Be a Better Emperor, or Meditations on Millennial Anxiety
Our planet is dying. A pandemic is spreading like wildfire. Ignorance is spreading like wildfire. Wildfires are spreading like wildfire. The world we were meant to inherit no longer exists. If the version of the world promised to us no longer exists, why should the version we promised to the world?
When I was three, I declared my future would be that of "an actor--the kind that sings and dances." Now, anyone who knows me knows that the latter has always been an uphill climb. The former, however? That invisible cloak fits this 5'7" emperor quite nicely.
"WAIT!" you are saying. (Are you saying it? You're saying it, right?) "But you are an actor--the kind that sings and (occasionally) dances. Why allude to 'The Emperor's New Clothes?'"
Well, dear reader, the answer is I free associated and ended up at Hans Christian Andersen. But upon further examination, the comparison feels more and more apt. A strong-willed, not to mention profoundly egotistical, man fancies himself a certain way with--quite literally--very little to show for it. And yet the world he thought he understood, the one he grew up expecting as he donned this futile, not-so-hot couture kept on cheering him on. And so, he strut (strutted? strat?) about projecting confidence and drive while the world unwittingly glimpsed a fragile vulnerability he never knew he had.
Lately, I'm starting to wonder if I've spent too long strutting about in my own unapparent apparel. This meritocratic promise of a "work hard and ye shall receive" future buoyed me along for all of these years but has left me cold, naked, and deeply betrayed.
Enter: the titular millennial anxiety. Am I whining because I didn't get my way? Disclaimer: I am an only child, so that may very well be true. But my mom says I can whine and that's OK and no one can tell me how to feel. So there.
...where was I?
Ah, yes. Whining and anxiety. Webster's Dictionary defines anyone who cites Webster's Dictionary as a wildly intolerable nerd. I've only ever been described as mildly intolerable. So instead, my own definition of whining is based on a lack of productivity. A casting of easily solvable grievances into a less than 35 year old void of one's own creation. A willful ignorance of solutions to one's own predicaments.
Now, back to our scantily clad friend, the Emperor. Was he willfully ignorant? Did he ignore the cool breeze on his nether regions in hopes of never facing the crippling realization that his beloved cape was made of nothing but a gorgeous blend of carbon and two oxygen atoms? I never saw it that way. For better or worse, he believed he looked good and he rode that wave, horse, or what have you all the way to that fateful parade in the town square.
Here, I do believe the Emperor made an error. Emper-error? Emperror? Fire me. But when that little whistleblower shouted out from the crowd that the Emperor wore no clothes, he carried on. He saved face. But why bother saving face when the crowd can already see everything else?
This is the difference. We need to be smarter emperors. Look down, see your sockless feet, realize that your perception may not always be your reality. And accept it. It's hard. It's so terribly, earthshatteringly hard. But trade those invisible clothes for something warm, something lovely, something real.
Our color/paint/sing/act/dance/write/build/program/operate/generally function-by-numbers future we all set out for is a whole lot more complicated than it was supposed to be when we sat around watching "Rugrats" and eating Dunkaroos. Blame Facebook. Blame the Kardashians. Blame cell phones. Who cares why? To me, millennial anxiety is the trap of becoming fixated on the "why?" without ever moving to the "now what?"
So try something new if your current clothes aren't keeping you warm or making you feel as imperial as you and I both know you should. Don't think you have failed the world, your people, or the three year old actor, the kind that sings and (when forced to) dances. Be the whistleblowing tot and the emperor in your own messy modern fable.
Now, I am not so delusional as to think I have unlocked the next "Secret." But I have been so deeply and thoroughly terrified to face the possibility that my clothes were invisible because we never really talk about failure outside of really good commencement speeches.
None of this is to say that the people who support you and encourage you are liars who should be spending their time tearing you and your dreams down mercilessly. Quite the opposite. If they are truly your people, they will gladly add cape after muumuu after caftan to the fitting room rack that is your existence.
OK, now here’s the really tough part for me. My overachieving high school self still cries out “Show, don’t tell!” as I write. But that’s not what we’re here for. I’ve been working so hard to succeed that I think I’ve taken the personal element out of my own story. I spend a lot of time planning out the auditions I’ll go to based on specific roles and show possibilities that I see as a good fit for the resume I have crafted over many years. I recently took a class with a director whom I respect deeply and have known for a long time. And his feedback following my first performance in class basically amounted to me playing it safe and not quite knowing exactly who I was trying to present--or better yet, be. And I realized I don’t really know.
I have spent so long trying to fit into certain boxes. Into the Woods’ Jack used to fit, so I tried to preserve a youthful exuberance and innocence that worked in opposition to the intelligence on which I seriously pride myself. Les Mis’ Marius walks through his world with rose-colored glasses and a lofty sense of loyalty that make me cringe, despite loving his music. I’m not saying we have to play roles that are EXACTLY like us--this is a whole soapbox I’d LOVE to hop on if you’ve got a bottomless well of patience and eight hours. But as far as sharing yourself and being vulnerable, two of the keys to success in this incredibly taxing industry, I have been so focused on the success, the marketability, the commercial product I was putting forward, that I lost myself along the way. And that has led to...what I’d rather think of not as failure but...stalled success?
I have spent so much time convincing myself that simply working hard and aiming for success was my identity. I have been a bad emperor. I have ignored my reality, trying to save face from my own crowd by working so hard on the external without working on the internal. And it has not led to success.
I started writing this before the coronavirus sidelined our entire industry. Everything up before this confessional bit originated three days before quarantine. And while it rang true then for me and I'm sure for many others, this feeling now applies across the board. Now we all have no choice but to find out who we really are. Even if you’re taking to Instagram and Zoom to keep creating, these times are challenging us all to figure out our marketability in a world, at least temporarily, without a market.
I’ve been cooking, reading, and (apparently) writing. I don’t know what I’ll be after this. But there’s a very real possibility that my life changes permanently after this. I’m reading plays I would love to direct some day. I’m toying with buying an LSAT book on Amazon. I don’t know. And for the first time probably ever, I have no idea what I’m looking for. And for the first time probably ever, I’m learning to be OK with that.
As we all search, if you find something great, awesome. If you don't, try again. The world's not going anywhere. At least not right this second. In the meantime, throw those invisible clothes to the wind and start--and maybe fail--fresh.
Follow Will @awillandaway