I know how my life seems on the outside. A published book. A good agent. Some press. I know because I’ve looked at many of my colleagues, through the lens of social media, with similar achievements and accolades and thought they had everything. They were doing so well.
And I’ve looked at friends outside my world – in banking, tech, theater, sales, marketing – and compared myself to them. They’re getting promotions, raises, stock options, paid vacation. These friends of mine are killing it, I’d think.
Then I talk to them. They feel like I do. None of them feel they are killing it. None of them feel they are doing well. Every one of them wishes they were doing something else, something better. Each one of them feels they aren’t getting anywhere. One of them was just passed up for a promotion. One of them lost a big deal. One of them hasn’t gotten a good part in two years. One of them hasn’t sold a house in eighteen months. And when they tell me these things I have an overwhelming desire to advise them to watch The West Wing.
I started it a few weeks ago. I needed a new, easy show to wind down to. The kind with just the right hum, the right feel to help me decompress and fall asleep. I loved the pace of it. The importance of it. The comfort of falling in and watching other people run around and work till 4 am, while I lie, lazily in bed. Except something else happened when I started watching it.
I started noticing all these supporting characters. Big name actors with two, three lines. Amy Adams who appears in one episode as a young Indiana farm girl. Ty Burrell from Modern Family appears to discuss national seatbelt law. Jane Lynch’s familiar face appears is in the press box as an unnamed reporter. Evan Rachel Wood, Felicity Huffman, Taye Diggs, JK Simmons, Connie Britton, all these important, successful big name actors are popping up as one-lined extras.
Wow, I think to myself. These big actors with their own shows, Golden Globes and Oscars, were once just struggling extras with a single line. What were they thinking at this moment in their career? Is this a big day for them or a reminder that they are only extras? Or are they excited by this new chance, however small?
I have to assume they took the part with gratitude. That they took these two lines, this one moment, and poured their heart and soul into it. They didn’t get discouraged by the successful actors in front of them, the full-time cast members who’d walk the red carpet at the Emmy’s while they stayed home to watch. They took the part they were given, gave it their all, went home, then worked for the next one.
Of course, we don’t get to see their career trajectory. The hundreds of other auditions they took then didn’t get. The hundreds of small, insignificant parts they had to swallow and smile for. We only see them as they are now – successful. And that’s why I love The West Wing.
It’s this refreshing reminder that we all start small. We all start at the bottom. And it’s those who persevere, who stay when it doesn’t seem worth it, when nothing is working out, when the call backs aren’t coming, when the coworkers get promoted ahead of us, when we’re just extras and everyone else is something better, something bigger.
The West Wing is this moment in time when we get to see the other side of success. The side of the working, grinding, hustling. The twenty-year gap from them as extras to them as stars. For many of them it was YEARS before they made it big. Even when they’re in their thirties, forties and still getting small parts as extras.
Weirdly enough, so many of my friends inspire me too. They can’t see it, but I can. I see it right there in front of them. The ten years they’ve been at their company that’s about to go public. Lane, who works twelve hour days, whose friends are all settling down and having babies, only to get passed up for a promotion by the new guy, will be able to buy herself a house with her shares. And Kate, who has been worried about not making rent the last three months is about to close her first big deal and her fears of not affording rent will be a distant memory. And Sara, who spent three years trying to get pregnant will get pregnant next month, and all that stress, all that trying, all those feelings that everyone else was a mother and she wasn’t, will be gone.
And when I have days or weeks like the last few, when I feel that I’m not really moving, that my book will be obsolete, that the next one may also not be a New York Times Bestseller, I think of The West Wing. I think that this is my moment as an extra. This is my grind. And, if I can just stay the course, keep the faith and take every opportunity with gratitude and excitement, I will, one day, get a bigger part.