Is “Never Give Up” a Wise Message?

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DramaMask

It’s as if a collective will is at work to keep you a nobody and prevent you from penetrating the force field of mass unconsciousness.

                                                                                                   
People want no part in launching a nobody. It’s as if a collective will is at work to keep you a nobody and prevent you from penetrating the force field of mass unconsciousness. But as soon as you break through that barrier, you can blow your nose and someone will take an interest. It is your job to persist in offering what you have, no matter how many times it’s thrown back in your face, or worse, ignored.

Of course, first it would be helpful to realistically assess what you offer.

If I know I’m a mediocre ice-sculptor, I probably shouldn’t push my ice swans that resemble stumpy geese on people in the hopes that they won’t know the difference — certainly not for money.  I should however, research, observe, study, and practice until I’m personally satisfied that my skill is equal to my passion for ice-sculpting. If I come up with an array of legitimate-sounding excuses instead — I don’t have a car to get to ice-sculpting class; I’m allergic to water so I have to limit my exposure — it might be time to consider that I’m confusing a glamorized idea of ice-sculpting with passion.

It’s similar to asking if we appear too thin/fat/washed-out/gaudy in certain clothes — we wouldn’t ask if we didn’t have an inkling that we look slightly cadaverous in necrotic green. We really ask because we’re hoping others don’t see what we see. Of course they do, and at times, more accurately than ourselves. If you even suspect you don’t paint or sing or dance exceptionally, you can be sure others have an idea too. It doesn’t mean you can’t inch closer to exceptional, but it does mean you have a lot of work ahead.

I hovered in that very realm when it came to acting.

In acting, I often lacked consistency. I had some exceptional moments, but moments here and there don’t make a career. The most memorable of these moments took place many years ago — think decade-plus, but think fleetingly so we don’t drag uncomfortable age math into it. I still lived in New York, A and I were a couple, and I performed Agnes in a scene from Agnes of God in front of Columbia University directing students. I had invited A to come and watch. My acting coach, who was also the directing instructor at Columbia, had asked to direct me in the scene as demonstration for her students. She was a great fan of my acting — not because I was so skilled or brilliant, but because she was a big proponent of organic, truthful acting. I fit the bill because I was incapable of making something happen in myself that I didn’t actually feel. That means, I didn’t know how to fake anything.

A non-actor might believe that “faking” is the very definition of acting. But with proper training, you learn to arrive authentically at the requisite emotions of a scene. If your scene calls for tears because your lover is dying from a poisoned dart, you shed genuine tears. You don’t put yourself in a loony state of delusion where you believe the circumstances of the scene are real. But, you access parts of you — be they memories or scenarios — to which you intrinsically relate, and apply them to the scene. Basically, you work yourself over emotionally, which is as challenging as it sounds. But as in every skill, with regimented training and practice, that mystical inner automaton we call second-nature, takes over. And when your scene calls for heartfelt sobbing, you produce true emotion and actual tears.

The joke about eye-drops in lieu of tears, while not a myth, is a last resort to which no self-respecting actor would stoop without justification, such as an over-zealous assistant director barking into a bullhorn that they have the location only for six more minutes and they’re rolling NOW.

Before Agnes of God, my acting coach and I worked on my audition scenes. My talent was all over the place because I had no control over my own on/off switch. I would go from powerhouse moments of authenticity to dead monotone due to my subconscious refusal to force an inflection on lines I did not feel. To be successful at auditioning, actors are equipped with fall-back techniques during dry times at the emotion well. But I relied solely on tapping emotional honesty. It was precisely for this reason that my acting coach chose me for Agnes.

In the scene, Agnes, a young nun and passionate naïf, confronts a journalist who’s there to dig up dirt on the convent. In front of the class at Columbia, I confronted the actress who played the journalist. The words poured out of my mouth and my cheeks burnt hot. I knew what it was not to trust this woman who threatened what I held precious. More and more of Agnes’s panic came over me; I was Agnes. My chest tightened, my breath shortened, and from my depths, out came a wail about how the journalist was there to take god away from me. Loss gripped my heart, and my eyes flooded with tears. And it didn’t have to be about a nun fearful of losing her god.

It was as if the entire class collectively dropped their jaw. My scene partner stared at me with reverence. In the front, A discreetly wiped a tear from his eye. Flushed and proud, my acting coach mime-squeezed me from her desk. But I was slightly trembling, because I did not have an off switch and the emotions had to fade down on their own.

I was immediately offered multiple parts in Columbia thesis films, and from that day forth, A referred to me as a “great actress.” In the next few years, I was a participant in many duds and misses on stage and film. After each project, A and I sat and dissected my performance. One day, I turned to him:

“Do you realize you’ve considered me a ‘great actress’ for years, even though we both agree most of my performances have been flawed?” He thought about it, and slowly nodded in surprise.

Then he exclaimed, “But! When you played Agnes…!” And the old admiration glinted in his eyes.

Soon after, I moved to Los Angeles. The pursuit of acting is by nature a living Shoots and Ladders game with unpredictable rises and falls — although the falls are more prevalent — determined by whether you book, what you book, and how often you book. The falls also tend to drop lower than the rises stretch high. Whenever I landed low, a dread came over me: What if I ride that Agnes of God moment my entire acting life without ever living up to it again?

Today, ages have passed. I’ve booked leads in independent films, which is satisfying to my ego, and commercials, which is satisfying to my bank account. But because I’m by nature hard on myself, only in the last year have I begun to sample the confidence of a professional. Not from any remarkable career breakthrough, but after years of roles and auditions and practice, it’s become easier to tap true emotions at will for a role, and be more consistently taken over by the mystical inner automaton.

I’ve had occasion to hear both “never give up,” and “have you considered a career change?” The former was delivered by people who didn’t know me, the latter by people who cared about me and watched me struggle for years in a field in which few advance. Neither stance was particularly effective or supportive in my eyes.

Encouragement and support from those who surround us is lovely and necessary. But unless one means to say “never stop training and practicing,” it’s not up to others to tell us to “never give up,” no more than it’s up to them to tell us to quit. I’m not speaking of the true notion behind “never give up,” that of perseverance, strength and courage while chipping away at the force field of mass unconsciousness. That notion in fact, is the motor to get us through the thicket of effort and setbacks to our pursuit. However, the nature of “never give up” necessitates it to be innate in the pursuer, not some words to randomly throw around. It’s like love, or faith, it’s either there inside of you, or it isn’t. Telling others “never give up” is at best an empty platitude, at worst, fostering false hope. It’s telling the person wearing necrotic green that it’s flattering even as they stand in front of a mirror.

If the true notion of “never give up” naturally exists in you, then you know there’s no way around the necessity of ongoing training and practice, whether you’re a cellist, a gymnast, an ice-sculptor, or an actor. Performance is unscientific and can vary in quality, but once no longer a novice, you don’t ever go back to feeling (unripe-tomato) green.

Confidence in one’s skill is like a benevolent mist. If perseverance is a motor, confidence is its fuel. It’s the essence with which we keep going and continue to offer what we have — until someone takes notice. (continue)
 

Cathartic Monkeyism

  • No one could or should decide for others if they ought to quit their pursuits.
  • On the other hand, “Never Give Up,” is a message that ought to be doled out sparingly, because fostering potential false hope is no less damaging than discouraging someone from pursuing their passion.

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33 comments

  1. . · · Reply

    I agree completely, “Never Give Up” is a dangerous concept to use as a mantra. It can be the conceptual sibling to: “I’ve always done it this way and I’m not going to change.” Just this afternoon, I watched a woman do a presentation to a group of investors for cash to produce a doll for young female children. The doll talked and was designed to offer positive commentary to its owner – one comment the doll made was “Never Give Up”. And that made me very uncomfortable as a lesson to a young, impressionable mind. The investors nixed the investment based on costing, quality, business plan and competitive landscape. When the presenter was interviewed after the rejection, she said that this would not change her dedication to the project and that she was determined to continue on – Never Give Up. Cutesy, quoting her own doll, and exactly on point that the mantra is seriously flawed (incontrovertible evidence that there are excellent reasons to change).

    I would suggest, Gunmetal Geisha, as much as this mantra may have an appropriate time and place, that when you questioned your acting ability, you were taking precisely the correct action to keep you from mindlessly proceeding regardless of context and circumstances. I call it the “Do, Be, Do” process. I choose a course of action, pursue it, then stop, realistically assess and question, and then, if appropriate, continue to pursue or adjust course (or even discontinue if appropriate). Repeat as necessary. The tricky part (for me) is to maintain self-confidence when doing, and then honestly question everything when assessing. Trusting my own judgment seems to be critical to making that happen. Love the picture of the masks – I see it as two different perspectives from the same person, sharing one vision.

    Thank you once again for your thoughtful and insightful post – you never fail to energize my lazy brain cells.

    1. Your brain cells are anything but “lazy…”

      I think the point I’m making is, even if I or anyone else “mindlessly proceeds regardless of context or circumstance,” it’s not up to others to encourage or discourage us from our pursuits. Assuming that my judgment for self-assessment isn’t impaired, if I’ve lived on a nearly-broke basis for a long time, it would be my conscious choice. Being told to get some entry-level day job instead, will not help me in any way, nor will it have an effect on me.

      Now, let’s assume that I am delusional and my sense of self-assessment is distorted. In this case, all those messages of “Never Give Up” might prolong and feed the self-delusion.

      I find both messages to be faulty.

      Your lady with the doll – first, weird! Second, I’m glad she chooses to keep going and isn’t deterred by the investors! Whether her doll is original or painfully unoriginal, she needs to discover for herself. I hope she finds success. I just wish she and her doll weren’t going around with that dumbass mantra…

      1. Paul · ·

        I suspect this could be a long conversation. I agree that we should ALLOW others to find their own way, however I do not agree that we should offer neither criticism nor encouragement. In fact my understanding is that you have expressed the opposite yourself, upon occasion. For instance in “The Blogging Dance in 5 Steps” you say, when speaking of other bloggers, “…often they are generous with their experience and tips. Needless to say, if the rest of us also act with generosity any chance we get, together we’d build an enriching blogging community.” That sounds suspiciously like you are advocating being open to at least encouragement and maybe criticism for purposes of “…build an enriching blogging community.” Sooo, what say you?

      2. Oh, I said nothing against offering critique or support – both are crucial. I’ve been specifically and exclusively referring to taking it upon ourselves to tell others to either *quit their pursuit* or *never give up* on it. And I’ve been contending that both assertions are equally faulty, for myriad reasons I’ve already covered.

  2. As a bitter person, I usually recommend that people give up. Laying on the couch is so much better than effort for something that probably won’t work anyways.

    1. Four words: Take me with you.

      1. This couch isn’t big enough for the two of us. There would have to be a duel at the center of the couch to determine who gets to lay on it.

      2. I’m less lazy, so I would naturally win. Prepare your weapon.

      3. I choose Nyquil so that I would fall asleep and you would have a hard time removing me from the couch.

  3. “Never give up on something that you can’t go a day without thinking about.”
    ― Winston Churchill

    We’ve reduced the saying to three words, thereby leaving out the most important part. For my part, I don’t think, in the above context, it is an empty platitude. I think we are a ‘disposable’ society, willing to ditch one new shiny thing for another at the drop of a hat. Collectively, I believe we lack perseverance and passion. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t believe for a moment that staying in a bad situation or continuing to do something you don’t enjoy is the right thing to do. But in general, it seems to me that most people give up rather quickly on the things they are passionate about and then give up even quicker on the things they take on after that.

    Mind you, I work for cheese so there’s that.

    1. It seems random strangers put the message out to other random strangers. But it’s the most sensible message to tell oneself, as long as one’s willing to do the work behind it.

      And who wouldn’t, if there were cheese involved.

  4. P.J. · · Reply

    This is an interesting slope and I have to say, for the most part, I disagree. It all depends on the context, though. I don’t think people, usually, mean it in a derogatory way. Now, offering career advice? I will agree. But the don’t (or never) give up part, well, I think people are usually trying to be supportive.

    I would encourage you to watch this speech. I’ve watched it probably hundreds of times. It’s truly amazing. It’s about 11 minutes long, but I think it shows a different side of that saying, or a version of it. http://youtu.be/HuoVM9nm42E

    1. I tried to watch, but as soon as I realized it was sports-related, I tuned out. However, once again, due to the thoughtfulness of you and other readers, I’ve gone back into the post to clarify my position. The offending paragraph now reads:

      “I’m not speaking of the true notion behind ‘never give up,’ that of perseverance, strength and courage while chipping away at the force field of mass unconsciousness. That notion is in fact, the motor to get us through the bramble of time, effort, and setbacks to our pursuit. However, the nature of “never give up” necessitates it to be innate in the pursuer, not some words to randomly throw around. It’s like love, or faith, it’s either there inside of you, or it isn’t. Telling others ‘never give up’ is at best an empty platitude, at worst, fostering false hope.”

      1. P.J. · ·

        Please don’t look at that clip as all sports related. The message goes way beyond sports. His message is much stronger than don’t give up on a sports stage. It’s a very powerful video, in my eyes.

      2. I’ll try again at some point, but I can’t promise I’ll get through it.

    2. Paul · · Reply

      Thank you for sharing the Jim Valvano video. It is inspirational. I believe he did a great deal of good with his cancer message of “Never Give Up”. As a cancer survivor, I know how important it is that we (as individuals and as a society) never give up trying to defeat this insidious disease. However, that being said, Valvano also used the same mantra elsewhere in his life where it was not only inappropriate but was destructive. He caused a great scandal at NC State when he put the game ahead of the players’ best interests. Wiki says; “…a school investigation did reveal that Valvano’s student athletes did not perform well in the classroom, as only 11 of the players that he coached prior to 1988 had maintained an average of C or better.” Valvano’s determination to craft a winning team with the never give up attitude, ignored the academic needs and best interests of his players for the sole purpose of winning. This eventually cost Valvano his job, cost the university serious damage to their reputation and cost the team a two year probation. All for “Never Give Up.”

      1. P.J. · ·

        While true that Valvano’s tenure at NC State wasn’t always the best, I think the Never Give Up mantra came beyond there. The reality with college (and many other) sports is not everything is always on the up-and-up. What you posted about Valvano could be said about hundreds — if not more — of coaches all all levels of college and, unfortunately, high school. Though I know the history for Valvano, I realize “Don’t give up, don’t ever give up” goes way beyond the spectrum of sports.

  5. This was a really interesting post, something I’ll be pondering for a while I think. As someone who had been in various creative occupations for most of my life, all with limited financial success, I can definitely relate to your journey.

    I partially agree with you with regard to that when we only ask if something isn’t right it’s because we know deep down it’s not. I only partially agree because sometimes we can work at something for so long, trying to perfect flaws that nobody else even notices. I know I’ve done that many, many times.

    Also, you wrote: “If you even suspect you don’t paint or sing or dance exceptionally, you can be sure others have an idea too.”

    That could mean that everyone is correct about your lack of exceptionality (is that even a word?) But equally it could mean that because you are so convinced of it, you eventually convince others.

    It also raises another point: do you have to be exceptional to be good or even great at something? If every other actor can also bring to it the emotional intensity that you do, does that make your acting any less brilliant? I don’t think so (and I am very grateful to you for writing this post, because until I started to reply I had not had this realisation!)

    1. Thank you for this comment, it touches on aspects that the post doesn’t cover. For example, the post doesn’t account for those who nitpick and beat themselves up even when they do everything they should in regard to a pursuit they’re great at.

      Also, you’re so right about those who constantly perfect flaws that no one notices! (I edit videos, and I fuss over single frames, which go by faster than a human blink.)

      As far as exceptionality, again, you make a valid point. We can definitely color people’s perspectives with our own, and, people’s idea of “exceptional” varies anyway – it’s subjective.

      Finally, like you bring up in your last paragraph, there is room for so much variety and taste, who’s to say what’s good, versus great, versus exceptional?

  6. mike · · Reply

    I read this earlier and I believe you have made some changes to it. I was sort of lost on where you were going the first time I read it, but now looking it over again, it makes more sense to me. I think you got it right with the statement “never stop training and practicing”. Someone may realize that they will never be “The One” at something, if they love doing that something then they should be the best at it they can. Occasionally a magic moment happens, the universe aligns, and you, at least for a moment, reach that point where it feels like perfection.

    1. I’m glad the changes make it less ambiguous.

      It’s interesting how much you can learn through writing on a subject, and then how much more you learn by discussing it! You guys have been invaluable in this process, thank you.

      The magic moment you speak of, is worth years of effort, to some.

  7. As a teacher, I’m torn on this concept. We as a society are finally moving on from our “give everyone a trophy and tell them they can all succeed,” mentality. How many thirty-somethings still think they were good at everything they ever tried?

    I don’t know how many times I’ve told a kid, “I’ve watched you play, you aren’t going to be an NBA player. IF you work on your skills, YOU MIGHT be able to play for a small college and MAYBE get a small scholarship… One step at a time.” They too, are deluded by one small moment in their life where they were great. But to make it, greatness has to be sustained consistently.

    Having a blog is difficult because the experts say to write all the time…but pumping out an entry every day only creates average content. Good writers marinate in their work, and do edits (which apparently you did to this piece). But what often separates the good from the famous is luck, timing, and being likable. I feel that luck might be the biggest part of that.

    Having said all of that…have you ever thought about using all your talents to write and direct your own script/screenplay? Obviously you know the intangibles to great acting (which clearly needs good subject matter and great lines) and you clearly know how to write well…so…

    1. Yes, I started writing and making films a few years ago and have about a dozen shorts under my belt. I’m actually in film school now, but I still audition too. I talk a bit about my history beginning with this post.

      I don’t feel I was so much deluded by a moment (or moments), as much as I was jumping ahead of myself. At the time, I had some distance to go in order to gain consistency.

  8. bgbowers · · Reply

    “it would be helpful to realistically assess what you offer.”

    Unless it’s glaringly obvious (as in A wants to be a singer, but is tone deaf), realistic assessment is often easier said than done. For me personally, I know that I (as an individual) and my writing style does not fit into any ‘box’ which makes ‘realistic assessment’ somewhat challenging.

    “If the true notion of “never give up” naturally exists in you, then you know there’s no way around the necessity of ongoing training and practice”

    Agree wholeheartedly. Taking actors as an example…look at someone like Bryan Cranston…how many years did he persevere before he finally got his break in “Breaking Bad”? Which also links back to my previous point about ‘realistic assessment’. Just because the industry ‘experts’ didn’t recognise his talent doesn’t mean that he’s not talented. Thank goodness he didn’t give up.

    1. I know what you’re saying – I was definitely referring to the obvious.

      As far as BC, I’m not disputing your point, I would just use a different example, because BC had a pretty decent career before BB. In fact that’s where his genius lies: He was a top-notch comedic actor on “Malcolm in the Middle” for years, before portraying Walter White’s seething intensity. But yes, BB did cement his brilliance into the world’s mind.

  9. I feel the messages in this post rather potently right now. To continue trying to be what I believe is a great poet or to … I haven’t tried to answer the OR question. I don’t want to be that American Idol audition-er that everyone laughs at because their friends cheered them on and got their hopes up that they were indeed great.

    “never give up” should really be translated inside our own heads as “never give up on ourself” no matter where we go, what we are lead to believe, we must always believe we are “capable” of being passionate about something and letting us enjoy our moments of life.

    1. I think you nailed it. The correct message, in my opinion, ought to be: “Never ever give up passion.” Even if one discovers it for something other than one thought.

      That “or” you speak of can be intimidating. But even without having read your poetry (yet), I bet my life you’re nothing of an Idol-auditioner!

  10. Everything that Hasty said. This idea of needing constant strength (which is what I always feel about that statement “Never give up”) is an exhausting prospect.

    1. Would it be better, do you think, if the message to us by people who don’t know us was, “stay strong?”

      1. I think so. “Strength” implies so many different things. I don’t think the same judgement and connotations revolve around that phrase.

  11. I’ve been having such similar thoughts these days. It’s not the determination or perseverance I struggle with, but the fuel, my confidence. I suppose it comes it time, the time where you no longer feel “green”.

    1. Seems like you have the important part — the motor. Fuel is something you can find.

  12. lrconsiderer · · Reply

    So the inverse then, at some point, would be true? That we stand in front of the mirror in the unlikely dress, with all around us telling us they see something lovely, and all we see are flaws?

    I know I can be downright arrogant about my writing at times, and I equally have a ‘feel’ for when it’s less than good (that said, some of the blog posts I’ve written which I would consider ‘not good’ have been LOVED, and some which I have been smugly self-satisfied about have taken a long time to gain recognition – so there’s that) – I’m never quite sure which way to trust my own vs other people’s judgement.

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