You may have heard the story about Walter Matthau. An aspiring actor approached him at some function and said that he was looking for that one big break. Matthau, in his caring, yet cynical style, says , "Kid, it's not the one big break, it's the fifty."
Overnight success rarely is, and most creatives that have been toiling for years can attest to that. But there comes a time for most when the heat is on - from well-meaning family and friends - to think hard about doing something else. I'm sure you've probably heard one of these famous quotes before:
"You really need a fall-back plan, sweetie."
Mom spoke those well-meaning, heart-crushing words when I told her I wanted to be a professional musician. I think the words I actually used were "rock star", which may have prompted her advice. After all, being a rock star in the 90's wasn't as easy as it is today. You actually had to have talent and compete for a record deal with a major label in order to see real financial success.
Back then, during the "golden age" of music, who could have anticipated the collapse of the industry, the shift from physical to digital media, and the rise of the "Internet Star"? Heck, I recorded my first album just over 10 years ago, when social media was still a glimmer on the horizon.
Today, all you need is the Internet, a webcam, and a dream, and stardom is yours, right?
See it's not about the big break, it's about the fifty. I might even go so far as to say it's not even about the fifty, but the hundreds, if not thousands of little breaks that happen almost every day.
Showing up every day to script and film your show, create your art, teach your audience, reach YOUR right people. Even if there are only five people in the room... even if no one shows up for your workshop.
Three signups and no one on the line.
When I decided to start teaching online classes, I didn't have a large list. Like everyone else, I started at zero. I remember when I got my first seven subscribers and I didn't know ANY of them! I felt like a rock star in that moment, for sure. Here were seven strangers who had signed up for my newsletter and wanted to learn what I was teaching.
I felt like I arrived. Over time, my list grew, and then came the day I posted my first event announcement and sign up form for a teleclass I was teaching. Three people signed up, and I was thrilled! I didn't have a big list - probably less than a hundred, but here I was leading my first workshop for three lucky people!
No one showed up on the line.
At this point, I had a few choices. I could cancel, reschedule the call for a better day and time, or just record the thing and share the recording.
I figured it was good practice, so why not just go ahead and record the thing? If anyone showed up late, they'd be able to ask questions to get caught up.
No one showed, but I recorded that class. And it was a good thing, too, because once I shared the audio, people listened, commented and shared. That led to more classes and a growing audience for my business.
Six years later, I got a call from someone who found that old recording online and hired me to speak at her event.
You just never know which one break will lead to the next. I guess you could say every break is a big break in waiting.
Creativity is about sharing your truth with the world. It's not about the medium, it's not even about the message. It's about being willing to be vulnerable enough to share yourself and let the world inside your brain for a minute or three... no matter how long it takes.
The Persistence of Pressfield
Steven Pressfield authored The Legend of Bagger Vance over the course of a few months. It was sold to a publisher three weeks later and optioned for a movie about a month after that.
He was 51.
He wrote his first novel when he was 24. That in-between time was all about the little breaks, as Pressfield writes:
"It wasn't all wilderness. Within those twenty-seven years, I earned a living for at least a dozen as a professional writer. I worked in advertising. I had a career as a screenwriter. And I spent six years writing unpublishable novels (which counts as work, too)."
Which brings me to that other iconic phrase:
"Don't quit your day job"
It's often something we hear when someone isn't up to the task of their dream. A guy who wants to be a singer, but can't carry a tune in a bucket. A gal who dreams of being a dancer, but has two left feet. A kid with rotten comedic timing, who desires more than anything to have a spot on Saturday Night Live.
"Don't quit your day job" has been equated with failure.
I say it's time to reclaim the phrase. There's nothing wrong with a “day job” - if you're clear on your priorities and pursuits. Having a financial cushion will help you live more confidently and BE more confidently. It's easier to be your creative self when you're not afraid of how you'll get by if your Great Work isn't paying the bills.
They day job can a double-edged sword, to be sure. When I was jobless, I had plenty of time to create, but I also put an inordinate amount of pressure on myself to make my Great Work pay because I had kids, bills, and lifecrap that needed financial support or it would all fall apart.
Oh the humanity! Cue the violins!
With so much riding on everything you produce, you can imagine how much perfectionism and comparisonits can set in – two traits common in us Fusion-type creatives. I looked to “formulas”, “blueprints” and any other “surefire” approach that would help me generate an income. Trying to scrape by without the financial means that a day job could provide held me back for many years. I didn't say, do, or act on what I knew to be true, but followed the herd instead. My results were mediocre, at best.
When I let go of that fear, and gave myself permission to earn my living in the way that worked for me (and took the pressure of my Great Work) things shifted. I let go of the “shame” and “stigma” that most creatives ascribe to having a day job. As a result, I was able to be more creative AND make more money doing what I loved.
Funny how that happens.
Elizabeth Glibert, in her book “Big Magic,” confessed that she held down a job until well after “Eat Pray Love” made oodles of cash (she had written several earlier books). She never wanted to pressure her art into being the source of her survival.
Don't "Feel The Fear And Do It Anyway"
Letting go of fear doesn't mean being “fearless”. Far from it. Letting go of fear means being willing to experience fear and not let it stop you.
I don't mean the "feel the fear and do it anyway" tripe that people like to profess. THAT is easy to say and hard to do. What I mean is being willing to own your fear and find ways to navigate it - support groups, or taking even smaller steps than you think you "should" be taking.
Like Confucius said "It doesn't matter how slowly you go, as long as you do not stop."
That's what I mean. It's not about jumping head first into the thing that scares the pants off you. It's not about speed to market. It's about doing what you can, as you are able, and just not quitting until you're done.
Instead of giving up entirely, and resigning our creative selves to life under the thumb of "The Man," let's take a page from the likes of Pressfield and Gilbert - who both held down other jobs while they relentlessly pursued their creative work.
Recognize your "day job" as your biggest sponsor, your Sugar Daddy, your benefactor - the one who keeps you clothed and fed so you can hone your craft.
And keep showing up for your Great Work, too. It might take you a dozen years, or three decades, or more. But does it really matter if you're doing what you love?
Someone asked me if there ever comes a time to quit. I'll save my full answer for another day, but here's the spoiler:
Don't quit your day job, and don't quit your dream. That next little break could be your big one.