By Amy Macginley
“Survival bias: the logical error of concentrating on the people or things that made it past some selection process and overlooking those that did not, typically because of their lack of visibility” [Wikipedia, 2019]
“Sylvester Stallone wrote his own script for Rocky and won an Oscar” A middle aged fellow event waiter tells me, stuck up against the wall, waiting for the wedding party to settle down. His eyes were full of hope. Oh boy, not those stories, I thought. It’s the first few stories us actors hear when we get into the industry; Matt Damon and Ben Affleck and their screenplay, or even more recently, Denise Gough who scored a West End Lead when just months before she’d been turned down to work as a cleaner. Those are the stories touted to creatives time and time again that give us a false picture of reality. I thought, how do I tell him, it's probably not gonna happen like that for you, when I hadn’t fully admitted it to myself?
Reality came knocking at my personal door via real world situations, like being in workshops or on extras sets, meeting actors double my age and bitter from lack of progress or opportunity, trying as hard as I was and getting nowhere. These weren’t the ones being talked about the in industry. It was easy to avert my gaze back to my social media actor-populated-echo-chamber posting motivational quotes emploring a rhethoric of: keep going no matter what...you’ll get there in the end, I promise, and tell myself, I’ll be the exception, the fabricated belief aided by my unconscious absorbing of media during my childhood, a la disney movies, where because the protagonist follows the dream, everything works out in the end.
And it might, nay, for some it will. But for many it won’t. Statistically the chances are low, just as the chances of winning the lotto are low. Most people wouldn’t rest their livelihood, sanity and ability to express themselves on something as fickle as the lotto, yet we do it with acting time and time again. Sat on a plane, panicking about the fact that I was in a metal tube soaring above the earth I comforted myself with the statistics. Flying is statistically safer than driving. It was then I realised these statistics weren’t going to bend to my situation and mean I was 99% likely going to die on that plane and I could take comfort in that. This works both ways. If I could take comfort in that statistic, I had to take horror in the other one, that most likely, this career would leave me like those people twice my age; still hungry for roles and a stable chunk of money each month.
When we understand the true nature of a situation, we can make better decisions about it. I came to realise instead of following a dream, I could confront reality and work with that. My reality was that, getting older, stability was becoming more important, the need for a clear career progression in another area I found engaging could be fulfilling and that heck, if I loved acting so much I could still do it for a hobby. So I quit, and decided to return to education. Perhaps it took me a few years longer than it ought of, the survival bias distorting my perception of the nature of the industry.
We are at a great time now where people are sharing their truth. The actors speaking about the hardships and realities of the industry is serving to provide a broader picture of what #actorslife is really all about. But that also means the truth of many is the rampant promotion of idealistic self-belief, which can be beautiful, but also dangerous, if not swallowed along with the slighter bitter tasting pill of statistical likelihood of outcome. When I would frantically google “should I quit acting?” during a rough time, nearly all results would point to some story in which actors had nearly quit just when their big break came-a-knocking and proceeded to tell me to never give up. Yet, most actors never get their “big break” and many actors, including me, do give up and find it to be a decision well-made (if not terrifying at the time!). Survival bias stands to influence our biggest decisions, sometimes in the most vulnerable of times, by distorting our reality. This is not a sermon urging people to quit acting, but rather to encourage readers to gage the truth and proceed with your best answer to that, whatever that may be. Even as I’m writing I feel I should end with a star spangled: and NEVER give up, an example of how truly, this rhetoric is drummed into the predicted narrative arc of even an online article.
So, a note for those considering quitting:
When it comes to this topic, I insert the words of Joseph Campbell: “We must be willing to let go of the life we planned so as to have the life that is waiting for us”. Letting go can be painful, coupled with the stigma of this idea of ‘giving up’. Rather than giving up, it may be seen as giving in to something greater, if there is something calling. If, intuitively, there is an "I wanna quit" voice asking to be listened to, I urge the courage to at least allow that listening space to be fully realised, that pause, without judgement, so the truth of your needs can manifest themselves. It takes courage to rock your own boat by even questioning your path, and even more courage to accept the answer if it wasn’t the the one you had planned; mine had been planned from age 11! Like jumping into a swimming pool, in life, the transition is usually the hardest part of forging a new reality. As an “other-sider” I can say sitting in quiet space and allowing myself the guilt free moment to imagine the sacrilegious joy I might feel from quitting my dream was one of the best decisions I ever made. The new journey I am now on excites me more than the concept of a high ticket role ever could and I know for others it has done the same.
Amy is a former actress, current psychology student and fledgeling writer from London. She enjoys bouts of existential dread, ample meditation and laughing out loud in public places at Katie and Alexa in the 98% Podcast. Look at her retweet smarter folk on twitter at @amymacgram and fit the millenial curated mould on instagram also @amymacgram