Why what got them there won't get you much of anywhere. Whenever I take up a new endeavor, I immerse myself in the literature. And by "literature," I mean primarily books, but also any type of information that might help me get a handle on this strange new world I've entered.
And generally, it does: learning about how screenplays are structured and then make their way through the maze from inception to projection illuminates the Ways Things Work. Reading up on psychology and communication can help demystify baffling human relationships. Books and articles on management help one in business; on money, with finances; on nutrition, with diets. To a degree—we all know that the real magic happens in the doing, and that success can be chalked up to mysterious things like timing or circumstance as much as it can hard, specific work combined (or not) with talent.
Or do we? Every month or so, despite what we all know—that there's no way of guaranteeing a successful career in acting, that even the best tips and advice can only help steer one in that general direction—I still receive some email asking me for the sure-fire way to success. For some, that means a better agent, more prestigious roles, breaking out of their current niche; for others, any notice at all. While the industry keeps changing with each passing year—faster and faster, along with the changing media landscape—the foundational rules for any kind of prolonged success, acting included, have not: be epically awesome at what you do; keep your overhead low; work hard and specifically to be better; don't be That Guy. (Oh, and that perennial favorite, "be lucky.")
The information and advice I see throughout the columns here in the Networker is as good as any I've seen, and reading it can benefit you as an actor. In particular, I've always enjoyed interviews with casting directors about what does and doesn't work for them, and with successful actors about what the climb was like. But while the former helps keep you from making stupid errors and the latter can be inspiring and occasionally even yield a useful tip or two, neither is a roadmap. That ineffable whatever that makes everyone in the room realize that this person is the right person for the job can't deconstructed into a series of how-to steps, not because anyone wants to keep you from knowing them, but because of its nature. That gift is like the famed Supreme Court definition of pornography: we know it when we see it. (The best approximation of that revelatory moment in the room is the audition scene in Mulholland Drive. The whole movie changes in an instant.)
So, what to do? Because flailing is no fun, right?
What has been helpful to me has been learning to ask myself questions that reveal wisdom I already possess somewhere down deep. If what casting directors and producers say is true, and it's the people who have truly embraced who they are who draw our attention, then my best bet is to go to the source, right? The more "me" I am, the better off I am.
With acting, what success I did enjoy came when I did my thing. It didn't always come, but it came more often than not—usually in commercials, where I made a good living for many years. Interestingly, I came to realize that the few times I was successful playing the kinds of challenging dramatic roles I professed to want, I felt as horrible afterward as I did exhilarated: it was painful, making myself go there. Ultimately, I decided that the pain wasn't worth it (not to mention all the rejection and driving to get there) and the short-burst stuff wasn't fulfilling anymore; after that, the decision to give up acting entirely was kind of a no-brainer.
I'm not saying that if you're not happy with where your acting is taking you, you should follow my path and quit acting. What I am saying is that the sooner you forget about finding the right path and start making your own, the happier (and probably, more successful) you'll be. Because, to quote the great Spanish poet, Antonio Machado: "Travelers, there is no path, paths are made by walking."