05/24/2013 04:17 pm ET Updated Jul 23, 2013

He Should Know: A Cliburn Gold Medalist's Surprising Words of Wisdom

When Haochen Zhang won gold four years ago at the Thirteenth Van Cliburn International Piano Competition alongside Japanese pianist Noboyuki Tsujii, the audience witnessed a baby-faced 19 year old with the piano skill and fortitude of someone much older. But mostly what stood out was that he was so darn young and wonderfully naîve in many ways. He was fresh and seemingly clueless about what he'd just stumbled into.

But in those 4 years, starting with the grueling competition itself, Haochen has grown into a young man with wisdom beyond his years as well. As he took to the podium at the Cliburn Draw Party (the evening where the competitors find out when they'll perform), opening with a candid remark about how this was indeed his first public speech, he set us up to hear something adorable, though probably unremarkable. He couldn't have disarmed us all any more effectively.

As he unfolded his scripted notes, the words that fell from his lips meant for the pianists about to embark on the journey of the Cliburn were sobering, eye-opening, inspirational remarks for all in attendance.

He talked of how the intensity of competitions gets a bad rap but how in actuality, for him, it was that same feared intensity that changed his musical and personal life forever. The intensity of the moments back in 2009 were what shifted his perspective on himself and not only the music he was making, but the life he was living. He spoke of the demons that reared their ugly heads with each new camera being shoved into his face or onto his hardworking fingers, the demands of the prying media and the non-musical expectations of the competition's organizers. But then it dawned on him. The demons weren't really those outside factors, they were his response to those factors instead.

He spoke eloquently about how those outer distractions forced him to dive deeper into the music and how now in the real world of performing he's developed a sort of sixth sense that takes him deeper in to the music the more he's pressured to do otherwise.

I'm sure it was hard for current competitors to hear the current gold medalist say how, in the end, it wasn't about winning after all. So for some, Haochen's words probably fell on deaf ears, ears more in tune with the frenzied buzzing as the hurdle of the first day of prelims approached and not on the gathering of wisdom that would prove eternally useful. So it's ironic that the people who seemed most touched, most transformed were those of us not competing at all, well, at least not on the Cliburn stage.

Because life is a competition, isn't it? A competition not just to get a head or to win, but a competition for our attention and our affections. It's a competition to stay lucid in the face of increasing demands made on our time and on our minds, a constant requirement to make decisions about what matter most and how to get there without crumbling or being buried alive. Haochen made us examine our excuses for why the outside world was making us fail and ask ourselves how our own demons contributed to that failure. More importantly, he silently challenged us to do something about it, to run towards the intensity and dive in. I'm not sure if the competitors heard him as they focused on their strategy for choosing their competition time slot, a new development in the competition's Draw Party history. But the rest of us? We heard him loud and painfully clearly. Kudos to Haochen Zhang who because of his words, I'm more excited than ever to hear him play the piano. Good luck to the 2013 competitors as they prepare to slay demons and make music all at once!

May the one who dives deepest win it all.