Making Mistakes like a Little Mermaid

July 1, 2022 by Gregory Offner

Credit: Lara Akal

Ok, stick with me for a moment…I know this is a strange beginning for a story written by an adult man…HOWEVER:

Remember in the movie, Ariel is a Mermaid and has a beautiful voice; it’s what she’s known for. The whole Mermaid Kingdom knows how special this is; everyone except Ariel it seems.

Ariel is bored with singing and instead yearns to explore, and generally to be anywhere other than under the sea (in a classic, grass is greener kind of way).

Somewhere along the line Ariel becomes infatuated with the “surface dwellers” — the “regular world” — humans — and makes a shrine of trash and detritus that accumulates along the ocean floor.

Human relics like Dinglehoppers (forks) and Snarfblatts (meerschaum pipes) etc. As the story unfolds, Ariel rescues and falls in love with a “Prince” and in a moment of weakness, exchanges her voice for access to the world of “surface dwellers” — this is where we’ll cease our comparison.

If you’re interested in the rest of the story, and perhaps have lived under a rock for the last 30 years, you can buy the movie on Amazon Prime for $19.99. Spoiler Alert: everyone lives happily ever after.

This basic movie premise ‘shook’ me the other day, because of some events that happened in my own life.

I’m no mermaid, but my musical abilities have always been better than usual, and even led me to a 12 year career as a professional singer/entertainer.

Can you find Billy Joel in this picture?

I’ve been blessed to entertain thousands around the world; perform on 3 continents; perform in 9 countries, and best as I can count 12 states.

In September 2015, everything changed.

To back up just a bit, I graduated from college with a dual degree in Music and Philosophy…I know what you’re thinking…this guy must be RICH RICH RICH RICH RICH!

But in truth, after graduation I stopped pursuing my passion because it seemed to entail eating a lot of Ramen noodles, and wondering if I would ever have a savings account.

In my infatuation with success, in my curiosity with the “regular world”, and partly out of my intense competitive nature, I pushed my vocal cords to the breaking point.

See, in my quest to fit in with everybody else, I had abused what made me special. I was a singer…that was in my soul. But (to keep with the little Mermaid analogy, Money = Legs) I needed “legs” to walk on land.

So instead of resting my voice like professional singers do, instead of treasuring my gift, I would spend all day talking on the phone; talking in networking meetings; talking on sales calls; talking to customers…and then I would hit the bar for happy hour and talk some more.

I gave my voice NO rest, and when you layered on top of that my penchant for Marlboro Lights, Jack Daniels, and consuming the occasional double cheeseburger 5 minutes before bedtime (hello nighttime reflux) it’s a wonder I made it this far in life in the first place.

Nevertheless, critical intervention was required; and even the best vocal surgeon in the world said my situation was dire.

He said my singing voice and speaking voice were in such bad shape that if he did nothing I would lose my ability to speak permanently. With surgery, the odds became 50/50; but that even then he could make no guarantees.

That’s me on the Operating Room table, during vocal cord surgery

Between 2015 and 2020 I would undergo 15 surgical procedures (13 on my voice, 2 to rebuild a valve in my stomach related to acid reflux issues) each removing harmful material from the vocal cord and requiring a significant period of total silence post-surgery.

Not a whisper, not a peep.

For 2 weeks after each surgery, my only method of communicating with “surface dwellers” was a mini dry-erase board, or if possible via text message over dinner.

Interestingly, my wife and I rarely argue, but it was during these monastic periods of silence where we fought constantly. It turns out that when you take two very communicative people and remove one voice…you begin to have challenges.

Yep — how cool am I, with my whiteboard on the dance floor… (facepalm)

On top of that, it’s hard to continue a successful career in sales when you can’t speak or network.

So what’s the point?

Well, like Ariel, I discovered some interesting things about myself and my fellow surface dwellers during these periods of silence (try doing it for an hour at a cocktail party and you’ll have a small dose of what it was like to be me):

1. Your true friends show up when the way you show up changes.

I’m not going to call anybody out, but it was certainly interesting to see who avoided me and who made the effort to “meet me where I was” when my ability to socialize and participate changed.

Accommodations had to be made during my recovery because certain places were too loud for me to talk safely as my voice recovered. Even today, I have to use an amplification device in certain settings because this voice is going to take years to fully heal.

Just because I lost my voice, didn’t mean I lost my intuition and when you face challenges in your life you will find it interesting to see who shows up to meet you where you are; and who slinks back into the shadows like Flotsam and Jetsam.

2. I’m much stronger than I imagined; and so are you.

Just to be clear, there are men and women out there who have been through WAY more challenging circumstances than me.

This point isn’t a ‘whose tragedy is bigger’ contest — but to each of us stress and trauma is relative. To a teenager, that first breakup is truly traumatic; but to a 30 year old, it’s nothing a pint of ice cream and a good weekend with friends can’t fix.

We often hear about “post-traumatic stress” but what’s lesser known is “post-traumatic growth”.

Science shows us that in times of stress and pressure we humans grow the most, and when I look back and see who I was before all this I’m so much happier with who I have become.

When you face your own challenges, it’s hard in the moment to see thing as happening for you…it’s painful and life can seem unjust. But there are brilliant surgeons out there whose sole interest in medicine came because they lost a loved one to disease.

There are poets, authors and actors whose childhood trauma informed some of the most brilliant works of our time. There are world leaders who shaped history, only because of their personal history with oppression, racism, and brutal living conditions.

Muscles grow from heavy weight, and intense pressure makes the most beautiful diamonds.

3. My identity was so tied up in my voice that I had to do some deep soul searching to “reconnect” with myself.

This may resonate with some of you who look at your work as a calling or career; rather than a job.

If you’re a lawyer, doctor, teacher, investor — you may find it hard to define where you end and your profession begins. This creates a deep depression when forces outside your control cause you to reckon with disassociation.

Layoffs happen, life happens — take a moment each day to reconnect with the true YOU; not one defined by your profession but YOU on YOUR terms.

I know that may sound “spacy” and a little “fluffy” — but try it anyway. Here’s a good resource to get started.


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