My son has a new toy. It’s a Lego set from the Ninjago series and he’s not put it down since building it. He takes it in the car on the way to school. He takes it into the tub. He takes it to bed… Every single night.
In case you don’t have a five year-old child, Ninjago is a television show about an imaginary place watched over by a group of young ninjas, and the story lines are steeped in “ancient” codes of wisdom, magical abilities, martial arts, mysticism, and fantastical heroes and villains in the tell-tale, square Lego style.
One of the main story lines is the emergence of the Green Ninja (the centerpiece of my son’s new toy). Prophecy has said that a Green Ninja will rise up and destroy Lord Garmaddon, a big-time bad guy with four arms. So for months, the young ninjas are obsessed with the possibility that one of them is destined to become the Green Ninja, and they spend a lot of time trying to prove their worth.
But in the end, a younger, pest-y, wanna-be bad guy named Lloyd (who happens to be Lord Garmaddon’s son) turns out to be the destined one. And the others become his teachers.
Well, the other day in the car, we were discussing the Green Ninja (we discuss the Green Ninja A LOT), and Dean said something about “before he was the Green Ninja.” Aidan immediately corrected him: “Lloyd was always the Green Ninja. He just didn’t know it yet.”
I nearly jumped out of my seat. “Yes! That’s exactly right!!”
I don’t think Aidan knew how profound a statement he’d just made.
When I was in my early 20s, right after graduating from college, I moved to Paris, France. I wanted to study theater in a particular style and, based on no actual research, decided I could find that style only in Europe. It wasn’t entirely foolish; the founder of the style was Polish and ran a theater lab in Italy. But since participation at the lab was heavily restricted, I had to pick somewhere else to study and for mostly imagined and unrelated reasons, I chose Paris.
Once there, it took almost a year to find an appropriate training company and in the months before I did, I was pretty distraught about my career. I wanted so much to perform, to do good work on the stage, to be a successful actress. And living as an ex pat in Paris, working as an au pair, doing exactly no theater, with no obvious access to theater work, I just couldn’t see how those dreams would come true.
Well, I had a great friend in Paris, an American man I’d met in France, who was Head Show Writer for the then, under-construction Euro Disney. He was older than I with significant success under his belt and a load more life experience. One afternoon, sitting in his lovely apartment in the Marais, overlooking the rooftops of old Paris, I shared my deep anxiety over my seemingly hopeless dream. And he said, “You already are that successful actress.”
“What are you talking about?!” I demanded indignantly. It actually felt insulting to be called that given the life I was experiencing. By what stretch of the imagination could a woman who’d never made a dime acting and who hadn’t performed in over a year be called a “successful actress?”
“You’re the successful actress when she was young, living in Paris, without opportunity, and scared about her career,” he answered.
Well, that stopped me cold. I could actually feel the synapses reorganizing themselves in my brain.
To get this straight, I was the me I was becoming before I had become it. Just like Lloyd was the Green Ninja before he, or anyone else, knew it.
It’s possible there is no more radical an idea.
In the moment, in my friend’s apartment, two particular things struck me. One is that the truth suddenly got bigger.
That I wasn’t performing, wasn’t training, was barely supporting myself in a place where there appeared little to no opportunity for advancing my career was suddenly simultaneously true along with being a successful actress. There was no contradiction and, more importantly, the former was no longer evidence that the latter was untrue.
The other is that everything I might do or experience from that moment on, no matter what it involved or how it looked, could end up part of the path to my dream. In fact, as long as being a successful actress continued to be my interest and intention, no moment of my life could escape being part of that path!
So, for instance, if I… found an appropriate group with which to train only to have the group disband months later; and then I returned to the US broken hearted; and then I descended into a deep psychological crisis that fairly well disabled me for nearly two years; and I worked a simple, part-time clerical job just to pay for therapy; and then I officially quit acting and became a teacher; and then I got a Master’s Degree in Human Development; and then after five years, I quit teaching; and then I did my first play in forever, for free, in order to work with a director aligned with my training; and then I went to work full time for an insurance company; and then I was invited by that director to co-found a theater company; and then I worked a part-time job while doing productions with our now award -winning theater company (mostly unpaid); and then I fell out of a tree and became paralyzed; and then everything stopped while I spent months in a hospital; and then I lost my interest in fiction and quit my theater company; and then I informally shared some stories about my paralysis experience from a stage; and then I spent more than a year making no money, getting nothing done, and freaking out about my questionable ability to create a full length, one-woman show… it could all be part of the path to becoming a successful actress!
And, in my case, all of that exactly was. After it all, I finally stumbled into developing my show, launched it to sold out crowds, gorgeous reviews, multiple extensions, devoted fans, speaking opportunities, touring opportunities… et voilá: successful actress.
But do you see what this means??
It means that YOU can become anything from exactly where you’re standing right now.
It means, in fact, that you are already that thing. It’s just that you’re her at the time in her life when being “her” looked really different or, even, impossible.
So… You’re the philanthropist at the time in her life when she couldn’t consistently make enough money to pay the bills each month.
You’re the successful entrepreneur at the time in her life when she was working a 9 to 5 and doubting her ability to make it on her own.
You’re the joyously married woman at the time in her life when she was so sick of failed relationships and the seeming lack of “good” partners, she was ready to give up on love altogether.
And you’re a healthy, vibrant woman at the time in her life when she was sick, tired, and overweight.
It’s true, the Green Ninja is fantasy. And I have a very complicated relationship with “destiny.” But I’m not fantasy at all. And the crazy path I took to my dream is very real. If that path could include years of not living the dream, tons of doubt and struggle, mental health issues, lack of opportunity, not enough money, quitting the dream, spending years on a seemingly different path, and PARALYSIS, what could you have going on that might have more power to extinguish your dream?
I hope I don’t sound dismissive or diminishing; I don’t intend to be. I only hope to suggest that nothing – no matter how contrary it looks, how crummy it feels, how powerful it seems – is inherently a deal-breaker. You might not believe me — there were many years on my path I wouldn’t have believed me – but it’s true.
We are all exactly who we are becoming. You, me, Lloyd… We’re all the same.
So don’t be fooled by what life looks like today.
And, please… Don’t give up.