On Success in Life and Delicious Ambiguity

Last fall, I had the honor and privilege of spending two weeks as a guest director at one of my alma maters – The Florida School of the Arts.  It was a beautiful two weeks.  I directed a full-length show in that time – less than half the amount of time it would have taken most professional companies – and they nailed it.  Ahhhhhh, youth.  I adore those kids.

I also had the privilege of speaking to the theater majors about my career.  I told them all about the early years and the various connections that lead me to Chicago and The Neo-Futurists.  I told them about the art I had created.  They were impressed.  And I felt like a badass.  Because I had achieved a certain level of success in theater for awhile and that is the only success those guys are concerned with right now.

Of course, I’m not doing any of that now.  So does that mean I am no longer successful?  Am I the opposite of success?  Jeez.  I hope not.

I gave them my message of being open to the many paths your career could lead you on.  I think that’s an important message.  But the more I live in this life that looks COMPLETELY different from the life I lived 10 years ago when the Sun Times and the Trib were writing articles about me and my shows were selling out, the more I think that I wish I had told them this:

“You want to be a success.  Of course you do.

It’s pretty simple.  Success is happiness.  That’s all it is.  Honest.

If you want to be a famous actor or a lawyer or a writer or a doctor, what is at the root of it?  It’s because you feel it will make you happy, right?  If you say you want to do it because of the money, well, you are crazy if you say you want to be an artist for the money….but otherwise, what’s the money for?  Isn’t it because you believe it will make you happy?  (I’m not going to get into the many ways money doesn’t buy happiness right now.  But, you know, it totally doesn’t.)

If you believe that what will make you happy is a successful career in theater, then get the training and do the hard work and, by all means, go for it.  But please let it be just one of the many things that will make you happy.

Please be someone who loves passionately and pursues other interests and finds the happiness that lies within instead of looking for outside sources.  Please be open to all of the things that are ultimately fulfilling – like having children or being there for your spouse when you are needed or volunteering at a pet shelter or raising money for a great cause or waiting tables (some people truly enjoy waiting tables) or data entry (I used to actually really like data entry) or working in the garden.

And if you are doing one of the things that makes you happy, you are successful.  It doesn’t need to look impressive on paper.  It doesn’t need to be something you can easily explain.  Hell, you don’t have to explain it to anyone.  Just make sure you do it.

There’s a lot of pressure in theater (and, I’m assuming, in other careers as well) to be successful in more concrete terms.  Not just roles in shows but also the level of theater that show is in or the size of the role in the movie and, you know, reviews and awards and it is easy to equate that stuff with happiness.  Those things are nice.  They may represent society’s idea of what success in theater is – so that’s where the pressure comes from.  It comes from the need to be able to show everyone that you are being a success.

But success in life looks different.  It is not the same thing as success in your career.  And it is, ultimately, what we all want to achieve, right?  Success in life? Because life is long and it twists and turns and even if you reach your idea of career success, you may do that for 10 years and then want something different.  And as you are dusting off your Tony, you might realize that you are not happy and, thus, are not successful – even though your career is enviable.  (Don't stop reading my blog to click on this, but check out my girl, Karen Olivo, when you're done here.  I used to do shows with her sister and her dad when she was a pipsqueak.)

You gotta have the strength and the wherewithal to go ahead and be happy – doing whatever the heck that might be right now.  And when you decide later on that you want to do something else, you can do that.  And that will be your success.

You will live an awful lot of lives in your lifetime.  One of them might be theater artist and another might be awesome spouse and another might be parent and another might be executive and another might be pastry chef.  Who knows?  It’s all good.  The more diverse and varied, the more stories you’ll have to tell your grandchildren, I say.

It’s just about doing one of the things that fulfills you – not all of them at once – just one that you can embrace and enjoy.  Maybe it isn’t going to be heralded in a major paper and maybe you won’t be able to put it on your resume.  And if you tell people at your 20th reunion, when they ask what you’ve been doing, that you met the love of your life and you had a child and you have achieved a healthy, loving relationship and you also planted a garden that is thriving and nothing brings you more joy than digging in it with your child and then cooking what you’ve grown and taking the dog for a walk…well, they may or may not be impressed.  I have a feeling that at your 30th or 40th reunion, though, they’ll give you a high five.

Or not.  What do you care?  You’re happy.  You’re a success.”


“I wanted a perfect ending. Now I've learned, the hard way, that some poems don't rhyme, and some stories don't have a clear beginning, middle, and end. Life is about not knowing, having to change, taking the moment and making the best of it, without knowing what's going to happen next.
Delicious Ambiguity.”
― Gilda Radner


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