As I got off the bus at Sherbourne and King, I realized that I hadn’t considered why I had so enthusiastically RSVP’d for YPT’s community event on Career Development through Learning and Leadership. What was I hoping to get out of it? I suddenly felt the need to prepare and started asking myself the questions I tend to avoid like, ‘Where am I headed in the long run?’ and ‘What do I ultimately want for myself professionally?’
My chest tightened. The air in my lungs felt cooler than the warm spring air I was breathing. I imagined myself being called on to speak in front of the group about what kind of career advancement I was looking for, and having to verbalize the mess of thoughts and feelings that come from these questions. I tried to plan a response, and soon was seeing myself burst into tears in front of a group of strangers, revealing a part of myself that I would rather keep hidden: the fear, doubt and powerlessness I feel in trying to balance creating art and making a living.
I reached YPT’s front doors and joined the group of twenty/thirty/fourty-somethings gathered in the foyer. I recognized some of the artists, theatre technicians and administrators among them, but mostly they were strangers. We all climbed the stairs and settled into our seats in the studio theatre. There was coffee and tea. I ate a piece of strudel. YPT’s team of organizers gathered and welcomed us from the stage. We would be broken up into small groups to chat about various issues surrounding learning and leadership in careers in the arts with different group leaders. At 7:00, we would reconvene for a panel discussion.
The evening began. I found myself in the first session discussing the question: “How do you know when you’re ready for advancement?” The responses from the group touched on restlessness, frustration and boredom, but the conversation quickly progressed to the feelings of fear and doubt that come with trying to move your career in the direction you want it to go. As I listened to people talk about their experiences, I looked around the room at their faces. Their eyes were glossy. Their voices quivered. Some peoples’s hands trembled as they spoke. They were all exhibiting symptoms of the feelings I had when walking into the building.
And they were describing thoughts I’d had, feelings I’d tried to move past, but with one crucial difference. They were saying them out loud instead of to themselves. I was being offered a forum to voice what normally doesn’t get voiced: the thoughts I roll over and over in my mind but rarely share with other people.
Fear is essential to our survival. It’s something we learn very young to help us stay alive, to stay safe, to keep us looking both ways before we cross the street. As we come into our own, we realize that some fears can be overcome. Most of the time talking to strangers is okay. In fact, it’s a necessary part of life. A lot of my training as an actor was about learning to work past different fears: fear of humiliation, fear of being judged, fear of getting it wrong, fear of revealing too much about myself etc. etc. For a lot of work in the arts, courage and a willingness to risk failure is kind of a job requirement. If you are unable to move past your fear, it can be difficult to move anywhere at all.
But what happens when the economic uncertainty of working in the arts legitimizes your fears? When the consequences of making professional decisions have very real implications? In all of my sessions, everyone understood that facing your fears meant living with the consequences. Some of the potential consequences they spoke of made cliché expressions like “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself” seem totally naive. Poverty, crippling debt, not being able to pay your rent, not being able to provide your children with adequate health care—these were realistic and well-founded fears.
So how do you overcome your fear when you have very good reasons to fear what you do?
Our leaders couldn’t answer the question for us. The truth was they were all scared too. In the panel discussion, some admitted to near crippling fear and self-doubt. Some confessed they had to be pushed forcefully by friends and mentors to apply for the positions they were now in, because of their total conviction that they weren’t ready or good enough for the job.
But there they were. Their success had not resulted from overcoming their fear, but by developing a healthy relationship with it, using it as a kind of emotional compass guiding them towards advancement. At its worst, fear can distort how we see ourselves and make us lose sight of how courageous, resilient and capable we actually are. But at its best, it can show us where we want to go. The presence and the honesty of our admittedly fearful leaders reminded us that while we may never truly move past our fears, that doesn’t mean we won’t move forward.
I left YPT that night feeling a little less afraid and a little less alone. I hadn’t answered all of the nervous questions I began the evening with, but it was comforting to be reminded that I wasn’t the only one asking them and that being afraid was maybe a sign that I was on the right track.