It was at one of these Masterclasses that I had the good fortune to hear the incredible Leigh Zimmerman (who recently won an Olivier Award for A Chorus Line) talk about her career, give advice and work with some students. The fact that I can remember things she said 8 years later is a good indication of the quality of her comments.
One thing stood out:
After every breakthrough is a breakdown.
I’m not sure I grasped this originally, because I’m not sure I’d actually experienced any major career breakthroughs.
That sounds a bit dramatic, but I shimmied around the edge of the pool for probably decades before I actually jumped in.
I’d dipped my toes, I’d splashed my arms, I’d applied sunscreen, but I never actually dove in.
And breakthroughs only start happening when you dive. When you literally breakthrough the surface of the water.
I didn’t do that for years.
But better late than never, I finally reached the day where I felt strong enough to go into the pool.
Leigh’s point was that every time we have a career breakthrough we experience a ‘breakdown’ – where we go through this awkward period where we are neither fully in the larger, more successful place, but neither are we in our previously smaller place.
We are literally going through growing pains.
I experienced this in the last year when I (finally) made my West End debut.
This was something I had dreamed about for 20 years and for various reasons it kept alluding me.
But I kept at it. I kept trying, and finally I broke through and it came to fruition.
I had spent 20 years dreaming of this moment…. and when it came, I was expecting to hear heavenly choruses of Angels singing, and instead it was filled with choruses of Peggy Lee’s song Is That All There Is?
This ‘thing’ which I had invested 20 years worth of energy came and went in the blink of an eye. And it hardly registered on anyone’s radar.
Last June I had the great pleasure to play Harry in Kander and Ebb’s Flora the Red Menace at the Landor Theatre. I loved this show. In the first act, Flora gets her dream job designing dresses for a big department store. She sings:
When it all comes true, just the way you planned, you think you’d hear a choir sing.It’s a quiet thing.When you hold the world, in your trembling hands, it’s funny but the bells don’t ring.It’s a quiet thing.
This song played in an endless loop during most of my three months in the West end.
I thought there would be some major shift in my life – only to find that it didn’t even cause a ripple.
And that’s where the breakdown starts.
We expect doors to fly open. We expect our professional world to take notice. We expect bigger and juicer things to come our way. After all, we’ve had a breakthrough!
Yet, more often than not, it’s a quiet thing.
We need to learn to be our own cheerleader. Pat ourself on the back. Acknowledge to ourself, even if no one else acknowledges it, how significant this step has been. Reward ourself! You deserve a gift, a nice lunch and a glass of champagne. Throw a party for yourself. Invite your friends – they don’t even need to know the occasion – but you will. Give yourself a cake.
And then move on.
Set a new goal or goals.
Add this accomplishment to your CV and your biography. Weave it into the story of who you are and the journey which has brought you to this point, but don’t use it as an excuse to sit on your laurels. You must continue to grow and challenge yourself. Don’t expect the journey to get any easier just because you have achieved a mile stone.
Remember that the world may not necessarily care about your triumph, so the doors are not likely to fling open. So you must find a new star on the horizon, point your ship in a new direction, and use this experience to put the wind into the sails of your new ambition.
Look into your heart – that is where true success lies – not anywhere external.
A breakthrough is often a quiet thing. And the breakdown only really happens if you expect something amazing to change.
As one of my acting teachers used to say
Accept the win and move on.