I had to laugh when, after hours of agonizing over this week’s topic, I realized this weekend celebrates my twentieth anniversary of moving to Los Angeles.
My sister and I drove cross country over Valentine’s Day weekend, 1998. We made incredible time, but managed to stop for important stuff. The most important was visiting the Oklahoma bombing site that had happened just a few years prior. There was this tree.
Survivor Tree 1998.
This tree was the only thing left standing at ground zero. It defied logic, yet made so much sense. When I arrived in L.A., I only had theatre credits and two co-star roles – I had neither connections nor representation. I did, however, acclimate very quickly. The weather, the driving – I never owned a car before – and the possibilities! Unlike Chicago, I could meet dozens of casting directors face to face and no one had a preconceived idea of who I was or who I should be. That first year I booked three network TV shows and a national commercial with no agent. It defied logic.
As the years went on, I embraced my newfound freedom by joining a theatre company, teaching improvisation, directing for the stage, performing stand-up – and partying. While I had some successes, I focused more on my “failures”. I began to take on the insecurities of my fellow actors. I saw my early success as a fluke that would never happen again. I worried that my hometown friends and family expected more than I could produce. So between crappy day jobs and theatre rehearsals, I commiserated with others over beer. I had at least four theatrical agents over a dozen years with huge gaps in between, while my acting credits grew increasingly stale. I was also living in a tiny studio that had thin walls and no light.
At the top of It’s a Wonderful Life, Clarence asks God, “Is he (George Bailey) in trouble?” God replies, “Worse – he’s discouraged.” That was me, and I felt deserving of nothing. My sister noticed this, and reminded me of my talent for defying logic. So without knowing how I’d pay for it, or what I’d study, I returned to school. Again, I walked through the process with easy, yet laser-like focus. I loved it, and discovered I didn’t have to pay a dime for my Graphic Design degree. My sense of accomplishment returned, my energy came back, and the universe hugged me. I started to book again. Upon graduation, I decided to create my own business, because I was done working crappy day jobs. When I hired a coach to help me, my business began to grow. This time, unfortunately, I took on the insecurities of my then partner and chose not to grow too much. I developed a serious skin condition, and I stopped booking. I spent the next three years putting his needs above mine.As soon as I made the decision to end this long term relationship, the universe welcomed me back with open arms. Where you been, girl? I was happy, hopeful, and younger. My energy was bright and attracted good things. I booked two national commercials and four network TV spots within that first year. I created a living space full of sunlight and peace. Soon I obtained amazing representation in both L.A. and Chicago. I was free from the fear that had been disguised as “good common sense”.
I have always loved living on the edge, not knowing how things will turn out. I love it, because deep in my soul I know everything will always turn out fine. And now I am determined to love my way of living more than others fear it.
“When someone fears losing your affection, he or she will strive to keep it. Perhaps you have strived to keep someone’s affection, too. Fear of loss is not love.” – Gary Zukav, The Seat of the Soul
So you’ve got all of your tools in place. You’ve explored your Brand (I like to use the term, “Essence”), you’ve got your perfect headshots, your reel is up to date, you’re in class, your resume is growing. Congratulations! But there’s something no quite right. There’s this intangible part of the business that seems to open doors for everyone else, but you haven’t quite got it yet. What is that?
An actor friend of mine spoke about his early career mistakes, and it took him awhile to understand the biggest one. He had the looks, confidence and talent, but every time he left his seat in the waiting area to walk into the audition room, he said he left his soul in that seat. He didn’t know why, but he chose to leave the most authentic part of himself outside the door. Perhaps, he thought, no one wanted to see that? He thought professionalism was the ability to compartmentalize. In his mind, “Leave your sh&t outside the door” also meant “Leave your self outside the door”. He paid the price for hiding his best parts.
When I was in my twenties I knew that it was the time for making mistakes. I loved turning thirty, because I knew I was done making mistakes. Boy, was I in for a big surprise! As my mistakes continued, I mistook that for not being good enough. Thus began my downward spiral of contorting myself into a more “palatable” me. I played small and stayed safe. While my peers’ careers got sidetracked by starting families or dealing with serious life issues, my career got sidetracked by my lack of self worth.
Life immediately changes when we relax into who we are. When we relax into our own skins we no longer need to prove anything. The adolescent cry, “You don’t know me!” morphs into the quiet knowing that it’s perfectly OK if most people don’t get me. The most attractive people we know are those who know there is nothing to prove. And when we can enter the room with our whole self – free of the need to book the job and free of outside approval – doors will open.
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Every day news networks lead with shocking headlines solely to increase their ratings. To quote playwright, Adam Langer, “You never hear anyone say, ‘that’s too awful to be true.’ No matter how awful it is, you can believe it, why not no matter how good?” (Vivian in Film Flam)
Some may say that seeing the awful is facing reality. That in order to be safe, we must dutifully arm ourselves with worst case scenarios so as not to fall victim. We must watch the news, binge on real murder stories, click on depressing reports about our health care system and the environment – this keeps us ahead of the game! Beware hopeful stories, for they must be treated with suspicion. We must be careful not to have too much hope or else others will call us naive.
Our reality is based on what we believe. I like to play Black Jack, but I never win, because I have a hang-up about gambling. On the other hand, I believe so strongly in my body’s immune system that I’ve never had the flu even though I’ve never had a flu shot. Our beliefs are strengthened by what we choose to focus on. Good news – we can consciously shift our focus as soon as we are triggered by negative comments or disturbing stories. There is always good to be witnessed, and science shows it makes us healthier. Every horrible headline can be countered with something good. This is one of my favorites from last week: https://www.goodnewsnetwork.org/montana-governor-signs-executive-order-keep-net-neutrality-state/
Focus on the Good
You’re probably already seeing the connection between this and your career. I’ve encountered some crappy people and situations throughout the years, but the moment I no longer allowed them to predict my future, obstacles disappeared. Einstein said, “The most important decision we make is whether we believe we live in a friendly or hostile universe.”
“The key to happiness is not to make yourself into a different person; it is to let yourself be even more of who you really are.” – Dr. Robert Holden
I work all day with actors who are stuck when it comes to their marketing. They are sincerely puzzled as to why they never get around to it. Some reasons they give are: “I don’t want to brag”, or “I don’t think it will do any good”. But I know it’s something more.
The biggest reason why we’re not doing our marketing is because we are stuck in the futile effort of trying to second guess what “they” want. To remedy this, we attend branding workshops where they hand out lists of adjectives for fellow attendees to label us. We listen so intently to what others are saying that we start to believe them. Yes, you’re right – I AM the Latina single mother who has a secret! We push to come up with something cast-able, so we settle on a brand that is not quite us. Our materials smack of subservience, pleading to be called in. As a young actor in Chicago, I was told that I would get more work if I wrapped myself in my Latin heritage. Speak the language, look the part. This confused me. I wondered how I was supposed to do that? I grew up in a Lithuanian neighborhood, my family never spoke Spanish, and I have no hips!
What we really want to say is, “This is me – take it or leave it!”
We admire people who unapologetically march to their own drummer. They are truly the most successful. So how do we find our drummer? Pay attention to the details. When we see the connection between the roles we most want to play and the ones we’re usually called in for, we begin to hear that drum. When we identify that “thing” we bring to every role, the drum gets louder. When we observe how uniquely we navigate life, we bear witness to our authenticity.
If you haven’t noticed by now, this is not just about marketing. It’s about life. If we’re bending over backwards to be more palatable to someone, or if we’re hiding parts of ourselves to fit into a group, we’re not living fully. Be authentic. Be happy.
There’s this great scene in the film, Soapdish (1991), where Sally Field’s character – an aging temperamental soap star – is depressed. Her assistant asks if she needs to go to the mall. Through tears, she nods “yes!” Jump cut to her bedazzled self descending down the mall escalator where slowly but surely more and more people recognize her and soon she’s surrounded by adoring fans who want her autograph. Depression cured. Alas, we are not soap stars, nor do we have malls where validation awaits to greet us. Any validation we do get is fickle and unreliable. Others’ opinions of us are based on how they’re feeling that day, after all. (And we cast our opinions in the same manner.)
At least once a week, I see a post from someone who is getting kicked in the teeth by life. Friends try to cheer them up with virtual hugs and well-meaning, but overused sayings. The truth is, if we don’t pick ourselves up, we’re gonna slide right back into the muck. Coming up with a pep talk in the middle of a personal slump, however, is nearly impossible. Or is it? Here’s how we can prep our pep talk in an honest, look-at-the-facts sort of way before we need it: Make some cookies. I’m not talking empty calorie cookies, but “cookies” that shift our perspective in just one bite. This idea comes from ultra-marathon runner, David Goggins.
Get a jar – or a vase, or a box, (or ziplock bag you can keep in the car) – and fill it with notes spelling out all of your personal achievements. Their size doesn’t matter, just as long as they matter to you. Here are some of mine:
You returned to college at forty, did the work, and graduated as class valedictorian.
You traveled the U.S. staying in four star hotels, because you showed up as an actor.
Your rode your bike from St. Paul, MN to Chicago, because you decided to.
So when you’re feeling like you can’t possibly get through a painful time, or recover from a gut wrenching blow, reach into that cookie jar and tell yourself the truth.
When I first moved to Los Angeles from Chicago, I had no plan, no agent, nor any connections. Within the year, I booked three major network co-stars and a national commercial. I tend to “jump off the edge” so to speak, exhilarated to see what happens next. Hence my love for improv.
There’s a difference between investing in preparation/education and going all in. For instance, back in 2003, I delivered a Carmen Miranda impersonation
for my theatre company’s fundraiser, and it brought down the house. I had the movements, the music, the voice and the outfit – none of which I had the month prior. A veteran company member stared at me backstage and softly said, “I bet you put 110% into everything you do.”
Make no mistake – this had nothing to do with working hard. It may look like I work hard, but at it’s core, it’s always been about me going all in. There’s nothing more fulfilling that going fully in. Even at junior high dances, my sisters and I were the only kids who actually dressed up – making it a real event – and danced every dance.
My career coach has a saying: “Part-time actors produce part-time results.” In 2015, I was years into a dry spell that left me financially dependent on my boyfriend, and sadly, the relationship was no longer working. Not knowing where I was going to live or how I was going to support myself, I ended the relationship. I hired a coach. I fully committed to my career, and showed up to the world in a way I hadn’t before. In eighteen months, I added five more network credits, two national commercials, and signed with a better agent.
If we circle around in our heads, trying to figure out the “how to’s” of this and that, we create obstacles that weren’t even there before. Nowadays, everyone is trying to sell us the “Top 10 Secrets of How To – (fill in the blank)”. We know people who collect these “secrets”, who have a personal library filled with “how to” instruction manuals, but it doesn’t bring them any closer to their goal. The truth? Solutions appear when we go all in.
When I returned to college (for the second time), I didn’t know how to pay for it, how to fit in with classmates 20 years my junior, nor how to use my new degree. I threw myself completely into academia, loving every minute of it. During my second year, I (coincidentally?) booked several commercials which paid for my fees, new computers, and design software.
The Greek Theatre
Who could have predicted that I would give the graduation speech as class valedictorian, and that my graphic design degree would lead me to start my own business? I went all in, and the world laid itself at my feet.
As a Chicago kid, I loved it when Daylight Savings rolled around. While the adults grumbled about “losing” an hour, I got excited about the prospect of warmer weather and the school year coming to an end! So now I consistently ask myself: When I “lose” something, what do I gain? Here are some “losses” that actually merit gains:
SOCIAL MEDIA. I tracked how often I picked up my phone in a four hour span, and it was embarrassing. The biggest trap was picking it up for “business”, but immediately getting pulled into irrelevancy, and then forgetting why I got on in the first place! When I chose to spend less time on social media, I gained opportunities for real connections: writing a letter, making a phone call, meeting for coffee. Connecting to just one person in any of these forms made more of an impact than any “like” or “post” ever could.
MONEY. I would probably shock most people with how much money I do not spend. This is not always a virtue. I got to the point where I couldn’t see the difference between spending and investing, so I spent nothing – and earned nothing. Then I had a change of heart. Last year I invested in a career coach and made a 500% ROI (Return On Investment). Then when I hired an office assistant, my stress level went down and my productivity went up! Money is energy. Investing in yourself is not an indulgence, it is a necessity.
TELEVISION. Years ago, a good friend referred to TV as the “opiate of the masses”, but I justified it as a business need. With today’s technology, we can either use it to watch as much as possible or watch what is important. I’ve auditioned for and been on more television shows this past year than is usual for me, but ironically I’ve been without a TV! February 1st marked my year anniversary of being TV-free. I can now look back and see how I had used it not as a form of entertainment, but as a form of distraction – distraction from my own goals and desires! Paying more attention to my thoughts and emotions, provided the necessary space for working creatively and participating in healthy relationships.
“Springing Ahead”, always coincides with that time of year for planting seeds. Once I have a clear idea of my desired future, I begin to organize the steps of how to make it happen. Living life without clarity (of goals) confuses decision making on a daily basis. When I “lose” a little bit of time to prioritize my life, I gain the freedom to move full steam ahead!
So last week, my episode on FOX’s Rosewood aired. I took my time seeing it, because doing a one-liner is no big deal. And yet it is.
It had been way too long time since I booked a TV gig. When I finally did, it felt like I had climbed out of a well, was hanging over the edge, and trying to catch my breath. And the sun felt good on my face.
When I got the call for the co-star audition, I was looking forward to seeing the casting director again, because it had been years, and he was one of the kindest CDs I met when I first came to town. On the other hand, I hated going in for “the maid”. Don’t get me wrong, I have no problem going in for a domestic, but I never get cast in that type of role no matter how hard I try. I started to think that not only was it a waste of time, it was (geez) only one line, I wasn’t gonna get it anyway, and I should really just call my agent to say I can’t make it.
I was actually talking myself out of an audition! And I’d been subconsciously doing this kind of stuff for some time, which is what had kept me down in that dark-yet-comfortable well to begin with.
The actual shoot was less than glamorous. I was immediately put into a maid’s outfit, and my hair & make-up were . . . “domestic”. I sat in my trailer far, far away from the actual shooting, so I just read my book. The trailer got colder as the hours went by. It was five hours before I was called to set. By the time they shot my scene, the cast & crew were ready to go home. I made a point of just doing my job with no fuss, thinking that no one should really notice me. Yet the writer immediately approached me for a line adjustment, the director introduced himself, the guest star generously shared fancy soaps with me (we were in a hotel), and the star of the show was . . . gorgeous. I was out in under an hour, then drove the 50 miles home. Yes, that day I worked doing what I love.
Externally, it wasn’t such a big deal, but internally, it really was.
So I’ve been re-listening to the philosopher, Alan Watts, talk about the concept of turning work into play, and this always excites me. He lays out examples of how tasks that are usually approached with a sense of dread and suffering, can instead be approached with a sense of playfulness and freedom. He illustrates the difference between work and play. The former must have a purpose/outcome, and the latter is done simply for joy (weeeee!). Our culture teaches us not only to separate one from the other, but to prioritize work over play. Watts suggests we blur the lines between the two.
So how do we do that? Take anything that we “have to” do. That’s what we call work. First notice how anticipating it makes us feel (yuck), and let it go. Let. It. Go. That dreadful feeling is entirely unnecessary, and just creates stress. Now, as we begin the actual work, the game is to focus only on that tiny bit we’re doing right now. Yes, this is Zen. This is being present: One moment at a time, with no self-critique and no urgency. IMPORTANT – the minute the mind wanders into thoughts of deadlines and judgment, we lose our sense of play.
That being said, I must mention there are immediate results to this. I can point to two amazing things that come out of play: 1.) Work becomes stress-free, and 2.) Magically, there is time for everything. I’m not kidding. I could try to convince you of these benefits but that would just be too much work.
There’s this sudden, inevitable halting that is part of growth. Ugh, where did this mud come from, and why didn’t I see it coming? There’s no way I thought, “Hey, here’s some mud. I think I’ll slow down my trajectory, push my goals further off, and walk around in this crap for awhile.”
Resistance only occurs with movement.
Our blessing and curse as humans is our desire for more. Not more “stuff” (yet don’t get me started on the lie that is Black Friday), but more out of life. More energy. More recognition. More challenges. Cool, I know I can do that thing, now I wanna move on and do that other thing! It never ends. More more more. What we forget – every time – is that getting to the next level requires change. Everybody wants change. Nobody wants to go through change.
In order to become more than what we were yesterday, we must accept change. It’s a vicious, delicious, singularly human cycle. If you’re feeling sluggish, heartbroken, hopeless, angry, humiliated, resentful, rejected, etc. know that you’re definitely growing through something. Question is, are you going to see it as something that is happening to you? Or are you going to plant your ass down, push your fingers through the mud, and say, “Thanks, Yin – it’s because of you I will also have Yang. Bigger, better Yang.”