The last weeks, I have been immersed in the soundtrack to the Broadway musical, Hamilton. Several months ago, when I first learned of this unique approach to history, I was, admittedly, skeptical. As a history buff, I wondered how a story of American history — from the historical period I enjoy most — could be told with reverence by using hip-hop and rap music. The idea confounded me. How in the world did THIS come about?
I resisted. I scrolled past any stories about the rising phenomenon that is Hamilton: An American Musical. The show has been playing in New York since last summer, but I continued to shake my head at the thought of “reducing” our American Founding Father, Alexander Hamilton, to modern music.
But I was wrong. So. Very. Wrong.
As the rising tide of Hamilton continued to appear in news feeds, social media posts, and television segments, I thought, “What would it hurt if I gave it a listen?” I entered one word (Hamilton) into an internet search and was presented with a video of the writer and composer, Lin-Manuel Miranda, performing one of the songs in front of President and Mrs. Obama. Well, then, if the President gave it a try, I should, too.
I was blown away.
I bought the soundtrack and listened to the first song on the way to work one morning. It stuck in my head, happily, all day long. I could not wait to hear more. Since that day, I have listened to the entire soundtrack likely hundreds of times. It is a work of genius, a genuine work of art. The choice to use Hispanic and African-American actors in the roles is nothing short of brilliant. In interviews with Lin-Manuel Miranda, he says that it is the story how American looked then by how America looks now.
Learning from Hamilton
Over time, however, something else happened while listening to the music: I discovered life lessons in the words. Here are just a few of the wise nuggets of musical musings.
- “I am not throwing away my shot.” Don’t miss your opportunities. Prepare yourself and be ready for the chances that appear in life at a moment’s notice.
- “Talk less; smile more.” The art of success is not showing all your cards at once. Not everything in your head needs to come out of your mouth.
- “Teach them how to say goodbye.” How you enter a room, start a relationship, or in any other manner “say hello” to something is as important as saying goodbye. There is a finesse to it, an art, a manner of respect to it. When faced with saying goodbye to something or someone, do it with dignity and respect. Honor the transition with a departure that will never bring you regrets.
- “I wrote my way out of hell.” Hamilton used his talent for writing to prove himself an innovative thinker and voracious learner. An orphan living in poverty, he refused to lie down and bemoan his existence. He continued to march forward, working hard to rise above his circumstance and make a better life.
- “You have no control who lives, who dies, who tells your story.” Understand what is within your ability to control. Live the best life you can, and if you do, your story may outlive you and be an inspiration to others.
We can learn a lot from people who went before us. Hamilton is one of those great teachers, pulling himself out of abject poverty where he had no family and pushing himself to success. He was born in 1755 on the Caribbean island of Nevis and abandoned by his father at age 10. His mother died shortly thereafter, leaving Hamilton to make his own way in the world. He read every book he could find, and the townspeople saw something of promise in him. They collected funds to send him to New York to make a better life for himself, and namely, to get an education.
Hamilton arrived in New York and hit the ground running, never settling for mediocre performance in himself. He did not shy away from opportunities and worked hard to pave his own path. He was not always popular, but he was passionate about his beliefs. When the American colonies were perched on the edge of revolution with Great Britain, Hamilton was ready for the fight.
Hamilton as a teacher occurred long after his death. When I study his life, the missteps of my life seem trivial. When I think of how hard life can be, his life reminds me that it could be worse and that tough conditions can be overcome. Work hard, learn everything you can, ask for what you want, and never ever give up. We can also learn that a bit of finesse in your approach is beneficial, since Hamilton did not have a strong suit for this element. A bit unpolished, he made the work harder by rubbing people the wrong way. Yet, we can learn so much from him.
His life is fascinating and inspiring. If you are interested in learning more about him, I suggest the book Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow, which is the book Miranda read on vacation that inspired him to write the musical.
For now, I will turn on the soundtrack for what may the 10,000th time. How something so modern can be so timeless is a work of true art.
Bravo, Mr. Miranda. Bravo.