Tuesday, November 21, 2006

How do you know when to quit?

Bob Souer wrote a thought-provoking article in his blog this week entitled "Packing it in". It’s intended to help struggling voice artists ask themselves some hard questions about their success or failure, and to consider the possibility that the cost of sticking with it may be too great. It’s full of good advice about training, demo production and website development.

In the few days since I first read his post, I have had a somewhat visceral reaction to it. Visceral reactions usually have more to do with the way something makes you feel than with what was actually intended – possibly reflecting a past experience or a philosophy one has developed. So I went back and re-read Bob’s words today, feeling pretty sure he was not advising struggling voice artists to quit and indeed, he is not. Rather, he is pointing out where to look for problems and what to do about them and, finally, to consider as a last resort if the jobs are not coming in, that this business might not be right for you. Goodness knows it’s a crowded field and many won’t make it. Publicity about the glamour and money in voice-over probably draws in a lot of people who don’t necessarily love it nor have the dedication to make it work. I had a call a month or so ago from somebody who had found my website and got the idea that I could somehow sign people up for voiceover. I gently suggested she send me an email and I would give her some information to get her started, and I think she may have been surprised that there were any intermediate steps between “signing up” and making money, because I never heard another word from her. Some people may indeed fall by the wayside before they ever take their second step towards a voice-over career. There are definitely people who won’t make it. And it’s good to have your eyes open when you start down any new path so you can see where the potholes are and the snakes and panthers waiting to drop down from the trees. But I hope I will never be the one to tell someone they aren’t going to make it. I can’t imagine any circumstance where that will be any of my business.

I come from an academic background and it was part of my job as a college professor to advise students. Many kids came through my office door with aspirations to be doctors, veterinarians, or research biologists, and I encouraged them all to pursue their goals vigorously. I would never presume to tell anyone that they shouldn’t take a certain career path. Everybody needs to figure it out for themselves and all the advice in the world isn’t going to help. I had always heard that “if you can imagine yourself doing anything else, you shouldn’t be doing this,” but I never bought that line. If you’re lucky, life is long enough to do several things, and it would be such a pity not to give your dreams your best shot, even if you have more than one dream. My first career was as an evolutionary biologist and I studied avian anatomy. My research drew upon data I gathered from limb musculature to formulate hypotheses about the phylogenetic relationships of birds. It was not smooth sailing, let me tell you. As a 17-year old I attended summer school at Cornell to study ornithology. I got a B- in the laboratory part of the course because I couldn’t make myself learn the names of all those muscles. I didn’t know until some years later that I would know all those muscle names as well as I knew my own name. I got a D on my first college evolution exam, and anatomy lab in graduate school was a terrible struggle for me. The sciences were never my best subjects, and I knew that, yet I wanted to be a scientist, and I was. I published a number of papers of which I’m extremely proud, including some theoretical ones. Eventually, though, after a couple of decades at it, I decided to change fields. Does that mean I failed as a scientist? Of course not. It was not easy for me, and I did not always take the best road to meet my goals, but I consider myself to have been successful.

So, here I am now pursuing a career in voice-over. Yet one of my early embarrassing memories is of speaking into a tape recorder in fourth grade when we read the Wind in the Willows out loud. I had the part of the Mole and everybody laughed when they heard my little voice on that tape. It was excruciating. I had to overcome that embarrassment in order to make this new career a possibility, and I did because I wanted so passionately to do this. For every career there is an example of somebody great who heard discouraging words about their talent or their chances of success. The summary of Fred Astaire’s screen test for MGM is legendary: “Can’t act. Can’t sing. Balding. Can dance a little.” Every creative endeavor requires persistence and dedication and you don’t have to be special to be great. And if you love it, you won’t listen to anybody who has the temerity to tell you that you aren’t going to make it. It might make you angry to hear such words, but you’ll keep going because it doesn’t occur to you to do otherwise. Of course, you can be realistic and you may have to make compromises. But if you decide ultimately that it isn’t working, it probably means you have conflict in your life and this is not your time. It does not mean you failed.

You know the formula for success. Hard work, dedication, persistence. It isn’t magic. It isn’t a gift. And only you can make it work for yourself.

Thank-you Bob Souer for making me think about this. I know you aren’t advising anyone to quit either, just offering a healthy look at the obstacles that face anyone undertaking a new endeavor. I’m just glad I didn’t know about the obstacles before I started—much better to look back two years later and think—phew, that panther just barely missed me!! And who knows what perils are around the next bend.

Happy Thanksgiving to all, and may you all find a nice big M. iliotrochantericus, supracoracoideus, or pectoralis on your plate this Thursday evening!!

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