In the Broadway version of Hamilton, Aaron Burr is depicted as a man who plays the game not to lose, someone who is “willing to wait for it” instead of being bold in pursuit of his desires. In the new book, Failing Up, the actor who first played Burr, Leslie Odom, Jr., describes an acting career that at one time shared some of Burr’s attitude. Like Burr, he was doing all the “right” things, but he was not taking the risks or the initiative to make things happen on his own terms.
Odom, Jr. was a success by most external measures. He’d performed in the Broadway production of Rent while still in high school and landed a string of acting jobs in Hollywood beginning almost immediately after college. But by the time he was 30, the collection of small roles he’d won paid the bills while not adding up to much. Many times his role seemed to be the “token” African-American in a mainly white cast. He considered moving on from acting, until a mentor challenged him to make his own luck instead of waiting for the phone to ring.
As his Burr character sings in Hamilton: “I am the one thing in life I can control.”
From this point, Odom, Jr. not only put more effort into creating his own opportunities, but he also put more effort into the opportunities he got. The book’s title, Failing Up, is a product of his new attitude — it means to embrace the risk of failure, knowing you won’t reach the next level up if you always play it safe and by the book. (Burr would not approve.)
When the opportunity for Hamilton arrived, Odom, Jr.’s willingness to take the big risk was sorely tested, as he’d also been cast in a TV series that would pay him over 30 times what he stood to earn on a weird musical about the Founding Fathers. He chose Hamilton, and the rest, as they say, is history. (BTW, that TV show didn’t last one season, and it’s safe to say that his original Hamilton salary got bumped up a bit.)
What I liked thinking about while reading Failing Up is the fact that this extremely talented person flew completely under the radar of the average American for years. Then he suddenly burst into our consciousnesses after finding the vehicle (Hamilton) that is a match for his talents.
There are many other talented performers looking for their Hamilton. There are many talented people in other fields who’ve achieved some success but still haven’t found the metaphorical Hamilton in their professions. But we all have the ability to make things happen on our journey instead of simply waiting for our talent to win the day. And, every time we show those talents in a new way, it makes it that much likelier that we will either create our personal Hamilton or it will come looking for us.