The drive to succeed at work can be great, especially for the actor whose work is also their calling. But for best results, don’t drive yourself past the point of diminishing returns, the way I almost did.
Early in 2012, I came to the sudden and rather startling realization that my life needed an overhaul.
While my head-down daily grind had allowed me to accomplish much professionally over the previous four years, I’d let at least as much slide: exposing myself to culture and nature; developing new skills; practicing self-care; cultivating close relationships. I was on the precipice of compromised health. And worse (to my mind, anyway), was that in plundering my reserves of creativity over and over without replenishing, I was crackly dry and had lost my passion for making art.
As I combed my past for clues on how to address the future, I saw some patterns. Most were around lack of balance or compromised values: I overcommitted myself to underwhelming opportunities and undervalued what couldn’t be quantified or monetized. The tunnel vision this led to was great for accomplishing massive amounts of work, but left me depleted, cranky and (no surprise) not very creative.
I spoke to my mastermind group about my dilemma; they suggested investing in some coaching to improve my work habits. To make time for some important-not-urgent things like seed writing (aka journaling) and fitness, I scaled way back on work. I took a year off from setting new goals—a biiiig deal for me back then—so I could make good on some of the promises I had in play (caveat overachiever: I am still wrapping up a few old, partially-completed projects).
It was a humbling year for me, but a necessary reset: the “pause” provided profound relief, rekindling my enthusiasm for life. However, I came to understand that to remain vital, I also had to make a serious effort to play.
Neither pausing nor playing is something the world readily supports. But given the escalating intensity of life—the increase in natural & manmade disasters, the rising cost of living, and the heated political climate—the answer, while counterintuitive, is to lighten up.
At a conference I attended around that time, I had the pleasure of taking photographer/educator Sean Kernan‘s workshops on creativity. The simple exercises—games, really—were revelatory, bringing me back to my days of starving-artist wonder, when what really excited me about the business of art wasn’t how I was going to make money (or, worse, make a splash), but how I was going to tell stories. They rekindled the old desires I’d had, and made me want to tackle the old problems anew: how I was going to express the truth and create meaning fusing the gifts I’d been born with and the skills I’d developed.
As Sean himself pointed out, these fire-starter games had one thing in common: play. After all, the most fascinating people, not to mention artists, are the ones who are fully immersed in the play of their work, not looking ahead to see how much fame it will net them (nor how much money it will make them), but how they can solve whatever the moment demands of them.
Conversely, when we stop playing and never pause, the work gets stale. It may remain professional, but the thrill is gone. And that thrill is what people want: casting directors and producers as well as audience members.
So if you are grinding and seemingly going nowhere fast, maybe the answer isn’t to double down, but to take a break and pause. And if you’re stuck or stiff, bored or boring, the answer is almost always to play more. Find a new pursuit, a hobby or interest you can immerse yourself in, that you’re really, passionately drawn to. Sign up for a class in something you’d love to learn but that secretly terrifies you.
Of course, we have to be grownups and put food on the table. But we are humans who must pause, and artists who must play. That delicious brain of yours which miraculously breathes life into words on a page cannot keep doing its work without rest, without play, without a little care and feeding of its housing.
So pause, and play! Not just to rest the brain and the body that are working so hard for you, but to complete a cycle of work. This practice is baked into my favorite values-centered goal-setting system, Your Best Year Yet, the very first step to setting next year’s goals (right around the corner) is reviewing the previous year’s accomplishments. And disappointments, but whatever. Other systems use a variation of this forward/backward technique, and I finally get why: Completing cycles of work equals better work.
Pause and play, live and learn.
BOOK(s) OF THE MONTH: I’m a latecomer to the lyrical, clever, and oh-so-absorbing fiction of Amor Towles, but on a recent trip home to Chicago, I made up for lost time. I started with Rules of Civility,his debut novel about class-conscious social climbing in Depression-era New York City, and immediately jumped into A Gentleman in Moscow, his sophomore novel that follows the exploits of a Russian noble confined to house arrest in a glamorous Moscow hotel in the early years of the Soviet ascension. Both are rip-roaring reads filled with great character studies revealed through detail, dialogue and action. Highly recommended!
Colleen Wainwright is a writer–speaker-layabout who started calling herself “The Communicatrix” when she hit three hyphens. She spent a decade writing commercials and another decade acting in them for cash money. Now she uses her powers for good instead of evil by helping creatives learn how to strut their stuff in a way that makes the world fall madly in love with them.