At age 25 (2008), Lupita writes of her disappointment, feeling lost, unfocused and afraid that she would never figure out her purpose.
On August 23rd 2008, she journals afraid tho on a flight to Yale – “I have this dream and desire [to be an actor] and yet it dwarfs me – but it’s MY dream, God dammit – I made it up!! How can what I dreamed up defeat ME?!”
On May 4th 2012, (4 years later) she journals that she now wanted “To make meaningful films that affect change in people’s understanding of and commitment to the world we live in.” And to visit New Orleans for at least a week.
On May 13th 2013 ( 1 year later) she booked 12 Years A Slave and on June 6th would be in Louisiana working on the film for 5 weeks.
5 years through her process, she bags an Oscar award and 24 others that I couldn’t keep up with. She makes it!
My analysis. It took Lupita 5 years to talk herself into her dream, apply for scholarship at Yale school of drama, get on a plane to Yale afraid and second guessing herself, overcome her fears, dream of making meaningful films, land a role on 12 years a slave and do it feeling like a fraud. Then succeed afraid of succeeding 😀
Her process gives me hope. That my dreams too are valid.
This is Lupita Nyoungo’s process. 31 year old Luo girl. Beautiful on the inside and the outside and if she could make it, who says we can’t?
Below is her process in detail. 4,000 words long yes but worth the read. (Ref: The personal investment of following a dream by Lupita Nyong’o, Facebook notes, December 12th 2014 )
A Key Note Address at the Massachusetts Conference for Women
December 4th, 2014
I was asked to give this key note address some time in the spring. I was very busy at the time and I was still coming down from the whole Awards Season whirlwind. I have to admit that I only really agreed to do it because it was far away in the future. But like all things far away in the future, with time, they get nearer and nearer. And as it got nearer and nearer I grew more and more fearful that I wouldn’t know what to speak about. And then it dawned on me that that was the perfect subject to address: overcoming fear in order to get to your goal or your dream. Aha! I thought, perfect. But then of course I was crippled with the fear of talking about my fear!
I tried to find other people’s stories to illustrate what I know about dealing with fear, but couldn’t really remember any of them well enough to borrow them. I thought of hiring someone to write my speech for me,but then they’d know everything about me! I even tried to find another subject to speak about. But then I realized I was doing that actor thing of trying to find something to hide behind – that’s what we do as actors: we tell the truth by pretending to be someone else. But I knew this was not the occasion for that. So I’ve finally managed to quell my fears, and put the actor in me aside in order to share with you how I got to be an actor in the first place.
I would like to dedicate this talk to my sister, who is struggling at this very moment with figuring out her purpose. (I have 3 sisters so hopefully I am not calling anyone out!). I’ve meant to call, I’ve meant to write a long email… Modern lifestyles can draw us so far away from the ones we love most, and it seems like the more ways there are to communicate, the harder it is for us to really do so. So by sharing this with you today, I hope to kill two birds with one stone.
Dreams. The dictionary defines a dream as a series of thoughts, images, and sensations occurring in a person’s mind during sleep or relaxation. The dreaming I would like to speak to is a glimpse of the thing you want to do that would make you feel most alive. A dream as a portal to your purpose.
My dream was to be an actor from when I was very little, but I didn’t always know it. Before I could call myself an actress I had a lot of work to do: I had to unchain myself from indecision, cut through the fear of going after my dream, jump over my own ego and allow myself to be vulnerable and confront a great deal of Imposter Syndrome.
1. UNCHAINING FROM INDECISION
The first step to becoming an actor was to choose it for myself. Now, I am very indecisive; I’m a Pisces, I am astrologically predisposed to not being able to make up my mind, I admit that. But finding out that I wanted to be an actor was made a little more difficult because I grew up in Nairobi, Kenya, in the 80s when acting was just not a viable career path.
Though I loved to perform and make believe when I was little, nobody I knew in my immediate surrounding acted for a living. In school it wasn’t one of the professions we learned about either (there was lawyer,doctor, businessman, secretary, policeman, politician, teacher – no actor on the list!). It didn’t help also that at that time in the 80s we only had one TV station, owned by the state, which aired extremely boring programming for a child – government propaganda: We witnessed things like which school the president had visited and distributed packets of milk, which church he had attended that Sunday. So my primary access to the world of performance became the cassette tapes of dubbed American TV that my cousins brought back with them. I was enraptured by things like Kids Incorporated, Menudo, and Different Strokes. But the characters all spoke in a strange accent and lived in a faraway land called America. In the 90s we got our second TV station which aired 95% of foreign programming: I watched Rosa Salvage from Mexico,Neighbours from Australia, East Enders from the UK. So while my imagination grew and my passion for performance expanded, it still was not a reflection of what I could realistically dream for myself.
But when I watched the Color Purple and saw Whoopi Goldberg and Oprah in it, a seed was planted in my heart to be an actor, but I dared not water it in public. Back then, acting was not considered an honorable profession in Kenya, especially for a politicians daughter. It was a thing that children and grown-up children did. I pursued acting opportunities in school all the same, and as long as it was extra-curricular and not my focus, I felt it was safe and acceptable. Mind you my parents put no pressure on me to want to be one thing or another, but it was the expectation from the larger society that kept me ashamed of the truth about what the desire of my heart really was. Soon enough, I was in such self-denial that I really believed that I did not want to be an actor. Then what did I want to be?
As I grew older, I grew more and more confused about what I wanted for myself. And at some point in my adolescence, the question, “What do you want to be when you grow up,” seemed to be the only one on every grown-up slips. (There is this pressure for us to define ourselves as one thing from so early on; a pressure I do not agree with. We can and should be allowed to be more than one thing, especially when we are children.) Anyway, I took to answering that question spontaneously, in the hopes that I would land on goldmine truth one day by accident and finally know what my life was to be about. Entertainment lawyer, botanist, archaeologist, nothing felt right though.
By the time I got to undergrad, Hampshire College in the US, I was still looking for the “practical,” “useful,” “viable” career path, the profitable type, the assured type. I went for the closest thing to acting: film studies because I figured wanting to hold a camera was more serious than wanting to play in front of it. But I continued to act after school. And once that chapter was done, though I had learned a lot and had been passionate about my education, I did not yet feel like I was in the right gear of my life.
I moved back to Kenya in a state of personal crisis, still wondering what my life was to be about. I was disappointed that at age 25 I was still feeling lost and unfocused. And I was worried that at the rate I was going I would never figure it out. My indecision and self-denial were becoming healthy breeding grounds for fear.
I sought advice from people I looked up to in Kenya, and as they dispelled their advice to me, I sat there totally envious of their clarity of mind and their ability to pursue their dreams. Why couldn’t I be like them? I coveted their dreams: When I met with a director, I wanted to be a director,when I met with a producer, I wanted to be a producer, I even met with a copyright lawyer and thought that might be a dream for me! I looked for all sorts of jobs, as a journalist, tv anchor, MC. Nothing worked and nothing stuck.
“When people don’t do what they want, they don’t know what to do,”
-said Marty Rubin.
There was no saving me from the agony of indecision until I stopped running away from myself and listened to myself. I took a time out to silence the voices, stop the chatter and really think about what would make me happy. I admitted it, first to myself and then out loud, that what I really wanted, more than anything was to make-believe for a living. I wept when I did so, because it was so hard to admit that I wanted to be something so improbable and impractical for a Kenyan like myself. It felt like a lofty, pipe dream really,but deep down I was overjoyed because I was finally speaking the truth about what made me feel most alive. And it wasn’t real until I shared it. John Lennon put it best:
“A dream you dream alone is only a dream. A dream you dream together is reality.”
Once it is uttered and you have taken ownership of it, the destination is taken care of and the journey can begin.
Then I got down to the most important work: figuring out what steps would get me to being the actor I wanted so badly to be. I had a plan of action, something to work towards: Getting into the Yale School of Drama for acting training.
2. CUTTING THROUGH FEAR
To go after my goal to attend the School of Drama meant that I would have to confront my fear of failure, of not being good enough. I knew it was a great acting program and I wanted the best education possible if I was to really give this acting thing a fair shot. But I felt inexperienced.
We didn’t even have a theater library in Kenya. For the audition, I worked with one monologue I knew from a speech class I had taken when I was 12 years old and another from Juliet whom I had played when I was 14. Mind you I was 25 at this point! I had no other choices and so I made do.As I boarded the plane to the US, there were naysayers in my head telling me I was crazy, that I shouldn’t even bother: over 900 people auditioned for 15spots each year. And yet there was a part of me that knew I could do it, even when the part of me that said it was impossible was louder. Our dreams arise from our imaginations, they belong to us and we owe it to ourselves to try and realize them. To encourage myself, I wrote in my diary on 23 August 2008,
“I have this dream and desire [to be an actor] and yet it dwarfs me – but it’s MY dream, God dammit – I made it up!! How can what I dreamed up defeat ME?!”
3. JUMPING OVER EGO, EMBRACING VULNERABILITY
And then I got in to Yale, this prestigious school where acting heavyweights like Meryl Streep and Angela Bassett had learned their craft (Meryl is so legendary at Yale that we referred to her just as The Streep). I was overjoyed. This was a gift I was given: the opportunity to immerse myself in my craft, surrounded by people of equal and greater talent.They had accepted me and I had to prove to them and to myself that I deserved to be there.
I couldn’t afford to fail. I had traveled too far for that and I had defied what was expected of me in my community. Too much was at stake; my dream was in motion and very much in my own hands now. And I had every intention to work hard and excel at everything I did. But I would very quickly learn that in acting school, things weren’t that straightforward.Acting is not like math where there is only one correct answer to the problem and once you figure out the formula you are all set. In acting, like in life,sometimes coming up with the wrong answer to a problem is the best way to figure out the formula for yourself. In acting school you are expected to fail and fail publicly a lot. It is the constant exposure to failure that frees you from the strongholds of the ego and allows you to embrace your vulnerability,and it is in embracing your vulnerability that you can surprise yourself in performance and share something really special about human nature.
I will give you an example: Imagine now that you have been singled out from this group, just as you are. You are told that your goal is to make everybody laugh. The instructions are to leave the room and return with enthusiasm and do something great, without having a clue what that might be and show it to the audience without words, props or anything. Now I don’t know about you but that terrifies me, especially because laughter is the one emotion an audience never lies with; they only give it to you when they are really tickled. This was an exercise from a Clown class at Yale. Not the painted face,red nose, big shoes and baggy trousers clown of the circus, but the simple,innocent fool that lives inside all of us. The child within us that we’ve spent most of our lives trying to hide under layers of intelligence, sensibility,sophistication and social cool. The one who gets great joy in making others happy and finds the fun in simple things like a light bulb going on and off and is horrified by the pop of a balloon.
There is nothing as embarrassing and uncomfortable as trying to make people laugh and hearing nothing but silence in response. When it was my turn to go up, I tried all sorts of bafoonery: flapping my arms like a bird,rolling on the floor, I ran around and jumped up and down – I didn’t believe I was funny enough and I was desperate to find something to hide behind, I was fresh out of good ideas, and there had still been no laughter. Eventually, my teacher, Chris Bayes, called me out, he said, “You’ve failed, Lupita, haven’t you?” And at that point I let it all go and broke down and cried audibly. It was only then that everyone in the room burst out laughing, because I had finally allowed myself to be honest and truly open with them. My inner fool came out to play only once I had put my ego aside.
And so it was not until I had opened myself up to the possibility of failing that I was able to find success in clown class. Without the possibility of being bad, you will never be extraordinary. And so I resolved to operate from a sense of self that was louder than my critic and faster than my worry. It is only in that space that you can truly be free and innovate.
4. CONFRONTING IMPOSTER SYNDROME
Right before I graduated, the opportunity to play Patsey was offered to me. After a rigorous audition period, when Steve McQueen, the director, called me to give me the part, I remember I sat down on the pavement overjoyed and horrified by the prospect of working alongside such seasoned artists. It was a dream come true, but the saboteur in me would have me believe that it had come true too fast and that I was not prepared for it. I was suffering from typical Imposter Syndrome: a pattern of toxic thoughts that tell you how lucky you are to have everybody fooled that you are good at what you do up until now. Your cover is about to be blown this time and they will know that you are nothing but an imposter of talent.
This was to be my first film and judging by the story and the people involved, I knew it was no small potatoes. I couldn’t possibly getaway with this one. It was a big deal and I… wasn’t. I felt small, like an underdog, dwarfed by everyone else in it. I had no experience working on this scale, I thought. How was I supposed to act alongside Mr. Kinky Boots, Mr. Magneto and Troy himself! Who was I? I was certain Steve had made a mistake, and that he would fire me any day now. This was a REAL fear of mine. It kept me up at night – in fact I did not have a good night’s rest from the day I got offered the role to the day I got wrapped on set.
Before I left to shoot the film, I reached out to a close friend and classmate of mine. I asked her where all that abandon and courage had disappeared to from all my time at Yale. What had I learned and why wouldn’t it show up to me when I needed it most? My friend breathed with me – a good friend does that. and then she reminded me that it was all there, that I needed to trust in myself in order for what I had learned to serve me. Patsey’s point of view had to matter to me more than my own. She reminded me to lead not with my fear but with my hope. When you are living ‘on purpose,’ the limited size of your human experience has got nothing to do with it.
You see, when we are fearful, we spend more time worrying about things that don’t yet exist and very little on building on what already does. The solution is not to eradicate fear – that would be nice but fear does play a role in keeping us safe. The solution is to recognize fear with compassion and act IN SPITE of it. That is what courage is after all: doing the thing you fear because what you are to gain is worth the risk. Playing Patsey in 12 Years A Slave was worth the risk.
The aftermath of 12 years was something I could not have foreseen. I definitely expected it to be an important film and a fantastic starting point for me in my professional experience, but I never expected to receive all the recognition and accolades that came with it. As such, I had to make space in my heart to receive all the good stuff, and this was not easy. I had had a life of believing I was afraid of failure and now here I was faced squarely with the fear of success. I was afraid of success because I did not know what might lie on the other side of it. With success comes an added expectation and with that comes lofty responsibility. Lately, I have been afraid of not being able to handle all these new expectations. I have been afraid that my weaknesses have no place in the world of this new found success,that I have to become a super-version of me to keep up with the versions of myself that stare back at me from magazine covers.
To the world, I have achieved the pinnacle of success in my field, and yet I still have the rest of my life to go. It is at this point that I have to constantly remind myself of how I got here: through hard work, daring to dream, and systematically slaying the dragons that are Self-Doubt, Self-Hate and Self-Denial. I must carry on on my personal journey and dream more, dream again. This new chapter of my life will be different but it will take rising upto the same dragons again. They disguise themselves every time but they are exactly the same, and I must ultimately trust that my life has equipped me with all the tools and weapons I need to deal with them.
Your life is equipping you with all you need to slay your dragons & realize your dreams and your goals. More and more women are coming alive, diversifying their career paths, defying the narrow expectations the world has in place for them. We continue to fight for equality, for justice,for freedom, for compassion. And we achieve the most when we are awakened &responsive to the desires of our individual hearts. It is then that we can really be a part of a whole and share our tools to fulfill the bigger picture of a better tomorrow.
Seven tools I offer to you today are:
- Recognize and articulate your fear to yourself . Then look for what you love and articulate that to yourself and to others. Do so often and your love will grow stronger than your fear.
- Reach out to your stretcher-bearers:This is a concept I have carried with me from a Bible teaching in high school.It speaks of a time when Jesus was teaching a crowd of people that had come from all over. Some men came late carrying their paralysed friend on a stretcher.I t was so crowded around Jesus that they went up on the roof , made an opening in the tiles and lowered the man into the middle of the group in front of Jesus. When Jesus saw how much faith and love they had, he cured the man of his paralysis. My teacher in her message encouraged us to make sure we had those stretcher-bearers in our lives (at least four), who would carry us to healing and safety when we could not do it ourselves. The people who will remind you that you are not alone when your emotions get the better of you, remembering that “Our pain is when we perceive ourselves as separate” (Tara Brach).
- Ask questions of yourself, for yourself, and listen out for the answers all around you. Take reading recommendations from people you respect: It was in sitting through a talk back with a documentary filmmaker that I learned of the book “Fight Your Fear & Win” by Don Greene, and it very literally got me through my crisis before I got to Yale. That, and “Map For Life”, a life management book by Glen McQuirk that my mother insisted I use for over 5 years before I finally did so and never regretted it. I go back to these books often.
- Do not underestimate the power of writing your dreams and goals down. Right before I got cast in 12 Years, I was envisioning what kind of work I wanted to do. I wrote in my diary on May 4th 2012, that I wanted “To make meaningful films that affect change in people’s understanding of and commitment to the world we live in.” I also wrote that I wanted to visit New Orleans for at least a week. On May 13th I booked 12 Years A Slave and on June 6th I would be in Louisiana working on the film for 5 weeks.
- Breathe. Meditate. Pray. Be still with your soul. There is a force within us that unites us, surrounds us, penetrates us and binds us together – and I’m not just saying that because I am in Star Wars – its true!
- Go for it and always allow failure to be an option: “True Freedom is being without anxiety about imperfection,” says zen master Seng-tsan. And right now I am learning to deeply value my human right to be imperfect. No matter who we are or what stage of achievement we are at, I think that it is healthy to always have some perfection to work towards.It gives us perspective and also gives us something worth living another day for.
- Finally, Step forward and repeat it all: with each new step you take, with each new challenge you face, expect yourself to learn these lessons again and again. Do not be disappointed in yourself when it feels like this time it is harder or different – it will always be harder or different if you are growing. When you feel overwhelmed by this, remind yourself that you feel despair because you still care. Step and repeat, step and repeat. It doesn’t ever get comfortable, but it does get familiar.