CREATING OPTIMISM, SETTING YOUR COURSE & GETTING WHERE YOU WANT TO GO.
Weathering a rough road
A freelance actor (or any aspiring creative entrepreneur) will often feel powerless- at the mercy of others more powerful and established, rejected by unsympathetic gate keepers or outplayed by entrenched insiders. It’s easy to get down on yourself about seemingly “not getting anywhere” and the constant rejection and uncertainty you face. A sense of defeat or failure is easy to amplify unnecessarily, especially when you’re starting out. It’s hard not to take it personally!
An acting career ebbs and flows, fast and slow, progress and setbacks. Training and experience can take years to payoff (if they pay off). It can be a slog! Staying positive and constructive in the face of all this can be a real challenge.
Do you create your own obstacles?
Up front, you gotta be okay with the bumpy road of an actor’s life. This is why you must enjoy the activity and process of it. It can’t be about chasing money or fame or even getting work- at least at first.
But some seem bent on making their journey longer and bumpier. They may not realize that they are complicit in amplifying their difficulties or limiting their horizon. They may become their own biggest obstacle.
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 matters that you can influence:
I once saw a simple diagram that I often think of: It showed two intersecting circles. The one circle labeled “Concern” 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 really 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 have power to influence. The more you to do this, the bigger this area of overlap becomes, expanding your empowered effectiveness to live the life you want. You are upping your agency in life.
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, a diminished sense of agency in your life.
An increasingly effective life grows optimism which feeds back into your efforts. You build a productive path forward by affecting what matters to you, thereby growing a sense of agency in your day and in your career and hopefully expanding your influence and connection with what matters to you.
Regular effort is more important than achievement.
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 that works for you 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 nor 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 it simple and quite powerful and effective. Look it up. I’ve also enjoyed the insights from James Clear’s book, “Atomic Habits.”
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).
Map your path
I track my progress with a task management app and revisit my list regularly (I like Microsoft’s “To Do” app, but the basic Apple task app is okay). I’ve been using what’s called “bullet journaling” 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. That’s the key- writing it out daily. 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 stretch its legs in the sun before it re-submerges to its safer solitude.
Everyone (especially an artist) should follow the Socratic, “Know Thyself” imperative. So why not do this in a way that allows maximum honesty and freedom? All you have, all you’re left with after expressing it, 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’ve also recently found a better night’s sleep with a sleep mask and a heart/sleep tracker called a “Whoop.” Sleep breeds optimism.
Forward with Optimism!
I have found that if you surround yourself with positive people and attend to your health while mapping your progress towards goals, you will energize an expanding sense of agency in your daily living, which will flow into creative empowerment and professional momentum.
“Find out who you are and do it on purpose.” -Dolly Parton