The Lie of Success

debaseinstallCoaching With Intent

There is a strange sort of reasoning in Hollywood that musicals are less worthy of Academy consideration than dramas. It’s a form of snobbism, the same sort that perpetuates the idea that drama is more deserving of Awards than comedy.–Gene Kelly

Tonight while flipping the stations on a boring, post winterguard season evening, I noticed that Singing In The Rain was on tv. The American Film Institute ranked Singing In The Rain fifth out of one hundred of the best movies of all time. It is considered a masterpiece in almost every creative circle you encounter and I had never seen it.  I remember as a little girl hearing my grandmother talk about Gene Kelly just like my generation talks about George Clooney or Brad Pitt. She adored him. So, I popped some popcorn and poured myself a glass of Bordeaux; perfect for a night of old movies, and sat back to see what all the fuss was about. While watching the movie, I was taken aback by the brilliance of the acting and elegance of the dance. I was enamored by Gene Kelly and every time he entered the screen, all I could think was, “My God! He could act circles around almost every actor in Hollywood today.” It didn’t take long for me to realize why this movie is revered as an American classic.

It was 1952, when Singing in the Rain graced the silver screen, receiving reviews that were considered marginal at best. It was only nominated for two Oscars and neither were for acting or directing. Gene Kelly wasn’t even considered and in fact, Gene Kelly never received an Oscar for any movie he ever acted in or directed; not Singing In The Rain, An American in Paris, or even Hello, Dolly! Yet, Gene Kelly is considered an American icon and undoubtedly one of the most brilliant artists of the 20th century. Gene Kelly won numerous awards in his career, but never an Oscar, and if he did nothing else in his life, what a contribution Singing In The Rain was.
Watching this movie made think about success and what it means to our activity. Success can be defined in a lot of ways, but let’s be honest, making finals in Dayton or having a medal around your neck at headquarters helps solidify the concept of “successful.” There are a million ways to define it and many define it by status. When I was in my 20’s, success was defined purely by placement. I had no body of work to fall back on, so making finals or winning a show was vitally important to my concept of success; as well as my ego. As time went on and I matured, success redefined itself over and over. 

It was Shaktai 1999, when I realized that that placement did not mean success. We were 5ththat year in Independent World and going into Dayton, some people even used the dreaded word “medal.” It was the most successful show that I had been a part of to date, yet I deem that season incredibly unsuccessful. Internal struggles, financial issues, and membership problems all lead to a Saturday night show that bordered on “average.” Ranking fifth that night should have brought a lot of celebrating, but really all it brought us was a lot of drinking. It was then that I learned that placement didn’t make you happy. Over the years in Dayton I have heard people complain about their placement or score and one year, one world class instructor moaned and cried in their cocktail about just being third place, while still wearing their medal around their neck. Needless to say, I wasn’t sympathetic. It was clear that the two of us defined success differently and placed our priorities on different shelves. Neither of us were right or wrong.

Success. What is it? How do we define it? Is it a yearly placement or a body of work? If you read Facebook enough you will inadvertently start to see success through the eyes of lies. No one in their right mind is going to post this as their status: 

“Today we scored a 56.2 and well, we deserved it. The kids dropped 15 times, I couldn’t finish the show in time, and well…these kids are really brats.” Instead what we see is, “Today we scored a 56.2 and although it wasn’t the score we had hoped for, these are the hardest working kids I’ve ever had and looking forward to next weekends show!” 

Sitting in critique as a judge I often ask an instructor what the goals of the guard are and in my best estimate, about 95% of all people respond in this way.

“Well, you know. We want the best for the kids and well…you know. The top 5 of the class would be great, but we are just hoping for a great championships run and being in the big show would be just the icing on the cake. Now I realize that the stars have to align and the President has to declare world peace, but we are hopeful.”

My internal response:

“Oh for the love of God! What is it you want? Do you want to be in the top 5, finals or hope for world peace?”

The answers are always slightly different based on whether the guard is nationally based or locally based, but they all have similar tones. I myself do it with my own guard when asked the same question, except I have gotten too old and have been doing this for so long, that my answer goes something like this.

“Well, I’ll be happy if I can get to the end of the season without taking the entire bottle of Xanax.”

It’s difficult to state our goals to strangers out loud, because if they seem too lofty, then we look stupid. If they seem to low, then we sell ourselves short. Either way, saying them out loud sets us up for a potentially unsuccessful ending to our season. This past February I was judging a show in North Carolina and asked a young guard instructor the question about their goals, but instead of asking about their goals, I decided to ask about their success. I asked, “So how would you define a successful season for your guard?” The dialog that followed was rich and full of honesty. They told me about feeling lost after last season and the freshmen class they hoped to hold on to. They talked about their difficulty with a particular section of the show and hoping to make it out of prelims at Championships. After that, with every show I judged, I started asking many other guards the same question. The answers were amazing and afforded a dialog that many instructors and judges never get to have.

A successful season for some people can mean finals or a medal. For others, they are happy to make it to the end without being financially ruined. Some people define success by improving upon the season before, while others see the kids they have and calculate the progress from beginning to end and are just happy with the kids being happy.

I have noticed over time that even non instructors calculate their success based off of competitive standards. Judges for example are looked at as WGI or local. The WGI manual even addresses the local judge vs. the WGI judge. WGI judges are given credence in the activity if they “are going in,” and if they get “in,” they are valued by which class they judged once they are “there” and if it was a finals show or not. You don’t have to look far for this evidence than the Facebook statuses on Saturday in Dayton. Local judges can be accepted by others based on their experience in the activity. How many times have I heard, “…and who have you taught?”

This year I noticed for the first time that status for the volunteers is also a big deal.

“What’s your assignment?”

“I’m working IO semi-finals. I didn’t get finals this year.”


“I’m at the top of the tunnel. Not the bottom.”

“Ummm…ok. Well my assignment is in the bar. Stool number six. I didn’t get stool number three this year.” (I actually said that to someone)

We all want to be successful; in the marching arts, work, marriage, money, and life. From the moment we are born we are defined by our success and it doesn’t stop until you die. I remember when my son was born and people started in on his success.

“Is he walking yet? Well my little Natalie started walking three days after she was born. She’s now training for the marathon.”

For many of us, our success is defined by looking at others, as opposed to looking in the mirror. As a woman, I never feel thin enough or pretty enough. I look in the mirror and see me. I don’t see a magazine ad trying to sell bra’s only a size 2 teenager would wear, and although I know how those models are touched up, I still see just me and question my looks.  As a professional at the age of 44, I thought I would be further ahead by now.  Forget about that little blip in 2008, called the Great Recession that forced jobs to go away and kept an entire generation from retiring, thus freeing up jobs for my generation. Regardless of the facts, I’m not as successful as I had hoped to be by now. As a mother, Oh dear Lord! As a mother, I’m never going to feel successful. It is Not. Even. Possible! Someone’s kid is always going to be smarter, prettier, more talented, and be able to beat the house in Vegas. How do you compete with that?? As a mother, I’ve resigned myself to being happy if I can simply remember to feed him daily. (To hell with the vegetables)

If in life we can’t feel successful, then how will any of us ever feel successful in an activity where our very fiber is to compete? I use to be medal obsessed. I would see people with a closet full of medals and wonder how I missed that memo from the Universe. I wanted desperately to be in “that crowd.” The older I get though, I realize that my youthful, immature version of success meant achievement. I have never medaled. Not once, but I would hardly call myself unsuccessful. At WGI in 2013, a good friend and much respected member of our pageantry community told me over drinks that he had never medaled. My jaw dropped.

“How is that possible? You’ve done this and this and this and this.”

I listed his accomplishments as if I were reading his bio on Wikipedia. All of those great shows and not one medal. I realized then, that Bob Costas isn’t sitting in Dayton every year reporting for the masses our personal medal count and that medals don’t define success. Every year, every season comes to an end and for every one of us, we wake up on Monday morning, look at ourselves in the mirror and define success and for most of us, it wasn’t whether or not we made finals or judged finals. We look at ourselves in the mirror and weigh our success by the progress we made. We define it by our personal endurance to keep going in a time, when all we wanted to do was quit. We define it by passing on this activity to a new generation in the hopes they will love it as passionately as we do. 

After much soul searching I realized that this season was probably one of the most successful I have ever had and we barely made it out of prelims in Independent A. I realized that I had the ability to start again and go through those pain staking efforts that new programs go through. I started again with a program that was once World Class. I left my ego at the door and shut out the rest of the worlds judgment. I started all over while trying to manage work, home, and daily life. I can honestly say, that I did what many people couldn’t and for that I walked away from the cruel mirror of judgment that once told me I was unsuccessful. 

One day my hope is that we all get to a point where success is not defined by the judgment of society and the accomplishments we place on a resume’, but on the fact that we created a life with a good family, good friends, a good job, and people around us who share the same passion for the arts.