How To Succeed At Almost Anything, Even If You Kind Of Suck At It

(Note: This is an older post, repurposed from my long-abandoned Medium account. It’s a bit wordy, but gets the point across. Enjoy.)

I’ve never had a beautiful singing voice. Actually, by most standards it’s pretty average.

But for 10 years I made a living as a classical singer. I performed the greatest musical works in front of hundreds of people, often as a soloist.


Well, I love to sing of course, but that’s nothing special. The difference was discovering and improving the strengths that made success inevitable.

Here’s how it happened.

I started music school at 24 years old. I lacked formal voice training, but had sung in choirs (and played in rock bands) in high school.

When I entered the voice program at Vancouver Community College I quickly noticed that:

  • There were people with beautiful, natural voices who were pretty lousy musicians
  • There were people with good musical skills who had average to OK voices
  • The people who had both amazing voices and strong musical skills were few and far between.

Now, I knew I was no Pavarotti. I would never sing at the Met. But after a month of classes I discovered I had a good ear and could learn music quickly.

So I made a decision.

Instead of focusing on technical singing, I worked on what I could rapidly improve. For me, that was ear-training, sight-singing, and memorization.

Every day from 7am, I was at a campus piano. I worked on my voice, a bit. But voice exercises are boring. I had more fun learning notes and turning them into musical phrases.

If you don’t know, phrasing is HOW you play or sing the notes — it’s what turns notes on a page into music. It makes average musicians sound professional. This was key for me.

To get better faster, I threw myself into performing. I sang with 3 separate vocal ensembles that year, two classical and one jazz.

One of the faculty noticed my skills and work ethic, and by 2nd year I had a job in his choir.

I started  my first singing job at the ‘deep end of the pool’. We performed 2 new pieces every week for church service so there was a lot of learning on the fly. Sometimes the music was damned hard — which accelerated my skills even more.

There were weekly opportunities for solos in front of an audience, and I learned a lot from the pros in the group.

Plus, I developed a reputation as a leader. I learned new music quickly, so I taught the people around me. Even the naturally gifted singers in the group viewed me as an equal.

The best part? They paid me!

After a couple of years I was working with 4 different groups and as a tutor.. Plus there were the inevitable Christmas gigs, dressed in phoney Dickensian finery — coming to a mall near you! It was a ton of fun.

When I graduated college I transitioned right into a full-time working musician.

I wasn’t rich — hell I was broke most of the time — but I was DOING IT.

Over the years, my singing voice improved, of course. But I can count on 1 hand the number of times I sounded like a “proper” classical singer.

Most of the time I was just the guy hitting the right notes at the right time and making it sound musical.

In my 7th year of working, a conductor called me to fill in — last minute — for his tenor soloist who had fallen sick. It was a Beethoven Mass, singing in front of full choir and orchestra. I had 10 days to learn the part.

I nervously said yes.

Rehearsal the week before the performances was a gong show. I blew entrances, came in on wrong notes, and got lost in the quartets.

But because of my strengths, I saw a way through, and knew that I would probably be fine by show time.

I locked myself in my apartment for 3 days, focused on what I knew would save me, and nailed the performances.

Next season, the same conductor asked me to be a soloist in the Mozart Requiem, one of the great pieces of Western music. Bigger orchestra, bigger audiences, harder music to sing.

But by that time I knew why I was there — I had earned it.

Those nights were the greatest of my singing career and I’ll cherish them forever.

And looking back it sounds funny, but all this happened because I chose NOT to work on my voice.

Rather than struggle with the weaker parts of my game, I focused on my strengths and let them turn me into a professional.

And this approach works for more than music. Most successful people I’ve talked to, in multiple disciplines, have a similar story.

Natural talent, it seems, is no match for optimizing your strengths and building leadership skills.

So if you want to master something that you suck at, stop struggling. Find your strengths, nurture them, and look for opportunities to lead others.

I promise you’ll get further than you imagined.


I write the words that make the whole blog sing. I can also eat a family sized bag of chips in one sitting. So yeah, I'm pretty rad.

Click Here to Leave a Comment Below 2 comments
Andrew J Titcombe - yesterday

Fascinating so I checked you out. Great review here http://www.vivaldichoir.org/creport-magic.htm. I have been involved with the music business for many years (including working for a few years with CBS Records & managing singers and groups ) and your advice is timeless and across niches Thanks Nathan Do you have any music on youtube I wondered?

    Nathan - yesterday

    Hahaha Andrew! My past comes back to haunt me! Love it, thanks! 😀

    Yes those days are fun to remember, and I’m glad the message made an impact.

    Sadly, no. Most of my performances were before You Tube and capturing every second of life on a device was a ‘thing’. Thank goodness… I can remember it as something more glorious than it probably was! 🙂

    Talk soon.


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