Be Humble: Life is Difficult, Now Get on With It

November 2, 2017

“David, I wanted to let you know I have a whistling CD coming out, and that I may be getting some media attention. Please know that I’m committed to Carlyle.”

“I’m not worried,” he said with a wry smile. “We pay you more than you’ll ever make whistling.”

With that candid assessment, my boss reminded me that however grand my whistling dreams, it’s not a profession that could ever sustain me financially–at least not at a Carlyle-level of income.

Ouch! Any reasonable person would agree with my boss, but I, as well as several other accomplished whistlers, hoped that turning our avocation into a financially lucrative vocation was only one good news article, championship trophy, or TV appearance away from reality. But life rarely works that way.

For whistlers, take-downs and put downs are par for the course. Take the newbie whistling competitors. They are the sole whistlers in their home, family, school, club, or community. No one within earshot whistles as well, or at least as frequently and loudly. For years, they have regaled people at parties or through snippets heard while walking the dog.

“Beautiful.” “Amazing.” “How do you do that?” “I can’t even whistle…you’re great.” The accumulated accolades are heartfelt and subjectively accurate. Like the person on my fateful 1992 hike in the Shenandoah who told me I should do something with my whistling, many of the contestants at the international competition have heard the same thing time and again.

As we all know, dreams colliding with reality can be quite messy. Over the years, I’ve seen many whistlers at the international competition get blown out of the water, not even advancing to the final round, let alone winning any prizes. That’s a tough pill to swallow when you’ve been told how talented you are all your life.

The range of reaction is wide. Most suck it up and vow to do better next time, while a few are shocked and cry foul. From the competitors, the organizers of the competition have heard it all: “The judges are biased…the rules aren’t clear or fair…the machine playing the backup music is defective.” In eleven years of completing in and judging the competition, I never experienced or witnessed any bias. That doesn’t mean everything and everyone was perfect. Nothing ever is. Best I can tell, though, the organizers and judges worked hard to be fair to all competitors, and they did it all for free. None of them ever took a salary, and among the organizers, none of them was even a whistler.

I understand why people are upset when they lose. Ego is powerful. It’s a great motivator. Would we have iPhones if Steve Jobs was not madly driven to achieve? We can go through life thinking the world owes us something, or we can focus on earned success. The latter, I believe, is so much more satisfying. It requires, when things don’t go as planned or hoped, that we look first in the mirror to see what we did wrong or could have done better. Only after that should we look elsewhere for causes to our disappointment. But who wants to be that blunt with themselves? It’s hard and can be pretty ugly.

Competitions that rely on subjective scoring (versus the time-clock), will always be tougher on the ego. Though I won the grand championship four out of nine times, that means I lost five times–four of which were not pleasant. (I had zero expectations the first time I completed, so coming in second in the ‘popular’ division was a great and unexpected treat).

Two on the nine times I completed, I thought I was a shoe-in for grand champion, but came in a second one time and won nothing another year. The time I walked away with nothing (the 1997 international competition), I was particularly galled. In 1996, I had won every major prize: First Place Popular, First Place Classical, and First Place Grand Champion. That year, I was also given the Lillian Williams Whistler of the Year award. As I had looked to defend my crown, I had momentum, mojo, and confidence in large quantities. I prepared vigorously and gave it my best. Despite all that, I won nothing…NOTHING! I was shocked and disappointed.

It was especially tough to go home and have to confront my family, friends, and media, who assumed I would win again. That humbling experience taught me how to be honest and straightforward. When people asked how I did, I didn’t beat around the bush. I actually found that speaking of the smack-down with explicit and even colorful language helped me accept it.

I got used to saying, “I got blown out of the water. The guy who won, Tanguay Desgagne, a fantastic whistler from Canada, did a great job and deserved it.” I approached my loss in 2004 the same way. That was supposed to be my comeback after a three-year break, but I tied for third place in the grand championship. To keep myself honest through the years, I’ve always said I tied for third, rather than just cutting corners and saying I came in third place. It is accurate, fair to the guy I tied with, and I find it liberating to be so precisely honest about an unpleasant thing.

After the 1997 blow-out, I licked my wounds, redoubled my efforts, and two years later won the first of back-to-back championships. Following a three-year drought, those final victories were particularly satisfying.

Among many other humbling whistling experiences, one stands out. In 2003, I convinced my wife that we should spend $30,000 to produce a whistling CD. I wanted to get it right the first time, so I hired a project manager, an assistant, a forty-two piece symphony orchestra, an experienced conductor, and a CD fabrication house. A year later, the CD was done, and it was time to sell them. It was a fascinating experience that taught me a lot about myself and human nature in general.

Unexpectedly, strangers and acquaintances excitedly bought CDs by the dozen (one guy bought fifty…everyone on his Christmas list got one). This heartened me. Meanwhile, some close friends and family members took a pass and didn’t even buy one. One person even came to my CD launch party and left without one. In the scheme of things, it was an inconsequential outcome, but it was among the most humbling experiences of my whistling career.

This is when a loving and clear-eyed spouse especially comes in handy. My pouting was met with tough love. Kristen reminded me of my Libertarian views: people should be free to do what they want. She asked if I wanted my friends to buy CDs because they felt obligated to do so, or worse, because they felt sorry for me. Of course not, I said. But it still hurt. I developed a new appreciation for an expression: Life is difficult, now get on with it.

On the other end of the spectrum, whistling also taught me how to humbly and confidently accept compliments. That may seem like a contradiction, but it’s not–they are opposite sides of the same coin. Responding to well wishes from someone can be tricky. You don’t want to be too cocky and act like your award-winning performance was easy, like you could have knocked it off in your sleep. Nor do you want to wrap yourself in faux humility and say you’re shocked you won, or point out all the mistakes the person offering the compliments obviously missed.

What I learned over time is to respect the judgement of the person saying nice things, whether he or she is a music critic or the owner of a tin ear. If someone says, “I really enjoyed your performance,” there’s only one proper response: “You are kind to say that…thanks very much.” Full stop. No explaining or qualifying, otherwise you risk insulting the person offering the compliment.

I whistled “Happy Birthday” at a friend’s fiftieth birthday party recently. Afterwards, a number of people came up to me and said nice things and asked how I developed this talent. If its the first or the thousandth time, the response has to be the same: “Thank you very much.”

(Find this and other stories in my new book Find Your Whistle: Simple Gifts Touch Hearts & Change Lives.)