Don’t Play the Part, Write the Role (or How to Succeed for Anyone Who Isn’t Blake Lively)

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What is success? I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately. We’re raised to want to be picked out of a crowd, chosen for our superior ability and general pleasantness. It starts with gym class soccer teams, extends into getting into the best college and goes on to applying for jobs. We want to do all we can to be better than people pretty damn similar to us, so that we’ll be affirmed, told that we’re legitimate and then rewarded with money and opportunity. But is that a good strategy?

I’ve been watching the trajectories of creative people for awhile now and the biggest thing I’ve noticed is that the people who don’t play the game this way are not only the most successful, but they actually go on to change culture. Yes, every so often there is a Blake Lively type who is preternaturally beautiful, cool, pleasant and able to down bacon burgers while staying a size 2. Everyone wants to hang out with her, she gets the best gigs, and the system works fairly well for her. But for everyone else who doesn’t fit the mold of Pleasantville pleasantness, this system does not work.

A few things have made me think about this lately. Guests on podcasts like The Nerdist are always talking about how in Hollywood, it’s way easier to write a role for yourself than to go to countless castings and hope you’re picked. Would people like Tig Notaro be a household name if she was just going to castings hoping to be cast as “funny lady #7?” Even bombshell actress Krysten Ritter recently talked about finding more success writing shows for herself than waiting to be cast in other people’s shows. And she looks like this:

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If this mentality helps her, it can help anyone. The more I talk to creative people, the more I realize that the people who I love / admire most didn’t wait for permission to exist. They didn’t get the writing gig, the hot role, the dream job that someone else carved out for them. Instead, they made it for themselves.

Sure there is an element of privilege that can correlate with being able to make your own movie, website, job description, etc. Lena Dunham is a fantastic example of someone who has made a space for herself where there wasn’t one before, and yes she was raised pretty damn wealthy. But then there are people like Mooks and May, who I talked to on my podcast recently, who came to the U.S. as refugees and are working as playwrights and writers thanks to grants, ambition and plain old talent. It’s not impossible to create your own thing. You just need patience. (I have a theory that it takes about ten years to actually succeed at something.)

I definitely grew up ready to play by the rules. I wanted to be a lawyer or possibly an orthodontist. But when I became interested in writing, I realized that I’d have to establish my own space to truly do the type of writing I wanted. That’s why I started a blog, The Tangential, a few years ago with some friends instead of hoping I’d get promoted to the helm of someone else’s already successful blog. (Side note: this did happen a couple times, and neither one was a good fit). Almost every opportunity I’ve had since college has been because I started my own thing.

I decided to write this last night while watching Aziz Ansari’s fantastic new show, Master of None. There’s an incredible episode about how hard it is to find non-stereotypical roles in Hollywood as an Indian actor. Watching this, it becomes clear why Aziz had to start doing standup and writing his own acts, gigs, roles, shows, etc. He was never going to succeed playing cab driver #2.

So why is this idea still so niche? Mostly because we live in a play-by-the-rules society where half of us are told to become doctors and the other half lawyers. Women are told to be hot, cool, skinny and not to let our intelligence threaten anyone else around us. People of color are told to take the parts they can get just to see themselves represented onscreen, even if those parts are stereotypes.

But what everyone other than Serena van der Woodsens eventually have to figure out is that you aren’t just here to play the part. Playing someone else’s part will totally exhaust you. You have to write your own role.

Stop waiting for permission. Stop suspecting that you are secretly a phony. Realize no one was cordially invited by the King of the World to do what they’re doing. They’re all just taking a chance and hoping they fake it till they make it.

Instead of waiting for a cookie cutter opportunity, just create your own thing. You’ll make the world so much less boring in doing so. Here is some inspiration for this:

-Tavi Gevinson proving teenagers have a lot to say with Rookie mag

-Aziz’s amazing new show, Master of None

-Tim Heidecker and Eric Wareheim’s super weird comedy empire

-Chuck Klosterman proving it’s ok to write a brainy essay about The Real World

Eddie Huang’s hit show/book, Fresh Off the Boat

Chimamanda Ngozie Adichie’s awesome novel Americanah

These are some of my favorite things/people, and they didn’t play by the rules or wait to be given any parts. So why should you? Go out there and make your own space in the world. And if you happen to look like Blake Lively, no hate. Go kill it, you walking mermaid you.