I was asked by a good friend to post on what it was like to return to a calling that I loved and was very good at, after a 20+ year hiatus. Specifically, she wanted to hear about the fear I might have felt, about overcoming self-confidence problems, and maybe even what it’s like to be “over the hill” while starting out on a new adventure in your life.
For me, acting and writing are not new adventures at all. Rather, they are like old friends I hadn’t seen in a very long time. And once I spent a little time getting reacquainted, it felt like I never stopped either of them.
I could write a great deal about why I abandoned my dreams and embraced a typical middle-class existence, and maybe I will, at some point, examine the reasons we give up and give in. But that’s not what my friend wanted to hear, and it’s not the subject of this post.
In short, I wanted to do it again because I knew, deep in my heart, I would arrive at the end of my days, and never be able to forgive myself if I hadn’t. The fear of regret was finally greater than the fear of failure for me. And so, I took a deep breath and stepped back into a world I thought I had long ago left behind.
In the process of that journey, here’s what I learned about myself, and my dream. Take them for what they’re worth; merely one guy’s observations, but they are the most important realizations I’ve made on my way back to becoming the person I know I am destined to be.
1) You really can have the life you’ve imagined.
So many motivational speakers say so many things on this subject, but it’s completely true – almost. I’ll season this wholly positive message with a little more reality:
You really can have the life you’ve imagined, if you are willing to pay the price for it – in full and up front.
It’s that simple. And that hard.
Pick up nearly any biography of a person who has already achieved what you would like to achieve. Every single one of them – every person who dared to dream mighty things – paid a price to achieve it. It is an axiom that sacrifice is the pavement on the hard road to greatness.
So many people I know, including myself for a great many years, fell into the false belief that life was supposed to be easy, and suffering avoided. Then, when life is not easy and pain-free, we find it to be somehow fundamentally unfair. I see that mentality deeply enmeshed in the psyche of many of my clients (I’m a financial advisor) who come from middle-class experiences. Even though everyone can save a little money each week and eventually end up with a nest egg of some size, most people spend all they have (or more), living paycheck to paycheck, never putting anything away for later. Then they resent the people who have more than they do, because, well, life is unfair.
We’ve got it all wrong – the problem isn’t life itself, but our flawed expectations of it. It’s not that life is unfair; it’s that life is impartial. Life simply doesn’t care if you achieve great things or not. Life doesn’t give a moment’s thought to your finances, or health, or career choice. Life lets you save money or spend it. Life lets you better your health or wreck it. You can be a sinner or a saint, a great leader or a derelict; life doesn’t care. Life is indifferent. Life just is.
If we’re honest with ourselves, we know we can make more money than we do right now. We can have that promotion. We can be CEO, or Senator, or Doctor. Nothing is holding you back except you. In my own case, I had to accept the reality that other people are making a living in the theater and on film at this very moment, all over the world. Some are far less talented, yet they make it anyway. So, why not me? Nothing is stopping me, except me.
Once you accept that basic truth – that life is in no way holding you back, nor is it going to thrust you forward – clarity comes. Responsibility becomes ours, and we welcome it. Each choice become ours, and we take it. Freedom becomes ours, and we enjoy it.
One great book I’d recommend to get you started in the correct way of thinking, is No Excuses! by Brian Tracy. If you work through this great book and actually do the exercises it requires, you will come to the revelation that your life is, was, and always will be, in your control.
2) You must let go of everything, and everyone, standing in your way.
As I mentioned above, sacrifice is an unavoidable part of “paying the price” for success. Nothing in life comes to us except at a price. The successful people you want to be like- the ones living their dreams every day- understood that part of the process and embraced it. They were willing to deny themselves some things they might have wanted in the short-term, for the long-term reward of having the life they imagined.
We all have the same 24 hours each day. Because of that fact, we must acknowledge that the difference between the life we have and the life we want, must be simply how we use those hours; how we prioritize the use of our time, energy, and talents wholly affects our outcomes in life. Donald Trump has the same number of hours a day as the guy doing maintenance in his office building. How they spend those hours is the only difference.
The problem is, many of us don’t see each day as the buffet table of choices it really is. Instead, we wake each day to a pre-determined list of chores, over which we have little or no control. We have to work at something to pay the bills, right? How else are we going to pay for college for the kids and the roof over our heads?
Now follow me on this: we have the bills we have because of the decisions we’ve made up to this point. I’m not saying it’s good or bad, I’m just saying it was our choice all along. We married who we chose to marry. The home we live in is the one we chose to buy. The car we drive, the clothes we wear, the luxuries we have, were all decisions we once made. We choose to spend our money on various things, and then we have to choose how to spend our time to acquire the money to pay for those decisions. Everything in your life came with a conscious decision to exchange a certain portion of your time and energy. You traded a certain percentage of our life on this Earth, for the computer you are using right now.
Once we realize how very precious our time is, compounded with the stark reality that none of us are guaranteed even a minute more of it, clarity can set in, to help us figure out what’s really worth that eight or ten, or even eighteen hours we spend working every day.
I’m not saying having luxuries is wrong, but for a person seeking to change their purpose or life’s direction, they may be wrong right now. Maybe that new car can wait a couple of years. Maybe you can downsize your life to free up more time. Maybe that television doesn’t need to be on 4 hours every night, and the video games can stay shut off, and you can live without seeing every episode of “Breaking Bad” on Netflix.
I came to realize that the things we love don’t love us back. The couch doesn’t care who sits on it. The car doesn’t care who drives it. That $150 pair of jeans doesn’t care who wears it. The new IPhone really doesn’t care whose back pocket it’s stuck in. The relentless pursuit of stuff is what traps most of us into a life of mediocrity.
If you study successful people, which I sincerely hope you do, you will see that their lives were filled with hard and difficult choices, not only about the sacrifices they needed to make to achieve their goals (and they all had to make sacrifices), but also about their willingness to surround themselves with like-minded people. One of the hardest things I’ve had to do in my own life was learn to let go of limiting mindsets, both in myself and in the people around me. It’s this part of the process of growth that many of us resist the most: having to let go of friendships and associations that stop us from reaching.
Yet, to become the artist you aspire to be, you need to be surrounded by other artists. To become the top salesperson in your company, you need to be in the company of great salespeople. To begin to live your dreams, you need the encouragement and energy of other dreamers.
We all know people in our lives who enable the worst in us – those who make excuses for their failures allow us to make excuses for ours. Those who are happy with their limited lot in life will make us question why we ache for more. Those who might be jealous of us if we achieve more than we do, who might be sabotaging our ambitions. You know there are some of these people are in your life right now. Some are well-meaning, others are not. To move forward, you have to be able to walk away from anything, and anyone, holding you back.
This was the hardest part for me. It still is. I suspect it will be the same for you. It’s normal to like people and want to bond with them. Forming social circles is never easy, so letting go of an established one to possibly face rejection by new ones, is something that we all find pretty scary. But it’s crucial. It’s unavoidable. It’s part of the sacrifice.
3) Fear is a liar.
This is surely an interesting quirk of my personality, but I would much rather perform in front of 1,000 people, than audition for 1. I hate auditions. They terrify me. My only guess why, is that an audience is usually there to appreciate you, whereas the purpose of an audition is to judge you. The audience wants to be on your side; the casting director, not so much.
I finally realized what that dread really was over the past several years, while I built a financial advisor practice. It is a fear of rejection. I felt it while prospecting for new clients in a significant way. In many ways, it was another audition for me: I put myself out there as the product I’m selling, and take rejection. Over and over, day in and day out. I hated it. I avoided it. It took me out of acting once before, and nearly derailed my career as a financial advisor. I wanted to be liked, as we all do, but I placed far too much importance on the outcome of each prospect’s judgement of me. I was a people-pleaser. Any rejection took all the wind out of my sails.
Now, most salespeople, if they are honest, will tell you they loathe the process of prospecting. Very few people (and I’m not sure I’d like to know too many) find it perfectly natural to jump out of the bushes at total strangers and try to do business with them. Rejection hurts. Or rather, we think it hurts. It doesn’t actually, but we fear it nonetheless. It took many years before I realized that fear is our subconscious mind’s way to keep ourselves closed off and protected. It tells us not to make that leap, because we might get hurt. It makes us think hearing “no” causes real pain. It makes us think that we’re not good enough, not smart enough, or brave enough, when the reality is, we are probably all of those things. Good intentions or not, fear is a liar.
To reach for your dreams in life, you need to be able to fail. You need to be able to suffer setbacks, to make an ass of yourself, to be told you’re no good. You need to risk rejection to have any chance of hearing, “Yes.” You must be able to do these things, because these things are part of the sacrifice.
One way to overcome fear, that worked for me, was to exaggerate the risk of a fear to ridiculous proportions, and then ask myself if I could still live through that experience. For example, what was the worst possible audition I could go to? Well, I could trip going up onto the stage, rip my pants wide open, and end up standing in front of a room full of people with my private bits exposed. Humiliating? Sure. Would I live through it? Without a doubt. No matter what kind of audition I had after that, it surely couldn’t go as badly as my worst nightmare, and I had realized that I could live through the worst nightmare. It helps to put the real risks into perspective.
Another way is to do what I call a “Count to three”. If I find myself hesitating to do anything now out of fear, I count to three, and then force myself to do exactly that. Over-thinking our fears creates monsters out of them. Now, instead of retreating at the feeling of fear, I use it as the very reason to act. It’s amazing what you find out when you just jump headlong at something you are dreading. It loses its ability to paralyze you, and the next time you feel the same fear, it’s smaller. Weaker. The tiger loses his teeth.
4) Dreams aren’t achievable. Goals are.
I know a fellow financial advisor who has had very limited success, despite over a dozen years in the business. For the past six months, he asked me for an hour a week every Friday, to go over his business plans and ideas, and get new input from someone in the business but not in his business. He wanted to bounce ideas off of me, and get his business looked at by a fresh set of eyes. Eager to pick his brain as a more experienced advisor, I accepted his invitation.
What I found out about him during that process, however, was very enlightening. I knew almost immediately why he has never found the success he so desires, and it is this: despite the fact that he presents himself as more professional, likable, and positive than I do, he isn’t going to go as far. He’s a great guy, with big dreams of a successful practice, but I don’t expect to see him grow like he imagines, because he won’t take action on any of the big ideas he’s told me about. He doesn’t follow through on his own To-Do list. He tells me of amazing marketing strategies he’s going to implement, without ever implementing them. He creates amazing logos, but then never actually gets it in front of a prospect. He talks the talk, but doesn’t walk the walk.
I’ve built three businesses in my career – two were restaurants, and then this financial practice. Anyone who has ever owned a business will understand what I mean when I say that walking that path changes you, immeasurably and forever. You are never the same once you step out from the imagined safety of being an employee, and decide to live solely on the success or failure of your own efforts.
One of the things you learn quickly is that the world is full of talkers and nearly devoid of doers. The doers, however, are priceless commodities you must hang on to at any cost. That’s why doers end up making more money and going farther in a company than talkers. Doers matter to the bottom line in a positive way.
To have the life you want to have, you must DO something, every day, to take you closer to that life. You must have a step-by-step plan of attack, written down with deadlines and micro-goals, and then work toward it each and every day.
This has not always been easy for me, or I would be farther along in my life than I am right now. But I can change, and so can you.
Having a big dream is the first step. Translating that dream into a specific plan of action is the crucial next step. The dream is the destination. The goals are the GPS directions to get there.
You can find lots of resources on SMART goal setting. I encourage you to set these kinds of goals, and work them, in every area of your life.
5) You’ve lost much less than you imagine.
One of my biggest fears of returning to the theater was, “What if I’ve lost my touch? What if I’m no good at this anymore?”
Whether your dream is to rekindle an old passion, like mine, or to embark in an entirely new direction, this lack of self confidence will inevitably find its way into your thinking before you begin. It’s part of the fear of failure I talked about earlier.
I hadn’t been on a stage as an actor in over 20 years, but something amazing happened when I did. I found out that though I really had gotten “rusty” in a few areas (like using dialects or memorizing lines as quickly), my life experiences in those 20 years only added to my previous skill set. I was immediately comfortable on the stage in a way I never was when I was younger. I had greater wisdom to draw from when making my choices for my character. I had a calmer, more assured confidence about my place and purpose in the company. I needed less praise from the director to know I was doing good work. My emotional range was deeper and broader because of my life experiences, and I was more confident about showing real emotion, and pushing through emotional blockages, than I would have been before. I took risks with ease. And, perhaps best of all, I just enjoyed it more.
It was a complete surprise when I found out that I was actually a far better actor now. My time away didn’t seem to detract from my abilities in any way. In fact, the old technical skills and lexicon came back at the very first rehearsal, as if they were just waiting eagerly in a file in my brain, ready to be retrieved. The other parts of the craft, such as scoring the script, and finding emotional anchors, was much easier, because I am far more of a complete person than I was at 16 or 20.
That’s not to say everyone can go back to their passion 20 years later with the same amount of ease. If, for example, playing football had been my passion, I would have quickly found that my body would never be able to perform the same as it did at 20. In fact, I’m sure I’d have body parts flying off of me if I played tackle football at 43. But that’s not even to say that fitness is beyond your reach at 40, or 50, or even 70. Any skill you once had comes back with amazing speed. Your body seems to have a memory for certain movements and skills that, with just a few minutes’ reorientation, come roaring back.
Another “return” for me this year was tennis. I hadn’t played since high school. That is, until a good friend of mine invited me to come play with him this past summer. I had to go out and buy a racquet and some balls before I could even go the first time. And yes, I was nervous about my skill, because he is a pretty decent player, and I hadn’t stepped foot on a tennis court in 25 years.
But even then, after a few crappy serves, and embarrassingly missing the ball on a couple of returns, the skill came back with a vengeance. By the end of the two hours, I was maintaining good volleys and even beating him at times. (I was sore as hell for two days afterward, as my muscles hadn’t been worked like that in a long time, but even that goes away.)
The point is, don’t let a fear that you’ve “lost it” keep you from doing it. That fear is yet another way your mind is trying to benevolently protect you from failure. The odds are great that you haven’t lost anything, but rather, that you simply “stowed it”. It’s in the back of your mind, and deep in your muscle memory. And while you may not have the same stamina, and your knees may creak a little, just below the surface, that old skill is just begging for you to use it again.