Pictured: Sheryl Sandburg of Lean In fame.
Prelude in the Key of Taxi Lecture
I was in a taxi with my acting teacher after a party three weeks ago.
“You wanna talk about scene study class?” he asked me.
As it is a cosmic rule that there is always traffic when you are sitting in a cab next to your acting teacher at 1:30 in the morning, he then proceeded to lecture me for the forty-five minutes it took to get from Downtown Manhattan to Park Slope.
“You’re holding yourself back,” he said. “STOP IT.”
He looked out the window before fixing me with a slightly blurry stare. “Why do you think you’re here, anyway?” he asked me.
“Luck,” I replied, shrugging.
My teacher looked so angry at that moment I thought he was going to poke me with the finger that snapped out at me.
“That’s bullshit,” he said.
And then the conversation was over.
I just read Lean In after five months on the library’s wait list. Some things that I took away from the book are:
a) Sit at the table.
b) Keep sitting at the table.
c) Do not leave the table unless there is a reason for you to do so that is bigger, stronger, and more important than what exists for you at that table.
d) Even after you think you should leave the table, really assess why you are leaving the table, and then maybe consider not leaving it at all.
I found all this to be useful, although I do not think I will ever find myself sitting next to Mark Zuckerburg at any tables in the near or distant future.
After I finished the book and made my boyfriend read it, I found myself wondering what someone like Sheryl Sandburg would say to a generation of young artists as they start to develop a sense of their professional lives. Other than the importance to table-sitting, what stuck out to me the most was when Sandburg noted that, according to her research, women have a tendency to think their opportunities or career advancements are due to luck, while men tend to think that they deserve to move forward and up because of their hard work.
I’m in an acting conservatory and told my teacher, quite honestly, that I was there not because I am talented and focused and committed, but because I am “lucky.” Maybe I said that because I’m a woman, but maybe something else is at play, too.
What kind of Lean In-like advice do young artists starting their professional lives need to hear? Truth be told, I got a little depressed when I thought about why Lean In is so popular, and so focused on success in the corporate world. Reading about bettering a workforce in a turbulent economy is a very different experience when you desire to enter the workforce as one of the most underpaid professionals out there, in a country where a lot of people think “professional working artist” means Beyonce.
I’ve written before about how I wish that there was a handbook for young artists setting out to develop professional lives in the arts but, unfortunately or not, there’s really not a way to codify a career that can exist in so many different directions. There’s also no one way to write a handbook for a profession that has an inherently different understanding of “success” than someone in the business world. Given that the barometer for as successful career in business is making money, being a successful artist in these Fifty United “Arts funding? Slash that bitch!” States often demands that individual definitions of “success” vary from artist to artist.
The more I thought about it, though, the more I saw how often “luck” is perceived to be a defining characteristic of a successful artist’s career, and how quickly that can confuse a young artist’s perception of how to get started.
So it is in the Spirit of Sandburg, or SOS as I’ll call it in fake business-speak, that I would like to address this idea of luck being a key factor to a successful career in the arts, and how we need to get over it.
I might even be reading this aloud as I write it because I am pretending to read off of a teleprompter at a TED talk.
I’m a Business, Man
When young businesspeople, a stock of people I cannot help but imagine wearing identical pinstriped suits with wide shoulders and unisex pointy shoes, begin to build successful careers in business, a lot of really unsexy words are used to describe the methods they must employ in order to achieve that success. Words like “pragmatism” and “commitment” and “hard work” and “sacrifice” are all understood to be elements necessary to the early stages of a long and beneficial career in the business world.
When young artists, on the other hand, begin to develop careers in the arts, they are usually told to trust their guts, to listen to their instincts, and to develop their skill sets so that they might further their careers through grad school, mentorship opportunities, networking, or solid jobs in their field. This advice focuses on the capacity of that young artist to dream big, and then seek fulfillment by following their bliss in the direction of that dream. The emphasis is on the dream itself, not on the practical or tangible things that need to happen in order to make that dream come true.
Because of this, many young artists don’t realize how hard, expensive, exhausting, and sometimes kind of boring it can be to carve out a path to follow their dreams. When the emphasis is on the goal and not the plan to reach that goal, words like “pragmatism” and “commitment” and “hard work” and “sacrifice” are left out of the discussion. This is problematic for a lot of reasons, but I think that the biggest issue here is that, when applied to artists, these words describe not only what you need to do once you are in the career, but what you as an artist have to know how to do even before your career has started. Dreaming big is what happens before the work begins.
One Moist Lump of Sad and Pathetic Dreamlessness (Or, Moving to New York)
I moved to New York in May of 2013 after living in San Francisco for five years. After being broke for the entirety of my time in San Francisco, I decided to live in my mother’s house for the year and a half I needed to hold down a desk job so boring I developed an addiction to Mormon mommy blogs, but would be my ticket to a financially sustainable cross-country move.
I was miserable. Throughout my time in San Francisco I had had minimal luck meeting artistic collaborators or finding a community of like-minded theater artists, and even though I was working for a theater company, this continued to be the case. Adding living at home and the unbelievable drudgery of my day job to this ongoing frustration, even though it was all in support of a dream I was determined to achieve, still didn’t make my life in San Francisco feel like anything other than a failure. And I was so unhappy and felt so defeated by my circumstances that I was just going to let that be. New York, I had decided, was where I would be happy, where I would meet collaborators, where I could finally become an artist. I’d deal with the reality of how to make that happen when I got there.
My best friend, who read Lean In way before I did, is a lawyer, and also-perhaps not incidentally-one of the most intelligent and pragmatic people I know. It was she who pointed out to me about six months into my abject misery that, actually, my life in New York was going to be pretty much identical to my life in San Francisco if I didn’t start doing the things I needed to do to lay a foundation for myself as a working artist when I arrived in New York. If I wanted to do more than just draw comics, I needed to build a website for myself and put myself out there. If I wanted to do theater, I had to do theater, even if it wasn’t with people I was excited to work with, just to expand my resume. And most importantly, if I didn’t create an image for myself of the career I wanted when I arrived in a new place, the path to creating that career would be just as elusive to me as it had been in San Francisco.
As someone with minimal business sense, I am at least smart enough to have such an incredibly pragmatic best friend, and so I was also smart enough to heed her advice. My abject misery did not go away, but I started to learn how I could define “working artist” for myself, which is to say, I started to try things that I didn’t know how to do.
Although I have no proper technical skills, I spent several weekends figuring out how to build a website for my comics, and took acting classes in the evenings after realizing that part of what was holding me back from auditioning is that I have a lot more to learn about what it means to be an actor. When a classmate asked me if I was interested in working with a company that produces five-minute play festivals I said yes, and worked first as an actor and then as a director, something I had never tried before. I tried and failed to put together a theater collective, which was discouraging, but that experience then led me to the opportunity to teach a theater workshop to a group of seven-to-sixteen year old dance students, a terrifying experience that gave me my first sense of what being a teaching artist might be like.
With the months ticking away, I began to see that maybe “I’ll figure it out when I get there” only ever sounds like a good mantra to keep when life happiness is at stake. I started using my incredible amounts of down time at my job to research and apply for New York City-based fellowships, internships, and the yearlong Conservatory program with SITI Company, which I found after googling “Anne Bogart.” Much to my surprise I was asked to interview after I sent in my application, and spent two days figuring out what to wear for my Skype interview. I got waitlisted at the Conservatory and a lot of “No thank you” letters from everyone else.
So, with a slightly more impressive resume than I had a year before, and only a little bit of a clearer idea how to build the life I want for myself as a working artist, along with a lot of truly terrible desk jobs under my belt, I moved to New York.
Lean In/Fall Down
When I look at the trajectory of my time in San Francisco and consider how I got myself to New York, I can see clearly now that luck actually had nothing to do with it. I didn’t see the hard work, commitment, sacrifice, and pragmatism of the choices I made when I was still in San Francisco because none of it paid off while I was there. I didn’t find my artistic community, or get well known for my comics, or even save quite as much money as I wanted to. But had I not made the choices I made while I was still there, many of which did not feel as connected to my dream of being a theater artist as I thought they should, I never could have succeeded in New York. And by “succeed” I mean “I live in New York,” as well as “I’m currently getting my ass kicked in a Conservatory, and finding my artistic community.”
The thing was, everything I did in San Francisco to get me to New York ended up helping me to establish myself here in ways I never could have anticipated. Pretty much the minute I got here I got a job through a friend working as an administrative assistant for a lovely choreographer who actually needed a lot of help. I never thought my eighteen months sitting at a desk in San Francisco so bored I wanted to rip my brains out of my skull and/or become a married mother of twelve in the Church of Latter Day Saints actually taught me anything. But it did. And in addition to my administrative gig, my website and the theater workshop I taught in San Francisco landed me a summer job teaching Ugly Comics workshops to teenage girls at the Eileen Fisher Leadership Institute, a wonderful experience that really offered me my first opportunity to learn who I am as a teaching artist.
And then I got into SITI Conservatory. As one of the only students who had never worked with the company before, the letters of recommendation sent to SITI from my acting teachers in San Francisco helped me gain entry into the program, a program that I could only consider doing because I managed to save the money by living at home in abject misery with my mom, (who, for the record, was not in any way a cause of my abject misery). While I do feel incredibly lucky to have this amazing opportunity, it was my determination to change my life and all the work I did in service to that commitment that got me into the program. Luck had nothing to do with it.
If the central idea of Lean In is that everyone must figure out how to sit at the table, I think that the Sheryl Sandburg writing Lean In for young artists at the start of their professional careers would tell us that, not only do we have to find what table we want to sit at, but the work it takes to even get to that table is actually where we have to begin. So keep your shitty job. It will get you skills you might not even realize you possess, and the money you need to leave it behind and move on to something better. Live with parents or seventeen roommates or your best friend in a one-bedroom apartment, live on nothing as best you can, and find your way to a new place if that is where your guts are telling you to go. But know that it takes time, and patience, and commitment, and sacrifice to get there, wherever “there” maybe be.
Like any other job, success as a professional artist happens to people who reach towards it. As an artist, you must find a way to follow your bliss while navigating the practical and doable path you need to take in order to arrive at your definition of success. Luck will not lead you there. Work will.
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