OPTIMISM, SETTING YOUR COURSE & GETTING WHERE YOU WANT TO GO.
How does an actor sustain some sense of empowered optimism and forward momentum in the face of uncertainty and all the ups and downs?
I don’t see myself as some “self-help guru,” and I don’t think I have any methods for navigating life that are anything original or ground breaking. But, in case it might help, here are a few strategies that I use that seem to have served me well.
Weathering a rough road
As a freelance actor, you may often feel powerless, buffeted by chance and at the mercy of others. It’s easy to get down on yourself or stuck about seemingly “not getting anywhere” and the constant rejection and uncertainty common to a performer’s life.
An acting career often kicks along seemingly in slow-motion. Years of prep and training and work can take years to payoff (if they pay off). Staying positive and constructive in the face of all this can be a real challenge.
Making your own obstacles
You gotta be okay with the bumpy road that is actor’s life. But some seem bent on making their journey longer and bumpier.
A lot of people probably don’t realize that they have become their own biggest obstacle, that they are complicit in amplifying and manufacturing their own difficulties.
If their mind were a road, they would be actively adding potholes rather than laying smooth asphalt.
- Dwelling on what you have no control over.
- Reinforcing unhelpful boundaries or obstacles in your life.
- Loyalty and commitment to failed strategies and behavior or negative people.
- Worrying about a thing before it’s an active issue.
- Charging into a battle you are clearly not equipped to win.
- Dwelling on dead-ends.
- Inability or refusal to stop revisiting what has proven toxic, wasteful or injurious.
- Unwillingness to cut losses and move on.
Two circles: Focusing on what you have influence/control over:
I once saw a simple diagram that I often think of: It showed two intersecting circles. The one circle labeled “Concern” supposedly contains everything that you care about, that you love– what matters to you. The other circle is the”Influence” circle, containing everything you have influence or some control over. Outside these circles is everything you cannot in any way influence or control as well as everything that doesn’t matter to you.
Here’s my version of these intersecting circles:
The idea is this: You focus your efforts inside the intersection of these two circles- on things that matter to you that you can influence. The more you are able to do this, the bigger this area of overlap becomes, making you more empowered and effective.
Focusing mind and efforts outside this intersection means either wasting energy on what you cannot influence or don’t really care about. This leads inevitably to frustration and dissatisfaction.
You build an optimistic and productive path forward by affecting what matters to you, thereby growing a sense of agency in life and career and hopefully expanding your influence and connection with what matters to you.
For me, building and maintaining a career requires a positive outlook assisted by ongoing time management aimed at specific and attainable goals. Here’s a simple process I use:
Write out a short list of attainable goals
Many versions of an “align your mind to align your life and future” concept can be found in self-help books, religions, therapies, and other programs touting “self improvement,” enlightenment, or whatever. Like dieting, most of them probably work to some degree– as long as you can put up with the part that doesn’t work–and the price tag. I’m typically pretty skeptical of gurus in general.
At the Self-Help Diner, I tend to skip the menu items and go right to the all-you-can-eat buffet. Take as much of whatever looks good as you want and leave the rest. I tend to trust what’s in front of my eyes, rather than what’s pictured on the menu.
My version of “self-help” is simple (and free) and is neither exciting or original. Basically, it’s just a process of setting goals, combined with what I’d call positive “self-talk,” assisted with some simple time management. Follow the fun with an open, improvisational stance, mixed with a healthy dose of skepticism.
All I can do is tell you what I do and you can use it or not.
I start by writing down what I want to accomplish today, this week, this month and this year. I try to keep my goals specific and attainable. The list is simple and do-able. I write down where I want to go, what I want to improve, how I’d like to change or feel differently. I try to aim my mind at where “the possible” intersects with what really matters to me.
A version of task management journaling I’ve recently discovered is called “bullet journaling.” I find is simple and quite powerful and effective. I love it. Look it up.
Recognizing and removing self-imposed roadblocks
During this, I am also constantly trying to identify and neutralize any of the mental roadblocks I may be setting for myself. This might include anything I say or do to reinforce an inaccurate or disproportionately negative view of myself and my situation (e.g. “I always lose,” “I’m so unlucky,” “I don’t deserve this,” “I’ll never be able to change this,” “Everything’s against me,” “I’ve never done this and never will,” etc). These self-defeating mantras often turn out to be exaggerations or misunderstandings, when more closely inspected.
Then, I try and pay special attention to how I talk to myself so as to change this negativity, to bend my thoughts in a more positive and hopeful direction. It’s a kind of “self-talk.” I talk to myself constantly about the goals I’ve set.
Essentially, I use my goals list and my self-assessment to “narrate my day” differently. I consciously try to reinforce “mantras” that I choose. I’ve found this habit of talking myself into accomplishing my goals effective. I also find talking myself out of a dead-end or negative mind-space can be effective as well.
As I talk to myself, I try to emphasize the possible instead of the impossible, solutions instead of obstacles, progress instead of missteps. The goals I’ve decided on and my progress towards them remain central to my focus. I try to acknowledge all ground gained as a victory and a positive step forward.
This applies to what I say as well as what I think in response to anything positive or negative. I believe the habit of response and the tone and direction of your response as you talk to yourself and others about your day, your life, the bumps in your road, powerfully affect the path out of your difficulties as well as the possibilities ahead of you (or lack thereof).
I track my progress with a task management app and revisit my list regularly (I like the Wunderlist app, but the basic Apple task app is okay). Also, I’ve been using what’s called “bullet journalling” recently, where you write it all out and map out your goals and life events and other details concisely, filtering them out as you go, all hand written. I like it and find it very helpful and motivating. Look it up.
Checking off tasks and goals as “completed” gives me a sense of quantifiable progress, no matter how small the steps. (I’ve got the kind of brain that responds to this.) I find I need it, as many of my projects these days are rather open-ended and the “pay off” is quite delayed.
Another helpful habit I’ve cultivated is daily journaling. I call mine “dry erase journaling” because I erase it after each day’s entry. The idea is I have a space of complete and utter honesty where I can say, express or let out everything- the good, the bad, the ugly. Because I erase it, there is no need for self-editing. I want to know all that’s inside me, whether I like it or not- give it a bit of time to crawl out of its hole and move around a bit before it resubmerges to its safer solitude. I think an artist (or really anyone) owes it to themselves to “Know Thyself.” So why not do this in a way that allows maximum honesty and freedom? All you have, all you’re left with is who you are anyway. I’m not writing this journal for posterity or anyone by myself- so I don’t need to conserve my entries. I know myself better after journalling, and that’s the payoff. That’s my “dry erase journal.”
Finally, back in the light of day, I’ve discovered daily “mindfulness meditation” as very helpful in dialing down my reactivity and dialing in a sense of calm connection and mental readiness. I like Sam Harris’s “Waking Up” app, but there are many good sources for learning meditation.
I have found that if you set your health and mind well, you will unlock a sense of agency and satisfaction in your daily living as well as an increased positive momentum in your career.
That’s how I try to maintain a sense of positive progress in my career and personal life. I am surprised to see that I can often realize what I want to happen by deliberately setting my mind and my mouth to focus on my goals in this positive manner.