhaps 10 to 20 milliseconds. Yet, listeners can tell the difference. Not only that, research has shown that these human variations are more pleasing to the ear.

Many electronic music programs now have “randomizing” functions to help producers add imperfections back into the music to give it a more human feel. However, they cannot produce the same rhythmic variety that people subconsciously recognize and prefer. There’s is no improvisation, spontaneity, or heart and soul in software. 

Musician Jojo Mayer says in his mini-documentary Between Zero and One:

“Digital computers are binary machines, which means they compute tasks making decisions between zero and one — yes or no. When we play music and generate it in real-time, when we improvise, that decision-making process gets condensed to a degree where it surpasses our capability to make conscious decisions anymore. When that happens, I am entering that zone beyond zero and one, beyond yes and no, which is a space that machines cannot access yet. That’s the human experience — right between zero and one.”

To put it differently: It’s the imperfections, that make a performance perfect.”

Think about that, if you’re a perfectionist.

Keep it in mind, the next time you wonder if voice actors will ever be completely replaced by text-to-speech software.

Take it from me: It will never happen!

Deliberate practice helps you prepare and perform better, but it doesn’t make you perfect.

And that’s perfectly fine with me.

Paul Strikwerda

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photo credit: Drummer with the cut outs at Oswestry Music Live 2008 via photopin (license)

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The Book and the Cover

by Paul Strikwerda in Articles, Career, Personal 2 Comments

woman wearing a mask“Leave your ego at the door.”

That’s one of the first commandments of many voice-over conferences that are being held throughout the year.

In a world filled with helpful, humble and caring colleagues, why would such a warning even be necessary, you might ask?

I’ll tell you why.

Because no matter where you go, you’ll always find a contingent of pompous, pretentious, big-headed individuals, ready to put you in your place. Even in voice-over circles.

These people will never come to you. They want you to come to them. They love to talk and hate to listen. They’ll interrupt you to change the subject because they’re easily bored. Dropping names is one of their favorite games. They’re eager to criticize and hard-pressed to praise. They specialize in being condescending and cocky because they’ve figured it all out. For them, there’s nothing more to learn.

You’ll find them at universities, hospitals, conservatories, in politics, in business and in places of worship. You’ll find them on Facebook, LinkedIn, on Twitter and in the blogosphere. No matter where you look, you’ll probably spot an emperor wearing very few clothes.

INFLATED EGOS

When I was seventeen, I first entered the world of broadcasting. It’s a world that seems to attract inflated egos and awful attitudes. Fame can turn reasonable men and women into narcissistic fools. Just because their smooth voices were heard on the radio or their plastic faces were on TV, some of them became utterly unbearable.

I’ve never been impressed with self-proclaimed authorities. I have to thank my upbringing for that. As a minister, my Dad was supposed to be one of those authorities. To me, he was just my Dad who put his teeth in a glass on the nightstand before he went to bed. One of his best friends ran a multi-million dollar corporation. I only knew him as uncle Joe who liked to break wind after a good meal. Nothing like a flatulent captain of industry to put things in perspective.

“Money doesn’t buy you manners,” my mother used to say. And she said something else that always stuck with me:

“If you’re full of yourself, there’s little room for others.”

I guess that’s why people say it’s lonely at the top.

Then, one day, I got to meet one of those people at the top. Not only that. I was asked to work with her. Together, we would present a radio program that already had a huge following.

MY BIG BREAK

A nationwide audience adored her, but colleagues called her the “Ice Princess” due to her standoffish demeanor. People warned me that she would likely give me the cold shoulder. After all, I was young, ambitious and very inexperienced. To the network, I was cheap labor who -one day- might replace this expensive, icy icon.

“Now, in order to work with her,” one of the executives told me, “you have to do as you are told. Never question her decisions. Always act interested -even when you’re not- and treat her like royalty. She is the star of the show and you are the sidekick. Remember your place. Then and only then you will stand a chance. Good luck. You’ll need it!”

I still remember the first day I went to work. Friends and family thought it was a dream come true. They were right. It was a tremendous opportunity. It could be the official launch of my career. Yet, part of me was very apprehensive.

On the way to the studio I forced myself to think of uncle Joe and his digestive system. He particularly enjoyed leaving silent surprises in crowded elevators. It worked, because I immediately felt less anxious.

When I entered the hallway, a familiar voice was telling a producer off, while smoking a cigarette. It was her!

“Oh boy,” I said to myself. “Here we go.”

Then the strangest thing happened.

SEEING A GHOST

While the argument with the producer was heating up, my soon-to-be mentor spotted me. As soon as she did, all color disappeared from her face. Undaunted, I began to introduce myself the way I had practiced many times in the mirror. After my first few words she interrupted me and then she disappeared into the studio, slamming the heavy door shut.

Five long minutes later she reemerged with a tissue in hand. Her eyes were red and teary.

“I can’t do this right now,” she said to me. “I really can’t. You have to go now.”

Was this some kind of bizarre test, I wondered? Should I leave or should I stay? Then I remembered the words from the network executive:

“Do as you are told. Never question her decisions.”

That afternoon the phone rang. It was the producer of the radio show.

“Paul,” he said, “I owe you an explanation. It was the weirdest thing. I have known this woman for many, many years, and not once have I seen her like that. She’s usually as tough as nails and distant, but when she saw you, she became overwhelmed with emotion.”

“What happened?” I asked. “Did I do something wrong?”

“I’ll tell you what she told me,” said the producer. “She said you looked like her son.”

“Well, is that a bad thing? I asked.

“She loved her son more than anything in the world,” said the producer, “but there’s something you should know. Ten years ago he was killed by a drunk driver. He was seventeen. Your age. She showed me one of his pictures and the resemblance is striking.”

I was stunned.

A SECOND CHANCE

“Now, here’s the good news,” he said. “She wants you to come back next week.”

“Are you sure that’s such a great idea?” I asked. “How are we going to work together if I all I do is open up a wound?”

The producer thought about it for a moment and said: “I think this might actually be good for her. She wants this. Let’s just see how it goes.”

A week later I came back to the studio and I introduced myself again. This time, she held it together. It was the beginning of something I will never forget. The person some people called the “Ice Princess,” turned out to be one of the warmest and most wonderful people I’d ever met. She took me under her wing, and the many things I learned from her I still use today.

One time after work, we got to talk about her son. She said:

“The day my son died, part of me died, and I became bitter and angry at the world. People who didn’t know me must have thought that I was a self-involved, stuck-up b*tch because I didn’t let anyone in. There still are people who believe I’m rather pretentious and cold. I know I can come across that way. I now realize that this is a mask I wear to protect myself. I need to be strong in order to survive. Ten years after my son’s death there’s still a huge hole in my heart.”

Although I knew I could never replace the son she had lost, I slowly realized that my presence might have a positive effect on her. Other people started noticing it as well.

TRANSFORMATION

Two years later, the network executive who had teamed me up with her, wanted to see me in his office. 

“Ah, there’s the man who made the Ice Princess melt,” he said when I came in. “I knew it would work.”

“What do you mean?” I asked.

“Well, haven’t you seen the changes in the star of our show?” answered the executive. 

“Ever since you began working with her, she gradually opened up and has become more of the person I used to know. She started smiling again. The transformation is pretty amazing, don’t you think? I want to thank you for that.” 

“I don’t think I did much,” I said. “I mainly listened and tried to be there. But I’m curious. How did you know it would work? For one, did you have any idea I looked like her son?” 

“Of course,” the executive responded. “How could I not?

I’m her husband!”

COVERING UP THE PAIN

This wondrous world of ours is filled with all sorts of people. We all have stories to tell. Stories of courage, stories of despair, of jubilation and of grief. Those stories have shaped us into who we are and determine how we respond. We know the chapters that make up our lives intimately. But those who do not know us, often judge us by the cover and not by the book.

I still don’t feel drawn to pretentious people, but over time I’ve learned to get along. For most of them, their attitude is a mask, supposedly protecting them from pain and insecurity. Deep down, they long for recognition, companionship and validation. That’s my theory. And if you take the time to find out what really goes on behind that mask, you may find someone who’s vulnerable, alone and afraid.

Someone with a story.

And then there are people who are just like my uncle Joe.

Eccentric, and full of hot air. 

Paul Strikwerda ©nethervoice
photo credit: pareeerica via photopin cc

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