INNER MISSION: Psychotherapist and performer Bill Harrison’s column on life as an artist. To read past articles click here.
I dream that artists empower ourselves in every moment to do the work we love, to remember why we do it, and to fulfill those internal goals of our artistic work, instead of relying on the fickleness of external validation. That we set personal artistic missions, and create goals for how we want to work and grow. That we are mindful about what we want to express and share in the moments we get to. That in this unfair world we keep focused on what we can influence: our experience and our work.
– Joanie Schultz, for TheatreJones.com
Having tried to come to terms with what it might be like to fail well in a previous post, I thought it might be a good idea to tackle what performing artists mean when we talk about success. I don’t intend to propose a one-size-fits-all definition here, because I don’t believe there is such a thing. I do suggest, however, that the meaning of success is a process of individual discovery and that one’s definition of it is likely to change over time.
Director Joanie Schultz’s “dream” (quoted above) is a definition of success that probably took a considerable amount of time and experience to coalesce for her. I’d wager that most of us began fantasizing about being at the top of our chosen professions – y’know, rich and famous – long before we ever considered internal rather than external forms of validation. Success in the mainstream world is defined as “the accomplishment of an aim, goal or purpose” and as experiencing a “favorable or desired outcome” and the “attainment of profit, favor or eminence.” The vast majority of people in the arts are going to be sorely disappointed if our view of success is limited to the acquisition of wealth, power and fame. Yet, isn’t that the fantasy most of us entertained when we first imagined what it might be like to be on stage or on film or TV? Perhaps we wouldn’t have been so motivated to spend all of that time, energy and money to become highly skilled performers without the imagined chance at stardom. Maybe artists need that naïve dream when we’re young in order to keep going.
At some point, however, performers have to adjust to the realities of life as a working artist. Most actors are not going to achieve fame and fortune. Most dancers are not going to become prima ballerinas. Most musicians are not destined for Carnegie Hall. How, then, do we begin to conceptualize and measure success in more realistic terms for ourselves?
One way might be to look for inspiration in what others have to say about the nature of success. For example, Maya Angelou wrote that “success is liking yourself, liking what you do, and liking how you do it.” Deepak Chopra believes that “success in life could be defined as the continued expansion of happiness and the progressive realization of worthy goals.” One of my favorite expressions comes from Winston Churchill: “Success is going from failure to failure without losing enthusiasm.”
I’ve observed that there are some common elements in more mature views of success. Better psychological outcomes are possible when you’re able to shift your focus from the need for the approval of others to a reliance on self-validation. Greater satisfaction and emotional health are more likely to emerge if qualities like integrity, well-being, wisdom and peace of mind begin to take precedence over wealth, power, popularity and social status. Self-satisfaction is perhaps the most essential ingredient – knowing that you honestly strive to do your best to become the individual you’re capable of becoming.
These transformations don’t happen automatically or overnight. They take time and persistent effort, much like the acquisition of performance skills. This is one advantage artists may have over many “civilians” – we’re used to having to work hard over long periods of time to achieve our goals, and we know there’s never going to be a time when we won’t have to be training and learning more. We’re always in the process of “becoming”.
Maybe success is best thought of as a verb rather than a noun. Perhaps it’s not a destination but a process. Actors, dancers and musicians progress from one project to the next. We’re always looking for the next challenge, the more difficult piece to sink our artistic teeth into. Seeking out, confronting and meeting those challenges are the steps we take in the process of “successing.” Although we welcome juicier parts, good reviews and better paychecks, those indicators of success are ephemeral and mostly out of our control. Ultimately, how we feel about our work and ourselves may be the worthiest barometer of success.
What’s your definition of success? Comment below or get in touch with me: firstname.lastname@example.org.