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Lessons from American Idol: It’s Character that Counts

Okay. I admit it. I’m an American Idol fan. I get an endless amount of grief for it in my office lunchroom: “Don’t you know it’s fixed?” “Aren’t you bored with Simon’s schtick? Paula’s spacy gooeyness? Randy’s “dawg” talk? ” “Why do you want to watch a bunch of people humiliate themselves?”

What can I say? It takes all kinds. My husband is one of those folks who looks forward to watching grown men run up and down a field chasing an odd shaped ball on Sunday nights. Me? When January comes, I look forward to the beginning of another Idol season. I know I’m not alone. The show has millions of fans. I happen to know that even some of my most sarcastic lunchtime critics are watching too.

So what exactly is it about that show that has millions of us returning for the eighth year in a row? Yes, it’s entertaining to watch shots of the thousands who line up in various cities each year to audition. Yes, some of the people who get to be in front of the judges are hilarious in their efforts to stand out. Yes, it taps into the secret dream of many of us to be “discovered” and to make it big in some way. But, in my shrinky way (it’s an occupational hazard of psychologists to look for all things deeper), I think it’s also an affirmation of something important. Year after year, it shows us that talent alone isn’t enough. Character counts.

“What?” you say. “This is a singing contest, not a congeniality competition!” Well, yes and no. Sure it’s a singing contest. After the first round of auditions, the singers who are delusional or absurd get weeded out in favor of those who can sing in a way that sells. But what ultimately separates the winners from the losers isn’t talent. The people who make it to Hollywood all have big talent. With some coaching in makeup, wardrobe, and vocal technique, any one of them could — could — be made into a star if voice alone were the determining factor. The deciding element, though, is something more. What the judges are looking for and what the viewers find riveting is the emergence of character.

Hollywood week is about finding out who can work with others, who can make compromises, who can handle stress and pressure, who looks out for the other guy as much as for self. If you’ve got Tivo or On Demand, go back to this year’s “Group Night” and watch who is sent home. Generally it’s the divas, the narcissists, the stubborn, and the unteachable. Group Night is a brilliant exercise in cooperation. Idol producers and crew, after all, will be working with the top 10 for a whole year of touring. They need to find out who can work well under pressure, who can handle criticism and take direction, who can manage on little sleep if the bus breaks down, who can work for the good of the whole show as well as for their own stardom. In this sense, American Idol is truly reality TV. It is an annual demonstration of how to be a success in whatever of life’s contests we have taken on.

Separating Winners from Losers

Intentionally or not, judges Paula Abdul, Simon Cowell, Randy Jackson and newcomer Kara DioGuardi have been teaching the Idol aspirants (and us) 10 important lessons about what it takes to be a winner, on Idol or in life.

  1. Winners are able to hear criticism as a critique, not as a final judgment. They know that there is always room for improvement and they stay open to learning.
  2. Winners maintain a balance between valuing themselves and valuing their mentors. They find ways to stay true to themselves while at the same time incorporating new information. Idol judges aren’t trying to produce clones. They are trying to make the unique be uniquely better.
  3. Winners grant that someone with experience in the industry (whether Simon or your own boss) has something useful to say. They don’t write senior people off because they are older, grumpy, or unimpressed with young genius. They don’t just discard information they don’t agree with. They think about it.
  4. Winners know that it isn’t enough to like a song (or an idea, or a goal) to sell it. Winners find a way to show other people why they will like it too. This is what the judges mean when they tell a contestant he or she has chosen the “wrong song.” Most of the time, it’s not really that the song itself is wrong. It’s that the performer hasn’t found a way to show us why it is right.
  5. Winners know that trying too hard turns other people off. Instead, they find their connection with their music or vision and then invite others in to share it. Showing off is, to use Simon’s word, self-indulgent. Finding a meaning and sharing it is true artistry.
  6. Winners are secure enough in their own talent to let others have a turn in the spotlight. A group of winners can sing and move in harmony. They cover for each other’s mistakes and do their best to do backup that shows off each member to best advantage. They know that when the whole group succeeds, they are a success. Groups that do this well get everyone through to the next round.
  7. Winners know when it’s okay, even important, to take charge. If the group is flailing, they use a friendly approach to get everyone to take a step back and refocus. They understand that sometimes you have to lead and sometimes you have to follow.
  8. Winners are mindful of group process and take pleasure in group evolution. They know how to contribute ideas to the group without dominating it. They actively include the quieter members of the group. They let people know that their contributions are appreciated.
  9. Winners don’t look for others to blame when things aren’t going well. They instead focus on what they can do to make a difference.
  10. Winners accept losing graciously and take some learning from every loss.

It’s just plain true that everyone can’t be “the” winner. However much we want something, however hard we work at it, however right we are for the job, we still may not win the prize. The people who win in life know how to turn such defeats into wins of a different kind. Jennifer Hudson, Clay Aiken, Kimberly Locke, and Kelly Pickler, among others, are all Idol “losers” who became winners. They used their experience with Idol to learn the business end of show business, to network, and to develop their own talents. It wasn’t only their voices that put them back on top — although they all certainly can sing. By all accounts, they are genuinely good people who made good use of the opportunity embedded in a loss.

Pay attention to that fact if you’re getting ready for next year’s Idol auditions. By all means look for the perfect song and work hard to perfect your voice. But make sure you pay equal attention to developing the character and skills you need to be a winning person. Those are the skills we can all use to be winners, regardless of whether we ever make it to Hollywood.

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Lessons from American Idol: It’s Character that Counts

Marie Hartwell-Walker, Ed.D.

Marie Hartwell-WalkerDr. Marie Hartwell-Walker is licensed as both a psychologist and marriage and family counselor. She specializes in couples and family therapy and parent education. She writes regularly for Psych Central as well as Psych Central's Ask the Therapist feature. She is author of the insightful parenting e-book, Tending the Family Heart.

Check out her book, Unlocking the Secrets of Self-Esteem.

APA Reference
Hartwell-Walker, M. (2018). Lessons from American Idol: It’s Character that Counts. Psych Central. Retrieved on August 5, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Oct 2018 (Originally: 17 May 2016)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Oct 2018
Published on Psych All rights reserved.