I have a theory that a creative professional’s ability to continue pursuing their career long enough to see meaningful success is based on three things: 1) One’s ability to get fully excited and feel satisfied (for a long time) when a success happens; 2) To not skip a beat when something that looks like it will be #1 happens to fall through; and 3) The ability to recognize and appreciate small successes along the way.
One of the difficulties in pursuing any career over the long haul, especially a creative career, is that the fruits of your labor are not always readily apparent. Nor are they things that your cousins will understand as a leap forward when you tell them about it over a couple wine coolers. For example, having an amazing coffee date with a top producer may very well lead to the biggest development in your career. It’s something that should absolutely be celebrated and something you should be proud of. However, if you run home elated to tell your roommate-the-accountant that you just had coffee with the showrunner of your favorite show, the response will probably be something to the effect of “cool. Did you pick up more air freshener on your way home?” Not exactly the kind of shared excitement you were looking for.
So what to do? First of all, recognize the small victories as progress and celebrate as such. Every time you book even the smallest project, develop a new relationship, force yourself to send out that marketing campaign you’ve been procrastinating…those are huge accomplishments. Even if no one understands what a big step it was to do your first agent mailer or how much you grew to do that difficult acting scene, celebrate with yourself and feel proud.
I can’t tell how many times I’ve been elated over something that ended up being a big, steamy pile of turd. Right before I came out to LA, for example, I got cast in a spec pilot as well as a second show with the same team. It was non-union at the time, but the producers then said that their pitches had gotten picked up at a network and they were re-shooting everything as SAG. In one fell swoop I was supposed to become eligible for SAG, get great footage, and end up being able to move to LA already working on some projects. Now, I was certainly more naive back then than I am now, but we had filmed a bunch of stuff and everyone seemed on top of their game. Long story short, I never got paid, the project fell through, and I was never able to get in touch with the people from the project again.
At that point, it would have been very easy to adopt a defeatist attitude and feel sorry for myself and my poor fortune. However, I specifically remember telling my roommate at the time that even as everything fell through, if I wanted to get closer to joining the union and being on a show, then the best way to get there was to fail at that exact thing. Getting (ostensibly) close to the thing I most wanted and having it fall through meant that at least I was getting close to the thing I wanted. 🙂
The Big Kahuna
While there are hopefully lots of small victories along the way, every now and again you will have something happen as a result of all those small victories adding up. Your first co-star, signing with a great agent, or that first residual check. You know the kind. The phone call that you booked the job, the audition you knocked out of the park, or viewing the footage of your recent project that came out better than you imagined. This week I had one of these such moments, where all of the little victories added up to a huge success. I met with a manager and it could not have gone better. Everything I’ve done in the last two years–acting classes, business of acting classes, all my time at The Actors’ Network, research, blog posts, Tweetups, marketing materials, having a kick ass website, learning about the business, my constant pursuit of increased productivity, previous meetings with reps–all cumulated but half an hour of a fun, professional, successful meeting.
I’m not sure you’ll make it past the first few years of any endeavor if you can’t recognize and relish the small victories, even if no one else does. The small, day-to-day things are the absolute foundation of the greater career you imagine for yourself. With that said, there will certainly be bigger moments. Times when all that hard work comes together in an easy-to-recognize success. Cherish those moments as well. Have a glass of champagne and share the news with your dog. You’ve made progress and your next small victory will be that much greater than the last.