Dear Swipe This!
About three and a half years ago, I went back to school for my master’s degree in film. I loved it. I made a ton of friends, and I worked on some of my best projects. Then I graduated and went back to the real world. I don’t have a financial safety net, so I had to get a day job and balance that with creative projects. I’ve had some successes, but it’s been pretty slow. I don’t feel like I’m anywhere close to ready to quit my day job.
To make matters worse, whenever I check social media, it looks like everyone I went to school with is thriving. Some of them have landed amazing jobs in the film industry. I can’t go on Instagram without seeing someone won an award or got into a festival, or is on a high-budget shoot. It’s like all my peers zoomed ahead of me and I got left behind at my stupid office.
I haven’t talked to any of my film school friends about this because it’s so embarrassing. When we get together, I try to stay positive. I tell them about the projects I’m working on, and I’m enthusiastic. And when good things happen, I post on social media and they’re supportive. But my successes are never as big or impressive. Sometimes I think maybe they just feel sorry for me.
I’m 29. I thought by now I’d be more successful. I have friends who work in other, non-creative fields, but when I look at them I feel just as bad. All the “normies” are married and having babies, or engaged and planning weddings.
I thought life would be different. I worked hard and went to a good school. I’m doing my best. I thought things would fall into place for me. I thought if I didn’t have the family, I’d at least have the career, or if I didn’t have the career, at least I’d find love. But everything still feels so uncertain. And I’m starting to feel like I’m so far behind that I’ll never catch up.
What did I do wrong? Why can’t I catch a break? Will I ever catch up?
Dear Left Behind,
I wish I could install an alarm for you that would go off when you dive into Instagram compare and despair spirals. A siren would blare and a voice would command you: Step away from the phone. You are too close to the phone.
It’s pretty much impossible not to keep track of the lives of others. And since everyone filters their lives to share the most glamorous version of themselves, I’m not surprised that you feel your life is dull compared to all the shiny updates your film school friends are posting. But I think the true source of your discontent isn’t a lack of achievements. It’s a lack of purpose. You’ve lost your way. You’ve taken a thing you loved and weaponized it against yourself. Instead of sinking into the joy of creating, you’re wallowing in a pit of self-judgment.
You are still so young. Leslie Jones didn’t join the cast of Saturday Night Live until she was 47. Carmen Herrera, an abstract painter, didn’t reach fame until her 90s! Even if you were 99 years old and you wanted to create, I would tell you it’s not too late. As long as there’s air in your lungs, as long as you’re living, you have every right to create. And you don’t need any awards or seals of approval to do that.
You do, of course, need the basics, like money to provide you with food and shelter. And you have that. So why do you resent it? I think you imagine that your job is holding you back or isn’t glamorous, but it’s a tool. It doesn’t have to be at odds with your dreams if you don’t want it to be. It can be a support. And if you don’t like the support that it’s offering you, you can look for something better. But nothing you change will make you feel happy or satisfied if you don’t reconnect with your purpose.
Think back to when you first fell in love with your art. Do you remember the electric feeling of possibility? Do you remember being present and fulfilled and thinking, This is what I want to do with my life! When did you decide that racking up gold stars was more important than being in love with your work?
The life you’ve chosen isn’t an easy one. It requires courage and tenacity to create. To become the artist you want to be, you will have to work hard. Your rewards won’t always be material, and maybe won’t get the recognition you crave when you think you need it most. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t commit yourself to making the life that you want.
You are one of the brave people who choose to follow their dreams, and that is something to be proud of. But sometimes when we are chasing our dreams, we imagine there is a finish line, and we forget the pleasure of running. We imagine that there’s an endpoint—a moment of achievement where our dream will arrive and we get to live in uninterrupted satisfaction—and we forget how good it feels to be alive in a body, our lungs full of oxygen.
But there is no finish line. No matter how much you achieve, you will always have to reckon with the full, unfiltered spectrum of the human experience. You could get a fancy job tomorrow or win an award, and there would still be days where you look at what someone else has and wonder, would I be happier if I had that?
The only antidote I know for this kind of longing is to surrender to the fullness of what you feel, all of the longing all of the sorrow. As an artist, the best thing you can do is welcome in your yearning and desire. Let it fuel you to create more art.
Maybe you think if you had the comfort of a partnership, you’d feel more secure and supported. But maybe your unique path, obstacles and all, is leading you to the unique art that only you can create. As an artist, you cannot reject the life you are currently living. You have to love it. That doesn’t mean you don’t long for more or different, but it means you dig in with curiosity about the richness of this experience, discomfort and all.
And when you do that, when you build your story, step by step, with integrity, I believe you will make art that people connect with. Because it will be coming from a place of truth.
A friend of mine was talking to me about our artistic careers the other day, and she told me she had found inspiration in an unlikely place. She saw an old man crossing the street, and he was moving so, so slowly, but he was going forward. Eventually, he got to the other side.
Maybe you don’t want to move at that old man’s pace. Maybe you are yearning for a Segway to scoop you up and zoom you to the next chapter of your life. And maybe, one day, it will. There may be big breaks and big celebrations. But I hope that you will take comfort in being present for all the smaller steps you are taking today. I hope you will honor them because they are just as meaningful, and they are carrying you forward.