The Lonely Onlys; Transformed by Imagination and Vulnerability | Elizabeth Rowe | TEDxBeaconStreet


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Have you ever felt lonely? Just about everyone has, and the feeling is especially common among “onlys” — those uniquely isolated from their peers because they are different in some important way. In this moving talk, renowned classical musician Elizabeth Rowe shares her struggles as an “only,” and the lessons she’s learned along the way. Follow her journey as she taps into the powers of imagination and vulnerability to build community. Elizabeth Rowe is the principal flutist of the world-renowned Boston Symphony Orchestra. Called a “divine flutist” by the New York Times, you can hear her on numerous Grammy-award winning recordings with the ensemble.

Elizabeth attracted international attention in 2018 when she filed an equal pay lawsuit against the orchestra. The lawsuit—considered the first of its kind in her industry—received extensive national and international news coverage, culminating in a heavily researched article by the Washington Post that exposed a significant gender pay gap within the orchestral music industry. Following this, the Boston Globe recognized her in its annual Bostonian of the Year feature, calling her “The Fighter.”

Elizabeth and the BSO successfully mediated the case in 2019, and she remains a dedicated member of the orchestra. By shining a light on pay practices within her industry, her actions continue to raise important questions within her profession, and she continues to embrace opportunities to advocate for change.

Along with her performance and advocacy work, Elizabeth is committed to mentoring the next generations of musicians and artists, empowering them to courageously lead their industries. She is also deeply interested in building bridges and fostering connections among people in all fields who seek to have an impact in their places of work. This talk was given at a TEDx event using the TED conference format but independently organized by a local community. Learn more at <br> <h3>Auto Generated Captions</h3>

just about everyone knows how it feels
to be lonely we get lonely for all sorts
of reasons some are obvious but some can
be surprising 15 years ago I landed one
of the best classical music jobs in the
world principal flutist of the Boston
Symphony Orchestra I had worked my whole
life for this spending thousands upon
thousands of hours over decades in the
practice room ever since I was a little
girl winning that job was the musical
equivalent avoiding Olympic gold and I
know that I’m speaking today from a
place of privilege however the reality
of my professional life is complicated
and the truth is that I often feel
lonely isolated and disconnected when I
landed that job I suddenly became what
social scientists call and only top
positions in the best American
orchestras are mostly held by men 12 of
the 13 other principal players in my
orchestra are men and I’m often the only
woman in the room in fact I am the only
female principal flutist in the top tier
of orchestras in the entire country I
hadn’t thought much about being an only
before I landed my dream job but
suddenly it became my reality I’m just
one kind of only though onlys come in
all forms
maybe you’re the only person of color in
your office maybe you’re the only
first-generation college student in your
freshman class or maybe you’re the only
child list couple in your congregation
we only by definition don’t fit in we
stick out and because we stick out we
feel scrutinized and we feel we have to
meet a higher standard we have to be
better and we have to do it alone
without the ease of community and the
comfort of belonging because of this our
lives are often in
used with the persistent ache of
isolation and lonliness being and only
in my profession is challenging it’s my
job to make what I do look easy but I
have to be both technically brilliant
and pour my heart and soul into every
performance I have to bat a thousand and
move you to tears I put everything out
there on that stage as a performer I’m
constantly judged by critics the
audience and colleagues if I play a
wrong note it’s obvious and embarrassing
and everyone knows but what can be
crushing and keep me up at night and
make me question myself are the
judgments about my personal artistic
voice you might consider my expressive
choices to be exquisite and beautiful
but someone else will think they’re
mediocre and boring
they’ll think I’m mediocre and boring
this kind of subjective judgement can
make performing artists feel fragile and
exposed and we do this night after night
week after week it takes a lifetime of
discipline to maintain our standard of
excellence and a certain kind of bravery
to get up there on that stage and bare
our souls my colleagues and I are all
exposed and fragile but as an only I’ve
felt more scrutinized and more alone as
a woman in my position I didn’t fit in I
stuck out so to protect myself I
developed armor
I liked to call it really good
boundaries you though might have called
me uptight rigid
it’s true I have tried to be flawless
impeccable unflappable and I’ve worked
hard to never show any vulnerability I
didn’t want to seem weak especially as a
woman over the years I’ve kept my
distance and built a big wall of privacy
to protect myself and although that wall
felt protective and comforting it also
isolated me and intensified my
loneliness and then about a year ago I
filed and successfully mediated an Equal
Pay lawsuit against my orchestra it was
the first and so far the only one of its
kind in my industry and after that I
felt like even more of it only until
recently I thought my loneliness just
came with the job there’s almost no
turnover in these top orchestra
positions and I was pretty sure I was
going to be an only for a long time I
thought I knew how to cope and I didn’t
see that change was possible I also
thought that my struggles would be hard
for others to relate to given my unique
position in this unusual industry and I
continued to believe that any crack and
that Shield of privacy would make me
weaker after my lawsuit settled and the
news coverage died down I expected to
return to life as usual
– my world-class Orchestra my walls of
privacy and to the loneliness of my own
leanness but I was wrong that will
lawsuit burst opened my world in a
completely unexpected way in these past
few months I’ve heard from all sorts of
people who’ve tried to make change in
their workplaces their teachers and
health care workers and bankers they
were inspired by my lawsuit and wanted
to connect I thought we wouldn’t relate
much to each other and my instinct was
to retreat back behind those
but I was startled by how much we had in
common and how deeply comforting it felt
to get to know them it turns out that
many of them are only two and they felt
like kindred spirits and I realized that
with just a little imagination
I could look outside my orchestra world
step out of that isolation and find
common ground with people I never would
have dreamed of connecting with before
and I saw that my walls had imprisoned
me rather than protected me I used to
watch those incredible women’s soccer
players fight for their rights and wish
that I could be part of an organized
team like that united by their
excellence and what they’re up against
now when I feel like I need a team I
remember to think creatively and to look
for common ground where I couldn’t see
it before and I remind myself that it’s
okay that I’m different from the rest
this new team that I’ve found is diverse
and interesting and we’re united by our
shared experiences fighting hard for
change our differences make us stronger
this new team pushes me challenges me
way outside my comfort zone and helps me
see the world in a new way and they get
how hard it is to try and go it alone
learning to use my imagination in this
way has been liberating and exhilarating
it was a truly unexpected gift of that
lawsuit and then I received another gift
one evening this past summer a group of
young professional musicians asked to
get together to talk before we met I had
made some assumptions I’d assumed that
my loneliness was rare I knew that my
isolation was due to my position at the
very top of my field and to that Armour
that I had developed to try to cope with
being and only I assumed that these
young professionals fluent in social
and still early in their careers felt
part of a strong community but I was
wrong they too were lonely unsure who
was on their team they felt isolated
navigating the challenges they faced in
the performing arts that evening they
shared some painful stories and asked
deep and probing questions questions
without easy answers or simple solutions
and it became clear that they didn’t
need to hear from that polished public
version of me they needed the real me
and so I dropped my armor and tried to
speak honestly about my failures and
insecurities and challenges and
vulnerabilities and this felt
surprisingly good by the time we said
goodnight the energy in that group had
shifted from hesitancy to courage and I
could feel how powerful it is when I
don’t just lead from a distance but in
truly in community with those who look
up to me later one of those young
musicians said to me that she and her
friends hadn’t expected that we would
have so much in common
until that night they had had no idea
that in many important ways I was no
different from them no better or braver
or more confident they had put me on a
pedestal and I had fortified it with my
walls of privacy my choice to remain
guarded and safe behind those walls
hadn’t served me or them that night was
a lesson in one of those paradoxes
that’s intriguing to think about but
hard to practice vulnerability leads to
I thought that I had understood the
value of embracing vulnerability but
that deeply satisfying conversation with
those young professionals was what
helped me finally get it I felt the
connection between vulnerability and
power in my mind and my heart not as an
intellectual concept but is a lived
truth it’s still scary for me to do but
when I drop my defenses and show my real
self I now see that I’m tapping into a
new kind of power a shared power it’s
the power of connection vulnerability of
honesty this power energizes and
multiplies and is the inverse of the
relentless fatigue of loneliness I can
afford to be generous with this power
and to show the messy complex truths of
my experiences in doing this I’m not
only lifting up and empowering others
but I’m drawing strength from them and
enriching my own life so many of us have
big dreams but we are weighed down and
exhausted by our loneliness learning to
harness this new kind of power can help
us thrive and give us the energy to
pursue those dreams one day I want to
look around me and see true equality and
diversity and far fewer onlys your dream
will be something else entirely and just
as inspiring and I recognize that power
and access to power can look very
different for different people depending
on your privilege but accomplishing any
kind of big dream requires sustained and
powerful advocacy when I was isolated
and disconnected in my own leanness I
was just a single lonely voice today
though when I sit in my chair in the
I’m not only and only and I’m not
such a lonely only so for those of you
out there who feel alone join me in
exploring past the boundaries of what we
might think constitutes common ground
imagination can help us find community
and power in unexpected places reach out
to people in different stages of their
careers and different phases of their
lives and find the strength to be
vulnerable with them you will draw
strength from them and they from you we
all have the power to create our own
unique and vibrant communities these
kinds of communities may not be obvious
or ready-made but together we’re
building them and they’re strong

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