“Youth would be an ideal state if it came a little later in life.”
— Herbert Henry Asquith
I was arguably the worst barista that ever lived. I singled-handedly dashed the hopes and dreams of hundreds of Bay Area coffee lovers. Unsuspecting patrons, young and old, would anxiously await their morning pick-me-up to have me slide some woeful brew across the counter.
They’d look at me with expressions that seemed to ask, Who sent you? The enemy?
Of course, it didn’t help that I’d amble into work on three hours of rest following another long night at the bars. I’d set up tables and wipe counter tops in a daze wondering how much longer I could sustain this painful two-step.
The answer turned out to be quite a while. I was after all twenty-two years old, the height of my invincibility, or at least perception of it.
Many years later, I sometimes marvel at my youthful exploits, both for the idiocy and athleticism they demanded. And though I had a good run, I’m relieved I made it through relatively unscathed.
As I not so gradually approach what is now considered to be middle age, I can’t help but think there are a few things I wish I knew back then — a few nuggets of wisdom, of practical advice it might have benefited me to know.
And though I have few regrets, I can’t help but wonder if these lessons would have altered my imperfect path for the better, even slightly.
In no particular order, here are a few things I would have nudged my younger self to consider…
Pursue Your Dreams Wholeheartedly (but learn a marketable skill)
At twenty-five, I packed my things and set out for the land my father swore he’d never return to — New York City. For the next three years I studied under theater giants, eating, breathing, and sleeping the craft of storytelling.
I’d pound on my chest for ten blocks with clenched fists on the way to school, roaring at the top my lungs, “Come on! You either want it or you don’t!” I’d flip on the lights to that beautiful black box theater dreaming of all the stories I planned to one day tell.
The truth was, there was no place on earth I’d have rather been — a certitude I’ve never recovered.
But a few years later, the grind of trying to become a working actor started to wear on a once resilient spirit. I had no delusions about entering the most competitive industry on the planet, but like most things in life, you don’t really know until you know.
Only it wasn’t just the fiercely tough world of show business that started to dissuade me but a change of heart. Like autumn gradually giving way to winter, the glow I once felt about performing seemed to dim. Without conferring with me, my heart changed what it valued most in life.
By the time I hit my mid-thirties, my heart knew it was being duped. It always does. It was time to embark on a new path.
The trouble was I had no discernible abilities to do so, or at least didn’t feel like I did. I was a strong public speaker, a decent writer, and could piece together the right prose to stir a spirit, but I soon discovered talent doesn’t pay the bills.
When I returned to the San Francisco Bay Area after living in New York for nearly eleven years, my opportunities were limited. I made inquiries to just about every university, college, and high school in the area with the hope they had an opening for an actor to teach what he knew, or at least though he did.
But I soon discovered the position I wanted was a coveted one. As result, I had to find another way to make myself useful.
What I learned is throwing caution to the wind in pursuit of a dream is not only flawed but cavalier. You can be bold and not reckless. You can chase your ambitions, while building up an arsenal of work force value.
Learning indispensable skills will make you a more competitive force in an unforgiving and ever-changing work environment.
Say What You Need to Say Sooner Rather than Later
One evening my dad called me into his study. He told me to sit down as he went over a talk he’d carefully scripted.
“You know Nick, you and I have a pretty formal relationship,” he said. “It reminds me of what I had with my dad. We became friends, but it wasn’t until late in his life. I hope we can do better.”
I went to sleep that night confident we could. But as the years went on, the chasm seemed to deepen. We spoke in sound bites about the news, the weather, and the local sports team.
I marveled at the vulnerability I could share with friends but not with my father. For years I harbored a type of guilt, sadness even, over my perceived failure to be the type of son he deserved.
Strangely, the two of us became closer when the distance between us grew wider. His frequent business trips to New York allowed us dinners just a few blocks from the pulsating heart of Times Square.
Huddled around a checkered tablecloth at a no frills Italian hideaway, there was suddenly no place to hide. I was, for the first time, getting to know my dad.
As I got to know the man, I began to appreciate our inability to communicate was far more nuanced and complicated than I’d believed. It was only through finally making the effort to ask questions and gradually reveal truths a stronger bond was forged.
Some Goals Can Come at Too High a Cost
My alarm would blare each morning at 5:00 am. I’d slip on my shoes, make my to the theater, then write my name in big easy to read letters on the sign-in sheet. I would tiptoe past a sleeping guard to avoid an argument, of which there were many.
“Why do you need to be here so early?” they’d ask.
“I have work to do,” I’d say.
But in my obsessive pursuit of becoming the best actor I could be my determination left me bankrupt in the “big picture” arenas of life.
I often chose solitude over community, competition over collaboration. I kept the love of those who cared for me at arm’s length, and hardly, if ever, honored my victories. I prided myself on never being satisfied, speaking to myself in ways I would never to another human being.
It took the failure of a relationship and being dropped by a talent agent to shake me from my stupor. I finally realized there was more to life than booking a guest star.
By the time I’d reached my second year as a professional actor, I’d become sick of hearing my own voice. I needed to find ways to amplify the ones of others. Soon, I started volunteering with high schools, homeless organizations, and even orphanages on the other side of the world.
I spent time with former gang members, kids who didn’t know where their next meal was coming from, and teenagers desperately trying to navigate through adolescence.
And in the process, I learned far more from them than they from me.
I learned there will always be someone who needs help, and compassion is the only currency that matters. I also discovered the best way to mitigate your own troubles is to try and alleviate those of others.
In the end, my goals became more about lifting others up rather than leaving them behind. It was ultimately in the striving to become more rather than gain more, I gave my ambition greater integrity.