What if, what if … as kids, as adults, we got praise & recognition not for our intelligence or talent or achievements … but for our effort? What if there was a game that scored points not for wins but for progress? For developing ever more sophisticated strategies, building perseverance & improvement over time? What if the quality of our effort became our sole criteria for self-evaluation?
What if this year we stop beating ourselves up (or even praising ourselves!) for the results that come, or don't come, of our efforts? Instead, what if we focused on defining achievement as our willingness to embrace challenge, to grow, to improve? What if the words "success" & "failure" could take on a whole new meaning in our actor-lives?
Up against talent / career challenges, I see actors take two different approaches. For Group #1, the process of career management i.e. getting an agent / job / series / networking / marketing, etc. exists as a necessary evil. It's seen as something distasteful that needs be gotten out of the way, or avoided. This group chafes against the real & true difficulties of our world: industry politics & unfairness / the overwhelming amount of competition / having to "sell yourself" / the impossibility of justs getting in the door, being seen.
& then, there's all that other stuff: insecurity & angst about looks & "chops" & confidence. .. If we're really being honest we have to admit that even when the opportunity presents itself, sometimes we just don't have skills to nail it. Or, we have the skills to nail it -- we know we do! -- but we don't have the confidence. These difficulties are seen as painful, unwelcome obstacles.
Group #2 (& I've been a member of both) is not immune to actor-angst. But somewhere along the way, these artists cultivated another way to respond to difficulty. In this group, obstacles are not perceived as the enemy. Difficulty becomes a teacher, failure a font of wisdom, struggle a signal to ask for help. This group uses what goes wrong as a way to grow & refine their effort / perseverance / strategy. A challenge doesn't hold the prospect of revealing lack, it holds the opportunity to discover what we have yet to master.
A Ted Talk I listened to recently inspired some of my thoughts on this subject. Check it out: Carol Dweck on The Power of Believing You Can Improve. She talks about an experimental school program that replaced a failing grade with a "Not Yet" grade -- & the powerful psychic difference between an "F" & "Not Yet." There is nothing negative in "Not Yet." There is future promise in "Not Yet." There is faith in the power to improve.
Dweck reports radical changes that occurred in 2 poor-performing public grade schools in the study. Within one year of implementing the "Not Yet" grading process, these schools moved from the bottom to the top 2%. But it was not just "Not Yet" that caused this big shift. Teachers & parents learned how to encourage & praise their children & for what. "Praise wisely," Dweck says. "Don't praise kids for their intelligence or talent. Praise the process kids engage in. Praise their progress. Praise their willingness to try again & again & again."
I'm the daughter of a first-generation Italian immigrant. Brave people like my Italian grandparents who left all they knew behind to come to this country seem to carry a genetic predisposition to value nothing but ACHIEVEMENT & SUCCESS. Maybe that's what it took to get here. They learned to be willfully deaf, dumb & blind to everything else. The quest for this bulldozes everything in its path. For the children of immigrants, learning to evaluate on any other terms but hard-core "achievment" & "success" = what learning a new language, a new culture, a new world, must have been for their parents.
Recently, I vented to my therapist about a "result" I didn't get, on a project I worked long & hard on. I sat in her Sherman Oaks office spewing forth anger & frustration about the situation & myself. After about a half hour, ad nauseam, of this, she stopped me. "Look at what you actually did," she said. "Look at what you made. Look at how hard you worked. Applaud yourself for your effort."
"So what," I shot back. "I should've done so much better!" She laughed. "Under the circumstances you describe? Who could do their best work under those circumstances?" I sputtered a bit. "Well, then I should have had the balls to … [take another action.] I didn't & so it wasn't …" "Perfect?" she said. That was it! "YES! YES! YES!" I said, "& it could have been!"
"But," she asked me, "was it not good enough?"
... True. It had been "good enough." At least for the press & people whose opinions I respected. It just wasn't good enough for me, for my vision. & so to me that meant … somehow … it was a failure. The idea of applauding myself for my effort, my perseverance, my tenacity in the face of obstacles, my tirelessness indefatigability! -- (& I had all those things!) -- never occurred to me! It never occurred to me that that was the accomplishment. Period.
For me the problem is not believing that these values exist, but that they have real currency. Okay, good for them, those 1st graders. But really … improvement? Does that really count, in the long run?
This goes back to the nature / nurture clash surrounding acting & all the arts. You know, the "you've either got it or you don't. Either you're a natural or you're not. On the "nature" side: acting can't be taught. Nothing you do to "improve" or "grow" changes that.
& on the "nurture" side: technique, craft, hard work, & optimism sprinkled with a liberal measure of innate talent holds the potential to change the world. (As usual, Shakespeare embraced all possibilities: "Some are born great, some achieve greatness, & some have greatness thrust upon them.")
Bottom line: is great talent a gift of the gods? Or the result of a nascent gift + really, really, really hard work? Can I truly believe in "not yet?" Or is it all set in stone from the outset?
I love Stephen King's book On Writing. He talks here about the difference between good, great & bad writers.
"Writers form themselves in the pyramid we see in all areas of human talent & human creativity. At the bottom are the bad ones. Above them is a group which is slightly smaller but still large & welcoming; these are the competent writers.
The next level is much smaller. These are the really good writers. Above them -- above almost all of us -- are the Shakespeares, the Faulkners, the Shaws, the Eudora Weltys. They are geniuses, divine accidents, gifted in a way which is beyond our ability to understand, let alone attain. Shit, most geniuses aren't able to understand themselves, & many of them lead miserable lives, realizing (at least on some level) that they are nothing but fortunate freaks, the intellectual version of runway models who just happen to be born with the right cheekbones & with the breasts which fit the image of an age.
…while it is impossible to make a competent writer out of a bad writer, & while it is equally impossible to make a great writer out of a good one, it is possible with lots of hard work, dedication, & timely help, to make a very good writer out of a merely competent one."
I am endeavoring to think along these lines, too. Hard work. Persistence. Dedication. Progress. It's kind of easy to cheap with acting; sometimes we can "pass" even when we don't deserve to. We haven't really done the work, but we're pretty & likable & sound good reading aloud. & sometimes we let that give us a false sense of security. & we come to think we don't have to do much more than that. We forget what hard work really means. +, acting isn't as exacting as all the other arts. Sometimes acting is just about walking & talking like a human being, & hey, who can't do that?
Unlike actors, musicians & ballet dancers & Olympic athletes & writers take for granted that effort, repetition & perseverance over long stretches of time -- mostly in the absence of the muse -- paves the path to virtuosity. Practice, practice, practice. Athletes train. Dancers dance. Writers write. These people have an inviolable daily routine. They go at it for hours a day, every day. Actors … unless we are highly in demand & working constantly … is our process really in the same league?
30 years ago, in scene study class with master teacher/director Nikos Psacharopoulos, I remember an actress bursting into tears after putting up a scene. Because, she said, she could never get it right. It didn't matter how hard she tried when she got to class it didn't go right. "Why do you assume it's going to go right?" Nikos asked incredulously. "We rehearse in order to deal with all the many things that can go wrong. You need to be in rehearsal 5,6,7 hours a day for 4 or 5 weeks to find out how it goes right. Until then, it always goes wrong. Until then, forget it!"
When you devalue everything but the perfect results (i.e. booking the job / being the best actor in the room / winning awards, etc.) -- when everything next to that doesn't count or isn't "enough" -- then the texture of your day-to-day life feels like "I haveta." Instead of "I wanna." "I haveta" is how someone who is not enough feels all the time. "I wanna" is how you feel when you relax about achievement & success. (Stephen King again.)
& really, what is it, anyway? Anyone who has been there knows it's never what it's cracked up to be. As Kevin Spacey said recently: "Success is like death. The more successful you become, the higher the houses in the hills get & the higher the fences get."
So, let's come at this from a different direction. Let's allow the words success & difficulty to take on new meaning. Let's ban perfect & celebrate good enough. As Dweck says: "Process the error, learn from it, correct it. You may not quite be ready for every challenge. Let that be okay. Let 'not yet' be okay."
I'm always talking in class about the primacy of process in the work. I guess what I'm talking about now is the primacy of process in everything else. In a way, this 'grow & improve' mindset needs to extend to everything we do. So that we claim it as part of who we are, as our way of being in the world. We begin to see that staying in process = power when it comes to the art & the business of acting -- & also when it comes to things like our health & relationships &, oh, everything! -- Cooking & reading & relaxing & exercise & money. To fully reap the power of process in the creative space, we must embrace it holistically. I've mentioned this here before, but it bears repeating. Again, Nikos Psacharopoulos, one of my favorite quotes of all time: All great art is about a way of living.
So … what about you? Could it also serve you this year to be okay with "good enough?" & to let "good enough" be about how you did the work, rather than the results you racked up? You worked hard on the audition & showed up! A+! You went to acting class & struggled with aspects of technique that challenge you. A+! The manager you interviewed with didn't pick you up. Not Yet. You increased your skills & understanding by reading, writing, meditating. A+! You acted in / changed the scenery for / produced / directed the show, & it all came together because of the quality of your effort! A+! You worked hard & didn't get the part. Not Yet. You came up against a challenge & felt motivated & willing to tackle it. Triple A+.
My 2 resolutions for all time:
1. To remember: If I continue to grow my ability to make a quality effort, to deepen my dedication & perseverance; to work toward ever more nuanced strategies for my art & my career … if I aim for growth & improvement first, I will then be in full possession of success.
2. To resolve: I will not be perfect. Well, I can't be, anyway. & I don't have to be perfect. I am "good enough." & good enough is enough to rock the world.
& Oh, yes. Slow down. All of us. Breathe. Talk nice to ourselves. But most of all, slow down.