Act Smart!: Make a new plan, Stan—again and again

Because if you’re changing, there’s a good chance your dreams are, too.

This is not the column telling you it’s time to give up. You will know when and if that time comes, and you will as likely be reading an article about fly fishing or the ingredients on the side of the cereal box as the scribblings of some random writer exhorting you to give it all up, now (as if that ever worked).

Also, this is not the column urging you, the “NO PLAN B, EVER!!” person, to surrender and come up with a Plan B. I get the necessity of winging it, of being all-in with your art. If living on the artistic edge is how you roll, whether in splendor or your car, then kudos, I say, on your keen clarity and formidable commitment.

But if your initial drive for acting has, if not dimmed, been joined by a budding twitch of desire for something else or something more or just something, then consider this the column for you.

A story from the olden days, i.e. mine

When I started my first job—in advertising, in 1983—I told myself it was only until I could figure out what it was that I really wanted to do with my life. A year, maybe two. Five, tops.

I kept upping the time, though, until I had been a full-time employee of three different agencies in two major cities, racking up 8 1/2 years, a vice-presidency, and a corner office. I did it because the money was good and the benefits were awesome and it seemed ludicrous to quit a Dad-approved, societally-accepted, capital-letters Good Job simply because I was experiencing stomach pains and an ongoing existential crisis.

But to be honest, deep-down, I stayed for two reasons: (1) I was afraid of what people would think if I quit; and (2), I had no idea what it was that I really wanted to do. In the absence of a concrete something that was “better”—even if “better” simply meant “personally meaningful” (not my father’s definition of the word at all)—how could I possibly leave?

Ex-husband explains the notions of “sunk costs”

To my eternal gratitude, I had married an honest-to-God iconoclast. His answer was so simple, it struck me silent: just  quit.

Impossible! I mean, I’d invested all this time and energy into my career. I’d paid in! I was just starting to reap the real rewards, like, uh, non-existent profit-sharing and the promise of promotions to even bigger jobs I was pretty sure I did not in holy hell want, ever.

He helped me see that this advertising track I’d gotten sucked into was just that: one particular way to go, and one that I’d talked myself into thinking was my only option. Which it so wasn’t. There were many, many ways to play out the game of life; just because I’d picked a particular one when I was 21 didn’t mean I had to see it out until retirement. (Which, good thing, because have you seen what the hell has happened to that industry?)

Moreover, I did not even have to PICK a “thing”. I could just quit, then find other ways to support myself—as many as I liked!—racking up experience along the way. By the time we met, my ex had had about 25 different jobs since college, including front desk clerk (for access to incomparable blues band privileges), FedEx counter clerk (because back in the day, they could fly free with the cargo), and, when I fell for him (not to mention why), stand-up comic. He made less money painting houses or driving a truck than I did writing TV ads and schmoozing recalcitrant clients, but he had way better digestion, and his off-hours were his own.

Change is a process, not an event

In the end, I was too fearful to not pick something I could at least tell people I was leaving my big, fat, fancy, freakin’ job to pursue. So I picked screenwriting, pretty much out of the sky, my reasoning being that since I’d spent almost 10 years writing the ads that ran on television, I could just as easily write the things that wrapped around the ads. Of course, with a fiery passion like that, I was bound to succeed—NOT—but it got me out of Chicago and to Los Angeles, out of a full-time gig and into the freelance mindset*.

It also began to change my thinking about change. That it didn’t happen all at once, for example, and that life was not a continual, clear-cut, upward slog with a really nice view at the end. That I could meander and sample and take my time. That fallow periods are legitimate and productive and even rewarding—sometimes more so than the productive periods themselves. Heck, sometimes that meandering is the point. And most importantly, that pursuits could overlap or co-exist, leading me from someplace I didn’t want to be to an amazing place I didn’t even know existed.

I also learned a whole lot over the following 21 years (and 3-odd career switchbacks) about what supports healthy change and what’s useful for good goal-setting. Next month, some things to read and think about along those lines.

*Which, by the way, is absolutely the mindset you want to have today, whether you have full-time employment or not. Because nothing lasts forever, and “there” is just another stop on the way until That Last Stop No One Escapes.

* * * *

Book of the Month

The Sisters Brothers by Patrick deWitt is peppered with excellent characters—scoundrels and angels and lost souls and an anxious killer—and a few really surprising plot twists. You cannot help but cast this in your head as you read, which in itself is reason to read a book. You will also likely walk away with ideas of how to infuse the characters you play with more humanity, which is always nice for an actor. And none of it will feel like homework, because you will enjoy the heck out of this sometimes funny, some elstory. A++, would read again!

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