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Being brutally bullied as an adolescent was my lemon. Finding the courage and confidence to overcome that and own my life is my lemonade.
I’m used to leading on the dance floor. The music starts, and I take my partner’s hand, guiding her into position, controlling the flow of energy, directing the movement.
But when it comes to life, taking the lead isn’t so simple. It takes guts, but not the kind needed to jump out of an airplane from fourteen thousand feet or perform live in front of an audience of millions. Trust me, I’ve done both. It’s having the courage required to uncover the bigger picture. Where are you going and how will you get there? And most important, who will you become on your journey? Every mistake, every twist, turn, or total wipeout hands you an opportunity to learn and grow. Are you brave enough to take it?
I wasn’t. Honestly, the idea of writing a book about my life scared the hell out of me. I didn’t think I was ready to go there. It felt overwhelming—a lot of memories tangled up in emotions. I wasn’t sure the timing was right (I was competing in Seasons 17 and 18 of Dancing with the Stars) and I wasn’t convinced I knew what to say or how to say it. So I did what I do whenever I’m stuck on a dance and I don’t have a clue how to choreograph it. I break it down. I look at it, not as a whole, but as a series of steps that come together. Somehow, seeing each phase of my life this way brought it all into focus. The lessons became clear, the experiences came flooding back in vivid detail, and I felt empowered.
I think I’ve just begun stepping up and owning my life, and I have a long way to go and lots of things I want and need to accomplish. But at least I’m headed in the right direction. I’ve started seeing my journey as a work in progress—sometimes I’ve rocked it, sometimes I’ve stumbled or tripped over my own feet. But every move I’ve made has shaped me into the person I am today. I believe life isn’t about finding yourself, but creating yourself. My friend Tony Robbins asks, “What if life isn’t happening to us? What if it is happening for us?” I believe that when you seize control, you’re nobody’s doormat or punching bag anymore—not even you can stand in your own way (and I am harder on myself than anyone else is). You open yourself up to endless possibilities.
Not many people know that I was bullied as a kid. By bullied, I don’t mean teased or picked on or called names. I mean terrorized for a long time. I stayed silent until now—not even my parents knew the extent of the physical and emotional abuse I suffered. When I shared my story with them, they were shocked and saddened. Why didn’t I come to them? Why didn’t I ask for help? Truthfully? I was paralyzed. Even as a grown man, I find these memories hard to revisit. But I see now that taking the lead means reclaiming who you are and taking back your true self. It’s taking off the blinders and letting go of whatever is holding you back. It’s embracing the moment for what it is and for what it teaches you. It’s putting the past behind you and clearing a new path for the future. I can’t change what happened, but I can change the meaning of it and how I look at it.
Fear is a great motivator. I tell that to my partners on Dancing with the Stars all the time. Go on, be scared. Get out of your comfort zone. Align yourself with your fear and use it to propel you to progress. Look your demons in the eye and kick ’em to the curb. For Kellie Pickler, it was learning to get out of her own way. For Ricki Lake, it was finding something she loved in the mirror. For Maria Menounos, it was dancing through the pain of injury to discover an inner strength she never knew she had. For Jennie Garth, it was her first perfect score and knowing nothing could hold her back anymore. For Amber Riley, it was truly believing in her own greatness. Each and every one of these ladies took the lead in their lives. Mirror Ball or no Mirror Ball, in my eyes, they’re all winners.
Looking back on my life up to this point (because believe me, I’ve got a lot of living left to do!), it’s been quite a trip. I’m not the skinny, awkward little boy from Salt Lake City anymore. I’m happy with the man I’ve become, and I owe a great deal to the people who have influenced me and inspired me along the way. These have been my friends, family, coaches, and mentors, the ones who pushed me to push myself. They’ve even been my rivals—the dancers who were so good, they made me want to be better. Every obstacle has been a
reason to keep moving forward. Paring this book down to the most important moments in my life was no easy task—I could write ten books, not just one, of everything I’ve experienced! But these are the experiences that resonate with me the most: the ones that have made me stop, take stock, appreciate, and affirm the person I want to be.
I hope in reading my stories you discover or rediscover who you are and learn how to take the lead in your own life. I hope you learn to channel your passion, harness your power, and connect with your joy. Joseph Campbell, the American mythologist, lecturer, and writer, believed you should “follow your bliss.” This is what I do and what I’ve always tried to do. Life is a dance, but it’s much more than mastering the steps. It’s pushing your boundaries, shattering your limits, and exploding in a breathtaking burst of light.
From Chapter 1
For a kid who never liked to pick apart a math equation, I have a pretty analytical brain. A few years ago, I came to the conclusion that you have to be an active participant in your life. You have to stop, take stock, and put things in perspective so you can see the bigger picture. I can’t tell you the exact moment this truth dawned on me; there was no single earth-shattering event or catalyst. But I do remember being at a U2 concert with my sister and tearing up as all these memories of my childhood and listening to U2 flooded over me. It took me back to a time of family and fun and feeling connected. A few weeks later, I was sitting at home in my apartment, looking at my collection of trophies and thinking, Yeah? So? Now what? Winning—the one thing that used to mean the world to me—felt empty. It didn’t matter how much hardware I accumulated, it didn’t give me that adrenaline high anymore.
What did was the feeling of connecting with people. Not just my dance partners, but strangers who would come up to me on the street and share their stories. There have been many who cornered me in a parking lot or sent me a message on Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter. Too many to count, but one in particular stands out. A woman stopped me on the street to tell me about her grandmother. “She loved you,” she said. “She watched you from her hospital bed every night Dancing with the Stars was on. You took her back to a time when she loved to dance. You gave her such joy in her final days.” I got a lump in my throat. I had done this for someone? I thanked her and she took my hand. “No. Thank you.” It felt great. More than that, it felt right. It planted a seed in me, which I can honestly say was the beginning of this book.
Not too long ago, I agreed to give a twenty-minute lecture about health and dance, and it turned into two hours. Again, I felt that high from connecting with the audience, from sharing what I had learned. I began to look at my experiences as life lessons. What could they teach me? What was the purpose of my pain and suffering if not to make me a better, stronger person who is more equipped to lead? You know the old saying “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.” I think it’s more than that. I think what doesn’t kill you makes you wiser and a better human being. It opens your eyes, your heart, and your mind. You may not have control over everything that happens to you in your life externally, but you always have some control over what’s going on internally—how you handle your life experiences and what you take away from them.
In each chapter, I want to share with you the lessons I’ve learned. And if I make you pause for a moment and consider your own experiences as stepping-stones to taking the lead in your life, then I’ve done
my job. I never imagined myself as a teacher—I was the worst student in school, the one you would vote most likely not to succeed. But now, I want to continue to learn more about myself and about human behavior. We all have God-given talent. The question is, what are you going to do with it?
I went to see the musical Pippin on Broadway with my Season 10 DWTS partner, Nicole Scherzinger. There’s this great line in the song “Corner of the Sky”: “Don’t you see I want my life to be something more than long?” I can relate. I want to leave my footprint on this world in a positive, meaningful way. I want to lead by example. To do that takes a lot of introspection. It also takes courage. I try and see it as connecting the dots—the way I used to try and spot the constellations from my rooftop by drawing imaginary lines between the stars. Every moment in your life should be meaningful; each one should have a takeaway lesson. At the end of every chapter, you’ll find mine.
Bullying can be physical, verbal, or emotional—words and threats are just as painful as fists. I know now that the worst thing you can do is suffer in silence. The bullies are counting on you to keep your mouth shut. By doing so, you’re giving them even more power. I understand the desire to leave it outside your front door, to just pretend the bullying doesn’t happen. In my case, I kept quiet because I was certain that tattling would make my situation worse. Either the brothers would kill me for telling, or my parents would confine me to my house to protect me from all things evil. I was convinced it was a lose-lose situation. But I realize now that I was wrong, and if I could go back and talk to my six-year-old self I would tell him to trust someone and get help—from a parent, an older sibling, a teacher. You’re not a wimp if you tell. In fact, seeking help requires
incredible strength and courage. The most powerful weapon you have is your voice.
Nowadays, it’s easy to bully by hiding behind a phone or a computer screen. The words that people
express on Facebook, Instagram, whatever—they’re just as cutting and painful as a physical blow. I discovered this when I entered the public eye. Social media has become a playground for cowardly, insecure individuals who unfortunately feel the need to direct negative comments and energy at someone they don’t even know. At first I reacted to it. Every obnoxious remark used to dwell in my mind. But the more I learned about human behavior, the clearer it became that the negativity these people project is a reflection of who they are. I don’t believe it makes them bad people, but they are seeking a significance that they are not getting elsewhere. Realizing this makes it much easier for me to ignore the haters and not take the bait.
Power over others is weakness in disguise.
People talk a lot about how bullying can destroy your life. For me, it’s been a revelation. I got hit in the head a lot of times in my childhood, so maybe it finally knocked some sense into me. I understand now that someone who is strong and loves himself would only ever give love back. The superior human being will always see the light in someone and choose to encourage that light instead of dimming it. Those brothers? They needed to control me because they wanted to feel important. They craved attention and resorted to violence to get it. They needed to control me because they were weak. Looking back now, I actually feel sorry for them. I don’t feel like the victim anymore; I was a witness to their suffering. It’s helped me move past the pain and fear and make peace with this part of my past. Kids tend to blame themselves when they’re bullied—as if something they have done is causing some mean kid to beat the crap out of them. But I see now it was never about me. I did nothing to these brothers. I didn’t provoke them; I didn’t ask for trouble. They simply saw an easy prey. I ask myself over and over what must have been going on in their heads to make them unleash such wrath on me and my family? What kind of personal pain or insecurity was behind it? Trying to understand helps me let go of the anger and begin to forgive.
Bullies come in all shapes and forms.
Adults can be bullies as well, so be wary of the people around you who try to twist your arm into doing their bidding. You know the type: “My way or the highway.” I’ve met a lot of these manipulators over the years—people who seem nice but are really all about using you or belittling you for their own gain. There are two ways to be the tallest building in a city. You can work hard, build a team, and do the right things to create a huge skyscraper. Or you can tear down all the other buildings around you. That’s what bullies do. They think they’re big, but it’s an illusion. How about coworkers who try and turn the boss against you to make themselves look better? Or someone who’s always dumping her dirty work on you because you’re kind enough to offer help? Here’s the interesting part: these grown-up bullies were most likely bullies as kids or bullied themselves. The same rules apply: Be smart about the situation you’re in. Stand up for yourself, say no to their unreasonable demands, and don’t allow them to worm their way into your head or your life.
From Taking the Lead: Lesson from a Life in Motion
By Derek Hough
© 2014 by Derek Hough
Reprinted with permission from William Morrow, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers