There’s this thing that my friends and I used to do in college while we were eating.
“Oh my God, I am so fucked right now. I have a biochem lab write up and a Theatre History paper AND I need to read three chapters for sociology.”
“Well let me tell you that I am so f-ed right now because I have to do the Theatre History paper, memorize two scenes, complete three comp sci projects that are all past due and I have an a capella rehearsal until 10.”
“And can I just say how totally and completely screwed I am because I have a poly sci exam tomorrow that I haven’t even started studying for, a 10 pager for linguistics, the Theatre History paper, the scene memorization, two rehearsals and I said I’d tutor my roommate in French for an hour.”
This can go on ad infinitum.
There was a perverse glee with which we detailed and enshrined our over committed-ness. It was pandemic across the student body. It was our mascot, this looming specter of the impossible tasked to us. We wore it with pride the way we might have worn out maroon and white had we been a school with more traditional means of displaying pride. (Perhaps it’s why something as lame as “The Garnet Tide” was allowed to continue into perpetuity. Really? The Garnet Tide? Though, for such an extremely liberal school, a vaguely menstrual symbol of our collegial devotion is also sort of fitting. But that’s a side note.)
Anyway, in thinking a little deeper about the writing that I did last time I was in this space, I was trying to suss out the exact difference for myself between useful frustration at one’s limitations – the kind that leads to progress and growth – and shame and anger that pulls one back and gets in the way. I started thinking about that habit, one that I took to so easily along the route of higher education. And I started to realize how this parasite of “I am so fucked” has found itself quite a number of comfortable hosts here in the artistic community.
How many times when you talk to people about their work do you hear them bemoan their over-full schedule with stuff it sounds like they aren’t really excited about? When was the last time you asked someone the dreaded “What are you working on?” and received a calm and happy, “Just this one amazing project that I love”? I notice in myself a weird feeling of not enough if I answer that I am simply doing one show for months (years!), rather than rehearsing one, finishing off the run of another, while prepping three for the next coming months in the span of a few weeks.
Why is that?
To be sure, there are financial pressures that force us to do more than we ought. But if it were money alone, why are there are an awful lot of projects that I see people take on for next to no pay or exposure? Projects they don’t even like. Projects that they seem to refer to with disdain.
“If you hate the work and you aren’t really getting any money, why are you doing this?” I often want to ask.
But I don’t. It doesn’t feel like my place to tell someone that they seem to be making some pretty artistically self-destructive choices. And who am I, with my measly one or two projects a year, to say anything at all?
What if we all took a step back? What if we all tried to cull the herd and take on things that really serve at least two of three purposes – artistic growth, making money, or real enjoyment.
I used to have a day job that was just a money job. I hated it and it felt like it was actually making me stupider. It was also really easy. And over time, I realized that even if this job paid me double, triple, ten times what I was making, I would still resent being there. And that’s when I quit.
I’ve also had artistic projects that felt like they were so fulfilling and so happiness inducing that I would find a way to make time to make them happen even if I had no cash. So I kept doing them, because they feed enough of the other parts of me at that moment to make the little money worth it.
Sometimes we start things because we love them and they make us happy, and we forget to check back in and see if that’s still happening. Like any relationship, the way that you are when you first start seeing someone/something has to change over time. A job that at one point in life was a real step forward, ten years later might feel like a step back. That only makes sense. But it’s tough in the moment to remember that, that sometimes we outgrow the things we once wanted.
Here’s the image that I have in my head. (PS credit where it’s due – I first started picturing this image for myself after hearing an amazing speech by Neil Gaiman from a commencement at UArts). Imagine the artist you want to be, the life you want to lead. That life is the top of a mountain. With each step you take, are you going up the mountain or down? Are you getting closer to the top, or walking away? Even if the thing you’re considering seems like a good idea, is it still getting you closer to the peak?
If it’s not, why are you doing it?
Coming back to the original thing for a moment: Taking on too much can be a way to distract ourselves.
If we are so busy that we don’t have time to stop and think, when we are so busy looking at the road just in front of us and hacking through the brush just to move ahead, it’s actually easier in some ways. We don’t have to evaluate choices. The work to get ahead is so strenuous, so effortful, that the prize is simply moving forward, having done it at all.
That forward motion may be exactly what you need. Or not. You have to look at the mountain to know.
When I was in school, I had a moment where I realized that by committing myself to a Chemistry thesis, a devised acting piece, an original directing work, a voice recital in four languages, not to mention the choice to shed dorm life and learn to pay bills and cook my own food all at once, I was giving myself an out.
The out was this: If I do all of these things, no one of them has to count.
If my concert was under prepared, that was only understandable, as clearly I had no time to rehearse. If my thesis was a little sloppily slapped together, well that’s alright, because I was balancing so much else. If I wasn’t the actor I imagined, that was because I was too busy not because I didn’t really belong on stage. If I paid my bills late, who could blame me, no one else in my peer group was acting like such an adult.
All these things together meant that no one of them really reflected back on me. Their shortcomings were the limitations of my time. Their successes were the “real” me.
As a life long perfectionist, this has always been a struggle – finding ways to keep hold of this “real” me fantasy. But these days, when I have actually set up my life in such a way as to actually have that stuff, the time and money, I find myself strangely more bottled up than ever. As I found ways to have more control over my life, it was more difficult to keep pretending that given infinite time and resource I would someday make those amazing things that I kept promising myself about.
I think it’s because there’s finally no excuse. There’s not much left between “real” me and myself. And it’s hard look at the things you’ve done and say, “That is the best I could do.” Not because I was busy, not because I was under funded, because it was actually just the extent to which I was capable. This is why we (definitely me!) procrastinate. Not because we are bad. Because we are scared that we might be less capable than we wish we were. So we over book and over commit so we never get the chance to measure the “real” thing, and so we can keep the fantasy.
The times when I have most found myself climbing down the mountain are the times when I was afraid to come up short. They were the times when I let myself be measured by other people’s expectations (and hated them for it!) because I feared myself incapable of succeeding by my own. The times when I have most despised theater and myself in it are the very times when I’m carrying all this crap I didn’t want, when it feels like it’s holding me back, like some kind of gravitational inevitability. That time and energy were conspiring to keep me from my best self.
There is a real sadness in giving up the idea of the “real” self, and as Americans I think it’s especially difficult. We live in a culture that teaches one to dream, dream, dream. BE YOUR BEST SELF, we are admonished. And while I am all for dreaming, the flip side of that tendency is get so comfortable with the imagining of one’s best self, that we never actually bother to get it. You have to give up the ideal to make something real.
I think more likely, more often, the thing holding me back is me. Me struggling to be ok with being less than perfection.