You’re a failure

From coloring in or outside the lines to screaming a favorite Disney tune in your prettiest tutu, most of us develop a creative interest at a young age. It’s unabashed, filled with mere curiosity, and there’s no thought of critique. That comes later. With the right combination of opportunity and support (or lack-there-of) some people build upon this natural curiosity and choose to pursue their creativity in a professional sense. Their perceived success or failure is often dependent upon the path they follow, wherever it leads. Some choose traditional institutional study while others follow a more personal path. No matter what level of talent, exposure, or achievement an artist strives for everyone universally deals with a cycle of absorption, introspection, creation, and then exposition. The public reaction to that final step can play a huge role in a person’s development as an artist and some can come to rely too heavily on finding that approval.

Bad critiques can push someone to work harder, reinforce someone’s belief that they are doing something unique, or fatally cripple someone’s artistic confidence. The reaction to critique in many ways defines an artist whether as an immediate effect or a lasting impact viewed through hindsight. Creativity can be one of the most gratifying and simultaneously delicate facets of the human experience. It is rewarding on any level from that notebook doodle to winning an award but the study for some can be an emotional or even existential rollercoaster.

I recently read a piece titled “Learning How to Act Like Myself” written by Gillian Jacobs, or Britta, to fans of the TV show Community. Jacobs describes her development as an actress/human from childhood to professional and the emotional hurdles she navigated while studying at Juilliard. It’s a touching examination of artistic purpose and the trials of transition from dutiful student to self-aware artist. After discussing her youth as an only child who aimed to please and her developing passion for theater she talks about that passion being shocked into insecurity from the first day of conservatory study.

At Juilliard, attendance and punctuality are very, very important. If you’re late three times, it counts as an absence; if you’re absent five times, you’re placed on probation. Probation means you could be expelled at the end of the school year. This was no problem for me — I’m always on time and usually early.
The first class for freshman is an early-morning movement class. I showed up, on time (duh), and was immediately chastised by the teacher in front of the whole class for being tardy. This was horrifying. I had been so careful; how could this have happened? Thankfully, my classmates came to the rescue and pointed out that the classroom clock was fast. The teacher backpedaled into a lecture about the importance of punctuality, but the experience was unnerving.
It didn’t get better from there. It seemed I had an intellectual understanding of what the faculty wanted but was unable to “get out of my head,” as acting teachers are fond of saying. I also had bad posture and shuffled my feet: “You’re a pretty girl with such UGLY physical habits. I don’t know if we’ll ever be able to undo them.” My movement work was subpar: “You do well for someone with no natural ability.” But worst of all was my obedience. What had been my greatest strength was now perceived as laziness and passivity. It seems I had been trained too well as a kid actor. Instead of showing initiative and having opinions about my characters, I dutifully waited to be told what to do.

“You’re a pretty girl with such UGLY physical habits. I don’t know if we’ll ever be able to undo them.”

“You do well for someone with no natural ability.”

Jacobs proceeds to describe facing probation and being on the brink of expulsion. She had been accepted to the most prestigious acting program in the country. She had made the cut and was one of around 20 actors selected to study together but now after one semester she was “on the chopping block” because they thought she was a bad actor. She would return to her second semester intent on “white knuckling” through and figuring out how to be who they wanted, effectively burying any semblance of “self” in the process.

I returned to school depressed and scared but intent on pretending like everything was fine. In class, I was hyper-self-conscious and was convinced the faculty was judging my every move. They wanted me to take risks and consider the school a “safe place to fail,” but if I failed too often, they were going to kick me out. And I was sure that being on probation made my fellow students think less of me. It was supposed to be a secret, but word quickly spread about which five of us were on the chopping block.
Teaching actors sometimes enters into a murky territory. Rather than critiquing my acting, I often felt that the faculty was telling me who they thought I should be as a person, some sort of “big, strong woman.” Yet I was 18 and very much a teenager. As a sheltered kid whose mother had monitored her every move, I was experiencing a lot of “firsts.” First serious boyfriend, first time living away from home, and first time riding the subway where I saw (for the first time) someone publicly defecate. I did my best imitation of that confident, take-charge woman they were describing, but it felt so hollow. Still dressed in my mom-approved wardrobe of Gap khakis and sweater sets, I spent my free time reading American Theater Magazine at Barnes & Noble rather than partying at Bungalow 8.

Jacobs would go on to graduate from Juilliard but at the cost of losing touch with that spark that brought her there. Her strengths were played down while were faults were singled out and she came out the other end of the tunnel feeling stuck in a profession in which she felt insecure. Now it seems she can look back on these trials objectively and remove herself healthily, realizing that ultimately, though not to their credit, her teachers and peers had created an opportunity to find herself again through perseverance and following her strengths.

I’d started school with little technique but such enthusiasm for the theater. Now all that joy was gone, and I really questioned why I wanted to be an actor. I’d had vague childhood dreams of becoming a judge, book editor, or historian but felt it was now too late to pursue another career. I had no real education, and my scared brain told me I was stuck being an actor. After college, I started auditioning and built my self-esteem back up through therapy and working with people who believed in me and my talent. It wasn’t until I was cast on the TV show Community that I was given the opportunity to do comedy. Working with the cast and writers of that show helped me find the joy and silliness I had lost. After watching several episodes, my friend Joan said, “This is the Gillian I met at 17. You’re back.”
I hate to say I’m grateful for the experience I had at Juilliard. But it taught me several lessons — though I’m pretty sure they’re not the ones the faculty intended. Probation soured my reverence for authority. My need to please others often involved ignoring my inner voice. The more I focus on myself, value my own needs, and work on my shortcomings, the less the opinions of others mean to me. Not everyone is going to like you, and that’s OK. Lately, I find myself muttering, “What other people think of me is none of my business.” And who cared what they thought anyway? Casting directors didn’t call the school and ask, “What did you think of Gillian? How was her voice and speech work sophomore year? Was her neutral mask work strong?” All that mattered was how I did in the audition that day. The pecking order of school was irrelevant once we graduated. In the same way that no one in college cared that I was unpopular in high school, once I left college, I was a blank slate again.

Ultimately, no matter what your drive to perform or create, it is important, though often difficult, to stay grounded in the fact that the opinions of others do not define your craft but rather you can use those opinions to help you to define it. Striving for approval and acceptance has the potential to dilute your “self” out of something that should be a unique, personal expression. The simple act of doing creates something no one else can replicate exactly and there is innate strength to be found in that. When you think of it this way creatives should almost feel more comfortable and confident knowing that what they are doing is inherently, uniquely “them.”

Furthermore, avoiding failure clearly is not a worthwhile measure of success. It would seem Jacobs’s failures to live up to the strict and focused perspectives of many of her mentors at Juilliard brought her close to giving up completely. Not everyone is made for the same path to success and she admits that the trials she experienced in her years at Juilliard helped her to rediscover her personal creative needs, leading to her current success in comedy roles.

“Failure,” it seems, is not only subjective but also worth pushing through. Giving up is the ultimate failure and I think it is safe to say that any creative with any amount of success will offer similar advice. J.K. Rowling had a lot to say about this very idea in her moving commencement address to Harvard University in 2008. Most people are instantly familiar with her name, now that her world renowned series of books have been turned into everything from an enormously successful Hollywood franchise to video games and theme parks, but her rise was unexpected. In fact, according to an interview from 2012, when the first Harry Potter manuscript was purchased by Bloomsbury, “…her editor advised Rowling to get a teaching job, the likelihood of her earning a living from children’s books being, in his view, decidedly remote.”

Rowling had always wanted to write novels. When she was six years old she wrote a book about a rabbit named Rabbit. After studying French and Classics at Exeter University however, Rowling worked for Amnesty International in London before leaving her home country to teach English. A few years later she would return to England as a single mother with the ever-present dream of writing novels for a living. At the time J.K Rowling found herself, “…as poor as it is possible to be in Britain without being homeless…and by every usual standard I was the biggest failure I knew.”

The takeaway from all of this seems clear. Whatever your creative outlet may be it is important to remember that at its core, it is just that, a personal outlet. In the face of stress or insecurity we all might do well to periodically perform a personal once-over to remind ourselves why we create in the first place and shift our focus as needed. Creative curiosity might lead you to places you didn’t initially expect. You might find new inspiration or you may shake your resolve as an artist and that is all ok, it’s part of the process. Either way, try to remember what it was like to color outside the lines and decide whether or not that’s what you really want to be doing anyway.

For more information about Gillian Jacobs:

Learning How to Act Like Myself
Queen of Code — Documentary

And J.K. Rowling:

2012 interview about the Casual Vacancy