(Oprah.com) -- In the first days of September 2001, I was engaged in the enviable task of shopping for a dress to wear to the Emmys. The TV comedy I often performed on, "The Daily Show with Jon Stewart," was nominated for two awards, and all I could think about was walking down the red carpet (and all the ex-boyfriends who might happen to be watching).
Writing and performing comedy was a dream for which I had quit my job job -- booking bands at a nightclub -- five years earlier. I loved to spin life around and make it funny, but the truth was, my comedy career didn't feel big enough -- I wasn't personally nominated, after all.
Then, on September 11, the world became drastically unfunny, and lampooning what I saw around me for a living was out of the question. Nobody felt like laughing, anyway.
Soon after, my husband's company toppled and he lost his job; I had no work for the immediate future, and we were broke.
My sympathetic sister took me out for a cheer-up lunch. As we lingered over coffee, it became apparent that Mexican seafood and a lazy afternoon weren't going to mend what was wrong with me. In the weeks after the tragedy, a career as a comic actress seemed doomed, and without it I didn't know who I was.
Pulling a beige paper napkin from the dispenser to write on, my sister asked me what I wanted to do. Like a sullen first-grader, I shrugged and mumbled, "Nothing." She asked what I liked to eat. What was this strange curve she was throwing my way? I considered for a moment before answering "Cookies are good, I guess." But I didn't want a career in cookies. If anything, I needed less to do with cookies altogether.
She fired off increasingly specific questions: what I like to read, wear, think about when I'm relaxed, and on and on. It was sweet of her to try, so I played along, tossing out answers like "honesty" and "things with fringe," which she promptly took down on the napkin. In the process, I invented fantasies of playing with kittens professionally or getting paid stacks of money to try out sumptuous new spas in breathtaking locations.
A pattern started to take shape: We were uncovering a hidden longing for fun. I know it sounds vague, but it didn't matter. What mattered was the awareness that I had always suppressed any urges that seemed to have nothing to do with my career, and even though my work was comedy, I didn't really let myself have any fun.
I'd been busy setting my sights on things like international stardom and couldn't help but be dejected when I didn't get there. I decided on-the-spot that I was going to make myself a necklace.
After I sketched a rough design, my sister turned the napkin over. She asked me what was the smallest, least distressing action I might take in order to start making a necklace. "Well," I began, flustered, "I guess I'd have to find a bead store."
She put pen to napkin and wrote: (1) Get out telephone book. (2) Look up beads. Of course, I would have arrived at this eventually, but seeing it written down like that served to quell the anxiety a bit. Instead of straining to see some distant end result, I focused on the easy part that was as reachable as my kitchen drawer. I had just set my sights lower.
As it turned out, the benefits of setting my sights lower (not to be confused with selling myself short, which is counterproductive and rooted in fear) carried over into other areas of my life.
I found my way to the bead store, and I also began to see other goals -- everything from writing a movie script to designing a more effective cat scratcher -- as attainable, as close as an Internet search or a walk to the corner. One day I put on some running shoes and ran as far as I could (not far), but I went a little bit farther every day, and now I run 10Ks.
In time the world slowly began to get its sense of humor back, and so did I. I began to make cold calls and ask strangers to let me act, write, help out at their animal shelter -- and they did. Instead of being paralyzed by fear of the unknown, I could see everything in terms of simple beginnings whose sprouts could twist and flourish endlessly.
And no imposing to-do list was needed; the next necessary steps came so naturally that I hardly realized what was happening. Come to think of it, isn't everything basically an accumulation of little things that someone or something did? Is it crazy to imagine that Henry Ford had to ask a friend for spare parts for his combustion engine? Well, maybe, but it won't hurt anyone to think so.
I'd love to be able to tell you that I'm now the CEO of a multimillion-dollar jewelry company, but that's not how this story ends. In fact, this story doesn't end; it keeps expanding. My definition of possible has broadened remarkably, as has my ability to pursue those possibilities with calm assurance.
In the past I thought I could only bring one thing to the world, but now the world is welcoming me in other ways, thereby revitalizing everything else. My career is fulfilling, but so is finding a stray cat a loving home.
Although someone accidentally threw it away once, that beige napkin remains (guacamole stains painstakingly removed) encased in plastic in my desk drawer, right next to the long string of tiny pink crystal beads that I pull out whenever I get overwhelmed. I'm not an international star, Pulitzer Prize winner, or noted humanitarian, and may never be -- but I sure am having fun trying.
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