While not a symptom of Covid-19, there was something that many of us noticed at the beginning of lockdown. These symptoms were rather more mental than physical. Lots of us had crazily vivid dreams and experienced an ersatz calm as our anxiety and depression appeared lifted. I had all this and, most annoyingly, I lost concentration.
At the beginning of lockdown while everyone else seemed to find solace in binge-watching Tiger King, I couldn’t focus. I would sit at my computer for hours willing something to happen – a casting breakdown to come in, an availability check to land. Nothing happened: time passed. I tried journalling, sitting at my desk, staring out the window, until the frustration of writing ‘another beautiful day’ for the twentieth time was too much for me. I couldn’t write. I couldn’t read. I couldn’t watch TV. I was, I think, in some kind of state of shock. I walked my dog for hours through the woods. Eventually, I regained my ability to focus and I began reading again.
I usually read fast and furiously and completely immerse myself in one book before moving on. A couple of years ago I tried dipping in and out of several books but my brain craved order and I went back to my old ways of reading one book followed by another.
My ability to focus returned slowly. Sometimes it’d be hours before I could pick the book up again, sometimes days. One day, I discovered if I put one book down I could almost immediately regain concentration by picking up a different book. Game-changer. I was on a call one evening with a literary agent on the East Coast who was having the same problem with concentration. He suggested leaving a different book in different rooms. It worked.
Currently I have four books on the go. Matt Haig’s Notes From A Nervous Planet is on my bedside table, Bernardine Evaristo’s The Emperor’s Babe is in the living room, Natalie Nixon’s The Creativity Leap is on the coffee table in my office while Laura Huang’s Edge: Turning Adversity into Advantage and Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s Flow: The Psychology of Happiness both jostle for attention on my desk.
I’m deep into Edge right now. As I thought it was primarily a business book I wasn’t really expecting to be quite so gripped by it. However, Huang’s easy writing style; a mixture of research, personal narratives, and some laugh out loud footnotes, quickly captivated me and, as a guide book for creatives, I’ve found myself underlining, highlighting, and returning to certain chapters over and over again.
One particular chapter I’ve found myself quoting reflects Huang’s attempts to get a piece of academic writing published. Doubting her research and abilities she confessed to another academic, a leader in his field, “I’m worried…that I’ll get nothing but rejections”. Sound familiar? The prominent scholar admitted “I had eighteen rejections before I had a single acceptance” and, armed with that knowledge, Huang inverted the narrative. She flipped it. Instead of seeing success as getting an acceptance with few, or no, rejections, instead she set out to rack up a minimum of eighteen rejections.
In our industry the definition of success is a moveable feast. Only a generation ago “getting an Equity card” was the definition of success. Many of us more (ahem) mature industry folk will remember the days of having to notch up months of paid work before we could apply for that coveted card.
What if we flipped the narrative? What if, instead of benchmarking success as graduating drama school with a top agent and booking a West End leading role before finishing school, we dreamed of spending 7 years at the end of Blackpool pier without an agent (Sheila Hancock), of not making our first film until our 40’s (Alan Rickman), of working the comedy circuit as a stand up before even trying acting in your mid-thirties (Ricky Gervais), or beginning in community theatre at 42 (Kathryn Joosten)? What if the yardstick was longer and more flexible?
From setting out to get eighteen rejections Huang learned that working through failure was what helped her reach success. She identified patterns to her rejections, she learned about her working style and who she could work with, how to recognise when a piece of writing wasn’t working and when to step away from it. She learned, she says, more valuable lessons from being rejected than she would have learned from bagging an acceptance on her first time out.
For years I’ve been telling my clients that an audition never has a binary outcome – success=book the job, failure=don’t book the job. An audition has any number of outcomes. Here’s a few possibilities;
You don’t book the job but the CD loves you and calls you in for something else.
You don’t book it but get helpful feedback that helps you improve.
You have a terrible time, don’t get on with the CD or the director, and realise you wouldn’t want to work with them anyway.
You get chatting to someone in the waiting room who, in time, becomes one of your best friends.
You don’t get it but the next day get called in for something unrelated that’s even better that you wouldn’t have been able to do if you’d booked the first job.
And so on, and so on. All of these are successes but in none of those scenarios did you actually book the job. However, under the binary system most of us think in these are all failures because you didn’t book the job. We need to flip the narrative and make failure into a different type of success. We need to embrace failure, to strive for it and incorporate it into our creative practice.
Another favourite part was Huang talking about her daughter’s violin teacher. The teacher would stress the importance, when starting to learn a new piece of music, of knowing whether it was “a march, a dance, or a song” as each piece requires a different approach, a different bowing technique, a different stance. Well, I nearly dropped the book! It was just so similar to my question to clients when they’re dithering about a new job – “cash, kudos, or kicks?” – Are you doing it for money, for acclaim, or for fun? Or (perhaps best) some combination of all three? While your approach, as a creative, is no different – the feeling is. We can’t expect to be creatively fulfilled and uplifted and encouraged by every job we do. Some can (let’s be honest) be soul destroying, some are difficult and exhausting – knowing why you’re doing something and what you hope to get out of it can really help.
So many times during Edge I found myself nodding my head. I’m not fond of the increasing use of boardroom language in creative fields (Branding for Actors? We are not cows!) but Huang isn’t necessarily writing about business – she’s exploring human nature and how one businessperson stands out among others in overcrowded and similar fields. How to find your edge, to learn what makes you stand out, sounds like pretty useful advice for creatives trying to follow that over quoted advice “Just be yourself”.
“Be okay with being authentic to your own thought and interests. Give yourself permission to demonstrate your own personality…We can delight only with our authentic selves, rather than hollowing ourselves out to please others” – Laura Huang
Wow, how often have I had that feeling when I was an actor, or when I’ve pitched projects to investors? How many times have I been on my way to an audition wondering “what are they looking for” or been in a meeting and tried to adjust who I am in order to adapt to what I think is wanted? Hollowing myself out to please others – in an industry where we, literally, try to convince people we are something else. Trying to please others is one of the side effects and was, ultimately, damaging to my mental health.
We’ve been told, time and again, that hard work is enough. That the “best person for the job” will land the role. The Meritocracy Myth is another ideology that Huang blows apart as she points out all the many conscious and unconscious biases in society. We’re all increasingly aware of unconscious racial bias but did you know, for example, that only 15% of the world’s population is over six feet tall while 58% of CEO’s in the USA are over six foot? The average male height in the UK is 5’9” (so, actually, I’m NOT the shortarse I thought I was!) but I wonder what we might discover if we averaged the height of leading men in West End theatre? The average dress size is size 16 – how many leading women of size 16 do you see?
I think we find inspiration wherever we can and, while reading a Harvard professor’s book for entrepreneurs may not strike you as the first place to find creative inspiration, Edge: Turning Adversity into Advantage may well surprise you.