The Essence of Excellence

Some have called him the greatest performer of spoken word of our time.

His videos have brought YouTube viewers to tears. His powerful performances turned comic book addicts into poetry lovers.

In 2000, he won the individual championship at the National Poetry Slam in Providence, Rhode Island – beating 250 North American competitors. In doing so, he became the first-ever winner from outside the U.S.

His first published collection, Visiting Hours, was the only work of poetry selected by the Guardian, Globe and Mail newspapers, for their Best Books of the Year lists in 2005.

And yet, most people have never heard of him.

OLYMPIC MOMENT

All of that changed when Shane Koyczan recited his poem “We Are More” at the opening ceremony for the 2010 Winter Olympics held in Vancouver, British Columbia. The man who was born in the obscure town of Yellowknife in Canada’s Northwest Territories, wowed the world with his words.

Most footage of that performance is of very poor quality because the Olympic Committee regulates the rights to the original broadcast and we’re stuck with amateur video.

Here’s an extended and animated version of “We Are More” (click on Watch on YouTube).

The reason I’m writing about Shane today can be summarized in one word:

I N S P I R A T I O N

Most days I wake up on the right side of the bed and everything just flows. Some days I feel stuck in a rut and I catch myself doing the same things I’ve always done, hoping to get a different result. It never works, does it?

To some, living life on cruise control might be the ultimate goal, but as soon as I find out that my brain has secretly switched on the autopilot, I tell it to turn it off and start doing some stretching exercises.

A big part of me has this inner urge to always learn and grow and expand what I am capable of. In order to do that, I need to be challenged beyond my boundaries. It’s the best way to escape my cozy comfort zone. But where to go? Whom can I turn to?

I am always on the lookout to emulate excellence. If I want to be the best, I have to learn from the best. That might sound straightforward to you, but in our culture that is not necessarily the predominant philosophy.

ROLE MODELS

I never understood why medical researchers seem to spend more time studying illness instead of learning about wellness. During their training, doctors-to-be poke around in dead bodies, supposedly learning the secrets to saving the living. They spend most of their time around the sick and the dying, and some of them eventually become specialists in a particular disease.

The study of the dysfunctional is the norm, but it doesn’t have to be.

In certain schools of Oriental medicine, doctors get paid to keep the people in their care healthy. Their focus is much more on preventing the root cause of a problem, rather than on treating or alleviating symptoms. Instead of trying to find a cure for diabetes, they are teaching their “patients” (they call them “students”) about a healthy diet and an active lifestyle.

It is a well-known fact that Western doctors have more problems with drugs and alcohol, and a higher suicide rate than their patients. (source) Most Oriental healers practice what they preach and keep on practicing well into their senior years. In their culture, the wisdom that comes with age is held in high regard, instead of hidden in underfunded assisted living facilities.

FINDING FAULT

Like doctors, many professionals are trained to spend most of their time on sick systems, tracking and analyzing problems. Psycho-analysts come to mind, as well as lawyers, economists and -dare I say it- politicians. We have become masters at focusing on what’s wrong and finding someone or something to blame.

“Fast food and soda made me fat. I didn’t do it!”

What would have happened after 9/11, had we invested just as much money and brain power into building bridges between people, cultures and religions, as we have invested in beefing up homeland security? Or have we ignored the causes while we were busy trying to treat the symptoms?

Why not focus on creating beauty and cultivating friendships as we fortify our nation to prevent more death and destruction? How can we sow the seeds of peace and understanding if we spend all our money and manpower building more barriers and billion-dollar walls to protect us? Is that a sign of desperation or of inspiration?

CHOOSING POETRY

I admit it: I have my dark days. When I look for inspiration, I sometimes turn to poetry and to my favorite poet: Shane Koyczan. He’s called a spoken word virtuoso for a reason.

As a professional speaker, I admire the way he hammers his words in with heart and with soul. They almost burn into my brain. I’d love to emulate his mastery of language and moving delivery. His artistry is the challenge I am looking for. His depth is what I aspire to.

Shane speaks to me in a way few other people do. One moment he seems to tenderly touch his words with velvet gloves, only to start building a tremendous crescendo of ideas and similes and associations my mind tries to process intellectually but cannot, until what’s left is an overwhelming feeling of intense exaltation.

It’s almost a hypnotic induction.

A great example of his style is the poem “Beethoven”. Even though the quality of the recording leaves a bit to be desired for, it is a monumental performance.

Shane Koyczan still performs his work for sold out houses, but he has done something else. He created a new genre called Talk Rock with his band the Short Story Long. His unique mix of song and verse won him the “Best New Artist” award at the BC Interior Music Awards.

WORD POWER

Even though the poetry corner at my bookstore seems to be shrinking, the spoken word is alive and kicking. And I can’t help but wonder: what would happen if the world would feed itself with the art of poets, painters, dancers and musicians instead of with the language of hate, discrimination, intolerance, fanaticism and violence? 

I also wonder how we as voice-over artists can do our part to change this world through the words we speak.

If you ever need inspiration, just listen to Shane.

To me he personifies the essence of excellence.

Paul Strikwerda ©nethervoice

PS What inspires you? Who is your inspiration?

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About the author

Paul Strikwerda

is a Dutch-English voice-over pro, coach, and writer. His blog is one of the most widely read and influential blogs in the industry. Paul is also the author of "Making Money In Your PJs, Freelancing for voice-overs and other solopreneurs."

by Paul Strikwerda in Articles, Journalism & Media, Personal

7 Responses to The Essence of Excellence

  1. Craig Williams

    Thanks for introducing me to Shane. I had never heard of him and, in truth, not very familiar with slam poetry. Yet, it is spectacular! There is just something amazing about putting a group of words together in a way that can change how a person feels. Just words, but how powerful they can be.
    Thanks Paul!

    [Reply]

    Paul Strikwerda Reply:

    My upcoming talk at VO Atlanta is going to be “The incredible power of words.” It’s about the things you describe in your comment. Words change lives. Let’s be careful how we use ’em!

    [Reply]

  2. Paul Boucher

    Hi Paul – I saw Shane perform earlier this year. He brought me to tears a few times, made me laugh out loud a few times, had me nodding or shaking my head at various points. Super powerful – and I’m glad you shared the resource for others to discover.

    To paraphrase the TED folks, Spoken Word worth spreading.

    [Reply]

    Paul Strikwerda Reply:

    When Shane comes to the East Coast I want to see one of his shows, especially after what you just told me. I can’t wait!

    [Reply]

  3. T Diaz

    Beautiful, just really beautiful, and having written poetry myself for many years, this blog truly resonates. Thank you for sharing, Paul!

    [Reply]

    Paul Strikwerda Reply:

    You’re very welcome. We both share the same love of language.

    [Reply]

  4. John Kissinger

    “I never understood why medical researchers seem to spend more time studying illness instead of learning about wellness.”

    This well-said statement sums up one of the most troubling issues of our time — our obsession with what’s wrong, rather than what’s right.

    While historically, biologically, and evolutionarily our survival depended on hypervigilance and our keen ability to detect danger, we’re now drowning in it — a world full of problems with very little focus on meaningful solutions.

    But even the word “solutions” presumes there are problems. More to the point, we’re obsessed with what’s wrong, rather than talking about what’s right with the world or directing our attention toward stories of triumph over tragedy, toward the great works of so many that might just buoy the human spirit in what otherwise feels like the beginning of the end.

    Our political system is self destructing, our news media is collapsing under the weight of negativity, and our world feels like it’s becoming more polarized, more fractured, and more ineffectual than ever. All because of our obsession with problem over prevention — or the speed with which we forget about our other human superpowers, like empathy, compassion, joy, love, and all of the other positive emotional gifts with which we’ve been bestowed.

    Please forgive me if that sounds sanctimonious, PollyAnna-ish, self-evident, preachy, or naive. It’s simply true. And, it simply bears repeating. We could do with a bit more positivity even in our own industry too. Sometimes, even the most giving and supportive industry ever, feels like we’ve devolved into eating ourselves from the inside out — as we fight over rates, professional standards, and jockey for position in the superstar pecking order. But, it needn’t be that way.

    As a few of your readers who know me are aware, I am both a voice actor and a leadership, learning, and customer/employee engagement consultant to Fortune 500 companies. And, while there is hardly a shortage of business consultants out there — in effect, “doctors” to corporations —most of them, like real doctors, focus on organizational and individual problems, rather than building and leveraging strengths, or focusing on the positive core that lies buried under the rubble of corporate politicking. It’s certainly how I was trained — to focus on the causes of problems.

    But, there is an increasing body of research and literature that reveals a surprising, almost counterintuitive, truth about business success — when we focus on what’s right, when we lead others with positivity, when we build emotional resilience and intelligence, and when we seek out and capitalize on our strengths, rather than our weaknesses, ALL of the dials, needles, numbers, and metrics move in a positive direction. Employee engagement goes up, customer loyalty and advocacy goes up, and profits soar.

    Just as the field of Positive Psychology has demonstrated remarkable potential over the past few years and is so needed in our world today, so too has the field of Positive Organizational Scholarship. For more info, look at some of the great work being done out of the business schools at Case Western Reserve University and the University of Michigan.

    In short, positivity is the difference maker. And I so appreciate you, Paul, continuing to be a beacon of light in what often feels like dark times. Thanks for all you do!

    [Reply]

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