There are rules for how we’re allowed to find success. The legal and moral ones, sure, are obvious: no stealing, lying is bad, report your income, be kind to others, never post Downton Abbey spoilers on Facebook, etc., etc.
But I’m talking about the socially mandated rules that we were all taught and we all abide by, without ever wondering whether they happen to be right for us. Hell, we might not even know that we’re following them; we just do certain things or don’t do others because some past lessons tell us we should. One of these has been gnawing at me for some time and I’ve only recently been able to put a name to it:
(Feel free to use it without paying royalties; I’m a big believer in the public domain.)
The lesson is this: persevering = good, and quitting = bad. Sounds positive and simple enough, right? Yeah, it’s a swell theory. But so were gaucho pants, and I think we can all agree on how those worked in practice.
The thing is, I understand where this kind of advice comes from. No one wants to raise someone or be someone who lacks commitment. The ability to commit to something strengthens everything about us, and without it, we would form pretty lazy relationships and societies. But somewhere along the line, we became afraid to quit anything. We stick everything out to the bitter end, and I, for one, feel like I’m drowning in commitment.
Now, before I establish myself as a manic flake who grows bored of everything she touches, it’s probably worth noting that I think abandoning a commitment should be nothing short of a last resort. I believe in seeing things through. I believe in trying your hardest when something’s important to you. But after a certain point of striving and not succeeding, don’t we owe it to ourselves to reexamine who we’re serving by beating our heads against a wall? Isn’t knowing when the thing that was supposed to make us happy is actually doing the opposite as important a skill as any? Well, just try telling everyone at Thanksgiving dinner that you’re going to do something besides your chosen career path for a while, and get back to me with their reaction. Chances are, it’s not one of support and excitement for your new journey. It’s a little more likely that you’ll get some pitying looks and faux-understanding head nods. Okay, maybe I’m projecting my own insecurities a little. Maybe. And maybe that internal shame is the real problem.
This need to follow guilty stick-to-it-iveness begins in our childhood and stays permanently attached to the back of our brains, and nowhere is it more prevalent than in those who choose a career in the arts.
“Theatre kids,” in addition to being blessed with the lamest demographic representation in cheesy teen movies (we don’t all wear berets, guys! Come on!) (…Okay, fine, I own 3), spend their time in higher education knowing that, above all, we aren’t allowed to change our minds about our career path. Deviating from the plan constitutes failure, and we go through our theatre-lives with one massive chip on our shoulder about failure. Telling someone that you’re majoring in theatre is an invitation to eye-rolling, and it’s probably the only career that more people expect you to fail at than succeed in. We’ve all got something to prove, and dammit, we’re going to prove it—even if it means our happiness! Solid plan.
Now, I didn’t decide to skip merrily down this career path with some naive notion that the world would be falling over itself to give me my dream. I knew it would be hard work and I knew it would be constant rejection. And so, I worked. And I got rejected. And some times were harder than others, some times made me cry until I couldn’t cry anymore, and sometimes I managed to let it roll off my back—as much as anyone can in these situations. I took classes, I practiced, I worked on positive reinforcement, I auditioned as much as I could. I did everything you’re supposed to do. Problem is, that I was feeling knocked down twice as often as I was feeling built up. And it wasn’t simply because I wasn’t working, though that certainly didn’t help.
Theatre is an odd world. You’re required to express constant and unrelenting joy for your friends who are your daily competition (since, chances are, your closest friends are in the biz as well). You have to join in toasts celebrating their successes, which often meant you were unsuccessful in the same ventures. You have to hide disappointment and resentment, and you have to spend your free time as an audience member watching them be more successful than you. And when you’re successful too, it’s very easy to forget how gut-wrenchingly painful this can be. When you’re unsuccessful, the reminders are everywhere. But these things are all required and all important to being a “positive” member of a community, and deviation from these requirements marks you as a “negative” person, a bad friend, and smacks of sour grapes. I can think of precious few other fields (aside from other artistic ones) where this is the case.
Is there competition everywhere? Of course. Are members of other communities faced with swallowing their disappointment to be happy for a friend or colleague at times? Without question. But there isn’t the same level of forced, unending enthusiasm for others. There isn’t the same pressure to shower your friends with adulation, when what you’re really feeling is disappointment. Or, at the very least, the situation doesn’t come up even half as often. Multiple times a month, the Facebook posts of colleagues, text messages from proud friends, and celebratory drink invites remind those of us who haven’t been so lucky that…well…we ain’t so lucky. And multiple times a month, we are reminded that the only socially acceptable way to respond to this defeat is with giant smiles and Pollyanna-esque goodwill.
So, where to go from here? The fact is, poor results beget unhappiness which begets poor performance, which starts the whole cycle again. I used to walk into an audition room and know I owned it. I knew my voice was bigger, I knew my acting was more genuine, and I knew I had something to offer. Over time, through gritted teeth, forced smiles, and a defeated spirit, I knew less and less about what I could bring to that room. I avoided going to theatre as an audience member, because I knew the longing and envy I’d feel sitting on the opposite side of the footlights. I’d find myself resenting even the most dear to me—even those who humbly accepted their success—and that disappointed me more than anything. And what for? Theatre was my joy, and I’d let my guilty stick-to-it-iveness turn it into an obligation and a burden.
Frankly, I was tired of forcing myself into unhappiness. When I took a step back and looked at who I really was—not at who my rolled-up diploma told me I was required to be—I remembered what really brought me light. Artists are creators at their core, and when you aren’t creating, you’re drowning. I needed to create. I needed to use my brain and my heart and make things, and if that couldn’t be theatre right now, it wasn’t a betrayal of myself to unclench my grip from that destiny. Our lives are not just one path, one dream, one goal. And those paths, and dreams, and goals don’t disappear because we put them aside. They may change and morph over time, but they don’t disappear. I want to go to an audition because I want to be a part of that production—not because I’m required to audition for everything in order to still call myself an actor. I want to give myself license to be happy, no matter what that means for my public and professional perception.
I’m sure any 19-year-old theatre major who were to read this would interpret it the same way I would’ve at that time: I’ve failed, I couldn’t hack it, and I’ve resigned myself to a life in some menial office job. But I refuse to feel guilty. I refuse to let my 19-year-old self convince me that taking a breather and exploring other options is tantamount to quitting. It’s just time to create something else for a while.
It’s time to decide not to stick to it.
I have no idea what not sticking to it for the time-being will mean for my life story in the long run. But I’m pretty at peace with my decision to enjoy life instead of forcing myself into a constant struggle, the point of which I’m not even certain of. I could end up finding happiness in just about any number of areas. Who knows? But I do know that this goal is more important than any; and that’s my rule for finding success.
Plus, if I ever change my mind about theatre, I do have 5 or 6 berets stored away in my closet.