“What are you going to do if it doesn’t work out? You don’t want to be a server when you’re forty, do you, honey? Don’t you think you should pursue something, you know, more secure?” the natty lady says as she peers down at me over the edge of her Gucci sunglasses—clearly paid for by her very secure job. I bite my lip and pause for a moment. I just want to try it; find out what it’s like to pursue my passion: acting. If it doesn’t work out, then I just learn and move on, right? At least I won’t spend the rest of my life in a cubicle regretting my cowardliness. That’s what I want to say, but instead, my eighteen-year-old self shrugs her shoulders lackadaisically and adverts her eyes while she frantically searches for a new topic. The Declaration of Independence promises that Americans are entitled to “the pursuit of Happiness,” yet the definition for that term is left widely open to interpretation. Modern American culture has begun to equate happiness with achievement, and achievement with monetary value. While the quest for accomplishment is not inherently malicious, it can become unintendedly so when it impedes on our right to pursue what brings us joy. I didn’t grasp it then, but my dear friend’s mother was only trying to help me realize that I wasn’t choosing the right path for attaining the most important goal in modern America: success.
That wasn’t my first negative encounter concerning my brief acting venture, nor would it be my last. After endless tests and college applications, I dropped the bomb two months before my high school graduation that I wanted to move to Los Angeles to study acting in lieu of a university. My ever-faithful parents and siblings were fully supportive of my decision, but most everyone else was baffled, or worse, disappointed. Even close friends began to question my judgement; already enrolled in universities, their impressionable minds were set on the standard formula for success. It phased me slightly at first; however, I was quick to bury their opinions, telling myself that no one really understood me anyway. My career seemed promising after months at a boot camp-styled acting conservatory, and even when unforeseen events forced me to retreat from LA, I managed to land an agent, and a few gigs, in Denver. Nevertheless, passions change, and the orchestrator of life has a way of taking my plans and using them for scratch paper on which new plans are drawn out. Still, I often wonder how much sway those nay-saying whisperers and well-meaning loved ones had on my life’s redirection. Even now, little things like watching the Academy Awards or stumbling across an old email from my agent brings a wave of memories that I struggle to quiet before regret transmutes into a self-loathing session.
Americans have the blueprints to a successful life, and it’s repeatedly thrown in our pre-adult faces until we know it better than our own Pledge of Allegiance. The plan is simple: go to school, get good grades, take career aptitude tests, get into a university (or transfer after finishing two years at community college—it sucks if you’re not a trust-fund baby), know instinctively what your major should be, graduate college, get an internship, get a well-paying job, get married and have two and a half kids, buy a home, retire around sixty, and then play golf at a beach resort in Florida until you die. If you don’t follow the blueprint, not only will you never play golf, you may also never be successful. Stick with the plan, and no one bats an eye. But stray from that plan, and (as Joker so famously put) then everyone loses their minds. Most of my so-called supporters did. It got to the point where I went out of my way to hide the fact that I was attempting to make a career out of acting. I didn’t mind the people I’d casually come into contact with; it was those close to me that hurt the most. The employer that said my finances would be ruined. The elder that said I would regret not going to school. The friend that said the odds of me making it were slim to none. They all expressed the same concern for me: failure.
Failure is a terrifying thought in today’s world. A lot is driven by a desire for success; we measure our lives by it. How luxurious is my car? Am I good-looking? Is my job commendable? Can I afford a house in a gated community with a guest suite that I’m only going to utilize once a year? It’s a fair criterion, I suppose, and attaining one’s goals is admirable, right? Yet, when limited to those attributes, success is also crippling to those who share a different view. What if I want to change careers mid-life? What if you want to be a starving artist and never marry? What if he cares more about serving in a third-world country than a diploma that says he’s employable? There’s nothing wrong with the American blueprint for success, that is until we deem it as canon. There are other options, but parents, teachers, and even peers are so afraid of seeing us fail. Our perception of success is skewed by those who dare to limit a concept out of fear. Now, not everyone buys into the money-making machine that is the American culture, but most still think it’s impossible or not worthwhile to immerse oneself in a passion. Just the other day, a classmate of mine was complaining that we can’t really afford to do what we love. Who could really pay the bills by pursuing hobbies, or worse, dreams? And if you could, it would take far too much time and energy to be successful. The blueprints for success make more sense, and are, frankly, far easier to attain.
Success, according to just about any dictionary, means the accomplishment of an aim or purpose. For some, the path to their purpose is lit up like a runway. For others, like me, it’s more like a walk in the woods. You know you’re headed north, and though the way is treacherous, your compass confirms the itinerary (even if the GPS is giving you crap about taking a roundabout by the next fallen tree). There’s nothing wrong with following an established road, but there’s also nothing wrong with being a trailblazer. Some people prefer financial stability; others want memories. Jack may want to work as a school janitor while volunteering with animals, and Jill may want to be a surgeon. Neither of them is wrong, yet society would say that Jack isn’t successful. Who’s to say he isn’t? If that was his aim, is he not successful? If Jill secretly wanted to dance and only went to medical school because of her parents, then isn’t she a failure? Or maybe, just maybe, they are both successful because they both have loving relationships. Maybe my transitory acting career wasn’t a failure. I gleaned many skills from the experience: a thick skin, confidence in interviews, artistic expression, a great appreciation for film and theater, and heck, I learned that it’s necessary for me to go where I’m being called because I’m someone who needs to know the answer to the question what if.
It’s time our society stops focusing on success. There’s a lot more to Americans—to mankind, for that matter—than an overvalued word that’s manipulated in meaning. We can’t define it anyway; it’s too subjective. Who’s to say that ending of one career path is more than that? Life is transition, and when it’s all said and done, we’ll all realize that our brilliant blueprints are just a shot in the dark. Picking a career might have more longevity than picking dinner for the evening, but the concept is the same: it’s all a matter of opinion. Is it worth extinguishing someone’s dream for the sake of elevating your own idea of success? It’s a good thing no one told Lewis and Clark to stop discovering; da Vinci to stop painting; The Beatles to stop making music. Why do people feel like they have that authority over anyone? I, for one, refuse to be chained by it any longer. When I’m seventy-five, I don’t think I’m going to care much about my consistent job title or financial state. I’d like to think I’d look back on the experiences, the passions, the lives I impacted and was impacted by—you know, the big picture. So go ahead, label and judge if you must, but whether I’m an actor, a writer, or a wife, I’m going to pursue my dreams and be me. Success is easy enough, but joy, well, you have to go and catch it. In the words of wise Master Yoda, “Try not. Do. Or do not. There is no try.” Then catch it, I will.