What I've Learned From Watching American Idol

Last Updated Jun 2, 2011 3:39 PM EDT

Let me come clean. I use some of my other 8 hours to watch American Idol. I know what you're thinking, "But aren't you all about maximizing productivity/efficiency and trying to squeeze as much from each day as possible?" Yup. But there has to be some time for fun and brainless recreation, and it turns out I've actually learned a valuable lesson from the show.

American Idol is not about getting the most votes and it's not about trying to appeal to as many people as possible. It's not really even about winning. It's about carving out a unique niche and taking risks.

Look at some of the past season's winners and losers. The most successful contestants have been both winners, such as Kelly Clarkson and Carrie Underwood, and "losers" like Chris Daughtry and Kellie Pickler. The latter two didn't win, but they got record deals and have sold millions of albums -- a lot more than many of the "winners." Winning doesn't guarantee success -- just ask Taylor Hicks who was dropped from his record label.

So what's the key to being one of the success stories, if not an actual winner on the show? Taking risks. Week after week I see the majority of contestants playing it safe -- just trying to capture a few more votes and get through to the next round. And week after week the newest judge, Kara DioGuardi, hammers them to "show us what kind of artist you are" and "put your personality into the song."

Of course, if you stand out you'll get noticed -- and you might get criticized. Ouch. What's worse than that? Well, how about being faceless and forgotten? Playing it safe might keep you around a few more weeks, though you'll probably be voted off the show eventually. But the real problem with playing it safe is that once you're out of sight, you'll be out of mind as well. I'd rather be voted off earlier but have created a brand for myself than stick around longer and be forgotten.

Likewise in the real world. Whether you're in an interview, on a sales call, or in a bar trying to get a date, playing it safe isn't going to get you anywhere. Here are a couple of ideas on how to ditch safe and stand out:

  • Re-think risk. Safe isn't really safe -- it might feel good, but it will guarantee failure. The folks on the Titanic had two choices. They could jump onto a small life raft in the cold dark waters, or they could do the safe thing and stay on the huge and "unsinkable" vessel. In this case, the "safe" thing got you killed and the "risky" thing saved your life. Think success vs. failure instead of safe vs. risky.
  • Be memorable. Do something nobody else is doing. Going on a job interview? Bring a list of 101 specific things you can do for the company on day one. Or build a PowerPoint presentation around your resume. Look at what everyone else is doing, and then do something different.
It's every contestant's worst fear: When Idol judge Simon Cowell says the "k" word -- karaoke -- it means you gave a forgettable, second-rate performance. Stop living karaoke. Get out there and own the stage. You have nothing to lose and everything to gain.

(One more thing . . . go Adam!)

(American Idol image by kwalk628, CC 2.0)

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    Robert Pagliarini is obsessed with inspiring others to create and empowering them to live life to the fullest by radically changing the way they invest their time and energy. He is the founder of Richer Life, a community of passionate people who want to learn and achieve more in life and at work. He is a Certified Financial Planner and the president of Pacifica Wealth Advisors, a boutique wealth management firm serving sudden wealth recipients and affluent individuals. He has appeared as a financial expert on 20/20, Good Morning America, Dr. Phil, Dr. Drew's Lifechangers and many others.