Doing the Most is a special series about ambition — how we define it, harness it, and conquer it.
I’m 26 years old, and I’ve lived in L.A. since I was 21. Like lots of people, I moved here to work in film (specifically comedy), and I’ve been scrappy and worked hard and thought that would be enough to get somewhere. But after five years of working lots of different production gigs on top of waiting tables and doing some improv at night, I’m feeling defeated. It’s insane that the time I felt most financially secure was when the world was falling apart and I was able to file for unemployment. I have $40,000 in student loans that I’ll have to start paying back at some point, and I’ve never earned enough money to save anything. I live with three roommates, and making rent is always a squeeze. I thought by this point I’d have something resembling a career, but instead I’m just broke and tired. My dad is encouraging me to move back to Missouri, where I’m from, and get a “real,” boring job, blah, blah. But there are moments when that level of security sounds appealing. I’m not sure how much longer I can last living hand to mouth like this, but this city is full of stories of people being like, “I was on my last dime — and then I got my big break!” Am I being naïve and stupid to keep trying, or am I giving up too easily if I stop? How do I know when I’m screwing myself over? I feel lost.
I can’t tell you exactly what to do next. But I can say with certainty that there are more options than what you’re considering. You’re looking at your situation in very black-or-white, succeed-or-fail, stay-or-go terms, which is a normal reaction when you’re overwhelmed. The truth is, you may have a much bigger spectrum of paths to choose from. And that might also seem stressful, but know that most of them are probably better than what you’re doing right now.
First of all, the fact that you are struggling and uncomfortable is not a sign that you are weak or don’t have what it takes to “make it.” Your discomfort is a signal that what you’re doing isn’t working for you, and that’s useful information. It’s also known as intuition, and you should pay attention to it. It means you’re getting ready to make a change — a good thing!
“For most people, there is not a self-evident path between doing the work that you love and having financial stability and security,” says Amanda Clayman, an L.A.-based financial therapist and founder of the Financial Wellness Center at the Actors Fund. There are systemic reasons for this; it’s not personal or a sign that there’s something wrong with you. “In the entertainment business, specifically, there are a lot of structural challenges,” she adds. “The work is variable for reasons that are completely beyond your control.”
In other words, you can do a great comedy gig and still not get hired for another project for months or years just because of the whims of the industry. This is not (and will never be) your dad’s vision of a nine-to-five job for which you get regular raises and promotions based on good performance. So don’t let his picture of success and advancement — which is well meaning, I know — make you feel even worse about something that’s already difficult and unpredictable.
Still, it sounds as if you’ve run into a conflict between the part of you that identifies as an artist (and will do whatever it takes to chase that high of creating something you’re proud of) and the part of you that is human (and needs to pay rent and afford groceries and feel physically safe). Here is the most important thing to remember: Those things do not need to be mutually exclusive. You seem to think you can have one or the other. But you can have some degree of both. They just may not look like what you’re currently picturing.
“The artist might feel willing to take any sort of deprivation,” says Clayman, “but the human being is perhaps less okay with that and would prefer to know where the next meal is coming from.” This tension often comes to a breaking point after a couple of years, she adds. “In the beginning, we’re all like, All right, this is hard, but I’m scrappy and I’m paying my dues. Then we get to the point where we’re like, Oh my God, is paying my dues ever going to end?” Unfortunately, there’s no clear answer.
So what do you do to satisfy both the creative and the human part of yourself? This will take some experimentation. You don’t need to pack your bags and slink home to Missouri, but it certainly wouldn’t hurt to take some kind of break from what you’re currently doing — which could potentially involve taking a trip back to your hometown to see how it feels, subletting your place if you can, and stepping back from some of your L.A.-size bills for a few weeks or months.
“Creativity does not blossom when you are stressed out about money,” says Kat Koh, a San Francisco–based career coach for people who work in creative industries. “It sounds like you are experiencing burnout at a really deep level. Your cortisol levels have been high for a long time, and that’s bad for any sort of thought process because you can only react to what’s right in front of you.”
Koh advocates doing whatever you can to give yourself some financial breathing room now even if it means cutting back on comedy gigs for a little while. “It sounds like you need space and security — basically, a brain-rehabilitation stint,” she says. “This doesn’t mean you’re quitting everything you’re doing full stop. But perhaps if you just focus on making and saving money for a bit, you’ll feel a lot better if you have a couple thousand dollars banked so you’re not constantly worried about rent and groceries.”
Another exercise you can do is approach this situation in reverse and ask yourself what it would look like to feel comfortable. “Try to create a budget for what it would take to have a more acceptable life in realistic terms. For some of us, that would be living without roommates. For others, it would be to have enough cash saved for emergencies or investing something for the future,” says Clayman. “Then look at those numbers and ask yourself, In my current situation, how could I get there?”
Here are some ideas: I once met a comedian who did improv icebreaker gigs at corporate events to fund her less lucrative projects. I know another who figured out that her sweet spot was writing witty material for companies’ websites and social media and now makes a great living as a copywriter for big brands. (She still does stand-up at night.) And I recently met a performer who has done huge shows at major national theaters but continues to work as an elementary-school teacher to make rent. These people are all extremely good at the various things they do. The point is there’s no shame in having a job that pays the bills, and in many cases, it will help fuel your creativity.
“We all need to have some congruence around our lifestyle values and our earning values,” says Clayman. It sounds as if the crux of what you’re dealing with right now is that these two values aren’t lining up — which is normal, though that doesn’t make it less painful — and you need to figure out what will bend to fit the other. “The fundamental truth of that is that the entertainment industry is not going to provide a high level of stability. So you have to decide what level of that is okay with you and what else you can do to make it work,” she says.
She recommends looking at the “stages of change,” a behavioral model that’s frequently cited in studies of people who are trying to make a major shift in their lives (quitting an addictive habit, for example). According to the model, people do not make changes quickly and decisively; instead, they move gradually through five stages: pre-contemplation, contemplation, preparation, action, and maintenance. It sounds like you’re somewhere between the pre-contemplation and contemplation stages, which can be the most difficult because you haven’t decided what to do yet, so it feels like flailing. Remember to be patient with yourself. Even if you’re just thinking about what to do next, that’s still part of the work.