The Blog

How to Live a Valuable Life

Acting is, for me, telling stories that need to be told, whether fictionalised or true. Maybe that's how I justify a career in which the aim is to stir souls rather than save lives, but it's the best way I know to truly "come alive" and to give of my very best.

What does "value" mean to you?

At this time of new year's resolutions, it can be hard to see the wood from the trees when it comes to setting goals and making promises to, finally, start living the way we feel we should.

But perhaps that's exactly where we're going wrong.

Rather than struggling (and often as not failing) to live up to some notion of how we feel we ought to be, what if there were a more satisfying and effective way to enjoy a fulfilling life?

In our modern-day, success-oriented world, it can be all too easy to get caught up in the mindset of more success for success's sake, more money for money's sake, more achievement for achievement's sake... and somewhere along the way to lose sight of what the point of it all is...

Family and friends suffer in the cause of overtime and last-minute meetings, and the enjoyment of a quiet Sunday is abandoned as we grapple with our Fear Of Missing Out (a phenomenon so rife it now goes by the Twitter-shortened FOMO) on the excitement contained in our social media newsfeeds.

Value living is about going back to basics. About being truly honest with ourselves, and only ourselves, about what makes us tick.

To remind me of the importance of living a valuable life, I often find myself coming back to this quote:

Don't ask yourself what the world needs. Ask yourself what makes you come alive and then go do that. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.

These words of wisdom from Howard Thurman cut straight to the heart of this issue.

Value might well be re-defined in terms of "aliveness". Taking action in areas that mean something to you, and making a commitment each day to live accordingly, has the power to transform your life from the inside-out, far more powerfully than any list of resolutions, however well-intended.

Nevertheless, a new year is a great time for reflection and for checking in with where we are on the value living scale.

Try this three-step process:

1) Identify those values! You might already have a pretty good idea, but all of us at one point or another have suffered from feeling "disconnected", so if you're struggling, ask yourself the following questions:

What makes me feel alive?

What makes life worthwhile for me?

What do I want to be known for?

If this were my last day on earth, what activities would go to the top of my list?

Health, family, the great outdoors, learning, socialising, connecting with the community, personal hobbies, passions and interests; some, none or all of these might figure on your list - the point is, your values and your subsequent value activities will be entirely unique to you, so be honest with yourself, and be authentic.

2) Write them down and put them somewhere for easy reference, somewhere you'll see them regularly and often. Reinforcement and repetition is the name of the game!

3) If you want to take things further and are keen for the challenge, you might try this strategy:

Make a commitment, every day, to pursue one enjoyable value activity, and one not-so-enjoyable one...

I'll leave it up to you what those activities may be, but for reference some of my recent enjoyable/less-enjoyable examples include:

Getting in touch with an old friend... and then updating my website.

Going for a relaxing walk... and then writing those thank you notes (I am nothing if not a diligent granddaughter).

Donating to a friend's charity campaign...and then spring cleaning my room.

Writing this blog... and then editing it...

In this way, the idea is you'll be able to look back on each day and see something of value.

And as you focus more on what you value, and less on what's "wrong" with your situation, you'll find yourself automatically moving towards a truly Valuable Life.

For the record, I'm not advocating a lifestyle makeover here (although by all means go ahead if inspiration strikes). Living a more valuable life can be as simple as committing to spending more time with a loved one, or resolving to spend a little less time on facebook and a little more on the "real" world around you.

(Having said that, facebook might be the way you connect to your nearest and dearest, in which case you might choose to timetable that habit as a valuable component of your social calendar.)

As you begin to get the hang of value living, you might find yourself applying it in all sorts of ways as it expands to influence more and more of your life.

As an actor, I live in the precarious position of never knowing when or if the next job is coming. When I first started out in this game I made a commitment to myself that, whatever the gig, I'd make sure that I embraced it as if it were my last. Whether it was a guest cameo in Doctors or a West End contract, I realised that if I was to go down this route I wanted to be living each moment to the fullest, rather than always looking over my shoulder in fear for my financial security. It would be best for me, and it would be best for the work, as well as for those watching; if an audience has shown up to see you, they deserve nothing but your most focussed, present and very best effort.

As time goes by, this philosophy has expanded to embrace my attitude to auditions. I'm only responsible for the performance I bring to the audition room - the ins and outs of casting are part of a machine that is far bigger than me - so I aim to put my best interpretation of the part on the table and then let it go, let it go, let it go...

This desire to perform each role as if it were my last was never more important than for my next screen outing, in the final ever episode of Foyle's War on Sunday 18th January.

In Episode 3: "Elise", I play the guest lead of the title, a fictional character representing the real-life victims of the most incredibly tragic story of espionage and bureaucratic cover-up. Without revealing too many details, the events depicted involve "a scandal that has only recently come to light... which resulted in a great number of unnecessary deaths" (Anthony Horowitz in 'Radio Times', p. 20, 3-9 January edition).

Being a part of a production as loved and respected as Foyle (from the pen of a writer and creator of the calibre of Mr Horowitz) would have been job satisfaction enough; but playing a key part in such a shocking tale struck right to the very heart of why I do this job.

Acting is, for me, telling stories that need to be told, whether fictionalised or true. Maybe that's how I justify a career in which the aim is to stir souls rather than save lives, but it's the best way I know to truly "come alive" and to give of my very best.

Every day on this job I made it my mission to show up and deliver as never before - and there were some relatively harrowing days - to serve the true story, to serve Elise and to honour the real lives lost.

Both my values and my conscience would permit nothing less, and I can only hope my practice of value living make this role worthy of being my last.

I just hope it's worthy of Elise too.

Have fun, remember what matters and live valuably.

This post was first published in her Actor In Search Of A Life blog.