It’s May, and that means students all over the world are graduating from university programs. The transition from academia to the ‘real world’ can be very challenging for many young individuals today. This is especially true for actors and musicians. While university life frequently provides young performing artists with structure and creative outlets, the real world is a much more complicated and messy place. New college graduates today may also find themselves saddled with crippling debt and a profound sense of confusion about their place in society. Some social scientists now refer to this stage in a person’s life as a ‘quarter-life crisis‘. I’m here to tell you that this is completely normal. In this blog post, I will provide some advice and tips for navigating this often turbulent time in a young person’s life. Although my advice is somewhat catered to music and theatre performers, the majority of it applies to ALL new college graduates. I sincerely hope it helps.
1. Be flexible and open to trying new things. As stated above, the real world is very complicated and very messy. There is a good chance you will be thrown many curve balls while pursuing your dreams. The best way to deal with these obstacles is to keep your overall goal(s) in sight while being flexible about the road you take to get there. This may mean veering off your ‘path’ for a while. Don’t be alarmed: this is OK. In fact, experimenting with a different career path– or even a new hobby– can be a very eye-opening experience. You may discover that you don’t like the new path you’ve chosen, and that is completely fine. You can always return to your old one, and you may even find a renewed sense of belonging in doing so. To quote Stephen Sondheim’s Into the Woods, “Just remembering you had an and when you’re back to or… makes the or seem more than it did before.” In contrast, you may absolutely love your new path. If that is the case, consider ways in which you might combine your new skills with your old ones in order to forge a wholly original path forward in life. L’chaim!
2. Don’t compare yourself to others. One of the biggest mistakes that 20-somethings make is comparing their achievements to those of their peers. This is especially easy to do in today’s social media age where individuals frequently boast about every little life achievement on Facebook, Twitter, etc. The truth is, we all move through life at different speeds. Some of us grow up slowly, and others take leaps and bounds. The success of other people does NOT equal your failure. Your big break may still be a decade away, and you may have a lot more work to do in order to get there. Learn to accept that fact, and figure out what you can do to help achieve your goals. In the mean time, also keep in mind that social media rarely provides accurate insights into the lives of others. You know that person who is always bragging about how great his or her life is on Facebook? Well, things probably aren’t quite as sunny and chipper as they appear (why do you think they feel the need to brag so much?). Social media allows us to frame our lives in any way we want, and some individuals choose to present an idyllic fantasy world that is completely detached from their own reality. Harsh, but true.
3. Only make big commitments when you’re ready. Many new college graduates feel like they need to jump right into their next big life adventure. This might mean more school, a career, marriage, or some other big commitment. Americans are especially bad about this. Most of us simply don’t know how to relax, and this is reflected in our sub-par life expectancy. Just because you’re not actively moving forward doesn’t mean you’re moving backward. Sometimes taking a break is the ONLY way to find the clarity, wisdom, and motivation you’ll need to forge a path forward. I’ll give you a personal example: I took about two years off between undergrad and grad school. During that time, I learned more about myself as a person than I ever did during the previous 18 years of school. Yes, I was depressed and lonely at times– especially in the beginning. However, I slowly started pouring my feelings into my art. I even wrote, staged, and recorded an entire musical. Soon after, a director and producer in New York City stumbled upon it, and we ended up staging a reading of the show in Times Square about a year later. None of this would have happened if I had jumped right into grad school. NONE of it. Taking time off allowed me to pursue interests and passions I had never had time for previously. It also gave me an opportunity to find a grad school program that I absolutely adored (which directly contributed to the creation of this blog, by the way).
4. Treat every rejection as a learning experience– then move on. Rejection hurts, I know. However, even if you didn’t get that great job you really wanted– it’s pointless to dwell on it. Begin to acknowledge that many hiring decisions have virtually nothing to do with you as a person. This is especially true for actors and musicians. Many of us experience so much rejection throughout our lives, and a great deal of it is due to factors we have absolutely no control over. Example: maybe someone else got the role you wanted because he/she is friends with the director. Maybe you were a few inches too tall for that role in the director’s eyes. Maybe your singing voice was actually too good and polished for the character in the audition. It could have been any number of things, and therefore it’s pointless to obsess over. While you SHOULD always be open to learning and growing as a performer (and a human being), I encourage you to learn to accept the things you can’t change as well. Treat every rejection as a learning experience and an opportunity to grow, but try not to obsess over it. There are much better uses for that energy. Go take a class, write a short story, learn a new song– any of these things are more productive than stewing over a rejection for days or weeks at a time.
5. Know that you are not alone. This is the most important piece of advice I can offer new college graduates. Unfortunately, post-college life can be a dark, depressing time for many. In order to cope with reality, some individuals turn to drugs, alcohol, unhealthy eating habits, abusive relationships, or even self-injury. These acts may partially be symptoms of deep-seated communication issues. So many young people today hide emotional stress because they fear appearing ‘weak’ in the eyes of their family members and peers. Social media has contributed to this issue as well. As mentioned above, it is very easy to become depressed and anti-social when everyone around you appears to be living out their dreams. Just remember, we ALL have issues (we don’t all broadcast them on Facebook, though). Being sad, depressed, angry, etc. does NOT make you ‘weak’– it makes you a human being. If you feel emotionally unstable in your new post-graduation life, PLEASE tell someone you’re close to. It can be a friend, a relative, a therapist– anyone who cares about your well-being. Chances are, many of your friends probably feel the same way, but they may be too scared to admit it. Don’t be afraid to initiate this conversation with others, and keep the people who care most about you close by. The very worst thing you can do is close yourself off completely to the world around you.
Finally, I just want to say that I believe in you. You can get through this difficult time in your life. You are loved, and you are enough. We need artists like you in this world.
Excellent post Kevin! I plan to share this. Thank you for bringing the darkness of our profession into the light.
Advice on going back to college for a musical theatre program at 40.?