You Can't Be Desperate and Successful

Updated: Feb 3

American screenwriter Jerry Stahl has an amusing (uncomfortably true) saying: "There's no deodorant for desperation".


Unfortunately, us actors have a bad reputation for being desperate. Though, to be fair, this isn't entirely our fault. For the most part, our industry isn't set up in a way that empowers actors, yet our ceaseless striving for some sense of input often breeds an unappealing odour.


Until our industry arrives at a place of greater equality (and it will), we have a choice: will we remain driven by desperation and cynicism, or will we operate from alignment and trust?



The Butterfly

Here's a truth bomb: we can all be successful. There's actually more than enough to go around. The trouble arises when we don't trust this, which, as mentioned, is an understandable consequence of being an actor for some time.


In our distrust, we set out to make success happen ourselves. We quadruple down on the whole "blood, sweat, and tears" combo. We get the desperation stink. We essentially make ourselves as unattractive to success (and those who'd hire us) as possible.


This is a bit of a mind-pretzel at first. We have to stop forcing in order to receive? Yep.


One of the most visceral illustrations of this is the following excerpt from Zorba the Greek:

I remember one morning when I discovered a cocoon in the back of a tree just as a butterfly was making a hole in its case and preparing to come out. I waited awhile, but it was too long appearing and I was impatient. I bent over it and breathed on it to warm it. I warmed it as quickly as I could and the miracle began to happen before my eyes faster than life. The case opened; the butterfly started slowly crawling out, and I shall never forget my horror when I saw how its wings were folded back and crumpled; the wretched butterfly tried with its whole trembling body to unfold them. Bending over it, I tried to help it with my breath, in vain.


It needed to be hatched out patiently and the unfolding of the wings should be a gradual process in the sun. Now it was too late. My breath had forced the butterfly to appear all crumpled, before its time. It struggled desperately and, a few seconds later, died in the palm of my hand.



1, 2 Step

Fortunately, it's a simple two-step dance to get us out of the desperation funk. But like any move worth learning, it takes some practice. Lucky for us, Dojo actors are renowned for their ability to throw some serious shapes (extra points for those who got the Ciara reference).


1. Check yo'self

We first need to ask whether what we're pursuing is truly aligned with our vibe. Is this a goal that speaks to our soul, or is it a deceivingly attractive shiny object? This determination becomes easier once we've defined our personal definition of success, but we all possess the inner wisdom that knows.


Sociologist Martha Beck provides us with an immediate litmus test: "The body's reaction to recognizing truth is relaxation, a literal, involuntary release of muscle tension." We only need a second to get quiet and sit with the object of desire. Is the body releasing and relaxing, or gripping and tensing?


If the answer is "releasing and relaxing", awesome, groove on over to step two. If the answer is "gripping and tensing", stop, drop, and roll. From Beck: "When we realize we're off course, the best thing we can do is slow down or even stop in our tracks." Our body is indicating this particular goal probably isn't for us and we might be wise to let it go. Of course, we can continue to strive and struggle and prise open cocoons that don't belong to us if we wish. But we should know it's far more beautiful — and, ironically, fruitful — to align ourselves with those that are.

2. Choose the other D-word If we feel this specific goal is a true bullseye, we can come at it holding nothing back. From here, we now pursue this endeavour with determination, not desperation. The difference is that determination is a clean (and pleasant smelling) fuel source. With determination, we have clarity of purpose, limitless energy, and an abundance of joy. Where desperation repels, determination can't help but attract.



Coincidentally, Michael Keaton was recently asked for advice he'd share with emerging actors. His response? "Desperation will kill you." Who are we to argue with Batman and Birdman?



It's freaking awesome to aspire to success and possess the necessary drive. But let's also be intelligent, acknowledging we can't be both desperate and successful.


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