The Tortoise-Artist & the Hare-Hack
Hi again Holler readers! Thanks again for your questions and comments. I hope everyone has made it safely through the storm. I’m sharing today a letter from a self-identifying “tortoise.” Is slow-and-steady the way to go? Or is there something systemically wrong when the best and the brightest don’t advance? And as always…Got issues? Of course you do. Keep’em coming—write to me at [email protected].
Since this is anonymous, I can be blunt. I think I’m better* at what I do than my peers, but I see them advancing in their career’s faster. What gives?
Tortoise-Artist Not Hare-Hack
*Ok, I suppose I should get a little more specific when I say “better.” I think I make more thoughtful, clearer choices. Audiences leave my work feeling stimulated and fulfilled. I’m all for experimentation, but I could name some peers whose obtuse, concept-laden work renders people hollow and confused, and yet they’re the ones getting higher-profile gigs! Also, it must be said: I think I conduct myself like a gentleman when it comes to the networking/competition side of things, and not like a fake, career-obsessed asshole, and yet I consistently see our field positively reinforcing the absolute shittiest behavior. Ok, now I'm done.
Man, I hear you. And I am so so grateful for your letter—you are voicing something here that I've felt deep in my gut many times. Especially that part at the end about shitty behavior being reinforced. Why do we do that? It sucks feeling like one’s gifts go unrecognized. Sometimes no good aesthetic choice goes unpunished.
I get it on a deeper level: It's not the really the recognition at all, or even the paycheck, is it? You just want to do your thing, and instead you feel left in the dust. But, I have to say, I think the field is stronger for people like you. We need artists who are brave enough to ask that question that many of us are scared of: In a field in which we are told to believe that we ultimately cannot expect to control what brings success, how much does raw ability factor in? And what about (to use your word) gentlemanliness? And if those things don’t amount for much, then why nurture them at all?
We must constantly challenge the structures that determine professional advancement. Just as we must ask if ours is a field where people will want to spend their lives, we must also ask if those who do make that choice are continually supported, developed, and challenged. But none of that really helps you out right now, does it? None of that soothes the pang when you open your email and see yet another colleague, one who in your view is less skilled and more un-mensch-like, has landed a plum gig. What is in your power right now, Tortoise, is how you chart the path you’re on.
I remember a story about a little boy, let's say eleven-years-old, who wrote into an advice column frustrated that he couldn't get any girls to like him. The girls in his grade were all obsessed with the jocks and the “in crowd,” and as just a regular guy, he couldn't turn any heads. He wanted some advice on how to get a girlfriend now. Be more aggressive? Try some crazy antics to get attention? The advice that came back was not what I expected. The columnist told him to stop worrying about getting a girl at age eleven. Better he should spend a few years becoming an interesting person that would turns girls' heads at age sixteen, age twenty, and beyond. “Why would you want an eleven-year-old girl to fall for some stunt today,” the columnist asked, “when you could attract a really amazing sixteen year-old-girl in five years if you spend that time reading books, visiting museums, and developing a sense of the man you really want to become?”
I love that advice. It really challenges me to realize that by trying to “win the day” I actually fail at the long game. I always thought that you won the long game by winning the most days, but it doesn't work like that in grade school romance, nor, as it turns out, theatre careers. I remember I was once in a directing program with six other directors. At the end we presented a short play. I felt like you—my finished product was by far the “most best”—the audience favorite. But it took me years to realize that I won the day in that situation by choosing easy material and knocking it out of the park. The result was that I didn't show anyone (least of all myself) that I was capable of or interested in taking on big challenges. Even though their work that day was uneven at best, my colleagues proved that they were willing to fail gloriously. To my surprise and disappointment, in the end, I got the least mileage out of that showcase.
Stay in the safety zone, and you might get really good at what you already can do, but never find out what else you’re capable of. If you leave the safety zone, the rewards are potentially richer, but you have to take on the stomach-dropping risk of failure.
Those who were asking the big unanswerable questions received both external and (aha!) internal rewards. Because you know, that’s the hidden positive outcome of following that columnist’s advice: No matter what happens with the girl, you’ll have spent five years engaged in this wonderful, enriching process of self-discovery. That investment of time will pay you back for the rest of your life. Stay in the safety zone, and you might get really good at what you already can do, but never find out what else you’re capable of. If you leave the safety zone, the rewards are potentially richer, but you have to take on the stomach-dropping risk of failure. So in terms of your theatre career, Tortoise, I think it is completely understandable to question why it seems all those Hares are hopping over your head. We all have those moments (or those years). And, on the macro scale, maybe some of those questions will eventually help to improve the field—we need rabble-rousers to make sure this is a place where we want to continue working. But, on a more intimate scale, perhaps you can see this as an opportunity to check-in with yourself and ask if you are doing everything you can to enjoy the journey. And hey, after all, the tortoise does win in the end…
The Bottom Line: It’s not a bad thing to ask how the field can improve. But don’t forget that it’s your own journey—either headed breathlessly into the rapids, or kept safely close to shore—that you must stay most focused on traveling.