There's no question that knowing the right people can help advance an acting career, or that certain practices will help you stand out from the pack. The most important practice, though, is the one at the core of what you do. Every week I get emails from actors with questions about procedure: "How do I get an agent?" or its kissing cousin, "How do I get a better agent?"
Other variations on this theme include questions about which type of promotion works best to get in front of casting directors, whether casting director workshops are a good idea and whether they should have a blog/newsletter/website. (The answers, in order of appearance, are, "it depends on the casting director," "it depends on your category and the casting director" and "possibly/almost never/absolutely."
There are a million, tiny, external things an actor can focus on, or assemble together in a focused plan, to help nudge herself in the right direction. I know; I've done a lot of them and write about what I've learned here every month.
What's finally dawning on me some three years (!) after writing these columns is perhaps just another visit from Captain Obvious to you, but was a revelation to me: not everyone seems to get that any piece of advice makes a ginormous assumption, and that's that you've already got a few core things in place, otherwise known as the "All Things Being Equal" Rule.
The "All Things Being Equal" Rule in a nutshell
There's tons of advice out there for the working (or aspiring) actor. But every bit of the truly good information, the stuff shared by non-sleazy people with the intention of being truly helpful both to actors and the gatekeepers they come in contact with, assumes one thing up front: that you are the best possible actor for the level of job you're going after.
Where I start seeing actors get into big, big, BIG trouble is when they somehow, through ignorance or willful disregard, don't get that underlying assumption. When they think, for example, that regular mailings to casting directors or acting in and inviting industry to plays or even putting up videos on a YouTube channel is a great idea without having done enough of the tedious, slow, but absolutely necessary work of being ready to hire before they do.
So all things being equal, regular postcard mailings are a great idea, but if you don't know how to show up at a casting director's office and conduct yourself properly, much less knock an audition out of the park 9 times out of 10, they are at best a waste.
All things being equal, casting director showcases can put you in front of someone who's in a position to hire you, serving as a good introduction to you and your work, or a point of contact that reminds them of you and your work, or sometimes (glory, hallelujah for well-timed showcases) an almost-audition for an actual job. But if you don't have the resume yet to be on that CD's show (or the chops to even "show" well in an audition), you will likely do yourself more harm than good.
What "being able to do the job" means
Before you click away in disgust or despair or just a plain, old-fashioned huff, please know that I'm not saying you have to be the world's greatest actor before you start employing many, perhaps most, of the ideas and strategies I talk about here, or that you read or hear about elsewhere. Everyone starts somewhere, and there are always things to be done besides the work of making yourself the good/better/best actor you can be.
What I am saying is that you need to do your best to have an understanding of what "all things being equal" means in a given situation. For jobs that mainly require freakishly good (or just freakish) looks, you may not have to be the world's best actor.
In the same way, for jobs where the chief criterion is that you are a combination of as young and good-looking as possible, concessions may be made as far as acting goes. It doesn't mean you should stop busting your heinie to get as good at acting as you can, just that those job requirements dictate you need to move swiftly, while youth and good looks are still there.
For most of the jobs most actors want to get, however, there's a lot of "all things being equal" happening: this particular promotional move is great assuming you know how to conduct yourself on a set; that bold marketing strategy could work assuming you are not only extremely talented, but have worked hard to channel that talent via the appropriate skills and are perhaps seasoned, to boot. (I sat in on one two-hour seminar in abject horror as a wildly irresponsible marketing "guru" advised the actors in attendance, many of whom clearly were not conversant in the ways of film and TV performing, to get on the horn and start cold-calling producers and casting directors. As if.)
How do you get there from here?
As I mentioned above, the chief culprits in getting a bit ahead of yourself are ignorance and willful disregard. If you're reading this (and, I'll assume, other reputable sources), you're already working on eliminating the former and de facto, you're not exercising the latter.
Still, the more you can do in the way of listening, looking and learning on your own, before you start executing strategies or even asking people for their valuable time to help you, the better off you'll be.