The following Career Dispatch essay was written by composer Rob Rokicki, whose “The Lightning Thief: The Percy Jackson Musical” can currently be seen on Broadway.
“Keep doing what you can, where you are, with what you have.” These were words (among some beautiful others) written on a note I found on the floor of a rehearsal room. The note was from a mother to her kid, but they were the words that I needed to hear when I felt at my lowest and gave me resolve to dig back in. A career in the arts consists of extremes, but the advice to try your best, to be present, and to use whatever means you have really stuck with me then and now.
Do what you can.
Find the things you DO have control over, one of which is being prepared. Be prepared to improvise everything from a tap dance to a monologue on the spot; to sing your second song; to do your random special skills; to give an elevator pitch to investors at a restaurant at 3 a.m. It’s impossible to prepare for every surprise thrown at you, but you can be prepared in your craft: train, take classes, rehearse, coach, workshop, study the breakdown, prepare your book, prepare your schedule. Be mentally and emotionally prepared for failure, for rejection, for multiple rejections in a day, and of course, for success. Be prepared by seeking help if you need it, and that includes legal help—you have to know what questions to ask to protect yourself as an artist. Be prepared by organizing, by making lists, by making sure you get enough sleep, and by prioritizing.
You also have control over your actions. There are divas and bullies, but also mentors and allies. As difficult as it may be, practice kindness. It seems logical that someone’s success isn’t your failure, but it still stings when someone gets a job over you. It’s OK to be happy for someone and still be jealous. If you allow yourself to fester over the unfairness of a lost opportunity, it can permeate the rest of your life. Try to celebrate in a peer’s triumph. Be supportive, but don’t expect reciprocation of that support. If you see a show, concert, or performance you dislike, be mindful that someone probably worked for years on the project—and you never know if they’re riding your subway car hearing you talk trash.
How we respond to disappointment shapes our resolve, our character, and our mindset. Be kind to yourself. Take a break from your routine, from your environment. Walk a dog, hug a cat, take a trip, meditate, crochet. Kindness goes a long way. The majority of the opportunities I’ve gotten are because someone liked and recommended me. If someone is kind to me, I will remember it and try to pass it on.
Be where you are.
In A Chorus Line, the dancers talk about how toxic it can be to give yourself a benchmark or time limit. And they’re right: You can only focus on the moment. For most artists, there is no linear career path. It’s constructive to give yourself goals, but ultimatums are detrimental to your well-being. If you don’t take stock of your life, you will live in a constant state of “what if” and not appreciate the incredible things you do have. There is honor in being a storyteller at every level of this business. Your work matters. Only you can define your own success.
Use what you have.
Use your individuality, your voice, and your intuition. All kinds of people will try to define you—don’t let them. Gatekeepers (like producers or casting directors) may not know what they want right away, and your uniqueness may be exactly what they’re looking for. Be bold. Take risks. Every project that scared me made me a better storyteller and gave me confidence. Playing it safe means never risking failure, but it also means never provoking the discovery of something new. Use your imagination to make your own stuff and create opportunities for yourself.
I’ve had producers drop out at the last second, my Broadway debut cancelled, vocal surgeries, financial straits, a billion day jobs, crushing anxiety, strained relationships, writer’s block. I’ve also had friendship, silliness, adventures, collaborations, and joy. What has helped me through it all is focusing on the work, trying to be kind, and seeking life experiences that help me gain perspective.
As for that note I found, I set it to music. Sometimes I sing it to my students. Sometimes to myself. “Perseverance is a learned talent to, if anyone can do it, it’s you.”
What advice would you tell YOUR younger self? Get more Career Dispatches right here!