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What I Wish I Had Known About Achieving My Dreams In My Twenties

The path to a truly happy, fulfilled life looked so different to the path I had imagined.
Photo Credit: Corynne Olivia

Photo Credit: Corynne Olivia

If I took a snapshot of my life at this exact moment and showed it to my 22-year-old self, she would be worried. She would spin herself around in confusion, verging on desperation, and wonder how the hell we got ourselves into this mess.

I went to school for theater and dance. I moved to New York City straight out of the gate and worked in every kind of theater from regional to off-Broadway. For ten years I relentlessly pursued my big break on the Great White Way. Several times, I got close to booking a Broadway show. And then . . . I gave up the ghost.

Twenty-two-year-old me would have a fit if she saw this. No Broadway show? No 6 a.m. wake-ups to hustle at auditions? You’re writing now? Making your own work? You have blonde highlights? She’d look at the fact that I own a cat (or rather, the cat owns me) as the final act of surrender. Oh yes, 22-year-old me would be pissed. We had plans, after all.

But a couple years ago, my gut instinct started telling me that something was off. I wasn’t enjoying the auditions anymore. Everything felt lateral, and I wanted to grow. I took myself out of the pursuit of the spotlight and began the process of igniting my internal light. I’m no longer pursuing success—er, fame—solely as an actor. Now I write. I wrote my first book; I’m writing a play; I’m crafting stories that I think matter. And my idea of success is nothing like what it was back then.

As I start tracking the unlikely set of events that has occurred in the past few years—giving up the Broadway dream, getting over my fear of flying, leaving a terrible day job, writing a book, running a 15K for fun, rising in leadership at my current job—it all seems to make sense the farther back I go. Like way back. Like, past 22 all the way to age 8.

Going Back to My Roots

When I was 8 years old I made a list of things I’d like to accomplish with my life. Yes, one of them was be a star on Broadway, but I had other dreams, too. Dreams of being the first female president, the first female to cure cancer, or the first female to land on the moon. My 8-year-old feminism was on high alert, and it assured me that I had the time and capacity to accomplish every single thing I wished, thank you very much.

My childhood dreams were expansive. They used up every bit of my personality without adhering to just one set of interests. That list of dreams and would-be accomplishments reflected my desire for adventure, to make a difference and to lead. The fundamentals of those dreams are the same today.

If I go way back to my childhood roots, I know that girl would be pleased with what she sees nowadays. So, what happened at 22? Somehow I set myself on a path, put it on autopilot, and forgot that I should have the option to change. I limited myself, if you will. By being so focused on an obscure notion of success, I lost sight of what was truly making me happy (or unhappy).

The reality is that, after a while, I didn’t just dislike auditioning, I loathed it. I knew this meant I had to step away, even just for a couple of months. Taking a break meant that I could finish my book and do a reading of my new play. It meant that I could take a vacation with my husband. I could actually find fulfillment outside of acting.

All of a sudden, I was filling my days with more and more creativity. Auditions no longer seemed like a prerequisite to having a fulfilling creative life. But I also had the fear of disappointing everyone who had helped me on the path to stardom. I called my mom crying and told her that maybe I wanted to pursue making art instead of only auditioning for it. I told her I was so sorry that she and my dad had spent so much money and time on me. I told her the last remaining reason I wanted to be on Broadway was simply to make them proud. Then, in one of the most generous, loving acts of motherhood, she said, “We’re proud of you no matter what you do because we’re proud of who you are. You bring yourself to everything. If you want to write, go write!” My mom had given me unadulterated permission for creative freedom—now I just had to claim it for myself.

What Is Success, Really?

I believe what happened is that I disconnected from myself. I got into “the pursuit of happiness” mode (you know, the mode in which we won’t-stop-can’t-stop until we check the accomplishments off the list, make just the right amount of money, and update our Facebook accordingly) and disconnected with that simple intuition I so easily tapped into during childhood.

Instead of pursuing happiness, I pursued prestige. It’s a temptation that many in our society have—to pursue ideas of success instead of real success: the authentic and quiet yes that our heart speaks when we drop wholeheartedly into the present moment.

Success is a source of anxiety for nearly everyone. We all have the desire to be really good at something or to achieve some goal. What can sometimes get in the way of that, however, is our motivation. Is it money? Power? Fame? Bragging rights? Accomplishments are lofty, but especially in the competitive society of today, success is usually defined materialistically.

Don’t get me wrong, I love a good hustle. But it’s when those goals became everything that I forgot to check in with my gut and lost my sense of direction. Success became inanimate. Futuristic. Other. Somewhere outside of me, an enigma to be chased. That kind of success is trendy, but not rooted.

My 8-year-old self was a little more savvy when it came to dreaming. She didn’t ask for permission; she did it. Maybe she knew that you don’t have to give up part of yourself to pursue a calling. As a kid, maybe it was just obvious that if you do end up giving up part of yourself in the pursuit of happiness and success, you need to fight like hell to get ’er back.

I wish I could go back to early-twenties me, and give me a talking to. If I said something to my 22-year-old self today, it would be this:

Go ahead and do whatever you want, lovebug, but dont stop choosing. Keep choosing day after day to be certain that youre following the right path. Standards, talent, and value are all subjective. Find your own opinion before deciding that it needs to match someone elses.

Find at least three quiet moments a day to be alone. Do everything you can to be honest with yourself in those quiet moments. In the grand scheme of things, theres nothing to be afraid of. If for no rhyme or reason, you were cut from that audition, but its all right. It is all right. Youre more than your résumé.

Speaking of, dont print out too many résumés at once. Your life keeps moving, and you wont stay with the same one for too long. Be kind with what you say to yourself when no one else is listening. Surround yourself with people who are excited about life. You have more to learn.

For whatever reason, the resolve that was clear to me at 8 became muddled by 22. But if we can wade through it all to the very beginning, maybe we can find the light to help us down the road a bit. After all, when we take a step back, slow down, and realign with our gut instinct, we may find that the answers we’re looking for are never too out of reach.