When I was in the sixth grade, I desperately wanted the role of the lisping Winthrop in my school’s production of The Music Man. I can’t explain now why I had that inner urge (I’m not sure I had even seen a play before then), but perhaps it was because I shared Winthrop’s shy, self-conscious demeanor and saw myself in his struggle to come out of his shell. I auditioned and got my first taste of rejection. I didn’t even get cast in the chorus. I can still remember the hollow pit in my stomach as I watched the musical, unable to enjoy it the way my fellow audience members did.
It was a whole year before I had the opportunity to audition again, this time for Anna’s son Louis in The King and I. It was a nerve-wracking experience, but I got the part, and the experience on stage was everything I’d imagined it to be. I’ve been in love with acting ever since.
Today, I still act, but I’ve raised the stakes to a level I couldn’t have comprehended when I was that seventh-grader. I’ve just moved to Los Angeles to explore the Hollywood acting business. It’s only temporary, but it means uprooting myself from my wife, who has been incredibly supportive of this venture. I’m also away from the comforts of home, although the discomfort is as minimal as can be because I’m living in my sister’s home and I’m able to continue my writing while I’m here.
Everything I just mentioned involved risk. Of course, it’s not risk in the sense we normally think of it. My life was never in danger; I didn’t fear bodily harm. But a devastated psyche can be even more painful and difficult to recover from. As soon as I auditioned for the first time, I was risking rejection, being told I wasn’t good enough, or at least not as good as the actor who got the role. To get the part of Louis, I had to put myself at risk again.
We constantly face risks. Should I risk leaving the steady job I have now to take a new job offer? Should I ask the cute girl out on a date and risk getting snubbed? Should I get up on stage and risk making a fool of myself? But if I don’t take the new job, I’m at risk of missing a golden opportunity. If I don’t ask the cute girl out, I risk not being with the eventual love of my life. If I don’t go on stage, I risk not exploring a new side of me that will make me more fulfilled.
Being a writer is rife with risk. We face rejection on a constant basis from agents, publishers, critics, and readers. We might spend a year of our lives on a project that ends up being a dismal failure. We may fall on our faces in a very public setting, with Amazon reviews broadcasting the results. If I failed in my old jobs, only my immediate co-workers would know it; now my work is out there for the world to see.
Achieving anything worthwhile requires risk. It means leaving the comfort of the familiar, facing the terror of being judged a failure, and embracing the change, come what may.
Stupid risks don’t count. Don’t mortgage your house to buy lottery tickets. It’s the smart risks that are worth taking. Prepare for the risk by doing your homework. Make it a calculated risk by weighing the pros and cons of each alternative. Minimize the risk by setting realistic goals that you have control over: you can deliver a novel by a certain date at your standard of quality, but you can’t control whether it will be a NY Times bestseller.
I’ve never regretted the risks I’ve taken in my career. Not all of them worked out the way I had hoped, yet I’ve always learned something from them. But of one thing I’m sure: I wouldn’t be a working writer and actor now if I’d accepted the comfort of a risk-free life.