When I look back over my life since embarking on adulthood, I see clearly how it has only been a more recent practice for me to choose what I really wanted. This was not the case in my 20s, when I studied voice and worked as a paid musician. I eventually burned out and stopped signing altogether because I allowed others the power to define who I was and what I had to offer as an artist. After several years of being absent from the world of professional music, I realized I’ve been moving away from the definitions and values of others – what they collectively tend to label aesthetically pleasing and worthwhile. I have instead been regularly asking myself, “What do I like? What do I want to sound like? What do I have to say, if anything?” The answers continue to surprise and delight me.
It takes courage to grow up and become who you really are.
— E.E. Cummings
When I was a younger, I spent so much energy attempting to please others (as well as comparing myself to my peers) that I completely overlooked the importance – both literally and figuratively – of fostering the development of my own unique voice. I was a Type A, color-inside-the-lines kind of artist. Unfortunately, this behavior was often praised by my instructors as desirable, an ethic to be modeled; as a result, I was terrified of making a mistake in front of others, of not doing things the “right” way (aka the way established by others before me). In John Hockenberry’s TED Talk, he recounts how, during his childhood, his father had a Dixieland band that would cover Louis Armstrong tunes. John asked his Dad if he wanted to make his covers sound like the record. “No! Never, John, never,” he replied. “The song is just a given, that’s how you have to think about it. It’s how you cover it that matters. You gotta make it your own…show everyone what you intend. Acting by design…is what we all should be doing.”
I have to agree. I’ve found that the most effective way to act by design is to live with deliberate intent. The older I get, the more I realize that trying to “fit in” requires the abandonment of this intention. Conformity is deceptive; it is often confused with connection in that it gives people a false sense of belonging to something greater. That’s a steep price to pay, exchanging the uniqueness and spectrum of human character for one person or group’s (intrinsically limited) vision. It’s right there in the Merriam-Webster dictionary definition:
The main problem I see with conforming is that it very often requires people to operate from a unquestioning place of fear, not the best foundation for self expression. It is scary for most people to consciously choose a different way, path, thought – to flirt with being on the outskirts, inviting the threat of being misunderstood, or at worst, ostracized completely. I believe, however, that it is this very act of compliance which is the fodder for conditions such as apathy, dissatisfaction, boredom, and a victim mentality. It’s a small step from there to powerlessness.
When you adopt the standards and the values of someone else … you surrender your own integrity. You become, to the extent of your surrender, less of a human being.
~ Eleanor Roosevelt
When I live with deliberate intent and remember that my individuality and uniqueness are things to be appreciated, that powerlessness goes away. The ‘If Onlys’ are replaced with the relief of these two realizations: 1) Only I need to define what is a worthwhile way to spend my time; and 2) Only I get to say what is interesting, creative, or meaningful to me. The rest – what other people think, feel, say, do – is none of my business.
Granted, I still have to work at not comparing myself and my choices to those of other people when things in my life aren’t where I’d like them to be; for many reasons, my career does not look like that of several of my peers, and it’s not always easy to trust that this is okay, that everything is unfolding just right. But the difficulty of existing outside the norm has helped me gain self awareness and inner strength, all of which has informed my art. It’s beginning to pay off, too – the work I do now as an actor, writer, and photographer continues to deepen and broaden, reflecting more and more who I am as an individual. Nothing has been more edifying for me as an artist and a person than to take – and trust – this road less traveled.