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Dirty underwear and a kitchen floor on the way to greatness

Jennifer Garner – actor, spokesperson, business owner, philanthropist, and seemingly all-around wonderful human being – wanted to be an actor.

So early in her career, she journeyed to a theater in a strip mall in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, where she performed as a nonequity actor because earning less money than equity actors allowed her more stage time.

Inexpensive actors are more affordable and, therefore, easier to cast in low-budget shows. So while most actors are chasing their equity card in hopes of bigger paydays, Garner avoided it for a long time in hopes of exchanging a larger paycheck for more onstage experience.

In exchange for a room in Fort Lauderdale, Garner was responsible for the laundry for all 35 cast members while performing eight shows per week for three months.

“All I did in my free time was wash and iron clothing,” she says.

After the show ended, she was driving to a Shakespeare company in Utah, hoping to land a similar part, when she got sidetracked to New York City, where she was hired for several small, nonequity jobs. Eventually, she got the part as an understudy in an off-Broadway production, which led to her waiting tables while working onstage for several years in the city.

She was “super broke” for a long time but eventually got a small part in a miniseries, which sent her to Los Angeles for her first television appearance.

After the miniseries, Garner returned to New York, where she was once again broke for several more years while performing and understudying. She would pay $20 to stand at the back of Broadway theaters to see and learn from as many shows as possible.

For nine months during her second stint in New York, she rented space on a woman’s kitchen floor in her studio apartment.

Garner was 29 years old when she finally got her big break, landing the lead role on the hit television show “Alias.”

She’s been a star of the small and big screen ever since.

Many people dream big, but few are willing to spend the greater part of a decade broke to chase that dream.

Fewer still are willing to wash and iron the dirty laundry of their castmates to perform a small part on a stage in a Florida strip mall.

Even fewer still are willing to rent space for nearly a year on a stranger’s kitchen floor in hopes of finding that first big break.

An enormous amount of preciousness exists in the pursuit of artistic dreams. People want to make and do great things but are often unwilling to sacrifice time, money, and energy to make it happen. People can’t imagine spending most of their twenties penniless while pursuing a dream. They want to achieve greatness but can’t imagine climbing out of bed before sunrise every day to make it happen. They want to be the best at their craft but would never deign to wash the underwear of their three dozen castmates to take the next small step forward.

For those unwilling to make those sacrifices, I’m not sure what is true:

  1. Do they not want it enough?
  2. Are they physically, mentally, or emotionally incapable of making the sacrifices required?
  3. Are they simply unwilling to trade their time, energy, and money for the unlikely possibility of greatness?

I don’t begrudge anyone who chooses certainty and stability over uncertainty and improbability. Many people just like Jennifer Garner, making the same sacrifices, never make their dream come true.

Big dreams are hard.

But I worry that people who dream big don’t understand the sacrifices often required in order to make those dreams come true. They see someone like Jennifer Garner and assume that her rise was effortless and meteoric, failing to account for the decade of struggle required to get to where she is today.