"Race Cars and American Idol" by Mike Donahue

Race Cars and American Idol

I love the game “Two Truths and a Lie” because I always win. One of my truths that is almost impossible to believe about me is that I was on American Idol, the TV show. See, you don’t believe me either. A few years ago, I was speaking in a school in Idaho. When I was finished, a girl came right up to me, stood about a foot from my face, and said, “I really loved your assembly.” I said, “Thank you.” Then she fired right back with, “But I’m still going to smoke pot.” As the speaker, I suppose I should have been offended right? After all, I just got done speaking to the whole school for an hour about right choices. But instead of being offended and doubling down on my message to her personally, I asked her some questions. I asked, “What is your name?” She said, “Rose.” I asked, “What is your story, Rose?” She went into detail about her crazy life. Both parents had died before she was fifteen. She had been couch hopping with different relatives that really didn’t want her there, and she was now living with a friend from school and her family until she graduated.

She went into a lot more detail, and I thought to myself, no wonder she’s self-medicating with marijuana. Her life is chaotic, with absolutely no stability at all. Then I asked Rose, “What is your dream? If you could do anything with your life, what would you do?” She didn’t hesitate. She talked for twenty minutes about singing and making a difference in the world. She shared pieces of her worldview and what she thought was wrong with society; she went on and on. It was precious. I talked with her about those things and encouraged her to pursue her dreams at any cost. I said, “Rose, you can’t change your past, but everything in front of you is your choice now. Go make it happen. That’s how you will end up living a fulfilled life.” I gave her a copy of my book and thought I would never see her again.

A year later I got a call on my business line from her, and the first thing she said to me (after she explained who she was and where she was from) was, “You helped me get off drugs and live my dream, and I just called to say thank you.” I was taken off guard a bit, so I said, “What is your dream? What are you doing?” She said, “I’m a singer now. I sing.” I said, “Oh, that’s great, where are you singing, at church?” She said, “No, I was on American Idol.”

At first I was a little skeptical, but the more she described what happened after she met me, the more convinced I became that she was telling me the truth. Eventually I saw the episodes that she was on, and we became friends. She made it to Hollywood, made it through the first couple rounds, but then got eliminated. She tried out the next year and made it again. I was on the set with her when she made it the second time, and there is a two second clip of me hugging her next to Ryan Seacrest when she came out of the room from trying out. So, I can honestly say that I was on American Idol. The whole thing was surreal and very exciting.

Let me go back to something that Rose said, though it wasn’t quite true. She said, “You helped me get off drugs.” I suppose in a way that might be true, but I promise you I didn’t say a word to her about drugs that day in the school. We talked about her dreams and what she wanted to accomplish. I told her that she was a “racecar” sitting in a parking lot. The racecar is still worth a lot in a parking lot but that’s not what it was built for. It was built to go 180 miles an hour around a track. It still looks good in a parking lot, but it won’t be happy until it is doing what it was built for. I said, “Rose, you were built to do great things with your life. Go do it. She got excited, and she realized on her own that drugs would just hinder her from getting to where she wanted to go. All I did was point her in the direction of purpose, and she came up with the details. I love this quote from Mark Twain. He said,

“The most important day of your life is the day you were born; the second is the day you discover why.”

I believe that there is a seed of greatness in all our children. We must help them discover what that is. If we just focus on keeping them away from the bad stuff, all we end up doing is policing their behavior instead of coaching them in their purpose. I think you get a lot more out of parenting when you are talking about things that have to do with the bigger picture.

In my assemblies I talk about the bottom shelf and the top shelf. The bottom shelf is where all the bad stuff is—drugs, alcohol abuse, cutting, vaping, sexual irresponsibility, and so on. The top shelf is where your dream is, which is another way of saying where your purpose is. I believe that if young people can see the top shelf in their lives, they won’t reach for the bottom shelf; but if those young people take their hand off the top shelf, it gets easy to reach for the bottom shelf. That’s why I don’t ask my children if they are doing drugs; I don’t have to. The conversations I have with them are about their dreams. I know the dreams of all five of my kids. I can tell when they are starting to take their hands off that top shelf.

We must have those conversations with our children because there is a measure of hopelessness when they stop dreaming. What good does it do to focus on the response to hopelessness? That is what the bottom shelf and self-medication is all about; it is a reaction to how they are feeling about themselves. They may not believe that their life has value, so they make choices that match that value. That is why I say in my assembly, “I don’t care about what you’re doing as much as I care about why you are doing it. Why you are doing something says more about you than what you are doing.” Behavior follows belief. So, should we really be spending all this time and money warning adolescents how bad the bottom shelf is, or should we do everything we can to help them to see and succeed in their purpose?