Happiness Does Not Come from Accomplishments Alone

I wish I was famous and rich and an academy award winning actor (or Emmy or BAFTA I’m not picky). I will probably always work to become that, but the fact is that no matter how hard I work, I may never make it. Some goals depend on factors other than hard work that we can’t always control.

But I have accomplished other big goals for myself. I currently teach and perform at The Second City. Prior to 2009 that was not true. I live in L.A. (wasn’t true a year ago). I have imdb credits (nothing huge, but I didn’t have any before 2009 and before 2014 I only had one). I currently fit into size 34 jeans (the goal is 32, but it’s been a while since 34s felt comfortable or even possible). I have made my living off just acting (a huge goal I had always wanted that finally happened in 2008).

Why am I bragging? Because if I’m going to talk about what it’s like after accomplishments I better have some experience there. I find it hard to listen to advice from people who haven’t mastered the thing they’re talking about, especially if those people have YouTube channels or write books.

I have struggled with depression, anxiety and poor self image off and on (mostly on) my whole life. When I was in junior college all I wanted was to get a full academic ride to TCU. And I did it. I remember when the counselor from TCU called to say that I was one of the five recipients of the full scholarship for transfer students that year. I felt good about it. I really did. But if I’m being honest (no reason to lie on a blog post) I had to manufacture some of that happiness on the outside for  other people’s sake. On the inside I only really felt happy for a few days and it wasn’t all that much. I didn’t get the overwhelming sensation I assumed was going to happen.

Rather than saying, ‘good job’ to myself what I really said was, ‘of course you got that, but that’s not a big deal, you should do a lot better.’ In a way that was positive self talk in that I felt I obviously deserved the scholarship (feels gross to type that, but it’s true). I told myself it was no more an accomplishment than it would be for Michael Jordan to make fifteen points in a game. So, in a way I was saying I was somehow the ‘Michael Jordan’ of the scholarship recipient pool.

But it was also damaging self talk, because I never gave myself real praise. I was glad I got the scholarship, but I didn’t feel worthy of a celebration or accolades. I just felt like me – depressed, anxious, self deprecating me.

A very similar thing happened when I was told I got into Second City’s Conservatory. I didn’t even live in Chicago when I flew up to audition. And I got in without taking any prior classes there. I didn’t know anyone there. I hadn’t even stepped foot in the building before. And I got it on my first try. Felt amazing…for about a day or so. After my first class I felt like my ‘accomplishment’ meant very very little and the real goals were still so far away.

I filed my 2008 taxes without having any income from a non-entertainment source. I boarded a Hawaiian cruise ship in 2010 to live rent free and get paid to be an actor who saw Hawaii for the first time in my life. And I still got depressed and felt like I hadn’t accomplished anything worthwhile.

And even now as I write this I’m super tempted to say that if I ever become a regular on a TV show that I would then finally feel a sense of genuine happiness and accomplishment. But the evidence does not support this theory. Every time I’ve acheived something in the past the happiness was short lived and soon faded into that old familiar depression. So, why would I think that a regular on a TV series would be any different?

I think the reason I think that is because it’s safe to think that. You can’t prove that it’s not true. We can only make educated hypotheses. That means it might be true. And that gives me hope that happiness is achievable. It means one day I might feel a sensation of happiness more powerful and long lasting than I ever have before.

My hope that that is true feels similar to the hope that many people have in winning the lottery. But even that has evidence to show it’s not the end all be all of happiness. According to this article (http://tinyurl.com/lxgt8ok70% of people who suddenly come into large amounts of money lose most of it within seven years. I don’t believe I would lose it if I lost it, but I bet a lot of that 70% felt the same way. I’d also like to believe that if I was cast on a TV show I would be happy, but I’ve met actors from TV and movies who are depressed. Some of them have famously killed themselves either intentionally (suicide) or unintentionally (drugs, over eating, etc.). The fact is I don’t know or believe a TV gig would make me happy. Instead I hope that it will. And after looking at this honestly, I don’t think that it would.

My whole point is that the accomplishments I’ve had in my life didn’t by themselves make me happy. So, any future accomplishments no matter how big may have the same effect as the previous ones.

I’ve been in therapy now for three months and I’m gradually learning how to be happy with myself. It’s a slow process, but I’ve made progress. In other words I feel better about myself more often and for longer stints than I used to, but I haven’t had any major accomplishment to cause that. I didn’t rely on the potential future accomplishment to bring me the happiness. Instead I did something I never thought I’d do to get it.

And now that I feel better more often, I still want the same goals I had before I started therapy. That part didn’t change. But the difference in my day to day life is huge. I don’t feel constant pressure to do better. I don’t beat myself up (as much) because I haven’t accmoplished them yet. And here’s the best part: my excuse for my negative self talk most of my life turns out to be incorrect. I used to say that my high expectations coupled with constant dissatisfaction and self imposed pressure were necessary ingredients to prevent myself from slacking off and being lazy. But I still work hard to accomplish my goals currently. I haven’t slacked off one bit. I don’t know if I work any harder since I started therapy, but I can definitely say that I don’t work any less harder. And more importantly, I feel better.

So, if you’re like me and hope that accomplishing x will make the pain and sadness turn into happiness, I hope you challenge that belief. Test it against your own personal history and other people. Be open minded. If you honestly answer ‘yes I need to work tirelessly to accomplish this goal because it will make me happy’ then do what you need to do. I won’t stop you. But if you think that your belief could be wrong and that happiness comes from within more than outside sources, maybe start looking at other options to make yourself happy.

I didn’t challenge my own beliefs. Instead I just sunk further and further into depression until my girlfriend begged me to seek therapy. I’m very thankful she insisted so much, because I’m not sure if I would have ever done it on my own. And I don’t know what would have happened had I kept the sadness in the back of my mind all the time. I don’t think it would have ever gotten to critical mass, but then again I don’t know. And more importantly, I don’t have to know anymore. But if you feel depression and don’t have someone in your life encouraging you to seek help, let me be that person. Please look for help. It doesn’t have to be therapy. Maybe it’s just guided meditation or something else. But your mental health is worth the investment of time and energy into finding a solution.

And one last thing. Let’s say for the sake of argument that becoming a regular on TV would make me happy in a way that is different than any other previous accomplishment of mine. Why should I believe that it’s the only way to make me happy? Since booking a TV show is very difficult and partially based on luck and looks and trends it seems horrible to put all my hopes for happiness onto that very small chance. Why not look for other ways in the mean time?

In conclusion, don’t hope that one of your goals will bring you happiness. Find other ways to get that happiness while still pursuing your goals. And if you are like me and you beat yourself up, stop it. It’s not helping in anyway.

Thanks, y’all!


That Sense of Superiority Needs to Go

Have you ever worked a gig where people who made more money than you or had more prestige than you were less qualified than you? I’m not gonna go into specifics, but there have been a handful of times when I worked a gig where someone else on the same gig was somehow higher up in the pecking order than I was, but had far fewer qualifications than I did and/or was frankly just not as good as I was at the skill that gig required.

I’m purposely being very vague here because I don’t want to make reference to anyone specifically. So, I’m gonna make up an example that isn’t true from my past, but serves as a good parallel to help explain what I’m talking about:

In this fictional anecdote I was cast to perform stand up comedy. The headliner was a former student of mine who had only been doing stand up for two years, while I had been doing it for ten. In fact, he was a student in my stand up class when he started. He’s funny. There’s no denying that, but I’m funnier. I know how to work a crowd better than him. My punchlines are better and my stage presence is stronger. But he’s the headliner which means he gets to do 45 minutes and gets paid more than me. I’m the feature. I only get 20 minutes and don’t get paid half as much.

I want to reiterate that the previous paragraph is fiction. But it’s a great example of the kind of thing I’m talking about where I have felt that I played second fiddle (there’s an expression I don’t think I’ve ever used before this moment) to someone who’s simply not as good at what he/she does as I am.

For the sake of argument, let’s assume that my subjective opinion about me being ‘better’ is accurate. It may not be in the eyes of many others or it may be, but all that matters for the purpose of this writing is to know that I believe wholeheartedly that that’s the case.

My response to my whiny attitude about this situation is: ‘So freaking what?!?’

Who cares if the person making more money isn’t as talented as I am? Why should that matter? ‘Well,’ one might argue, ‘That matters because in a fair and just world those who are more talented reap the rewards.’ But I’m here to say that argument is crap. There are tons of people in many different industries (maybe all other industries) who get paid more and/or have more prestige than others who are more talented. That’s just the way it is. It’s always been this way. Maybe it always will be this way. Get over it.

I can only speak to the entertainment world, but I know of several directors and actors who I believe to be way more talented than half of Hollywood’s A-listers. Why is this the case? Maybe some of them got their through family connections. Maybe they were at the right place at the right time. Maybe they worked harder. Maybe…it doesn’t really matter. Who cares about the reason. Instead care about taking care of yourself. Feeling cheated by the system because someone less talented than yourself happens to be more rich, famous and/or in a better position to do what they want with their craft is a big fat waste of time. It’s sour grapes. And it does no one any good – particularly you.

A few days ago Michael Keaton won a Golden Globe and in his speech he said, “Work hard. Don’t quit. Be appreciative, be thankful, be grateful, be respectful. Also, never whine, never complain. And always, for crying out loud, keep a sense of humor.”

I don’t know any A-list celebrities personally, but I have met and worked with a lot of working actors and even a handful of famous people. And the common thread I see among all of them is that they all seem to be nice, grateful, respectful people who are just trying to make art and find their way through the weird journey that is life. Of course, I’m aware that this description does not apply to 100% of famous or successful actors. But it’s worth noting that the overwhelming majority of the ones I’ve met personally have these things in common.

Life isn’t fair. To an extent the entertainment world can be a meritocracy, but that’s not true in all cases. And it shouldn’t be expected to be true by myself or anyone else. Every gig, every class you take, every audition, every experience is a chance to learn and grow. So, I say shame on me for looking at someone who’s working a gig and thinking, ‘that should be me, because I’m better than them.’ Instead I should be thankful that I got any gig at all. I can certainly think of people more talented than myself who aren’t working at all.

And here’s something I just realized for the first time. There have probably been a number of gigs I’ve been on where someone felt that I wasn’t as good as they were and thereby deserved to make less money or have less of an important role than them. It’s interesting to realize that I’ve likely been on the other side of this thought myself.

The good news I can say is that these thoughts of superiority and unfairness I’m describing now happen much less frequently than they used to. And what’s more is that when they occur I now am almost always able to replace them with humility and gratitude pretty quickly. Rather than whining (even if it’s only in my head and no one else hears it) I can most help myself by having a great work ethic and a great attitude when I’m on any gig. And that combination may lead to people wanting to work with me again.

But even if it doesn’t, I will continue to do it. Why? Because it’s better for me. And I deserve to be a better version of me. I’m pretty great. Bitterness and whining and the outrage that comes from questioning why I don’t have more and others  do only serves to hurt myself and possibly those around me if it seeps through my actions (which it probably would).

So, Mr. Keaton, I appreciate your advice. I’m going to take it from now on and remove all that hurtful negativity I once had. Regardless of the talent level of those I work with, I will strive to be grateful, hard working, happy & fun. Sounds like a much better way to spend my time and energy than the other way.

Thanks, y’all!

If You Think Life Is A Competition, You’re Likely Losing

I love competition. I love tennis, basketball, chess, improv tournaments, ping pong, board games and many other forms of it. But life itself cannot be a competition.

You’ve probably seen this type of thing in movies or TV shows before: One character asks another character about their job or where they went to college or something like that not because they’re genuinely interested in the other character’s life, but because they want to use their answer as a measuring stick. “Oh, you went to Michigan State? That’s so quaint. I went to Dartmouth.”

To many people, life is a competition. They want the hottest date, the flashiest car, the biggest house, the more prestigious job title, etc. If they obtain those things then they somehow ‘win.’ And conversely if they don’t obtain those things they ‘lose.’

I must admit that I was very much one of these people. I compared myself to everyone else to see if I was winning or not. When I found out someone had not done as well as I had, then I felt some ridiculous sense of superiority. “You do improv? That’s nice. I teach it.” I don’t know if I was ever that smug about it out loud, but I certainly was in my mind. When I found out someone did better than me at something I would feel a very real sense of inferiority. “You just booked a national commercial? I’ve never been in a commercial.”

What’s worse is that this need to show off my own accolades to others was coupled with the need for constant validation. Even my best accomplishments seemed unimportant if I couldn’t get someone else (preferably multiple someone else) to let me know that they also thought I was awesome. I would humble brag about certain things I did in the hopes that someone would interrupt me to praise me.

“I was just thinking about when I was working for SEcond City…”

“You work for Second City? Wow. That’s a big deal.”

It was exhausting and wholly unsatisfying, but it’s how I lived. Only in the last few years have I been able to let this go. I’m not 100% over it, but I’ve come a long way (insert joke about me wanting to prove to you that I’ve let it go better than you).

One of the many reasons I hated living this way was because I could never be happy for other people without also feeling bad about myself. If someone booked a commercial or got cast in a touring company then no matter how much I wanted to be happy for them, I would necessarily feel bad for not having accomplished that same thing. Or if the person in question had good news about getting something that I had already gotten then I somehow saw that as making my accomplishment less worthwhile. For example, after I had been hired to teach improv at Second City, when I found out others had been hired it seemed like less of an accomplishment.

Now, I’m learning how to not look at life that way anymore (as much) and everything is getting so much better. I’m not sure what ever caused me to think this way in the first place and I’m not totally sure how I was able to shake free of this viewpoint, but I can tell you some things that well meaning people said to me that did not help at all.

1. “You can’t spend your life comparing yourself to others.”

This never helped. I know they meant well, but the phrase is meaningless. One necessarily has to compare him/herself to others. Without comparing myself to others I have no way of knowing anything about how I’m doing in life. Every descriptor is only meaningful when compared to others. For example, I’m ‘tall’ compared to someone who’s 5’1″ but I’m average height when compared to the population of adult males in the US. I’m ‘poor’ when compared to someone who makes six figures. But I’m ‘rich’ when compared to someone who’s homeless.

I think a better way of saying this well meaning platitude is “Comparing yourself to others is necessary, but there is no need to attach any stigma to it.” By this I mean I am definitely ‘poor’ compared to a millionaire. But being a millionaire does not make someone ‘better’ than me. And I am not ‘bad’ or somehow unworthy of love simply because I don’t make a ton of money.

2. “Be happy being yourself”

I wholeheartedly agree with this statement now. But it needs more context for me to understand how to apply it to myself. When I would hear this in the past I would interpret it to mean, “Be happy with yourself. Don’t worry about improving.” But what I now interpret it to mean is, “Be happy with yourself, but don’t allow that to make you lazy or complacent with your desire to be better at certain things.”

Again, I know people meant well when they said this to me, but I never understood it in a way that made it applicable to my life. I would believe it to be a good thing. But also believe it to be unobtainable. How can one be happy with onesself if one wishes to have something that one does not have? I didn’t get it. And I was afraid that if I was somehow to figure out how to do it, that it would strip me of my ambition and desire to improve myself. And the last thing I wanted to be was a happy ‘loser’ like some hippie living in a shitty small apartment who’s happy all the times. That seemed so gross to me. Now, I think of that same image I used to have of a happy hippie and I feel jealous that I can’t be that happy with myself without needing a lot of material things like wealth and property.

Being happy with myself does not mean that I can’t strive to improve my abilities and refine my techniques and learn new things. Being happy simply means that I treat myself well. And it is very possible to treat myself well while also striving to be better

I am not saying competition is bad. I’m a big believer in capitalism. When companies compete, the consumer usually benefits. When the US and Russia competed in the space race, we went to the moon. When people compete for the X Prize, we all get some new amazing technology. Competition has it’s place.And maybe some people even get joy from living their lives in competition with others. I’m not trying to judge. If you feel happy doing that, then by all means keep it up.

But if you’re like me then the act of looking at life in that way might leave you sad and in a constant state of disappointment. Even just thinking of yourself as a ‘loser’ is negative. My therapist says that the unconscious mind is always listening and will perpetuate what it hears. So, if you even think that you’re losing then your sub conscious may very well be hearing ‘I’m a loser.’ And that’s no way to talk to yourself. It’s unhealthy and may lead to some real sadness.

Another bad thing about competitions are that they end and even if you feel like you won, the effect of winning wears off. Unless you win all the time, you’re necessarily going to feel like a ‘loser’ at least some of the time if not most of the time. But if I don’t look at life like one big competition then I can’t logically say I’m losing at it. However, if I value myself as an amazing person worthy of love then I’m sort of always in a state of ‘winning’ no matter how little money I make or how few parts I get cast in, etc.

I don’t have a big house or take expensive vacations or pal around with celebrities or appear regularly on television. I have friends who have all that stuff. I can’t compare myself to them. Maybe one day I will have that stuff too. I certainly hope to. Those are goals. But they’re not competitions. I need to treat myself better for having what I have rather than feel like a loser for not having what I don’t have.

I’m not advocating that I celebrate all the time like the proverbial ‘everyone gets a ribbon’ mentality. Competitions have winners and losers. The winners must win something in order for it to mean anything. I must reserve celebrations for times when I’ve done something worth celebrating. However, beating myself up for ‘losing’ does no one any good. In fact, it does a lot of harm. If the desired effect is to motivate me to do better next time, then it misses the mark by a lot. So, now I’m working on doing that way less than I used to with the eventual goal to be not to beat myself up ever. And now I’m discovering much more joy from treating myself like a ‘good person’ rather than a ‘winner’ or a ‘loser.’

Thanks, y’all!