I remember a friend telling me how he called up a well-known, established performer once and asked for advice. He explained to the seasoned pro that he had no idea how to go full-time and just wanted some general guidance.
“I was thinking you might be able to point me in the right direction…” he told the veteran. The full-time-for-30-years-nothing-to-be-worried-about-and-definitely-no-need-to-be-overly-protective-of-his-place-in-the-industry older performer replied, “I had to figure it out for myself! You should, too.” and hung up the phone.
I’ll never forget that story.
Occasionally, I’ll receive an email from younger performers wanting my advice on how to turn their love of magic into a part-time or full-time job. I always - ALWAYS - respond with an in-depth, thoughtful answer about my journey, my thoughts on this career, and any other help I can give.
There’s no sense in being secretive about how I’ve done it - they’re going to get the answers from me or they’ll get them from someone else. In the end, they’ll either remember me as the guy who was generous with his knowledge or the arrogant jerk who wouldn’t give them the time of day. The way I see it is the more help you spread around the more it comes back to help you.
I’ve never sought out help - possibly to my own detriment. I forged my own path in search of a career that I envisioned as a youngster, without any knowledge of how to get there or what it took to succeed. Early on I would pretend to be more successful than I was, hoping I might attract a mentor in the process. But it had the opposite effect - by posturing and positioning myself as successful, the people who might have been able to help me probably thought I didn’t need their help.
That’s my fault. I didn’t know better.
There’s no road map for success as a solo-preneur. There’s no formula for “making it” as an entertainer. So whenever I get one of those e-mails I try to imagine a young Mark Toland on the other side of the screen, nervously typing a few questions for a performer he looks up to, and hoping that this performer might be able to “point him in the right direction.”
I got one of those e-mails just a few weeks ago.
In a nutshell, the sender expressed frustration at not making as much progress in the craft as they had hoped they might have by now. They mentioned numerous performers they’d seen on social media and TV, and wondered how they could possibly achieve the same level of success.
I wrote back some general assistance, some book recommendations, and other ideas. But I also asked a question of my own: “Do you mind if I ask you how old you are?”
A day later, they responded. This young performer, ambitious and talented, in search of more success, told me they were only 22 years old.
I was startled that a performer fresh out of college could possibly think they were far behind. To me, they were just getting started. And, they were far ahead of me when I was their age. They were already asking the right questions, already hard at work building a brand, and already working towards a definite goal.
This is the problem with life in 2018. Social media forces us to constantly compare ourselves to others. Problem is, we’re comparing our entire selves to the carefully curated online image of someone else. It’s ridiculously easy to get depressed by the wild success of people our age when all we see is a string of their greatest accomplishments accompanied by a perfectly matching Instagram filter.
I thought the idea of “feeling behind” was my thing. I turned 30 and panicked. Nothing was how I’d pictured it, everything was different than I expected. The shows I was doing weren’t even on my radar when I was 22.
When I hit 30 I went into a tailspin, unsure of what I wanted out of all of this. It wasn’t my first existential crisis, but it was definitely the worst. I’m not sure I’ve come out of it yet.
I’ve had to learn to stop comparing myself to others. I deleted social media apps from my phone and limited my time on those platforms. I started doing creative projects like writing and video production just because they made me happy.
And, I had to reassess my relationship with my chosen profession. Most of the time it’s not what I wanted at all. But sometimes it can be really great. It wasn’t always that way, but that’s how it’s been lately.
So I hold onto those high moments - I bottle them up and keep them in a special notebook on my shelf. When I’m worried that I’m not where I want to be I look back through my notes and remember the standing ovation from 6,500 people last summer or the time I wore a listening device during my show so a deaf woman could hear me and she told me afterwards that I “really cheered her up”.
It’s funny what success means to you when you stop living by someone else’s definition.
It took me a while to figure out a response to this young performer but you can read below what I wrote. It helped me to write it and I really hope it helped him, too:
You’re only 22! Wow, you’re doing so great. The things you’re working on now are things I only just started figuring out in recent years.
Here’s what I wish I’d known at your age:
Don’t worry about other people. Don’t worry about where you are or where you want to be. You can’t control it and you can’t force it. Just keep working hard - you’re already on the right track and I’m sure you’ll be where you want to be in no time.
Just hear me out - there’s no one way to do this. Some people do it when they’re 15, others when they’re 50. Some people get started late and others fizzle out early on. If you really want to do it, just stick with it, work hard, and don’t give up.
You have time!