A couple of months ago, I traveled back to my alma mater to give a talk about “Living Plan K.” I’ll get to a description of that talk’s content at the end of the piece. What this week’s column is about, though, is a product of one of the cooler things that happens when you live and work in Los Angeles and then travel back to your small town to visit campus: Press coverage.

Yup. I got interviewed by a reporter for The Red & Black, the student-run newspaper of the University of Georgia (a paper for which I wrote in 1990). It was surreal. The young journalism student called me at the appointed time and started asking me questions that showed he’d done a lot of good pre-interview research about me. (Yay, J-School! I would expect nothing less of the students that come out of the Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication, the home of the Peabody Awards!) *beams*

As I’m chatting with the reporter, he asks what sort of mindset it takes to be successful in Hollywood. Very quickly, I say, “You have to have high self-esteem and low ego.” And that’s what this week’s column is about. Because just as you are made to feel like some bigwig by traveling back to your old campus, you return to Los Angeles, look around, and realize — just like my lifelong friend Faith Salie told me when she booked her first series regular gig a few years back — “The funny thing about having any sort of success is it just means you’ve climbed a mountain and then you have a view of all the mountains around you.”

So, what’s the point of distinguishing self-esteem from ego? Easy. When you see them as different animals, you can appreciate the one that helps you when it’s all big and puffed up, and you can squash the one that is a career-killer when it behaves like that.

You pretty much have to have high self-esteem to pursue a career in this business. It’s an exhausting pursuit that will make you question your sanity sometimes and you have to feel somewhat special to believe you can outlast and outshine the competition, most of whom leave this career with their dreams broken and hearts sick over all that time, investment, and belief that it could really happen for them spent with no return. But if you feel as though you can make it, you probably have high self-esteem. You feel special. You know you’re tougher than those who pack it in and go home. You’re here for the long haul and you know there will be dips in the road along the way.

But low ego is the balance that those who truly succeed seem to have attained. Because an ego — which inherently feeds on validation and outwardly-confirmable benchmarks for success — also has the power to derail you, if it’s out of control. It presents as entitled. It charges into the room as a challenge to all: “How can you not cast this? I am perfect and you’re too stupid to have realized that by now. What’s wrong with you, peasant?” Perfectly talented actors find themselves constantly wondering “what’s wrong with this town” for not recognizing their brilliance, when what we are actually doing is absolutely recognizing their brilliance, but knowing there are dozens — if not hundreds — of other actors of the exact same type and talent level who don’t bring the beast of the ego to set with them. Guess which actor we’d rather spend time with?

The brilliant acting coach Lesly Kahn tweeted this gem that I just had to share: “Your ego is like your stage mom. Leave her in the lobby for auditions, rehearsals, classes, on set, etc., or she will fuck you up!”

Right on! The ego is a beast. So, by keeping it in check — while having high self-esteem — creative types find they’re able to navigate the dings and the hits and the full-on kicks to the groin this industry serves up sometimes, because their ego isn’t tied up in any of those things, and their self-esteem can weather ’em all.

So, what was my talk about, to today’s journalism students at UGA? “Living Plan K.” Funnily enough, as I write this, my nerves are still rattled from the wild ride that was what they’re currently reporting as a 7.2 earthquake in Mexicali, Mexico. “Living Plan K” came about after another big earthquake, the Northridge Quake in 1994. I had been living in Los Angeles for a few months and was living alone for the first time, seven miles from the epicenter. I hadn’t been here long enough to have experienced a “starter quake” of the recreational level (2.8, 3.2) and when I measured the choices of living my fledgling acting career in a place that could shake like that with no warning against a life maybe a tank of gas away from all of the comforts of home, suddenly grad school looked really good to me. But I was depressed. I had really wanted to make an impact in Hollywood. I had a very healthy ego and simply wasn’t prepared for how hard it was going to be to pursue work, here, no matter how much pre-move research I had done. The experiencing of it was the eye-opener. It’s TOUGH.

When I talked on the phone with my lovely Aunt Jean, I lamented the fact that I was again packing up my belongings for a cross-country move. “On to Plan B, I guess,” I said to her with a mopey pout. I felt like a failure. Plan A was supposed to work. I didn’t want to be a Plan B girl. I wanted to succeed wildly at the first thing I tried, not have to figure out some second-choice life plan. My aunt laughed like only she can and said, “Oh, Bonnie, life is about working your way through the alphabet! I can’t wait for you to get to Plan K. That’s when you really start having fun.”

As I write to you from Plan K (or so. I’ve lost count, because the fun is in the journey, not the scorekeeping of it all), I can safely say that my aunt was right. And that having the stones to tour with a talk about success in Hollywood when all you see around you is mountains still to climb is all about high self-esteem. And not being afraid to say, “Hey, we’re all making this up as we go; I’ve just bumped into some really cool stuff in my career thus far,” is all about low ego.

We’ve all got a secret wizard behind a curtain pushing buttons and pulling levers to help us maintain the “show” of who we are. How comfortable we are with letting that guy peek out now and then is a major component to longevity in this industry (and happiness in life).

How well-balanced are your “guy behind the curtain” and the “big giant head”? Are you able to keep ’em both in check? What keeps you keepin’ on? Share below in the comments, ninjas!


Bonnie Gillespie is living her dreams by helping others figure out how to live theirs. Wanna work with Bon? Start here. Thanks!


Originally published by Actors Access at http://more.showfax.com/columns/avoice/archives/001167.html. Please support the many wonderful resources provided by the Breakdown Services family. This posting is the author’s personal archive.

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12 Comments

  1. Avatar Sarah-Jane February 26, 2013 at 6:39 am

    Hello Bonnie, Another wonderful article – thanks so much. I have a question. You speak of leaving ego behind, and i absolutely 100% agree, but I find (for myself at least) a link between my ego and my fear. As if my ego is an inbuilt ‘protection’, like those lizards who lose their tails, or squids that squirt the ink! It rears it’s ugly head when I’m threatened or challenged or scared. (i.e.: most situations related to my career!) So the question is: how do we downsize our order of ego in the moment? Especially when it feels like a ‘Id’ or Lizard brain reaction and not a conscious choice? Thanks again! 🙂

    Reply
  2. Avatar Bonnie Gillespie February 26, 2013 at 11:08 am

    Hello Sarah-Jane! 🙂 Ooh, I have such a good response to this. Actually, it’s not mine, it’s the wisdom of a former business partner who laid this out so well that I never forgot it. There’s this bit of the brain called the limbic system. Its function — in addition to ruling emotion — is what’s called the “fight or flight” response. The reason that you feel those ego muscles kick in when you feel threatened, challenged, or scared, is because your Lizard Brain (as you awesomely called it) is in the driver’s seat, and it goes to the very base-level responses, rather than the more sophisticated, modern-brain ones.

    When you remember that “fight or flight” is evolutionarily something that was triggered to protect us from walking up to lions to try and pet them, you see how powerful it can be. But you also have to remember that you’re not walking up to lions when you’re using it today. You’re letting a millions-years-old system RUN how you feel TODAY, when you’re simply emotionally amped about an audition or a meeting or an encounter with an industry player who’s on a power trip.

    Begin exercising the muscle that knows “ego is a choice.” You have more powerful, more HUMAN parts of your brain that you can use to help this along, rather than letting the Lizard Brain drive. When you let it drive, you tell yourself (and the world) that you see this current challenge as something that’s as scary as a lion about to attack. There’s another part of your brain that knows better. Start asking it to show up more. 😉

    Also — and this was a big one for me — try thinking about how ego and spirit can’t coexist, so when you’re letting your ego be in charge, you’re not honoring your spirit. That works really well for me, because I know that my spirit (the bigger part of me) makes lovely decisions, whereas my ego makes small ones, sometimes. When I feel my ego trying to drive, I have a deal to email my bestie (and she has the same deal with me) a quick note which — by the time I’m done composing it — I don’t even really need anymore. 😉 Once I remind myself that my ego doesn’t GET to be in charge, it just really wants to be sometimes, amazingly, it is less powerful.

    Try those things and see how that helps. I’d love to hear! 😀

    Reply
  3. Avatar Steve February 26, 2013 at 1:39 pm

    Bonnie,

    Thanks for this article and your column today about Plan K. Both are helpful and very well put, whether applied to a career in the arts, or to any career, or to one’s life in general. ‘Nuff said.

    Steve

    Reply
  4. Avatar Andrea M February 26, 2013 at 11:15 pm

    Dear Bonnie,

    I discovered your column about two weeks ago and I cannot commence to express how much you have helped me. Every time I’ve read something you’ve so kindly decided to share with us,I can’t help but think, “My goodness, she is SO right!” I’ve been in LA for 6 months now and it is has been exactly as you say – HARD. In the last couple of days I’ve been especially frustrated and overwhelmed…and then my email lead me to this. THANK YOU. You have reminded me of the road I have traveled to get here and the one on which I will surely continue to work on. I’m not ready to go home because I am turning LA into just that. Thank you for reminding me I can and for making me recall all the many things I have already overcome. You see, I was a nerd in High School, I’m talking top 5% of my all 184 girls High School , teacher’s pet, Drama High School star, tennis captain… yeah, that girl. That girl that you couldn’t imagine got rejected from every college she applied to, and yet two years later here I am and I realize I’m already on like plan C! It’s crazy, but I wouldn’t change a thing. And as hard as it is, as hard as it gets, I know I’ve been through much worse. However, I am confident I will succeed at my own time, in my own way, always keeping in mind: “High self esteem, low ego”! I am the one holding the compass! And I choose what direction to move in!

    Thank You!
    Andrea M

    Reply
  5. Avatar CrackerJack February 27, 2013 at 2:36 pm

    This is great, Bon. Thank you, as always, for the reminder.

    Steve, I totally agree.

    Andrea, welcome! I’m so glad you found the column. <3

    Reply
  6. Bonnie Gillespie Bonnie Gillespie February 28, 2013 at 11:56 am

    Thank you, Steve. Thank you, Jackie! Love having y’all here. Really appreciate it!

    Andrea, I’m thrilled that you found your way to me. Sounds like you have a great attitude about “Plan C” (or wherever you currently are) and I love that you’re not letting LA beat you. I have another article on here called “I Has a Ring,” which you may want to check out. We *all* have days in which we think, “I just can’t do it anymore,” and the more important voice to honor is the one that says, “I’m exactly where I’m supposed to be. How cool are all these lessons?” 🙂

    Stay plugged in. I’d love to hear more about your journey, as you make LA more and more your home! As someone who moved here 20 years ago and boomeranged back to Atlanta in 13 months, I can safely say, I was *not* gonna be kept away from LA. I just knew it was my home. And it really, really is.

    Keep rockin’!

    Reply
  7. Avatar John-Christian Bateman November 6, 2015 at 2:36 am

    Thank you Bonnie for this important reminder for being a success in Life what ever city you find yourself in. Sorry I missed your workshop here, hopefully next time you are in London or when I make it out to L A ,we can meet.
    Kind Regards
    J-C Bateman

    Reply
  8. Avatar Sean Frost November 6, 2015 at 2:38 am

    I remember who and Whose I am. As a Christian, I am a child of God and believe He has given me certain gifts/abilities and certain talents. It is, however, my responsibility to grow them with His help.

    I could not do this on my own. It takes the Maker of the Universe to for me to have a hope of succeeding at it. But if this is what He wants me to do, then I just need to listen and obey. To do the work. To remember that I may be a child of God but that God is not going to do everything for me. I am not entitled to a life of wine and roses but of work, of learning and of growing in wisdom in situations only the Creator of the Universe Himself can get me through.

    All it takes for to keep my ego in check is to remember that without Him, I could not draw another breath. All it takes to keep my self-esteem high is to remember that I am, along with millions of others, His child. That’s pretty good.

    All it takes for me is “Remember who (and Whose) you are.”

    Reply
  9. Avatar Laura B November 6, 2015 at 5:24 am

    Bonnie once again such a great article!! Healthy self esteem I think comes from doing things over your life that were scary and difficult and surviving and learning along the way! Over time you gain self confidence. To me it feels like an inner strength and a super power. You feel good and want to share that with others. To me an ego would be phony and pretending your great even though inside you don’t feel it because you did not do the work. I think the ego part would put yourself first and you could not help others because your not coming from a genuine place.

    Reply
  10. Avatar Rosalie Tenseth November 6, 2015 at 8:12 am

    Thank you Bonnie – always inspirational and helpful……#grateful to have you in our lives 🙂

    Reply
  11. Avatar Kat November 6, 2015 at 10:14 am

    Keeping a healthy sense of self is soooo important for the long haul! What helps me is a thing called “Circle,” a monthly check in complete with talking stick and lots of sage, where women gather to speak openly and listen with their full hearts. My friend Katie hosts them in Century City, it’s called Century City Circle if anyone is interested in joining us for this healthy, affirming practice!

    Reply
  12. Bonnie Gillespie Bonnie Gillespie November 7, 2015 at 12:29 am

    J-C–Thank you for the feedback! Bummed we didn’t connect in London. It was a wonderful experience with two 30-person talks/Q&A sessions and an all-day small-group seminar, plus some private coaching meetings. Really phenomenal and I cannot wait to be back!

    Sean–So great that you have that structure to keep you centered and focused. I love it! Thank you for sharing so freely, here.

    Laura–Ooh, I like that a lot. Thank you for the perspective. Really wonderful!

    Rosalie–My pleasure! Loves ya right back, m’dear! XO

    Kat–OMG, Century City Circle sounds sooooooo delicious! Wow! I love the sound of that! So delightful to do something so supportive and ritualistic, as a community of creatives. Really great!

    Love you beautiful people!

    Reply

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