About a million years ago, when I was 17, I auditioned for a local university’s summer stock production of South Pacific in my hometown. I really wanted to be in this production because I had moved to New York, was studying there to be an actor, and planned a career in acting. When you move to New York to become an actor at such a young age, you plan to be a star! What you don’t plan for is that so many people in New York have moved there to be actors that there is competition even for unpaid roles that no one will ever see and, if you are so young, the roles are fewer and the competition is greater. So, if you want to practice your craft on-stage, in front of audiences, doing theatre in your hometown waaaaaaay outside New York is your best bet.
And I did get cast in South Pacific. This was a big deal because the previous year I had paid the local university big money that I didn’t really have to participate in Summer Stock, and had been cast in only one of the productions and for only a walk-on, and had been told it was because other people who had not paid were better actors and they had to choose them because they were better actors although they had not paid. (Their perception of “better actors” I suspect coming from the fact that I always got stage right and stage left mixed up – I get right and left mixed up when I’m not onstage, too, so this was nothing new – and, when they did the grand finale of the women’s audition and had us all line up on stage and directed us to turn first stage right and then stage left, and I turned to my left and found myself facing the woman on my left, I did not correct my mistake by turning the other direction but continued facing the wrong way, staring into her eyes and smiling confidently until she turned the other direction, too, causing a ripple effect that had eventually everyone on my left facing the wrong way. I suspect the directors resented my headstrong wrongness as “unprofessional.”)
Anyhow, I was delighted to be cast in South Pacific, and my character had a name, she wasn’t just someone in the chorus: Cora. A named character in a musical! I quickly opened the book and flipped through the pages looking for Cora’s lines. Cora had no lines. So why did Cora have a name? I looked again, closer. She had a name because at some point, she is commended for her ability to do handsprings across the stage.
At 17, I was young and lithe and no stranger to tumbling. I had done cartwheels and handstands and lay-ups when I was younger. But I had moved on from gymnastics before getting to handsprings. And here I was, cast in a role where I was expected to do several in a row, well enough that I would be commended for them.
I quit the show.
How often do we censor ourselves this way professionally? How often do we say, I’ve never done this before, I can’t do it, and bow out or ask someone else to do it for us? How often do we look at a job posting or hear about a position becoming available at work and say, “I don’t have all it takes” and pass it by?
I’ve read a lot about imposter syndrome over the last year, and what it often comes down to is this very thing: I’m not 100% perfect at every skill required, so I don’t deserve to even try. I’m not ready yet (and never will be, if I keep aiming to perfect my skills before trying).
If I knew then what I know now, I would have hitched my pants up, said to myself, Ok, I’ve never done a handspring but I’ve done tumbling and I know I’m capable of similar things. I’d better find someone who knows how to do handsprings, get trained, and start practicing every day, starting today, so I can do handsprings in rehearsal when we get to that point which will probably be in about a week, maybe two. Even if I am not perfect at them, the audience probably won’t know since it is unlikely that they can do handsprings themselves, and they aren’t coming to the show to see handsprings, and this is less than 30 seconds of my performance, it’s not like I do handsprings every time I come onstage. And, for crying out loud, it’s a summer stock performance in the middle of nowhere, and a chance to be onstage. Get your priorities straight.
And I would have done it.
If you listen to Hollywood stars talk about roles they’ve done that have required fight scenes, they talk about the intense training they go through to be creditable on-screen. They work for days, weeks, months with trainers, getting in shape, learning just enough Karate or sword-fighting to be creditable once the film is edited. They fake accents on auditions and continue working on those accents after they get the role so they can speak credibly accented during the actual filming. They don’t say, “No, I can’t do handsprings.” They take the role and then learn how to do handsprings, and then do them.
When you are asked to do something at work that you’ve never actually done before, or a job catches your eye that is one step above where you are now and maybe you’re mostly qualified but maybe don’t have every skill or experience listed, jump first and think afterwards. Seize the opportunity to learn and build the skills you need to succeed. You can do it.
It’s not like it’s handsprings.