Paul Anka grew up in Ottawa, Canada wanting to make American pop music. At 14, he borrowed $100 from his uncle and went to New York City to find and audition for ABC’s Don Costa. It worked. Anka would go on to become a massively successful performer and a songwriter for the likes of Frank Sinatra, Michael Jackson, and even Drake. How does an outsider to American music get inside at all, let alone to the top? How does anyone go from being an ambitious up-start to a mainstream player in music or any other industry?
Ross Golan asked Anka why he thought the Canadian artists who broke out were so, so very good. Anka’s response was that when you can’t be them – meaning you can’t be from the same places or living the same lives as those you aspire to be like – you study them all the more intensely. You practice emulating them all the harder. Work at it hard enough, and over time you become your own unique version of them. He used the Beatles as another example – they couldn’t be a traditional rhythm and blues band, but they could obsessively play all of those songs to build their own repertoire. First, you learn it. Then you practice it. Eventually, you transcend it.
If we’re on the outside, we only get to the inside through sheer grit and determination. It’s hard work. It’s blood, sweat, and tears, and it’s $100 loans from uncles to take our shot. The requirement to cross barriers is that we’re both A. willing to put in the work, and B. willing to take the shot. Where there’s progress, there are always risks. Anka had gotten himself in front of Chuck Berry not long before his Bob Costa audition. He sang and Berry laughed, telling him it was the worst song he’d ever heard. Taking shots comes with risks, and risks involve luck. But, as golfer Gary Player said, “the harder I practice, the luckier I get.” Paul Anka wasn’t discovered so much as he got himself uncovered.
Today, Paul Anka is 78 and still going strong. He’s been a force in popular music since 1958. He’s living proof of what it means to do the work, take some risks, and get a little lucky. It’s the work we’re willing to put in and the chances we’re willing to take that determine our progress. The dream doesn’t have to be as big as going from a Canadian kid to an American pop superstar – it still has the same process. Do the work, take the shot. With a little bit of luck and a healthy dose of persistence…