My first two years after drama school were full of opportunities - I worked consistently and I assumed that my life would always be busy and creatively fulfilling. I didn’t need to think about myself and all my personal baggage because my mind was full of my work and little else.
And then… nothing. The auditions slowed down and eventually stopped altogether, and I was a total wreck. I’d worked so hard, why was this happening to me? The TV shows and films we watch would let you believe that success and fortune will come to us if we just work hard and believe even harder, but real life is a lot more complicated and definitely not as entertaining to watch unfold.
The problem is, this industry is overcrowded. I once heard about a casting director who receives thousands of applications for each role he casts, but is only allowed to bring around 20 people into the room. All the applicants have similar CVs, so he can’t differentiate between them. So what does he do? He goes ‘eeny meeny miny mo’ down the list and picks whomever he lands on.
It can quickly start to feel like nobody knows we exist. If our sense of self is dependent on our career, we can easily forget who we are or why we’re here when the work just isn’t coming in. I spent two years feeling my anxiety and depression spiral out of control, with no idea of how to recover. My life had been so career-focused that I had no tools to survive without an actual career.
Unfortunately, there will always be parts of our career progression which we have no control over, so how do we cope? How do we follow our dreams but also keep our feet on the ground when things get rocky?
Here are some things I’ve learned so far:
1. Learn as much as you can.
If you’re still at school, learn a language, an instrument, practise a sport! If you can afford it, do a course, take lessons! It’s much harder to beat yourself up when times are tough if you can say to yourself that you literally did everything that is in your control to stand out from the crowd. Don’t live your life staring at your empty CV, regretting all the opportunities you didn’t take.
2. Find a side job that you can actually enjoy.
Don’t see this as a betrayal of your career goals - getting a part time office or retail job doesn’t mean you’ve ‘sold out’ - in acting you’ll need to pay for headshots, showreels, fitness classes and much more, as well as paying for rent and bills - but your mental health is equally important. If you can find a job that feeds your soul as well as your bank account, you’ll last a lot longer in this industry. (Not to mention, working somewhere with a printer is really handy when you need to print off scripts for auditions - just saying.)
3. Curate your social media.
If you find yourself crying every time you go on Twitter because it seems like all your friends are in the West End or shooting movies with their new famous friends and they won’t shut up about it, you are totally entitled to unfollow them. This is a choice that is within your control. If they confront you about it, just say ‘I’m really happy for you but I’m also going through a tough time in my career at the moment, and it’s not serving me to be constantly comparing my journey to yours. I hope you understand.’
Cliche alert: your career is a marathon, not a sprint. Protecting yourself now will enable you to keep working for decades, and if your success ends up happening later in life, that doesn’t mean it’s worth any less than the instant success of others.
4. Use your life experience to create something for yourself.
It’s easier said than done, but if you can keep a diary and record the things that happen to you, the feelings you have, the stories you hear, one day you’ll find that you have the beginnings of a story that you can write.
For me, it was my unhealthy obsession with true crime mixed with what I learned from doing free online courses (via FutureLearn) that led to me having an epiphany: I had discovered the perfect subject and characters for a play I knew nobody else had written yet. I had spent years trying to come up with something to write but in the end the perfect thing just crept on me when I stopped overthinking. Now I’m producing my own play and I’ve reclaimed some power and control for myself in this unstable and unpredictable world. I have no idea what will come of it, but that feeling of creating my own work is so much better than sitting around and waiting for jobs to magically come along.
In short, we can’t let our career be the measure our self-worth. Yes, it’s good to set goals, and yes it’s important to be ambitious, but you as a person are far more than a job you are employed to do. If you can look after yourself and your mental health in times of success as well as times of unemployment, you’ll be able to face any obstacle this world throws at you.