A few months ago I was able to reconnect with an old friend from college who is making her career as a theater director. I was in New York City with my wife and we noticed that Kimberly Senior was directing a play that was opening on Broadway. Kimberly was a year behind me and we had been in theater together. I remembered her as passionate, driven and talented. After college she bravely went out to make a career out of her passion in Chicago.
(You can read about her bio here.)
We were able to see her play Disgraced which had won the Pulitzer prize the year before and was poised to make a big splash on Broadway.
(And it did.)
After we caught up on where we had been for the past twenty years, I asked a question that I was trying to figure out in my head as we sat there and talked.
I asked her whether when she was rehearsing all those plays in basements of churches and performing them for an audience of five people (any actor will tell you that they have been there), did she know that she would one day wind up on Broadway?”
Because, all I could think about was twenty years. That’s a long time to work towards a goal. In my mind, that seemed like a fantastic amount of perseverance and determination and ambition.
The answer I was expecting was that she always knew that this is where she would end up, and it was that deep faith that kept her working in those basements and small theaters.
Her response was both brilliant and hilarious. She said that you’d have to be slightly delusional to make Broadway your goal. Broadway is a pipe dream.
(Um, okay, that’s not what I expected.)
She then pointed out that every project she has ever worked on has been the only thing she wanted to work on at that time. The play that won the Pulitzer last year was one of those plays that began in a basement with an unfinished script by a new playwright and there was no promise that it was going to make it to the big stage, never mind win awards. They just kept working on it. Kept making it better and trying new things.
Wow. That made a lot of sense. The thing is, you could feel how true that was just by hearing her talk about it. She loved her actors and her playwrights and her technical people and her playhouses. She genuinely loved what she was doing, and not just because she was successful.
Love where you are. Do good work. Sounds familiar.
This made me think about ambition in general and how impatient we can all feel when we think that we aren’t “there” yet. We want to be bigger and play on a bigger stage. We want the recognition and the awards and the success.
Here’s the thing. When we become too focused on a specific outcome or a fantasy of success, then we are most likely not living in the present. We are probably not giving our full attention to the work at hand.
We are not giving our best selves to our work.
As a culture we have become fascinated with the prospect that we will be discovered. That all we have to do is show up and our destiny will unfold immediately. Heck there is a whole genre of television based on this idea.
(Where your success is decided by these three…)
(It’s like Harry can see right into my soul.)
This idea that we are all just waiting to be discovered is something that Seth Godin has been trying to push back against for quite awhile. His big invitation to all of us is, if we think that we have something to offer, then offer it.
The problem comes when we think that we know what that path to success looks like.
We are all really good at reconstructing a narrative of success once someone becomes successful. We can look back at the choices that they made and say “oh, that’s how it is done.”
There are a lot of people out there claiming to know what the path to success is. They all want to sell us on this idea that the right career path, the correct internship, the right social group, the perfect clothes, the correct education is all we need to be successful.
So many of us spend too much time wondering why we haven’t made it yet.
What would it be like if we decided instead that we were exactly where we needed to be. What if we started doing things that we loved and trusted that the path would unfold.
What would it be like if we committed ourselves fully and truly to our passion and our dream?
William H. Murray was a mountaineer who made a name for himself before WWII climbing the mountains of Scotland. He wrote his first book (on toilet paper, twice) while in a German prison and attributed the following quote to something Goethe supposedly wrote (but didn’t). Nevertheless, it’s a powerful quote for anyone who has ambition and wants to accomplish great things:
“Until one is committed, there is hesitancy, the chance to draw back, always ineffectiveness. Concerning all acts of initiative (and creation), there is one elementary truth, the ignorance of which kills countless ideas and splendid plans: that the moment one definitely commits oneself, then Providence moves too. All sorts of things occur to help one that would never otherwise have occurred. A whole stream of events issues from the decision, raising in one’s favour all manner of unforeseen incidents and meetings and material assistance, which no man could have dreamt would have come his way. I learned a deep respect for one of Goethe’s couplets: