I am about four years out of college / drama school. I moved to New York three months after graduation and have had some moderate successes since arriving, plus a couple of really close-calls! But mostly, it has just a series of disappointments—the competition is far more intense than I ever anticipated, and the atmosphere far more hostile. I’m pretty broke, basically a professional temp, and can’t even really afford to take the lessons or classes I feel might keep me in shape and inspired.
I wonder all the time if it’s as simple as changing my look/agent/ headshots/ audition material.
Or, if it is about completely re-training, moving back home and starting again. Everyone in my life is desperate for me to “wake up” and change my path. But the thing is, I just feel in my bones like this is what I am supposed to do…
I’m banging my head against the wall and feel like a failure.
What can I do to change my circumstances?
Or is it about changing everything altogether?
I’ve read and been heartened by your blog for a long time, and would just love your perspective.
Thank you so much,
My sweet, courageously honest friend, you are NOT alone.
This was a brave letter to write because part of truly addressing a struggle is admitting feelings of defeat and frustration—those feelings are the birthplace of change!
These questions are faced universally—not just by struggling artists like yourself. The need for external validation, the constant feeling of being a pawn in the Chess game of Life, the “am I good-enoughs,” and aaaaallllll questions related to of life-purpose are experienced by all people, of all ages and walks of life, in every culture, since the dawn of time.
The details change, the feeling do not.
At the end of all the pesky details, that universal feeling boils down to this:
WHAT AM I DOING?
Neither can your parents, girlfriend, or any random stranger on the subway.
Only you can do that.
Allow me to validate that there is NO SHAME in changing your path. There is a huge difference between "giving-up" and strategic disengagement. Changing your path does not make you a failure, it makes you a Motivated Badass, a Survivor, and a Winner. If you know you have gifts to give the world, sometimes it’s about dreaming new dreams and making THOSE happen! Again, that does not make you a failure, that makes you practical, gritty, and deeply awesome.
Here is the thing: it is far cooler to be the best Physical Therapist/Social Worker/Small Business owner/English teacher the world has ever seen, than yet another listless and unhappy not-actor cleaning their naval in deepest Brooklyn...
So. Just in case you were one of the zillion people concerned that changing the path = Loserville-Failure-Sauce, I am here to tell you: Nope.
Look. Even with all my ‘success” (which is a whole other blog post about what the definition of THAT truly is…) I’ve still had huge periods of self-doubt. On my more positive days I’ve:
- Talked that talk.
- Thought those attraction thoughts.
- Written letters to The Universe.
- Planned big plans
- Sat with a Jenga-esque pile of self help books threatening to smother my cat.
- Sat around so depressed on my sofa when I could have been doing something (anything)
- Made awkward first-impressions
- Done preposterous things for money
- Avoided meeting people altogether
- Seriously burdened my manager and mother
- Perfected my (suuuuper-special) knowledge of 90s crime shows on Netflix
- Padded feebly from the bedroom to the fridge in 'The Bathrobe of Shame'
- Been overlooked for things I thought I was completely capable of doing
- Stared at the black-hole that was my bank account
- Totally (and I mean totally) blown auditions like the fourth of July
- ...and silently cried when I couldn’t get an audition/ job/ date (and I really do mean that).
Essentially? I’ve been in Loserville myself.
Yep. Even awesome lil' ol' me who you are asking for “insight.”
If you’ve done all this too but are still confused, single, overweight, feeling like you’re being a total weenie, here are 8 tips I have for the spiritually downtrodden.
1. Eyes on the horizon.
I, like every other human has had upsets and taken steps backwards.
It happens. It is a part of life.
I do a little exercise with my students. In their warm-up, I have them identify and name their deepest “want” for that day/class/lifetime—whatever is most appropriate for them in that moment. They say it out-loud, they re-define it if it is not JUST right, they say it again.
Then we visualize a horizon—a landscape meaningful to them which could be anything from a mountain range, a sunset over a body of water, an open highway, or even a treacherous road or a spooky forest path.
We fill in all the details—sights, sounds, smells, temperature, down to the qualities of light. Then, right on the horizon line, I have them put their “want” in the center and walk toward it.
Every step they take, they are closer.
There it is—something concrete and tangible like the next job or relationship; to something entirely abstract like belonging, freedom, love, wisdom, or hope.
After a while, they can see that they “Want” is in the shape of a living creature, one with eyes and a soul, and that want is greeting them with happiness and expectation.
Soon, they are face-to-face with their Want, making eye contact and communicating with it silently.
Then I ask them to keep their eyes locked with the Want—and take two steps backwards.
Can you still see your want? I ask them.
They nod. Of course they can.
The lesson? Two fold:
First, your next "thing" is ahead of you—it could be in the next 5 minutes, tomorrow or in a year, but it IS ahead, and every step you take, and every day that passes you are getting closer to it.
Second, even when you feel that you have taken two steps backwards, if your eyes are still on the horizon, it is all progress. You are endowed with the ability to choose whether you take another step back, remain still, or walk forward, but as long as you remain focused, you can’t lose.
2. You have to scare yourself.
And no, not in the mirror after you’ve pulled a double shift. I mean really scare the crap out of yourself almost every day in your deep place.
Get quiet and ask: what are you ACTUALLY afraid of?
- Being scorned by your family?
- Being misunderstood?
- Laughed at?
- Some jerk’s “I-told-you-so?”
- Are you actually deeply afraid of success?
- Of being the huge superstar you know you can be?
3. Don’t try to change the unchangeable
Attempting to change the unchangeable is a Sisyphean feat of wasted time and energy. Don't... do that. Hilariously, have you ever noticed that we always seem to think we are the exception to that rule? Somehow we convince ourselves that we are the super-human who can BEND SPACE AND TIME. Been there, done that, bought the t-shirt.
Truth: There are things you can, and things you cannot change. Just for the sake of clarity, let’s go over those in detail, shall we?
Hooray! You can change:
- What you do
- What you communicate to others
- What you know
- How you choose to think
- What you hope, dream, and aspire to.
- The past
- The facts (skin color, sexual preference, white blood cell count, and, unless you are a criminal, your social security number)
- The laws of physics
- The weather
- The life and career path of any other person
- Human nature (yours or others)
- Personality traits (yours or others)
- Another person's deeply-held beliefs or thoughts (unless they choose to change)
- Who you are related to
- Human needs (you should eat and sleep in a shelter with roof and door.)
- Your level of innate talent (you can only improve what you innately possess)
- Things, which, for whatever reason, you simply do not acknowledge.
4. Success really is preparation meeting opportunity.
So, you have to put yourself in the sight of opportunity (meaning, you can’t stay in your house binging on carbs and Breaking Bad… at least not every night...). That means networking, going out to career-related events, being informed about your world and your industry, and above all: knowing what you want so you can ask for it.
But crucially: You must be ready. All the time.
That means planning, skill-drilling, practice, fitness, readiness. For an artist, that looks like this:
- Devouring plays, films books, media and anything related to your passions and skills
- Practicing your art every day
- Staying on top of emerging artists
- Sight-reading (it is the first skill of an actor’s to get rusty—I read out loud every day)
- Constantly working on new songs and monologues (you might not need that speech or song today, but you *could* need it to be #onfleek tomorrow). I recommend having at least 5-6 contrasting speeches, and 6-8 songs ready to go at performance standard at all times... Seriously.
- Creating your own work and opportunities.
- Expand and improve your skills
- Being informed about, ya know, the actual world...
5. The more you give the more you receive.
Thank you Ghandi, Buddha, Jesus, Moses, Martin Luther King Jr., and, oh, PHYSICS.
It's science, really: Give more. Get more.
Pour every last scrap of your heart and soul into a large collection of living, breathing human beings/animals/plants (such as a gaggle of beautiful, life-enhancing students) and your heart and soul will be flooded right back—most likely with interest. Giving makes you better at everything.
6. Turn crumbs into a feast.
Man, we can be such jerks to ourselves! Have you ever had that mean-voiced ticker-tape loop in your head chanting on repeat that you have "never been in a relationship/made money/had success in your career?"
Instead of making insulting decisions about yourself and your life, try asking yourself questions like these:
Dude. Is this absolutely true?
Have I never booked a gig/ been in a relationship/ made money? EEEEEVER?
We’re so quick to decide that if we haven’t totally nailed it standing-ovation-style, that we suck.
Dig deep, look for where you have had success, no matter how teeny-weeny, and build upon it.
You decide what’s true for you, so if you aren’t staring at a reality that lights you up, change your perception, and change your life.
Sometimes, we have to turn what we perceive of as “crumbs” into a feast.
That's okay—it teaches us to be both innovative and optimistic.
7. The path to success is curved.
You will probably never be able to predict the exact path of your life. Why? Because life is unpredictable.
Also curved? Your BFA might not be a part of a linear success story from 5th-grade talent show winner to Tevye in High School, to Julliard, to glittering stardom.
It might be that your BFA is on the scenic route to your true destiny as an empathetic and world-rocking politician (like my beloved childhood boyfriend Justin Flagg who is kicking ass and taking names), or as a invaluable tigress for one of the world’s biggest consultancies (like my friend Jessica who is the moving to India to kick ass with her dashing diplomat husband). Or Vera Wang who changed her path from figure skater to world-class designer at the age of 49.
Who knows what your true calling is? It might not even be an idea you've had yet.
So be patient and give yourself a chance to have it.
8. Trust your struggle.
Your BFA in Whatever might not mean you are destined for Sutton-Foster-level validation.
Look at the unconventional artistic success stories like that of the glorious Billy Porter, Octavia Spencer, Samuel L Jackson and my one and only idol Angela Lansbury. These are great actors and human beings whose conventional "success" came later in their lives.
After Carnegie Mellon, Billy spent years (years) making art, writing, teaching, and being generally misunderstood by the industry, rejected over and over again, and then one day? Boom. Kinky Boots. Tony, Grammy, stardom.
Octavia Spencer was told she was weird-looking and “not for Hollywood.” Suck it haters: she now has an Oscar.
Samuel L. Jackson recovered from a crippling addiction to cocaine and heroin before landing Pulp Fiction at 46. He then went on to become Samuel L Freakin' Jackson.
And even though Angela Lansbury was nominated for an Oscar at 18, a Goldwyn girl, a movie and gigantic Broadway star, she wasn’t a complete and utter household name until she starred on Murder, She Wrote which she began at the age of 60.
Not to mention Ariana Huffington starting The Huffington Post at age 54.
Or Charles Darwin, who was 50 years old before he published On the Origin of the Species in 1859.
Or Julia Child who published her first cookbook at 39; and made her television debut at age 51.
Repeat after me: Trust. Your. Struggle.
No matter what this chapter is, trust that it is all part of the story, and it refines, defines, and ultimately: makes you better.