“No! You’re not doing it right. You need to be more suave. You’re too juvenile, and too effeminate. It’s not reading at all. You need to do it more like Fred*!” (*Names have been changed.)
Those were the words that caused me to retire from performing.
It was 2006, and I was neck deep in rehearsals for the musical Crazy for You: the show that would turn out to be the final musical I would do. It had been a rough rehearsal period for me. The theater at which I was working used the practice of “double-casting” shows. It meant that there were usually two people cast in each role. One person did shows on Monday, Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday at 11AM. The other person would do the shows on Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday at 4:00 at 7:30PM.
In this particular show, it became apparent early on in the process that I had been the weaker of the two actors cast in the part. My double, a talented and exceptionally handsome actor with some solid tap dance skills, had clearly been the “first choice” for the role. He was well-muscled, with dark hair, dimples, and straight, white teeth. He was leading man material. I, with my curly red hair (which was rapidly departing my head), gapped teeth, and a generally goofy demeanor, was more like the Donald O’Conner-style comic sidekick crammed into a lead role. Other than the fact that we could both tap dance, we had very little in common.
We both approached our interpretations of the characters in different ways, playing to our own strengths. His Bobby Child was a bit more suave, reserved, and dashing, but lacking a little in the energetic awkwardness that I felt was vital to the character. Mine was like an excited puppy: a little sloppy, a little unfocused, but very sincere. The director obviously preferred my double’s interpretation to mine. She spent the remainder of the rehearsal period trying, unsuccessfully, to turn me into him.
When all was said and done, I finished up the run of Crazy for You, and I never set foot on the stage again. Instead, I moved away, got a job at Microsoft, went back to school and got an MBA, and started an audiobook company in my spare time. I don’t know what happened with my double. Perhaps he is still performing. I hope so. He was a good guy and a good performer. At the time, I was pretty pissed at him, mainly because everyone (including me) wanted me to be him, and that wasn’t possible. I’m afraid it made me something of an asshat during the rehearsal process. (Being an asshat is one of my coping mechanisms. I’m usually a very nice person.)
It’s been nearly 8 years since that final performance of Crazy for You, but I still haven’t learned to handle, in any sort of a healthy way, rejection and criticism. This is particularly true in regards to any sort of artistic endeavor. You would think that, with as many auditions as I’ve done, as many YouTube videos as I have recorded, or songs I have written, that I would be used to people saying, “No, I don’t like that,” or “No, you’re not right for this.” But I haven’t.
A couple of examples:
Example #1: As you may know, I run a blog and a YouTube channel called The Pen Habit about my fountain pen obsession. It has been very successful in a short period of time. I have channeled my experience in performing, photography, video, audio engineering, and teaching into a series of pen review videos of which I am usually pretty proud. A couple of weeks ago, though, someone posted this:
“At the same time I wish you were not such a newbie. :p 1 year of writing with fountain pens is very limited experience in my opinion. “That other guy” that does fountain pen reviews on youtube has the same problem. It certainly does not invalidate your opinions, but it doesn’t add a lot of weight either.”
What the hell? What I am supposed to do with that information? Why did you tell me this? Am I supposed to go to the experience store and stock up before I do any more videos? Should I stop doing videos for 20 years just so I can gain more experience before I share my opinions? I stewed over that for several days, and it still gets me a little steamed up. What a jack-assy thing to say. I’m all for constructive criticism. This is anything but.
In the end, it got me so upset I nearly stopped recording my pen review videos entirely. I mean, this person wasn’t wrong. I’m not experienced. I’m not an expert. Maybe my opinions are lightweight. It didn’t matter to me that I have 1800 people who have subscribed to my channels and almost every one of my videos has hundreds, if not thousands, of views. The fact that one person said to me, “You’re not good enough,” was almost enough to make me hang it up entirely.
Example #2: I’ve been auditioning for a lot of audiobook narrating jobs lately. Now, I’ve been narrating, directing, and producing audiobooks for the last five years. And I’m pretty good at it. I’m not the best, and there’s room to grow, but I’m still pretty good. I’ve gotten good reviews. And I feel like I’ve got a pretty good sense of what kinds of books I’m right for, and what kinds I’m not right for.
Over the last month, I submitted nearly 30 auditions; I was doing at least one audition a day. Time after time, I would fail to land a gig. There were a couple of books for which I would have been perfect. Reading the character description was like reading my biography. I fit what the author said he wanted. I delivered a killer audition. Still, day after day I’d get an email from the system saying, “You were not selected to produce the audiobook of …”
As audition rejection after audition rejection came rolling in, what I was being told was, “You’re not what we’re looking for.” What I heard, though, was “You’re not good enough.” I know I’m a good narrator. I don’t have a deep, rich announcer voice, but I can read the hell out of an audiobook. I know this. I have reviews all over Audible.com that say this very thing. I can be good in my own way, but if I’m not good in the way that everyone else is looking for, does it matter? What good is me knowing I’m good if everyone else is saying, “You’re not right for this.”
(In the end, I ended up booking two dramatically different narrating gigs within three days, so that crisis of self-esteem ended before I gave up again.)
I have a friend who has been in New York City for the last two years. She is always going to auditions, and temps whenever she can between auditions. Despite the fact that she is one of the most amazingly talented singers and actors I have ever known, she hasn’t been able to land a job yet. I know that, if someone hired her, they’d be blown away by what she’d be able to bring to the table. I still remember back to some of the work she did in college and I remember thinking, “If nobody else makes this work in the real world, she’s going to.”
What I don’t know is how she continues to go to audition and after audition, never hear back for a gig, and still continue to do it day after day, week after week, month after month. I can’t take a negative YouTube comment or a Thumbs Down on my videos. I could barely make it a month without landing an audiobook gig without finding myself on the cusp of surrender.
This is one aspect of my personality that I feel I really need to resolve. I don’t understand why rejection impacts me so deeply, and so easily. On one hand, I can be very proud of my skills and abilities. I can recognize and spout off my many and varied natural talents. I know what I’m good at, and I know what I’m not good at. I know this on an intellectual level, but that never seems to translate over to the emotional level.
I’m 35 years old. I am successful on so many fronts in my life. But yet, it doesn’t seem to matter how many of those successes I have. For me, a single rejection seems to be able to under a thousand successes. And that’s not right.
So, that’s a new life goal for me right now. Learn to recognize the difference between constructive criticism, unconstructive criticism, and outright rejection. Review the constructive criticism and determine if there’s room for me to change or improve. Block and filter the unconstructive criticism from my mind; if it’s something I can’t change, it’s something I needn’t spend one moment of time worrying about. And remember that rejection in most of its forms is just “you’re not right for this,” not “you’re wrong for everything, and you are of no value.”
I’m curious what methods others have for coping with rejection. Leave a comment or message me directly. I’d love some ideas to try.