I didn't have much of a work ethic when I began my first apprenticeship after college. I was easy distracted. I had a sense of entitlement and lacked the confidence to see a future filled with opportunity. Luckily I had a professor who saw a shred of talent and pushed me into an apprenticeship for scenic art. My first year I floundered through, mostly focused on the social aspects of the theatrical community. Luckily, I had a boss who kicked my ass (not physically), held me accountable, and forced me to understand the importance of being responsible.
By my second year (which I was permitted by the skin of my teeth), I was more focused and serious. I spent a quarter of the season washing buckets but I had a much deeper appreciation when I was finally allowed to paint with the more seasoned professional painters. By the end of my second season I was gaining more confidence to go after my dream: A career in puppetry. A year earlier I was too scared to even apply to the University of Connecticut's graduate puppetry program, but my gains in confidence allowed me to muster up enough courage to try.
My time studying puppetry was fraught with hard lessons, a combative attitude and sensitivity to constructive criticism. I was insecure and unsure about my future in what could only be described as an unpredictable and niche field. I was able to bond with many of the other students but those I struggled to foster connections with, made be uneasy. I saw colleagues I wasn't personally close to as competition, and a threat to opportunities. My early years in puppetry felt like a constant swim up stream. I doubted myself and my talent constantly. My lack of confidence infused so much of my early development, I was completely unaware of how much it was deterring my own success.
By my third year as a graduate I was given a universal wake up call. My stress levels, lifestyle and general health demanded my attention and I suffered a stroke. I had to slow down and relearn basic functioning of my motor skills. I had to confront the fear my career was possibly over before it had even begun. During that year of recovery I plunged into physical therapy and puppetry intensives. The vulnerability of my health forced me to have to listen to others and be flexible about what I could and could not do. I had to confront failure on a daily basis during my puppet training and recovery. What I didn't realize was that I was learning how to confront and navigate failure. It sucked, it was hard, and at the time I didn't think things would get better.
Much of the puppet training I was doing during this recovery period was focused in one style called Table Top Puppetry. A single puppet performed on a surface usually operated by three puppeteers. This style opened the door to a much larger set of skills that would benefit me in ways I couldn't imagine at the time. This style demands a heightened level of awareness. At the foundation of this style is required collaboration. Suddenly, the colleagues I was working with, couldn't afford to be seen as competition. We all needed to work together and focus on a common goal. That goal was infusing believability into a puppet.
By the end of the summer of 2005, many of my motor skills were improved and my confidence as a puppeteer was beginning to take shape. I was learning to listen more and trust members of teams I was placed with. I was beginning to realize the importance of being a support on a team. I began to champion those working next to me, rather than feeling threatened by them. I still struggled, I still faced set backs and obstacles, but each time I got back up and returned to the basics of my skill development: Awareness, listening, trust, focus, communication and problem solving. I had no idea about the larger skills puppetry was teaching me at that time.
When I left graduate school and moved to Brooklyn in the Fall of 2007, I was still scared about what my path would look like. I feared that I wouldn't be able to support myself in my chosen field, then the economy crashed and my worst fears came to life. The first two and a half years of my career began in an economic limbo with no light at the end of the tunnel. My survival came down to a day by day basis, and I was grateful for external support given to me by friends and family during this period. What was I learning during this time? Humility, risk taking, trust, and letting go of a long imposed state of learned helplessness. I also had to confront and relinquish my sense of privilege, because it was holding me back from making necessary progress in other areas. I learned what a healthy sense of ego behaved and looked like.
I became a better team member. I watched and listened more than I tried to speak or "prove" my value by being the loudest voice in the room. I learned the quiet power of having a presence and being dependable. When I did speak up to offer suggestions, my words had power and wisdom, because I was systematic in my approach. I became a puppetry and soft skills master. These skills propelled me forward in my career and after a move across the country in 2010 to LA I began to work more steadily.
Four years after graduate school, I took jobs that two years earlier I would have thought beneath me, and I was grateful. My soft skill foundation allowed me to develop relationships with new mentors and professionals on the west coast. By the third year in LA, during a period of economic uncertainty, I had a variety of work under my belt that spanned motion pictures, television shows and commercials. My soft skills allowed me to be promoted to assisting my bosses in studios. I now use these skills to help co-ordinate projects and communicate between crews and departments. I still make it to set as a puppeteer but once on set, my soft skills give me a beneficial edge when I communicate with the production team and other crews. My soft skills have made me a better puppeteer but more importantly, puppetry made me better in soft skills.
The lesson I still take away from my early career is that a strong and developed set of soft skills are invaluable to success. I also know these skills can be shared with others to empower them and give them the confidence to be wonderful collaborators and co-workers. Luckily, puppetry is a great tool to help do all of this work.