During my second year in drama school, my classmates and I tackled the works of William Shakespeare, Samuel Beckett, Tennessee Williams and Henrik Ibsen. Each storyteller shared a unique vision of the world. They could transport me from a drab castle in Denmark to a farm in the Mississippi Delta.
The authors, having faced even more imposing obstacles than they would put their characters through, were as inspiring as the stories themselves. But the work of one playwright in particular had such an indelible influence on my 20-something self that I still reflect on his work today. His plays were bizarre, confusing and even maddening at times. On more than one occasion, I left rehearsal in a complete daze wondering what trauma would compel a man to write such absurd stories.
I fell in love with Eugène Ionesco’s work. I grew to appreciate his sense of humor, boldness and wildly original take on the world. But mostly, I admired how the man who would go on to win numerous awards from theaters around the globe and pen a total of 34 plays did not write his first one until he was nearly 40 years old.
Today, a great deal of our stress, especially in the United States, is rooted in a distorted relationship with time. It has become the ultimate bully—poking, taunting and wrestling us into submission until we hand over the crumpled dreams that failed to meet a conventional timeline of realization. But as someone who has spent nearly a third of his life pursuing acting, and now entrepreneurship, my success hinges on the belief that you’re never too old to begin work you love.
In fact, I’ve stumbled upon three ways failing to make the Forbes “30 under 30” list may actually give you a leg up.
1. Embrace that you have less time.
In the summer of 2013, I traveled to a small town in South Africa called Chintsa Village to volunteer as a teacher. After the program ended, I decided to rent a car and head over to Port Elizabeth. A few minutes into the drive, I turned on the radio in search of some tunes, but got nothing but static. Just as I was about to shut it off, I turned the dial one last time and landed on a broadcast. I was greeted by the booming voice of a South African preacher in the middle of a sermon: “Take my house. Take my car. You can even take all my money,” he said. “But please, do not take my time! Do not take my time because that I cannot replace!” Seconds later the station lost reception and mysteriously faded out, but just that moment was enough to change my life.
When I returned to the states, I began to look at my time as an investment. If a project did not help me grow, forge meaningful relationships or give me personal fulfillment, it had to go. As a young man approaching true adulthood, I finally understood my time was finite. I was suddenly driven to go to war against distraction and sidestep work I considered frivolous. I also limited my associations with people who criticized more than they contributed. My life was flying by. I simply did not have the time to build a business and be around people who refused to get out of their own way and seemed fixed on taking me down with them. I learned to let go of what was not serving me. Time was now a precious currency.
2. Understand the value of patience.
Many years ago, a young man from Seoul, Korea, packed his things and set out for Paris to study filmmaking. He came from one of the rare households that could offer both the means and emotional support to make such an audacious dream possible. A few years later, his mother passed away after losing her battle with cancer. He and his family were never quite the same, but he especially had shared a unique bond with her and struggled with the loss. In that loss, though, he gained clarity and the courage to admit the dream of becoming a film director was in fact never his to begin with.
With a generous loan from his aunt, he spent six months traveling throughout Korea tasting foods and experimenting with different ingredients. He learned about different cultural trends, the way food varied by province and how once regional dishes had become popular throughout the country. Not long after his culinary expedition, he opened the first of a chain of wildly successful restaurants with delicious and reasonably priced dishes. Not surprisingly, his eateries proved especially popular among college students. That man was my cousin, and he was nearly 50 when his dream was finally realized.
In the end, it was his late jump off the starting block that allowed him a clear view of the pack up ahead. While everyone around him was sprinting for the finish line, he was running a marathon. Not having the means to open his own restaurant didn’t limit him from clarifying his vision. He understood the value of the long game and the importance of staying ready.
3. Exercise a smarter kind of hustle.
Spend a few minutes on any social media platform and you’re likely to come across a hashtag followed by the words “hustle” or “grind.” From entrepreneurs to athletes, there is undoubtedly a culture of “no days off” being promoted today. And while there is no substitute for hard work, it can come at a great cost if not accompanied by a dose of self-awareness.
In my obsessive pursuit of becoming a working actor, my determination reaped many rewards, but left me depleted in the big-picture arenas of life: family, relationships and self-care. I chose solitude over camaraderie and competition instead of community. Then one cold winter morning, I met a man who’d flip everything I knew about hustling on its head. For the next several years, he schooled me on the importance of living a life and not just a career.
Every morning, come rain, sleet or snow, he would hop on the Metro North from his home in Connecticut and commute to midtown Manhattan, New York. For the next 10 hours, he would audition, teach or take classes. Just before his late foray into acting, he abandoned the peace of mind that comes from supporting a family on a well-paying and steady job.
Each time he saw me get worked up over a blown audition or complain about not seeing the fruits of my labor, he would remind me there was more to life than being on Law & Order. He taught me you can want something without needing it; a realization that not only liberated me but also made the work more enjoyable. Not surprisingly, the minute I stopped trying to bulldoze my way to the top, I started to book more work.
Life doesn’t mean you have to live a small life, and no matter how old you are, you must approach each endeavor as if you’re just getting started.
Over the years, I saw countless plays in New York. Broadway giants like Frank Langella and Tracie Bennett left me in awe, inspiring me to push the envelope in my own work. Still, their performances paled in comparison to how this man lived his life offstage. He beamed when he spoke about his children, took the work seriously but never himself, and always responded that he was “awesome” when asked about his well-being. But the greatest lesson he imparted was that being satisfied while striving toward your dreams wasn’t a form of complacency. It simply meant joy couldn’t be postponed for some professional achievement.
Our 15-year difference in age showed me a responsible life doesn’t mean you have to live a small life, and no matter how old you are, you must approach each endeavor as if you’re just getting started.
In 2014, he booked a series regular on one of TV’s hottest shows. He was almost 50.
This article was published in December 2017 and has been updated. Photo by @maginnis/Twenty20