The Glory and Challenge of Young Success

Bowing 2nd from the left (cat outfit) w/many other successful teenagers - School of American Ballet workshop '03
Every one of us has heard these stories. 16 year old dancer is discovered by Peter Martins and named Principal dancer with New York City Ballet before she even turns 20. Preteen posts video on Youtube of himself singing and gets signed for a record deal. In fact, most of us were inspired to begin training in our art or began to pull more focus into our studies after hearing similar glory stories. While we may not all strive to be these people, who doesn't want to be showered with accolades under the premise that they are a youthful prodigy? As a culture, we glorify these kids and emulate their gifts. But more often than not, we indirectly engage in what is the downward spiral of these prodigious artists. Why is it so common for young, talented artists to struggle with their art, their decisions, and their lifestyle choices as they grow into adulthood?

While I wouldn't consider myself to be one of these prodigies, I have experienced the pressures of being very successful at a young age, as have many of my colleagues. Many professional ballet dancers are hired before they are legally adults and even more are considered seasoned before they can purchase a drink at a bar. By the time a dancer enters their 30's, if one even makes it that far, they are considered over the hill. Due to the spotlight and short span of time our careers cover, successes are usually great, lauded publicly, and die out fast. Just making it into such a cut-throat profession is a great success. And since this all happens at such a young age, nearly all dancers are used to the feeling of success and the impression it makes upon non-dancers around them.

Abby & me motivating for a performance of Swan Lake
I was speaking to one of my dearest friends, former Pacific Northwest Ballet dancer Abby Relic, via text the other day. She left the company a year after I did to pursue a broader perspective in the world of dance and acting. We have both endured struggles since we left the comfort of a big company. Some simply being life-related and others relating to our struggle to find our new place in the dance world. In the process of being each other's support system, I had responded with what was just a thoughtful response to a comment. Her response was, "So insightful!" That thought is what inspired this post and I would like to share it with you. "Being super successful young is a lot of pressure as you get older. Maintenance of those feelings becomes exponentially harder to maintain." As professional dancers, we are all super successful just for achieving a position in a world that offers few job opportunities.

It is human nature to keep pushing forward and growing. People want cities to become bigger with taller buildings. People seek to find the most cutting edge science and technology. And people want their salary to continue growing. We are innately wired to push forward and want more. If a teacher makes $50,000 a year and decides to leave the profession, they probably don't feel very good about taking a job that only pays $30,000 a year.

Feeling Puck-ish backstage w/my friend Joerg
I experienced this struggle after leaving my job at PNB. Not only was my salary one-third of what it had been, our productions didn't have a live orchestra, Pointe magazine wasn't writing about us, and our audiences were, at most, 400 people (compared to the nearly 3,000 I was accustomed to). As I began freelancing, even my successes started to feel like failures. The first time I got hired for a job, which I made happen on my own, I felt elation. By the tenth time, I wasn't happy with the quality of jobs I was being offered. At another point, I danced one of the most accomplished performances of my career. But there were only 60 people in the audience, making me feel it was less valid. Everything started becoming a comparison game. Well, this success wasn't as big as my thrilling debut (or so I was told) as Puck in Balanchine's A Midsummer Night's Dream, so it must have been a failure.

This can be the biggest challenge of being successful. Comparison of successes. Is a success a success? Or is a lesser success a failure because it is not a step up on the success ladder? Today yields a great example of this thought. Justin Bieber, love him or hate him, is an incredibly talented guy. He was discovered on Youtube, at a ripe young age, singing and playing the guitar. Being discovered was his first great success. Next, he dropped his first album. Further ahead, he had his first tour. He has won awards for his music, crossed over into a more adult fan-base, and garnered millions of dollars. But today he was arrested for a D.U.I in Miami. Over the past year, we have watched this talented young artist become the male Lindsay Lohan of the tabloids. He's considered out of control, hanging out with bad people, doing drugs, having a god-complex, etc. But if we take a step back and see what is going on, he is a victim of his own success. His successes have been so great, that it is becoming hard to live up to his own record. To the public eye, anything that he is achieving which is not perceived to be greater than what has happened before is a failure. The stress of success is great. How does one cope with that?

Bieber's story is not the first, nor will it be the last. On the dance side of things, we can look at Gelsey Kirkland's rise to stardom, drug addiction, and fall from grace. This story is documented in her book, Dancing on my Grave. Gelsey was lucky that she was able to survive the demons of her own success. Not only did her career end way too early, she fell off the face of the Earth in regards to the dance world, only to reemerge many years later to open her own school, the Gelsey Kirkland Academy of Classical Ballet. Probably enough time for her to stop comparing her former successes to her current successes. Recently, Darcey Bussel, famous former Royal Ballet ballerina, stated, "At least I'm not being compared to everything I've done in the past," in a recent article that spoke about a deep depression that she went into after retiring from the stage. Inevitably, the pressure of other's expectation of her ever-growing success became too much to bear. And I get it.

The biggest challenge of being successful is the way that people view you. At first, gaining praise for a success feels good. This motivates us to push harder to continue the flow of positive feedback that received praise. If one continues to achieve on a linear level, praise will disappear as the achievement loses it's excitement and becomes old news. As one's accomplishments grow larger and more exciting, there is less room to grow and greater expectation to continue that growth pattern. By the time an artist reaches the pinnacle of their achievements, there must be a fall. Success is fleeting because a singular success is not sustainable over a long period of time. Public pressure, whether national or local, can put so much stress on a person that they may begin to collapse. This leads to depression, burn-out, and/or self-destructive behavior.

How does one avoid the pitfalls of young success? It is challenging. First and foremost, we successful artists need to surround ourselves with people that love us for who we are, and not what we are. At times, artists may come off as cool and awkward upon meeting them. This is usually their way of assessing whether somebody wants to get to know them or get to know what they can do for them. Assessing friendships and finding people that one can trust are pertinent to keeping a level head. The next step is to stop comparing successes. This is most challenging for me. When you start comparing successes to one another, the excitement of big successes doesn't last as long and the smaller successes don't hold you up to keep you on a straight path to the exciting, big successes. One of the last things that helps keep oneself on track is to find a third party to speak to that has no stake in your success. I have recently started seeing a counselor to help me cope with the stresses of working as a traveling freelancer. My counselor doesn't just listen to what I may not be able to share with most people, they offer support, insight, and exercises to help me cope with my successes and failures.

While our culture looks at young success with wide smiles and high praise, it also relishes watching the downfall of the adult version of these young, successful artists. Many of us strive to become those artists that are at the top of their game at the earliest age possible, but steady success as we grow older seems to be underrated. Glory is good, but stressful. Surround yourself with trust and love and stop comparing yourself to yourself. You are who you are today, not yesterday. The biggest lesson I have learned in the past 3 years has been that my big successes are my trophies and my failures are, most often, actually successes that I didn't give enough value to when comparing them to my bigger achievements. Be kind to yourself and enjoy all of the success that you have had!


  1. Once again, Barry, you knocked it out of the park. As you mentioned, age is not a problem, it is the bane of the entire entertainment industry. I remember applying for a writing gig on "The Drew Carey Show" and was told by the story editor that according to demographics, I was too old to know what was funny for the show!

  2. thank you! Your posts are so inspirational and help me better comprehend my own struggles as a freelance dancer.

  3. Thanks for the comments guys. Freelancing is hard, no matter what field it may be. Whether a dancer, writer, actor, sing, etc., we share many of the same struggles. It is human nature to feel comfort in the fact that we are not experiencing something alone. And it is almost impossible to actually be alone in something, we just need to be reminded that.

  4. Beautiful post Barry! I love your passage "surround yourself with trust and love and stop comparing yourself to yourself". Definitely needed to hear that this week

  5. Thanks Nicole! I don't often think about what I write. I feel more that I am having a conversation with my keyboard. After I wrote that sentence, I paused. Not because I thought it was a great quote, but because I was really struck by what came out in the moment. I don't always follow my own advice, but I can try my best to work towards that. Glad it spoke to you :-)