There are myriad critics in this world. Some are paid to critique this or that, giving their thoughtful opinion. Others simply have a critical nature and enjoy finding fault outside themselves. We even have critical voices inside our own heads. With so many critics in and around us, knowing when to ignore them is essential to achieving our dreams.
Some criticism can be helpful, of course. This is particularly true if it is being offered with the intent of sincerely wanting to help. It is the wise person who can recognize constructive criticism, take it in, and use it to propel them ever further toward what they hope to accomplish.
Then there is the other kind of criticism—the kind that cares not about the person, nor about the heart and soul that was put into a thing. This is the criticism looking only to mock, judge and condemn. Wise are those who ignore this kind of critic completely, regardless of where the voice is coming from.
A fascinating example of someone ignoring their critics in the pursuit of their dreams is Florence Foster Jenkins. I had never heard of her until I happened upon a film about her at the public library. My love for learning, coupled with the fact it was based on true events, compelled me to borrow the recently released DVD.
Little Miss Foster, as she was known publicly in her youth, was a gifted pianist. She had a love for music and a passion for public performance. As a child, she gave brilliant piano recitals—including one at the White House. But when her piano career ended abruptly due to a hand injury and she decided to become an opera singer, nearly everyone on the planet acknowledged her total lack of talent.
There is some debate regarding whether she knew how bad a singer she really was. Some wonder if the syphilis she contracted from her husband on their wedding night was to blame. Perhaps the disease (or the treatments of that era involving mercury and arsenic) caused nerve damage or hearing loss that might account for her being tone-deaf.
Whether she sounded good to her own ears, or she simply loved to sing and didn’t care one whit how she sounded, it is difficult to say. What is clear is she took her passion and dream of becoming an opera singer seriously. And . . . being an heiress and musical philanthropist in New York City high society, it is likely no one could bear to tell her the truth.
Surely some were only humoring her because of her money. But there were others who genuinely cared for her and didn’t want to add to her suffering. Even so, she was well aware of her critics. In fact, she took great care to insulate herself from her detractors by limiting her singing performances to private recitals with carefully controlled guest lists.
In fact, Ms. Jenkins believed in herself and her dream so much, she recorded five records for Melotone, paying the recording company herself for their production. And shortly thereafter, she did something even more surprising. She booked Carnegie Hall!
Tickets sold out weeks in advance and rumor has it 2,000 people were turned away at the door. Whether they came in droves to support her or mock her was anyone’s guess. Since the year was 1944, and many were likely looking for a distraction from the horrors of World War II, laughing at her expense might have been their aim all along.
Even so, Florence didn’t let the audience’s mockery—and the pandemonium that broke out—deter her. She sang her heart out that night! And the amazing this was . . . the crowd cheered and clapped (although many say it was to disguise all the laughter). The next day, when she read the scathing reviews of her first and only public performance in the newspapers, she was devastated.
She died a month later at the age of 76, having earned a reputation as the world’s worst opera singer. But in my mind, she left another legacy deserving our authentic applause. She showed the world that ignoring your critics is essential to following your passion and achieving your dreams.
Maybe that’s why one of the most requested programs from the Carnegie Hall archives is for her sold-out performance. Maybe that’s also the reason the records she made for Melotone became their biggest sellers. Regardless, there had to be something endearing about her pluck!
Whatever else she might have been, Florence Foster Jenkins was unapologetically and unabashedly herself, which is all any one of us can ever hope to be.
“People may say I can’t sing,” she said toward the end of her life. “But no one can ever say I didn’t sing!”
Bravo, Florence! Bravo!
What is your passion and dream? Check out Discovering Your Passion.