Saturday, October 8, 2011

The Surprising Emptiness of Success

When I was reaching toward that first big plateau of success as an actor, I was motivated, focused, excited, and working as hard as I could to get there. But once I got to it, it wasn’t the feeling of satisfaction I had imagined that it might be.

I had spent my first 3 years working my way up from the very bottom, doing every crap paying job that came along. Many of them extra work, or cheap commercials for $100 or $300 buy-outs, and some even for no pay, just to get the credits I felt I needed to be qualified to work in the big leagues one day. That was my dream, (and my goal) to be a working actor.

After a few years, I finally got enough credits, I joined the unions, moved on out to Hollywood, and landed a decent talent agent. I felt so honored to just be able to say to myself, “I am competing for jobs with the very best in the world”. It was a huge accomplishment for me. But I still had bills to pay. Getting that first big paying job eluded me for about a year longer. It was a national commercial campaign for a fast food chain. There were only 2 actors in the spot, a former big western movie star, and myself. All of a sudden, I was appearing on TV over 20 times a day in front of 20 million people. What a rush that was. I remember when I booked the job, I threw my arms up in the air, like I was “Rocky” or something. I pounded my breasts like Tarzan. But it wore off very fast. Then, after I saw it air a couple of times, the thrill was over.

I think all actors, musicians, people in competitive careers, and even politicians, dream of success, and why not? It’s a logical goal to strive for. I never quite understood why it was that each time I achieved a new level of career success, I was left with a little blankness. It was a sort of stale feeling of emptiness, and an “okay, I got there, now what?” I didn’t quite understand it, and it didn’t make sense to me. I worked my A$$ off, I was focused, determined, shook off all the detractors, rejections, humiliations, and being made fun of. But when I got there, of course there was always this short period of euphoria. But shortly thereafter, I was left with this odd sort of empty feeling each and every time. Was I just an unhappy person? Was nothing ever enough?

Of course, my focus was to get the job. All through the years, that was my goal. Doing the actual acting work was fun, and exciting, not to mention that it paid very well. Then I would see my work air on TV again and again. Some of it ran for years. But it was almost an anti-climactic feeling. I wasn’t as happy as I thought I should be, and I couldn’t quite understand it. I had reached success, and was left feeling empty almost immediately after the job wrapped.

Each time, in my mind, I thought I had succeeded, so why this uneasy feeling about having gotten there? This is what I worked toward, right? I had succeeded, why wasn’t I jumping up and down? And why did this “flatness” set in shortly thereafter? So I would lift my head up, let it go, bear down, and move on to the next job. But every single time, that feeling I craved so badly faded very fast, once I had gotten to that perceived point of success, which was booking the big job. I had achieved what I thought was my goal, and maybe even attained some notoriety among casting directors, and even my actor peers. Maybe that success wasn’t large enough., and I just needed a lot more of them.

I figured that maybe I just hadn’t set my success goal high enough, so I would quickly move on, and get back to work focusing all my energy on the process of getting that next big job – I’ve got to work, and achieve that next success, so I could feel it again. I wanted to feel that satisfaction again. Or so I thought. After all, as an actor, that’s our job description, to get job interview after job interview. Sometimes it was 4 or 5 days a week.

This same scenario repeated itself over and over for 20 years. And there it was, after each booking. I had reached that success plateau or goal, and that blank emptiness feeling would set in almost immediately. I figured that this was just the way it was for life as a working actor. No matter how many successes I had achieved, it never lasted and it was never enough. As Mick would say, “I can’t get no satisfaction.”

I began to understand why so many actors and musicians would turn to substance abuse. Many of them would enjoy much greater successes than I, but many of them would end up on drugs, or end up in various states of depression. How can this be? Isn’t success the real goal? I have been working consistently and earning a living as an actor. I was doing what I always dreamed of doing for over 20 years…is this not what I dreamed of, and isn’t it how I define success? I thought not, and was never satisfied no matter how many big jobs I booked.

I was discussing this whole life question of mine one time. Then a wise, caring acquaintance of mine, stopped me, and asked, “When are you the most happiest, career wise?” It’s a simple question that I never stopped and asked myself. I thought about if for a few minutes, and said, “I am the happiest when I am working hard, and trying to pursue the next success.” But when I get there, I feel this blank emptiness. He said to me, “Don’t you get it? It’s the PROCESS of getting there that is the most fulfilling for you. Once you get there, there is nothing left. You got there. You reached what you were working so hard to accomplish, and now it’s over. It’s the process of getting the job that you crave. It’s like an addiction for you.”

It dawned on me that he was right. I was in my happiest state when I was working toward success. Once I had gotten there, the stale plateau of emptiness would set in again. All that work and focus was now over, I had done it. I realized that the process of getting TO each success was what motivated me. That’s what drove me, and made me happy.

In discussing this with another friend, who was not in the acting business, she said that it is true for all professions. "Success" is a vague concept, so we try to define it in terms of specific goals. Job titles, material possessions, salary, or whatever we think it means for us. Then, when we achieve those goals, it is a rush and then an emptiness. Because a goal is not a single objective, it is one of a series of chapters in our lives.

That was a real kick in the brain for me. All of sudden, I was able to put my entire acting life, and career into better perspective, and I understood what it was about show business that motivated me, drove me so hard, and what I really enjoyed about it so much.

When I started out as an actor, my dream was to work and be successful. I think that’s what many actors work toward. But in reality, it was all the hard work, and the process of getting there that really made me enjoy my acting life.

It’s rather difficult for me to share this story, because it’s very personal. It may even sound foolish to you. But if what I say here can help just one person with similar struggles in life – well…then it was worth it.

But, the real answer to this issue is that none of the external rewards will ever let you avoid that flat feeling. The only thing that does is setting small, one step at a time goals for yourself. Reaching those goals builds your confidence and also you get to keep that sweet feeling of “I did it”.

“If you want a career as a working actor you have to learn to love yourself, even if you hate a few parts of yourself.”

Check out the rest of my acting book, it's $5.95 - I's a dollar more that a decent latte. But, some of it will help you. I put almost 30 years of my life into it, and I hope you enjoy the read. You might avoid making some of the same dumb mistakes I did, and even get a few laughs along the way. Lots of people will tell you how to get work, and live as an actor, that have never earned a living as an actor. I have. I suggest you read as many books by other industry people as you can, but please buy mine. I need a caffeine.

Shannon Ratigan

Copyright © Shannon Ratigan All Rights Reserved.


Jaymeson Metz said...

I've been very scared of this sort of thing lately. I am 22, fresh out of college and having some success. Although, I can't wait to keep working...I'm afraid of not balancing my personal and professional life very well.

A large part of the "process" is making mistakes. However, what if you get to a place where mistakes are so viciously scrutinized? Or: What if we sacrifice something to attain said "success" and we look back and wish we had done differently.

I suppose this is something to further explore and keep in mind as I continue my career.

Unknown said...

Actors articulate ideas and depict characters in theater, film, television, and additional performing arts media.
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