On Fulfillment: The Noble Pursuit of 10 Percent

The wife and I are in something of an existential pickle. Here we are, resettling ourselves (ever-so-slowly and awkwardly) in small town southern Maine, trying to make a good long-term home for our family. At the same time, Jess and I are artists, we’re performers, and recent years have proven to be lean ones in terms of flexing those particular muscles.

Here’s the big problem: we both suffer from the illusion that it is our day job that defines us as people. When we were doing Shakespeare for a living, that defined us. We were Shakespearean actors. When I moved on to politics, I presumed that that would define me as well. (“I’m a professional progressive/reformist/secularist activist!”) But it didn’t feel like it was sticking. I wasn’t really being fulfilled as I expected when I shifted careers. Likewise, Jess muddles through a 9-to-5 admin job which, while being for an extremely noble cause, does not lend fulfillment, and does not provide identity.

Well, something I’ve learned, and that Jessica is learning, is that very few people get to have their rent-paying job be the thing that makes their life worth living. But, as she put it, we were “sold a bill of goods” when we were young and idealistic, thinking that we would find that perfect artsy career, and live lives of constant inspiration.

We know that it doesn’t quite work that way now. But here is where the wife and I are differing in our attitudes. I’ve come to accept — by working several jobs in recent years that have utterly failed to move me — that one’s Reason for Being is not necessarily to be found at work. Particularly with the birth of our son Toby, it is all the clearer to me that there is Reason for Being to be found in many corners of our lives.

Here’s where Jess needs some help. Now, don’t get me wrong, she is the best wife and mother to my son that I could ever hope for. But she feels a gaping hole in her life that acting used to fill.

But then I thought back. Even when we were professional actors, doing the best material in the world and doing it in the best theater in the country, how much of that time was actually — genuinely — fulfilling? Of course it was wonderful to perform in all those fantastic roles, to speak those words, to move those audiences. But what percentage of our daily work actually consisted of all that Elizabethan sublimity?

Think about it. There are the weeks of rehearsal, which have their own magic, but are also mostly made up of drudgery. There is the line memorization. Lots and lots of it. There is the business of getting set up for shows: fight calls, music calls, costumes, makeup. If there were school performances, it meant doing shows at 9:30 am. If you were doing a Christmas show, forget it, you’d be conscripted to 30 days of mind-numbing jolly repetition. If you were on tour, as I was twice, there are the endless van rides, the crummy hotels, the setting up and breaking down, etc., etc.

The good stuff was actually squeezed very tightly in between all that less-than-good stuff. It was completely worth it most of the time, but it was, still, a small percentage of what we actually did. How small? For the sake of this discussion, let’s guess 10 percent. That’s probably generous. As much as I loved shows likeMuch Ado About Nothing, The Tempest, and Love’s Labour’s Lost, much of my memory of those productions were not necessarily of the performances, but ofrushed costume changes. Indeed, the longer a show was in production, the more it felt like an exercise in changing awkward clothes in the dark as quickly as possible without hurting oneself or others. Or the costumes.

10 percent. Again, presuming for now that this number is correct, that reminds us that the rest, the 90 percent, was just work. Regular, unpleasant, boring, stressful, work — like everyone else has to do. The 10 percent made it worthwhile, but it was just that.

To the point of this shoddy attempt at fulfillment quantification. You see, the 10 percent number, while seemingly small, is a huge advantage. Why? Because it means it’s not out of anyone’s grasp, no matter what they do in their day-to-day lives. Think about it: as actors, we happily carried that 90 percent burden so we could have a taste of that 10 percent, and it was worth it. Now, if you work 8 hours a day, 5 days a week, is it really so hard to imagine where one might fit one’s own 10 percent somewhere else in your life? Must it absolutely manifest itself during one’s office hours? Of course not.

The task, then, is to find where we can fit our own, self-made 10 percent, no matter what our “day jobs” happen to be. If we work 40 hours a week, it’s not such a leap to imagine how I, for example, might find 4 hours within that week to work on composing and recording new music. And for Jess, there’s nothing stopping her from finding her own 10 percent, her own 4 hours (if it must be strictly quantified by time) to write a book of essays, to write a hilarious television pilot, to do more stand-up comedy, to find an outlet for her acting and theatre talents. That 10 percent can happen just as easily after the baby goes to bed as at any other time.

The point is that it’s completely doable. If 10 percent is enough for the super-fulfilled working actor, it’s enough for us as former-super-fulfilled working actors. I’m trying to carve out my 10 percent, and I hope Jess will begin to scratch out hers. Yes, working plus parenting is rough stuff. But we’re smart enough and creative enough to grab that 10 percent, to really milk those 4 hours.

Presuming we’re not too lazy, of course. Perhaps this new realization will help give us the kick in the creative butt we’ve been needing.