I took a jet-lagged nap the first day I got back home from my trip to Europe, and I dreamed about being a magic dragon in a car outside the school for bears.
I was the magic dragon, sitting in a car outside a high school. I was praying in the car for the well-being of the bears inside a high school. The bears were the students, and they were in bad trouble. I remember I was so worried about the bears, and I was praying to God that they would be alright.
I woke up dazed and thought about what the dream meant. Here I was, a magic dragon praying to God to save the bears. But why was I praying…I mean, I was a magic fucking dragon. I’m sure I had all sorts of insane dragon-like powers. A dragon is not something to trifle with. A dragon is high-level, deadly creature in games like World Of Warcraft and basically every fantasy novel. But instead of saving the bears myself, I put all my faith in some unknown being to save the day. I was praying to a higher power instead of using my own.
The metaphor is obvious: I am capable of being a magic dragon. But instead of flying, I’ve locked myself in my car. I was probably listening to self-help audiobooks earlier in the dream. Instead of using my inherent powers, I’m banking on some deus ex machina to save the day.
This dream fits the narrative I’ve told myself recently. I’ve felt a bit like a loser since I got back to NYC after an epic three-week trip performing to sold-out crowds and teaching sold-out improv workshops abroad. Traveling in Europe, I felt like a rockstar. I was doing something special and valued by everyone I worked with over there. Back in NY, I feel diminished in this city of a million dreams and a million talented, special people. I feel like a nobody. I’ve been acting tired and bitchy and pessimistic like it’s my Halloween outfit.
I’ve made money and supported myself in the arts teaching and working in theater since I was fifteen. My first job was at a summer camp teaching Shakespeare to middle schoolers at camp (yes, that job was as bad as it reads). I’ve supported myself as an instructor of acting, improvisation, writing, musical theater, storytelling, and teaching corporate business types how to be real human beings. I’ve started two theaters and acting schools and ran both for years as a Director. I’ve advocated for others’ careers like an agent or manager would and helped people I care about get a leg up in the industry. I’ve produced and toured hundreds of shows, providing employment and opportunities to people I love as artists. I’ve launched a solo career teaching and performing improv around the world. I’ve even branded myself: Philip “Sparkle.” Kill me.
This should all be something I’m proud of, but I’m not appreciating any of it. None if it is making me happy as it should because it’s not the career I would choose if I could wave a wand. It’s adjacent success. It’s spinning wheels but not moving the car. It’s in a similar field to working as a creator and artist, but it’s not helping answer the question that haunts me, “How are you going to make it big?”
I want to make it big, make a splash, create something that is larger than the life I’m living now. I want to:
- Write a book on improv.
- Write a book of personal stories and essays.
- Tell a story or perform an original piece every night I can in NYC.
- Create or collaborate on an original web series or a TV series.
- Get a manager or agent to believe in me and help my career.
- Build a new comedy theater or school in NY.
- Find a partner and fall in love (the only non-career thing on this list).
The list of wishes upon a well goes on. And I’m not actively working on any of them. I’m stuck in park and praying for a sign of which way to go. I am frustrated over how I get in my own way, that I don’t discipline myself to put in the work, that I can’t handle my own shit.
Instead, I find myself daydreaming an alternate reality as if doing will make it fall from the sky. A world where I’m freely and actively working on something new. A world where I’m part of a community of collaborators who inspire me, want to co-write with me, and light a fire under my ass when I need it. Or a world where I’m already famous with a built-in audience of supporters, so I don’t have to work so hard to constantly promote everything I do and can focus on creation. Or maybe what I really want is a world where I’ve fallen in love (finally) and come home to a guy who made me Bucatini Amatriciano for dinner, who takes my mind off needing to “make it” and into being content with where I’m at now.
My problem isn’t that I don’t work hard enough. But I’m not hustling in pursuit of my dreams. I’m engaging in daily distractions to check as many mundane things off as possible, to make excuses for why I’m too busy to create, to fake a feeling of accomplishment. It’s easier to accomplish what I know how to accomplish, to stick to the routine I’ve already got going on: running an Airbnb and offering experiences to tourists, putting up a couple shows a month, writing sappy personal essays like this one on Medium, taking care of a dog and keeping up my apartment, teaching and filling my indie improv classes, and paying my bills. I’m living for the hit of dopamine I get when I clear my inbox. I’m loving an excuse to clean the apartment because there’s a concrete result when I’m through — look, ma, I accomplished something! I’m constantly checking minor things to do off lists. Sometimes I joke that if I could check my life off a list I would do it, just to be done with it.
But it’s harder for me to work toward a dream with an uncertain payoff. I don’t know why I’m addicted to empty, unfulfilling busyness, but this NYtimes article opened my eyes to the two type of work as the Greeks defined them. I’m obsessed with “Telos” — which leaves me constantly accomplishing little things that don’t add permanent life meaning, and therefore constantly leave me empty, looking for something else to complete. I’m not pursuing the other type of work — “Atelic” — the kind that doesn’t lead toward a surefire goal or finish line but provides overall deeper life satisfaction.
Compounding the problem is my bi-polarity: when I’m not winning at life, I’m losing. When I’m not feeling epic, I’m septic. This condition has haunted my my whole life, but lately it’s cranked up. I’ve found myself cursing some imaginary fault of the universe or some possible fuck-up of my past that led me to this limbo. I’m yelling in my head at nothing and expecting to get an answer about where my life is going and what I’m supposed to do.
What is at the root of all this? I went to a famous healer in Bali last year, Tjokorda Gede Rai, the grandson of the King. He checked me over with his magic stick and said, “Nothing’s wrong with you. You just getting in your own way! Why you wasting my time?”
Maybe this is all related to the famous quote we all know about Fear. Marianne Williamson said it: “Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure.”
If that’s it, then I want to stop buying into my fear of what I could be. Because along with that fear is the one that I’ve missed the boat — that it’s too late, or I’m past my prime, or I’m too “whatever” to make it. I want to stop psychically beating myself up with both these fears every day, so I can do the creative work that fills my soul and do it unhindered on a daily basis. I want to free myself from the bitterness upon which I hang my excuses for not exercising my imagination.
Because my real fear is that I’ll end up a coward who lacks the courage to truly go for it as an artist and express my creativity. That I’ll rely on adjacent success — be it as a teacher, or as a business producer, or in arts admin, or as a minor entrepreneur — and not take the big risk toward the dreams that scare me.
To get over this hump, I want to stop comparing myself to what could be and focus on concrete, daily magic-making and risk-taking. To do one thing that scares myself a day, that doesn’t have a concrete result. To empower myself with a routine and stick to it. As a great teacher of mine from Chicago, Susan Messing, once said, “Blinders On.” Focus on what I’m doing in the present moment and be as content and grateful as I can be for what I’ve got. Get out of the parked car, fly like a fucking magic dragon and save the day myself.
I also accept that I’m missing the point entirely, and maybe the solution is to stop tying my life contentment toward an external locus of control and love myself for who I am right now. Maybe I don’t know need to save anyone, especially myself. Maybe there is no solution — life is just a constant limbo of ups and downs that you learn to accept.
I don’t know the answer. I’m driven in my core, and if I’m being honest, I want more than I have right now. I want something big.
(PS: I don’t know what the bears in the dream mean. They say everything in a dream is some reflection of yourself, so who did these bears in high school represent and why were they in danger? Were they failing at their SATs? Struggling with Spanish? Wishing they’d skipped AP American Lit? Beats me.)