The “Start Where You Are” Email

 

Creative Commons by Francesco Gallarotti

Creative Commons by Francesco Gallarotti

Yesterday morning, after a frustrating drive to school (slammed on my breaks which sent my purse flying, spilling juice all over my laptop) I pulled into a street parking spot.  Just as I went to open the door, a garbage truck pulled up and stopped approximately 6 inches from my window, trapping me in the car.  No, I wasn’t in danger.  But I was already late and had a sticky lemon-scented laptop to attend to.  So I shimmied over to the passenger door, leered at the garbage man who had chosen to trap me inside (who understandably ignored me, because who wants to deal with a whining 20-something at 8am), and stomped into work.  The rest of the morning preceded similarly.  It was definitely “one of those mornings.”  And it turns out, it was one of those mornings for most people I came across.

By the end of the day, I waited for the clock to creep toward 4:30 so I could just climb back into bed and pretend the day hadn’t happened.  I made it to 4:15, and into bed I went.  I wish I could say that all was solved when I climbed back under the covers, but things rarely are when you go to hide.  My frustration was not just about garbage trucks, the bad day, the lemony laptop, or this never-ending flu-bug.  My frustration is that I have been burned out for two weeks, and haven’t come out of it yet.  This is a particularly long stretch of feeling fried and worn out.

“Start Where You Are”

I’ve been sending out a series of emails to people and organizations I’ve been working with, explaining why I’ve been MIA, and this morning I received a kind response from the mediation center I haven’t attended since September.  No guilt, no pressure, just the simplest calming message of we will be here when you get back.  The other helpful phrase, which is most likely a quote via Pema Chodron, was “Start where you are.”  Sometimes the beginning of the burnout cure is an internal or external reminder that no one is expecting more from you but you.  As much as I continue to want high expectations for myself, I cannot pretend that I am somewhere that I’m not.  That is where the burnout comes from.  It is a delusion that I can, and should, take on more than I currently am, despite my mind and body’s message.

Fixed Mindset vs. Growth Mindset

One of my favorite things about having a fulfilling “survival job” is the education I have been unexpectedly receiving along the way.  When you reach out here, the whole community throws something back.  It’s pretty incredible.  On that note, my boss passed a book on to me the other day about Fixed vs. Growth Mindset.  It is used a great deal in education, but seeps into every type of career and personality.  Mindset by Carol Dweck is a leading text on this study, and was thrown my way last week.

Someone with a Fixed Mindset generally believes that they are born with (or without) a certain talent, and often spend a majority of their careers proving that this is so.  They are “great at math” or “terrible dancers” or “a child piano prodigy.”  Natural talent does run the gamut person by person, and this shouldn’t be discounted, but Dweck explains that setbacks can strike a harder blow for those who think this way.  Their innate talent is their identity, and when the world does not recognize this, they often freeze and do not know how to proceed.

Growth Mindset on the other hand, creates the impetus to focus new efforts on a discovered talent or passion, opposed to only depending on what you have at the current moment.  Dweck explains that growth mindset students (of all ages) flourish when they make mistakes or are faced with greater difficulty, because they see it as an opportunity to grow. They know there is more to themselves when practice and effort is applied.

I have been coming across an interesting pattern in both my own thinking and some recent acting classes/workshops I’ve attended.  There is a fear, especially in the arts, that we are deluding ourselves- that we are waiting for the day for someone to simply say, “You’re not actually talented.”  We are waiting for validation of sorts, waiting to know if what we have is even enough to build a career upon.  Even in writing it out, it’s clear that this mindset is not helpful.  It’s distracting and discouraging, and doesn’t do anyone any good.  This comes from the fixed mindset, and I am completely guilty of it on many days.  I was cast much more as a child, and now am having great deal of trouble.  For years, this bewildered me because of my fixed mindset and the idea that my training was complete.

This is also one of the many issues of performance reality shows.  Someone sings on American Idol, and a showy “judge” tells them they shouldn’t waste their time with singing.  Obviously this is an extreme case, but a fixed mindset in a teacher can be just as harmful as one in a student.  As a teacher, a primary goal is to to find a way to build on each student’s particular strengths, and help them develop coping and bounce-back skills for moments of discouragement.  This approach is often misunderstood as the “everyone kid gets a gold star for just trying” approach.  It is not this.  The approach is more about marking where you began, building on your strengths, and marking where you finished.  If a tactic didn’t work, you change it next time around.

Artistic Benchmarks

But with actors, we cannot obtain that validation through the same benchmark as many other careers- employment.  Honed talent, trained skills, and business organization is all within our control, getting the job is not.  And so, even though this growth mindset significantly reminds me that I am still growing, and more importantly, still can grow, it does not provide dependable benchmarks for charting growth.  It is our job to find personal ways to recognize where we’ve grown and where were struggling, and to use these to gauge our development as artists.

But going back to two of my favorite phrases, we can only “Start where we are,” and “Chop wood, carry Water.”  I like the first one because it doesn’t say, “You are where you are.” or the ever-popular, “Be in the moment.”  The verb is start, it encourages motion. “Chop wood, carry water” is a popular zen phrase which reminds us that our daily efforts are all we can do to reach the career/personal/spiritual balance we strive for.

So as much as these burn-out phases make me want to throw up my arms and do something drastic, I am reminded that no sudden change will “fix” things.  The effort I put into my career, bit-by-bit, is not for nothing, even if it feels that way right now.  And as that sweet email reminded me, I can start here even if I am exhausted, because where else could I start?  The important thing each day is starting at all.

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2 thoughts on “The “Start Where You Are” Email

  1. Ginny, I’ve read that book too, Mindset! So glad you found it. Life is a journey, and it never ends. We take turns and sometimes go forwards and sometimes go back, but it’s all about learning and growing and sometimes just saying still. Maybe your current burnout phase is one of those staying in place times. Maybe your tough morning was a way to test your capacity to bounce back. Brene Brown writes about being happy with who you are rather than who are are “supposed” to be. We spend our lives trying to become something, when maybe this isn’t the point. Maybe it’s about what we learn along the way that matters. I loved your post! It really resonated with me.

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    • Thank you so much!! This is all so helpful and beautifully put. I really enjoy the idea of letting go of who we think we’re “supposed” to be. Definitely going to check out Brene Brown. I’m so glad you felt connected with the post!

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