I happened to see a piece on CBS Sunday Morning featuring Carrie Underwood, one of the top female country singers working today. Even if you aren't a country music fan, you may have seen her singing the theme song for Sunday Night Football, or if you were lucky enough to be tuned in for the 2005 American Idol finale, you would have seen her win the final round. The rest, as they say, is history. Her debut album, Some Hearts, became not only the best-selling country album in the former fifteen years, it became the best-selling country female debut album of all time!
Carrie grew up in Checotah, Oklahoma, and by all accounts was a typical teenager and young adult, albeit a very smart one, graduating as Salutatorian of her high school class and magna cum laude from Northeastern State University with a degree in mass communications and journalism (this after she won American Idol). What I found especially interesting about this stage of her life is that she regularly performed for local events and talent shows where thousands of people heard her sing, but no one was running through the streets shouting about her talent, which was just as amazing then as it is now. When she won Idol, many more people heard her, but that did not propel her into super stardom. What did?
She won first place in the biggest talent show on earth at the time. She MUST be great. There is no other conclusion to which a reasonable person could come. Carrie's talent didn't change. Her personality didn't change. Her work ethic didn't change. Her level of courage didn't change. People's PERCEPTION of her changed.
It's intrinsic in our nature to raise some people up while we pass others by, just as smart, driven and talented. We develop hierarchies from presidents to prisoners, kings to commoners, generals to privates, CEOs to secretaries, stars to sidemen. No matter what profession, trade or tribe you find yourself in, the only way to break out of your place in that particular hierarchy is to change the way you are perceived.
It's been said that a successful person does what others are unwilling to do. That carries the connotation of working harder and longer at the dirty or un-glamorous part of the job, but I think the heart of it is that some are willing to go to literally any length to change the way others see them. I've heard some very famous hacks who didn't get to where they are on their talent. They got there because they were able to make people believe they had something special, something that put them higher in the pecking order.
That is the mandate for those of us seeking to be heard above the clamor and the apathy. From an entirely pragmatic point of view, that means honing our abilities to the finest point we can, networking our butts off, engaging in consistent, constant and shameless self-promotion, doing a lot of benefits and freebies, learning not to be our own worst enemy, presenting an amazing brand, and being good people and friends to those around us. If you have a plan and follow it but it doesn't work, make a new one and follow it, and if that doesn't work, make another. Be realistic, relentless and selfless, doing any and every part of the job.
There is no magic fairy dust for changing perception, but there is a formula. Use it and you may just find that, unlike the zebra, you can change your stripes.