Words by Kate-Lois Elliott
Recently I've been pondering the simple notion that another person's perception of you should never affect your decisions, ever. It seems so obvious when you say it out loud, but in a world of gloss, ‘likes' and impossible standards of perfection, it is deeply engrained in our psyches - as much as we know it shouldn't be.
I had a sobering moment at the beginning of the year. I appeared in a West End show for a week. All I did was stand at the back and sing in the ensemble, but it was huge, like nothing else I can describe. I felt in that moment that I was in it, whatever 'it' is. I was part of something really magical. This was why I’d become an actor. Two days later however I felt as though I’d achieved nothing. I was restless and felt very connected to the fact that I had no control over my career, helplessly waiting around once again for the phone to ring.
I realised then that my relationship with my career needed assessing. Part of me wants to stay in the city and live for that 10% of the time when I am performing, whilst sacrificing every other element of my life in order to do so. Another part wants to get a full-time serious job in the creative industries, save up for a 2 bed flat in Parson’s Green and buy more pot plants, a slow cooker for dinner parties and nice things from The White Company. The rest of me wants to move back home, away from the allure of the city, growing vegetables, talking about my feelings and eventually making a Bloomsbury style commune in the woods where we paint wood and make music around campfires.
So let's talk about expectations. When we’re young we’re told what we’re good at - by teachers, parents and friends. It’s good to be good at things, and to set goals, but we end up in danger of living to fulfil other people's expectations and measures of success, instead of continuously assessing and reassessing our own needs. We start to look outside of ourselves for validation.
When you find something you love it becomes the thing that drives you, all consuming, body and soul. As wonderful as the world of theatre is, as useful as I believe it is to society, when I went to drama school I became addicted to my craft. Not just the craft - the turmoil that we put ourselves through in order to achieve the ultimate performance, and tell the ultimate story. I was Natalie Portman in Black Swan: living my truth and literally ripping my nails up in the process. I couldn’t stop working, and I’d forgotten how to relax.
On top of this, it’s easy to become engulfed by the fear that if you give something up you might somehow become less interesting to the people around you, or the hope that at some point the nice things people are saying might actually feel true and not just feed your imposter syndrome.
So I knew exactly who I was, but I’d lost something in the process. I’d supposedly put my life on hold when I didn’t go straight to drama school, and I thought acting would be my life, but then I realised that I’d put my life on hold to be an actor. And round and round we go from one extreme to the other, as our egos, fragile hearts and empty stomachs fight each other tag-team, in a boxing ring of complexity.
Is there a key to finding the right balance for you when it comes to career VS the rest of your life? Is there a perfect spot between being a lazy bedroom guitarist and a burnt out rock star?
I’m reminded of the moment in Mona Lisa Smile when Julia Roberts tries to make Julia Stiles go to Grad School. We all sit there waiting for the empowered feminist to convince the other empowered feminist that career is a privilege, and how dare she choose love and marriage over something we’ve been fighting for for so many years? Then we all check ourselves as the incredibly gifted student, destined for greatness, explains to her teacher that it’s about choice, and that a fulfilled life comes in many forms.
I used to pity people who quit their passions, but now I see that they weren’t necessarily quitting, just putting themselves first and freeing themselves from unhealthy aspects of it. You don’t have to be a professional artist to make art. You don’t need to be a professional chef to cook. Some of the happiest and most creatively fulfilling times I’ve ever had, were when I was a teenager and used to stay up until 4am playing the guitar and listening to Jeff Buckley with my friends. There’s no shame in choosing to be less busy, or taking the time to look at what really feeds our souls, and there’s no quick fix. The point is, your work won’t suffer or disappear if you decide to take some time to access your own needs. Whatever route you go down afterwards will get all the better contribution from you because you've taken that time.
Even when we love what we do, the work can still damage us. We need to fill our lives with variety and balance, and remember that no one can function at their best when they’re burnt out. Happiness, balance and genuine fulfilment come before success, but sometimes it's hard to tell the difference.
We need to be mindful of the fact that, not every project we take on feeds us, and sometimes it’s OK to say no and instead to give your energy to another part of your life for a while. We are not only valid humans when we are working and our value is not measured by our productivity.
Furthermore it's OK to change your mind, and to keep questioning: even when it feels like you're at the top of your game, and even when it feels like you should be grateful. Don't compare yourself to others: what they have or what they want. Ask yourself what feeds you in a healthy way. Do more of that and less of the things that provide you with fleeting, fruitless moments of satisfaction. I will no longer hold myself hostage to whatever it is that I seem to need to be doing in order to be interesting to people at dinner parties. I love acting, but I love me more. How about you?
Kate-Lois Elliott is a writer, producer and actor. She has contributed for publications that include VICE, Caboodle, Femini, XYZ Magazine and Mouth London. She is also co-host of the Podcast Diversify. Kate was the assistant editor for The Shapers Project book with The Creative Society, Jazz FM and Mishcon De Reya, has had her short fiction read out on Wandsworth Radio/Either-Author and had her work staged at Theatre 503. She regularly champions first time playwrights with her company Backbone Theatre, who run workshops and readings at London venues.
Twitter and Instagram: @kateloiselliott
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