Frustration and Surrender

“My confidence comes from doing what I love…[T]o be able to create something from the ground up and…walk in your purpose is a great feeling.”

-Issa Rae

Emotions are funny things, aren’t they?

Maybe “funny” isn’t the right word. In the case of negative emotions, maybe a better word would be “annoying,” “obstructive,” “distracting,” “frustrating”…

I don’t know about you, but I’ve been struggling with my fair share of negative emotions lately. Between what’s going on in the world, what’s going on in our country, and what’s happening in my own life, I’ve had times where I’ve felt bombarded by these uninvited guests.

When you’re someone who has a teeny-tiny bit of a control problem and has spent enough time studying self-improvement to practically earn a degree in “Self-help Studies”, negative emotions pose an interesting challenge. This is because the basic rules of most self-help books are to 1) focus on the positive, 2) maintain an attitude of gratitude, and 3) care less about things that aren’t important. At least on the surface, negative emotions don’t seem to have a useful place in this dogma.

This is also compounded by the fact that when you grow up with strong social cues about the acceptable ways for women to express negative emotions, you tend to say things like, that’s “funny” or “interesting,” instead of “that’s a heaping pile of dog crap.” (No offense, Arthur.)

Negative emotions generally make me want to follow Arthur’s lead and take a big nap.

But sitting in the discomfort of negative emotions can surely be beneficial for us in spite of the self-help rules, right? The recent widespread attempt at “unlearning” White Supremacy seems like a great example of this phenomenon. By sitting in the uncomfortable guilt of white privilege, many of us have begun educating ourselves and are (hopefully) growing in the process.

Plus, we know from Glennon Doyle and others that “feelings are for feeling.” The saying isn’t “positive feelings are for feeling,” it’s all of them, including those pestering, painful, gnawing ones.

These feelings allegedly serve some purpose for us. Psychology says that we feel sad or angry or any of the other 300+ emotions researchers have identified because it’s essentially how the body communicates with the mind. We feel emotions in different parts of the body, and then it’s our mind’s job to perceive the emotion, identify it, and ascertain the message it’s trying to send to us.

Assuming this is true, the what is the emotion of “frustration” sending us?

I don’t know about you, but frustration has been a frequent “messenger” for me lately. It can be as specific as feeling frustrated when I see other people refusing to wear masks or as general as the overwhelming frustration with the “new normal” to which we all have been forced to adjust. And it can be as global as feeling frustrated with the realities of living in a pandemic or as personal as feeling frustrated with the continued patience it seems I’ll need to show before I know where my personal journey will lead.

Logically, I can see the value of frustration in our fight to find our purpose. As I see it, frustration often stems from some kind of disconnect, and it can signal that something isn’t working. For me, it seems like I get frustrated whenever something in my life is rubbing me the wrong way or going against my core values. Even though I wasn’t fully aware of this and probably couldn’t have articulated it at the time, in each of my prior careers I felt frustrated because of a conflict between the work and my values.

In the context of finding and living your purpose, frustration with a career path can be a necessary catalyst for the change that allows us to find our dharma. After all, if we were feeling perfectly fine, there wouldn’t be any reason to change course, right?

But what do we do with this frustration? What do we do with the frustration of feeling like COVID isn’t a temporary crisis that will be solved with a vaccine? And the frustration of knowing we need to be able to move on in some way, but also remain petrified of getting an older relative or at-risk loved one sick? And the frustration that comes with the inevitable knowledge that we cannot control the most important things in our lives, as hard as we may try?

God, I hope I didn’t answer my own questions there. If “surrender” is the antidote to frustration, then I know I’ll be assigned to the remedial class.

If you’ve figured this out in your life and have any recommendations, I would really appreciate you sharing them in the comments below. Otherwise, perhaps we can learn a thing or two about using frustration–and a willingness to surrender–to our benefit from this week’s purpose-driven life.

Issa Rae is the writer, actress, and producer behind the popular HBO series Insecure. In addition to starring in TV and film, she owns her own production company, started her own music label, is a voice for Google Assistant, and was a recent face for Covergirl. What can Issa Rae’s journey to find her purpose teach us as we navigate the frustrations of our own? Let’s dive in…

Credit: The Wall Street Journal

Jo-Issa Rae Diop was born in 1985 in Los Angeles, California. Her father was a Senegalese pediatrician and neonatologist, and her mother was a teacher who came from Louisiana. Her parents named Rae after her two grandmothers, Joyce and Isseu, and her aunt Rae, who was an artist. After Rae was born, her family lived in the Windsor Hills neighborhood of L.A. just north of Inglewood, where her father established his medical practice.

In the late 80s when gang violence began to creep into the Inglewood area, Rae’s parents decided to move their family to Senegal. In 1988, they relocated to the capital in Dakar, where they enjoyed life in an upscale neighborhood complete with a security guard and maid. Rae’s father attempted to open a hospital there, but when that endeavor stalled two years in, he and his wife decided to move their family back to the U.S.

Photo credit: Courtesy Issa Rae

Rae spent most of her childhood in Potomac, Maryland, where she attended mostly-white private schools. She has said that in Maryland, she participated in traditionally “white” activities, like street hockey and swim team. After elementary school, Rae’s family moved back to L.A., but this time to the more affluent View Park-Windsor Hills neighborhood father north of Inglewood. There, Rae attended middle school with a mostly-Black student population.

Rae has spoken about how challenging it was for her to navigate between mostly-white and mostly-Black worlds. She felt like an outsider in Potomac, where her white classmates asked her intrusive questions about her hair and treated her differently, and she also felt ostracized among her black friends in L.A., as she accidentally overheard her cousin telling friends that Rae was cool, even though she talked like a white person. Up to that point, Rae had such varying experiences in the different places she lived. These would all lead to finding her ultimate purpose, but at the time they mostly frustrated and challenged her.

Rae with her siblings growing up. Credit: Twitter

After middle school, Rae’s mother enrolled her in King/Drew Magnet High School, one of the best schools in south L.A. There, she finally felt a sense of belonging with her mostly Black and Latinx classmates. She began acting in more complex race-related productions, and she experienced what she called her “pinnacle Black experience.”

After high school, Rae attended Stanford University where she majored in African American Studies. At Stanford she continued acting, but this time she channeled her talents into her own productions. Rae began by adapting the Spike Lee movie School Daze for the stage, which played to a sold-out audience. She also started dabbling in production and film, creating a mockumentary series called Dorm Diaries her senior year. It was done in the style of MTV’s The Real World, focusing on the everyday drama of hip, young people, but Rae’s cast featured only Black students. This was the first step on her journey to find her purpose, but it would take a few more twists and turns before she figured this out.

Issa Rae at her Stanford graduation. Credit: Megan Lawson

After graduating in 2007, Rae moved to New York City for a fellowship with the Public Theater. Although she had been planning on pitching Dorm Diaries to TV networks, she lost everything one night when a burglar broke into her Washington Heights apartment and stole everything–her production equipment, tapes, laptops, scripts–everything she would need to produce and sell her series.

Depressed and in debt, Rae was frustrated with her bad fortune but not deterred. She continued to attend networking events, as uncomfortable as they could be for the self-described introvert. One night after attending an especially painful event, she opened her journal and wrote the words, “I’m awkward. And black.” Those four words, which represent a personality and experience she was frustrated to have never seen portrayed on screen before, became the basis for a web series she created and starred in called The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl.

The series followed J (played by Rae), a young, admittedly awkward Black woman as she deals with uncomfortable workplace experiences and an inter-office romance. The show was a huge hit, expertly utilizing situational comedy to tackle race politics and employing inner monologue voiceovers to illustrate the strange positions in which Black women are often placed. In 2011 when she launched Awkward Black Girl, Rae was working odd jobs and considering either law school or business school. However, after the series went viral, she abandoned those unfit paths and continued on down her destined road.

Rae in The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl.

After the success of her show, several production companies called Rae about adapting it for television. Although this seemed like her big break, she quickly realized that these companies wanted to completely re-work the show for broader appeal, which defeated its purpose of depicting a specific kind of Black experience. In 2012, she also got the opportunity to work with the Queen of Primetime, Shonda Rhimes (creator, head writer, and executive producer of Grey’s Anatomy and Scandal, among other notables). They worked on a show called I Hate L.A. Dudes about dating high maintenance men in L.A. After writing the script, Rae was inundated with notes from the network and from Rhimes, and in the end the show didn’t get picked up because she lost her way. As Rae said, “I compromised my vision, and it didn’t end up the show that I wanted. It wasn’t funny anymore.”

After that failed attempt, Rae went back to the drawing board and continued creating different web content to hone her voice. In 2013, she received a call from an executive at HBO who had seen her online material asking her to pitch ideas. She came to them with her idea for Insecure, a show about an almost-thirty, admittedly insecure Black woman struggling with the transition to adulthood. Her talent agency connected her with Larry Wilmore, host of The Nightly Show with Larry Wilmore, creator of The Bernie Mac Show, and correspondent for The Daily Show. With Wilmore’s partnership, Rae created Insecure and wrote the script that HBO picked up in late 2014.

Rae as “Issa” and her co-star in Insecure. Credit: HBO.

Insecure received critical acclaim from its debut in 2016, and it’s now in its fourth season on HBO. The show is difficult not to binge, with compelling character development and drama between not only the protagonist (Issa) and her romantic partners but also between Issa and her best friend, Molly. It’s a relatable show that intentionally portrays regular life with a mostly-Black cast–a strangely rare phenomenon in television and film. Beyond the cast, though, Rae rallied to hire Black directors, producers, and other people behind the scenes of the show. Frustrated with the lack of opportunities for people of color in the film industry, she used and expanded on her big break to give others the next important steps in their journeys as well.

In addition to Insecure, which earned her an Emmy nomination, Rae appeared in the movie Little alongside Regina Hall, executive produced and acted in A Black Lady Sketch Show, and starred in the recent Netflix comedy Lovebirds with Kumail Nanjiani. She also wrote a New York Times bestselling memoir called The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl.

Rae’s influence isn’t limited to traditional media, though. As previously mentioned, she also recently created her own record label, partnered in opening a high-end cafe in Inglewood, and invested in Streamlytics, a data analytics startup founded by Black female entrepreneur Angela Benton. Rae is quickly becoming a mogul, and her aim is to keep growing her empire in the same vein as Oprah, Diddy, and Ellen.

Rae at the 2018 Emmy Awards. Credit: JEFF KRAVITZ | GETTY

The frustrations Rae faced in growing up between two different worlds where never truly felt like she belonged, in never seeing herself–an “awkward” Black girl–depicted in the media, and in asserting her point of view once she did get the opportunity to make her mark were all instrumental to finding her purpose. She used these obstacles–and the strength and knowledge she gained in overcoming them–to create her own path. In fact, it was probably only in working through these frustrations that she was able to find and zero in on her greatest asset: her relatable authenticity.

Rae could have taken the burglary of her NYC apartment, the failed show with Shonda Rhimes, or any of the other struggles she worked through as signs from the universe that she was going in the wrong direction and pursued another career. But instead, she showed humility and surrendered to the currents pushing her to focus on what makes her story unique.

Although the frustrations must have been, well, frustrating, they helped to shape Rae’s voice and give her clarity about her true aspirations, which ultimately went well beyond acting and producing. And strangely enough, though she never gave in, it was only through surrender that she figured out how best to pursue her purpose. In the face of life’s frustrations, Rae surrendered her previously-held notions about what it takes to be successful in her industry. If you want to sell a show, you have the equipment to make a pitch, right? Or, if you want a career in television, you can’t go through the web. Or, blow your shot to work with Shonda Rhimes.

By surrendering to the understanding that she wasn’t going to get there by taking the traditional route, Rae shattered the paradigm and blazed her own purpose-driven trail. As a result, Rae is living her dharma of creating relatable and authentic images of Black people in the media and supporting the representation of Black people in every sphere.

So, what can we learn from Issa Rae’s journey, which we will undoubtedly see continue to evolve from here?

Unfortunately, I think the best lesson for me is that sometimes our frustrations present the greatest opportunities for the growth and refinement needed to reach our ultimate purpose.

I say “unfortunately,” because this lesson is very difficult for me to swallow. The idea that something causing us frustration, grief, or any other negative emotion should be embraced goes against 34 years of finely-tuned self-defense mechanisms. How does one fight that kind of internal system, which must have a strong basis in evolutionary biology? How do we tear down something so deeply rooted, it was literally was built for our survival?

If Issa Rae’s story gives us any indication, I’m guessing it’s that slippery, elusive creature that I struggle to hold onto when the winds of uncertainty blow my way: surrender.

So, the other takeaway I see from her journey is that sometimes the ways we surrender–and not fight–are more important as we seek to find our purpose.

A final note: I will be taking a hiatus from posting for a bit to reflect on our work here together over the past five months. I value anyone who takes the time to read any of my posts, and I will be back with more questions, profiles, and musings soon. In the meantime, please feel free to contact me through my professional website here if I can be of service (or for more Arthur pictures). Thank you! ❤

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