Food for a starving artist – Edward Daniels

August 21, 2017

There is always a price to pursuing your passion. 

There is always a price to not pursuing your passion.

Which of those do you think is more true? In this final profile, it’s time to look at one of the biggest assumptions we make about doing something you love. Let me cut right to introducing you to Edward Daniels.

Edward-Daniels-by-Keymontay-Reynolds

Edward grew up in a small town in Virginia. Anyone tagged as an intelligent kid in his hometown had a career path to follow. You became a doctor. Or you became a lawyer. Take your pick.

Okay, doctor it is. So Edward shuffled off to college on the pre-med track. That is, until he got bitten by the acting bug and started questioning everything. Science just didn’t seem to fit. He wasn’t interested by the labs. The first thing he dissected he didn’t care about one bit.

But the entertainment industry, well that was something that had never even been on his radar coming from that small town in Virginia. Yet after doing some acting in college and winning an oratory competition, he discovered not only did he have some talent, this was a real passion.

So he ditched pre-med, graduated with a degree in Philosophy, and moved to Washington D.C. to pursue his acting passion. And almost immediately he started enjoying success. He was doing theater and was cast in a show at the Kennedy Center. There were movies and shows being filmed in D.C. and he picked up various roles and gigs along the way.

Actors are usually waiting for their big break. But the dirty little secret is that 9 out of 10 actors who commit to acting as a career can’t even make it work, let alone make it big. Forget your big break, can you put food on your table? Can you pay your bills?

Edward was walking the line. From an artistic perspective, he was pretty satisfied with the successes he was having. He was working a lot and being cast in roles he was satisfied with, so the trajectory felt good.

But he was living paycheck to paycheck in a house with a bunch of other people, he was frequently behind in rent and bills, he would have the utility company shut off his power… basically, he was the quintessential starving artist.

Yet everywhere around him were friends of his who lived in their own apartment, or were getting married, buying homes, having children.

“When are you going to get a normal job?” his friends would ask him. It’s hard for people to wrap their head around an intelligent, well-educated person choosing to live with such financial instability in the name of what they perceive to be some acting fantasy.

And truth be told, there was a piece of Edward that even felt like he was living in a fantasy world. After you’re questioned like that by the people closest to you, of course you’re going to doubt yourself.

But just because his friends didn’t understand, didn’t mean they were right, right? After all this was his passion. His break would come some day, wouldn’t it?

Well, a break of sorts did come. One day he was driving home and his car broke down. Stuck on the side of the road, he didn’t know where to turn. So he called his mother for help.

“You need to figure this out,” she said, and they hung up the phone.

There Edward was, stranded on the side of the road, unable to get home, rebuffed by his own mother. So he started calling friends until he found someone who was willing to help. And of course he had to borrow some money. That experience left a mark.

A few months later Edward went to his hometown to visit his family for a holiday. At the end of his visit when he was saying goodbye and getting ready to get on the road back to D.C. before nightfall, his father pulled him aside.

“Your mother and I want to talk to you.”

Edward knew immediately something had to be wrong, since his parents never pulled him aside. And out flowed the disapproval of Edward’s life decisions…

When are you going to get a real job? We sent you to college to become a doctor, and you graduate with a degree in philosophy of all things. Look at your friends and what they’re doing, and how successful they are.

“But I am successful,” Edward said, pointing to all the shows he was booking.

“No you’re not,” his mom said.

Ouch.

A moment of my own editorial…

It seems almost commonplace for people who choose to go their own way to be met with lack of acceptance and understanding somewhere along the way. But until you’ve actually experienced it, it can be hard to understand just how isolating it can be. And it can be difficult to know the pain of the internal conflict it feeds… you feel like you can’t win, you’re caught in the catch 22, you’re damned if you do, damned if you don’t. How you respond to this is usually the real moment of making it or breaking it, not some external moment of “catching a break.”

Edward left that conversation with his parents with a mix of emotions. His life didn’t make sense to his parents. They clearly didn’t understand him. And that’s indescribably painful.

But here was his response:  He took that as fuel for his journey. He came away from it motivated to prove to them that this was what he was doing with his life.

Except he didn’t outright reject his parents’ message either. It wasn’t a self-righteous “I’ll show you…” Edward also internalized the truth of their message as well as the importance to himself of having his parents’ understanding. And even more importantly, he took that message on board and realized that he himself could no longer tolerate being a starving artist.

This was a huge turning point for him. It wasn’t the “big break” everyone hopes for… that magical moment that almost never actually comes when some external event frees you from your current situation and catapults you into sustained success.

This was a personal breakthrough.

At this point Edward started looking at his life through a different lens. He looked at what his friends and peers had that he wanted… but not for the sake of comparing or judging himself. He was taking an honest inventory of his life. “I can’t do that, but why not?” And then an answer would come: “Because you’re doing 6 theater shows a year and you’re hardly getting paid for them.”

This honest inventory kicked off a series of life changes, the first of which was where Edward chose to focus his time and energy.

Most actors wait tables to make ends meet. Edward’s side job was DJing. It started with hosting a karaoke night at a bar where bachelorette parties were frequently held. Some of those brides-to-be would ask him if he did weddings and private events, which led him to starting his own small side business as a DJ.

Edward could see he wasn’t making the most of DJing. It was a unique opportunity. The pay was good. The flexibility of working from home and setting his own schedule allowed him to focus on auditions. He enjoyed being a DJ. And it helped him as an actor. Every event is a creative production, weaving together music, lights, special effects, and interaction with the crowd into an experience. It provided creative juice that he could pour right back into both acting and DJing.

So Edward decided to put significant focus on growing his DJ business. And the more energy he poured into it, the more he was getting booked. He told the story of a wedding where the bride was given golden tennis shoes, so for the first song, he had the crowd going crazy as he mixed Footloose and Boogie Shoes together. Perhaps that’s a memory from her wedding night she’ll remember forever. After the event he received positive reviews. Positive reviews from experiences like that turned into referrals and more opportunities.

He also shifted his focus with respect to the acting opportunities he pursued. The simple fact was film was much more lucrative than theater. One day on a television or movie set provided the financial equivalent of one week of doing theater. So Edward began turning down many theater opportunities in favor of film, and became more selective in the film and theater opportunities he pursued in general.

The second big shift was in the value he placed on himself as an actor and the corresponding expectations he had for doing a gig.

Actors often fall into the trap of not valuing themselves. As an actor, you’re constantly chasing jobs and experiencing rejection more than success. When you do land a role, it’s easy to fall into the trap of feeling lucky to have any role, even if the pay is crap and the perks are non-existent.

For the new Edward, there would be no more “Okay, I’ll do $75 background work.” Making 2 or 3 dollars an hour for 20 hours? Not a chance. Now it was What am I getting paid per gig? What am I charging? What does the contract look like? He raised his DJ rates to align with the local market and the true value he was bringing. He wouldn’t take an acting job if it didn’t meet his financial standards or meaningfully progress him in his career.

Changing his sights from “surviving” or even “getting by” to “thriving” made a huge difference in Edward’s life. There was an immediate shift in the growth of his roles, his business, and his personal fulfillment.

Quick side bar:  When Edward agreed to have me interview him for this little side project of mine, I believe it was for two reasons.

First, he is an enormous advocate of following your passion in life. He is a living example of somebody who has chosen to go his own way, even when it was counter to all the pressures of society, friends and family. He enthusiastically rattled off similar examples, like Compass Coffee across the street from him in D.C., started by two ex-Marines who knew nothing about coffee and have brought an incredibly authentic local and growing business to life. Or another guy he knows who opened a late night snack delivery business in a college town. Or another woman who has taken her one little story global headlining her own one-woman show.

But I think there is another reason Edward joined this conversation with me. And it brings me back to where we started. There is always a price to pursuing your passion.

I, like many others, focus on the sacrifice of pursuing a dream or a calling. “Go for it at all costs!” I might say (but might not actually do in my own life). In fact I almost included “Starving Artist” in the title of this series.

It turns out Edward hates the term “starving artist.” (It’s similar to how I went ahead and titled this series of posts Dream Followers and then Ross Dettman threw up all over my notion of “following your dream.”)

Edward’s point is that “starving artist” legitimizes the idea of being broke in the name of your passion, which doesn’t have to be a necessity. It may be a romantic notion to be willing to sacrifice so much to follow an inner calling, but it fosters a limiting mindset and limiting behaviors.

“There are things we do in our twenties that result in us being a starving artist in our forties.” – Edward Daniels

To illustrate, Edward recalls a time a friend said something he has never forgotten. Sure you’re doing shows, you’re getting good roles, but at the end of it, what do you have to show for all of this? Those words sunk in deeply. At the time, Edward was living in a house with a group of random people. He had gone from being in a relationship and when the breakup happened, he realized “I literally can’t make it on my own.” He had no sense of freedom. And it was a miserable feeling.

Maybe it was his friend’s powerful words, maybe it was his parents’ penetrating message, maybe it was his own internal drive and aspirations, or most likely it was a combination of all three, but Edward made a deliberate change:  He went from financially unstable and accepting that as the reality of pursuing an acting career to systematically overhauling his life so he could pursue his passion and afford a basic lifestyle he deserved.

Today, Edward has taken those hard-earned lessons and uses them to coach actors on his practical philosophy of living the artist life on your terms.

Figure out the salary you need. Broaden your available opportunities by getting your portfolio in the hands of every casting agency. Register in other cities. When an opportunity comes, just like a normal job you should negotiate. You should understand the time commitment, the pay and any other details and determine if it meets your expectations and can be used to progress your career. Don’t fall into the trap of the “I’m in it for the experience” mindset. Too many artists adopt an unspoken belief that, “Well, I’m an artist, at some point in the future the value I bring will be valued financially.” 

But more generally, he gives advice that applies to anyone pursuing a goal, and it’s advice he himself followed to change his life and make pursuing a career in entertainment a sustainable reality.

Make a plan and get it on paper… ‘this is what I want over the next year of my life,’ and the little steps that get you there. You don’t have to lose 100 pounds in the next month. You just have to begin. I make a lot of lists… lists in my opinion are so simple. Just moments of setting goals on the paper and checking them off. Plot it out and let that motivate you to make it happen. And surround yourself with people who are doing it and are successful, so you can ask what they are doing and how they are making it work.

There may be a price to pay when pursuing a passion, but don’t assume that price has to be financial instability.

But how about the other statement?

There is always a price to not pursuing your passion. 

This is the aspect of Edward’s story that resonates with me on the deepest level. It comes back to the essential reason I took on this project of profiling all of these people.

Ultimately, pursuing one’s calling is about being yourself. And Edward never gave up on being himself.

Even as he struggled to make ends meet, even when he felt like he was letting his parents down or like he was letting himself down, he still knew he had to find a way to make this life work. He chose authenticity over caving to external pressures time and time again. He persevered and followed what was true to him.

I want to illustrate what can happen when you do this by sharing a couple brief stories Edward shared with me.

In the early days of acting, Edward described a time when he would see other actors and wanted to change his style to be like them. Or how before his DJ gigs, he would think “What am I going to do, what am I going to wear…” In essence, he felt he needed to be somebody.

But his DJ clients would keep coming back to him, saying “We love you, we love your voice, the crowd response differently when it’s you.” And he was securing acting roles just the same. In his words, he began brushing away the idea of having to be “the thing that’s not quite you,” and in turn he was able to let loose and discover a new confidence and sense of self-value, and a new freedom. He shed inauthenticity and discovered the joy and fulfillment that comes with doing so.

Edward also recounted a time when he was in a relationship with someone whose friends were all in accounting, law, and government. Every time he went out, he felt like “I’m an actor an a DJ” was a conversation killer. He felt awkward and often edited himself.

But one time he was at an event and said “I’m an actor,” and a guy turned around and said, “Hey, you were in Rent… you were amazing!” That was a moment of self-realization for Edward… Yes, I don’t need to be ashamed. I’m an actor and I can say that with confidence.

And even with respect to his family, there was the day his mother came to watch him perform in Rent. Edward recalls how she was crying after the show. She could see that this was who he was, and she finally understood how happy he was doing his thing.

In spite of immense external pressure that was consistently trying to push Edward to head down other paths that didn’t feel like they were him, he managed to hold onto what he knew to be true for himself the entire way. And by pursuing his truth, he grew to become even more authentic and free. More than any other lesson I have taken from Edward, this has influenced me the most.

So, when all is said and done, which is the heavier price to pay, the one you pay by pursuing your passion or the one you pay by not pursuing it?

♦  ♦  ♦


So what does all of this mean? These six inspiring individuals have opened my eyes to many things. In the Finale, I share some of my thoughts about finding a higher purpose, following your dream, and living a life without regret:

Finale: Follow Your Truth

Artist by Maggie Smith - Duo Tone

 

My sincerest thanks to Edward Daniels. From traversing that big river to today, I am inspired and in awe.

You can find more about what Edward is up to at www.edwarddaniels.com.


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