The real secret to selling yourself as an actor—or selling anything at all—is to be remarkable at what you do. It’s both a lot harder and a lot simpler than it sounds. When I finally admitted to myself that my interests lay with acting, not writing screenplays, I threw myself headlong into the business of acting. When I wasn’t in class, rehearsal, or audition prep, I was submitting myself for projects, reading everything I could get my hands on about the practice and theory, or, occasionally, actually acting. And of course, for the five-ish years between declaring myself an actor and becoming self-sustaining at it, I was also working a day job to pay for it all.
As I’ve shared before in this column, I was fortunate to enjoy some success fairly soon into my journey. Even before I started making bank as a commercial actor, I had the good fortune to write and perform as a member of the Groundlings Sunday Company, at the Just For Laughs comedy festival in Montreal, and, most mysteriously to me now, to perform with some “real” actors onstage. It was a good enough career, and one I should have been much more grateful for than I was at the time. (What can I say? Greedy human.)
What’s slowly become clearer in hindsight, and finally delivered with a crackling epiphany as I read Cal Newport’s outstanding 2012 book, So Good They Can’t Ignore You, is that I was (mostly) qualified to win the jobs I won and (mostly) unqualified to win the ones I didn’t. (It also makes more sense now that those few times I landed jobs I was unqualified for, I either skated by and felt like I got away with something, or tanked and was not asked back. Rarely could I relax into those gigs enough to really enjoy them.)
If this sounds obvious to you, an objective third party, let me assure you it was news to me. At the time, I believed that my intense desire to be an actor made success inevitable, provided I log the hours, check off the boxes (classes, rehearsal, outside reading, submitting, etc.), and manage a wee bit of luck. I mistook hard work for deliberate practice—not hard for a workaholic—and I usually thought I was better than I really was, readier for the next step than I was, and that the gatekeepers were, maddeningly, not recognizing my innate genius. It was a recipe for disappointment no matter how my career was going, how many successes I (should have) enjoyed, because I was going about everything backwards: My objective should not have been to do what I loved, but to love what I did.
This is the golden takeaway of So Good They Can’t Ignore You. As the book lays out, chapter by line, the quest for meaningful, enjoyable work and all that comes with it (fulfillment, creative engagement, economic and personal freedom) is fraught. The great jobs that offer these goodies are both hard to find and to land, since by definition, they are what most of us point to and want. And in the quest for these jobs, skills trump passion every time. If you want to succeed, especially in careers where slots are scarce and much sought-after—think “acting”—you must be, as writer/comic/performer Steve Martin puts it so elegantly and succinctly, “so good they can’t ignore you.”
That involves a lot of difficult, painstaking, often frustrating work along the way. It’s not just logging those now-famous 10,000 hours, but spending them in deliberate and focused practice. Martin shared his own simple-not-easy process for becoming just that in a interview with Charlie Rose (Hulu/Amazon), and more explicitly in his outstanding memoir, Born Standing Up. Even given his obvious smarts, it took plenty of painful, hard-won, messy failures to hone whatever native abilities he had from the get-go. And plenty of drive to get him over those humps and disappointments.
While that drive may have been fueled at least partly by unhappiness in Martin’s case—he had a difficult childhood and a complex relationship to his father—what’s clear from his memoir, as well as the examples in So Good They Can’t Ignore You, is that the secret to getting through those awkward, challenging times to the success on the other side of them is to find a way to love that ugly work, too. It’s painful and it’s absorbing. It frustrates you and it fulfills you.
In my own trajectory, I had to learn to love a day job that alternated between being plain, old dull and spirit-shatteringly humbling. The shift for me happened not when I fought it even harder, but when I surrendered, accepting that while I might be the world’s oldest go-fer, that didn’t mean I couldn’t be the best one. So I stopped fantasizing about where I thought I should be, and started applying myself to the tasks that were right in front of me.
Taking this simple shift of perspective opened me up to all kinds of wonderful new experiences and challenges. I went from working a day job that was an impediment to happy living to facing a series of lessons that made me better and smarter every day—like being, as I like to call it, paid to go to school. In the last couple years of my job I acquired both the practical skill of presentation design (which I discovered a great love for, and which has led to all kinds of other opportunities for me in graphic design and speaking), and the “softer” skill of managing workplace dynamics (which I would argue has been even more useful).
I’m not sure how useful either Newport’s book or Martin’s memoir would be as a road map for civilians—for our purposes, people who are satisfied with a decent job that satisfies their financial requirements and allows them to live sensible, happy lives as productive humans. But for those of us who are pursuing careers where it is notoriously difficult to succeed (like acting) and require continuous reinvention (like acting), I think they’re invaluable.
And, hey, pretty inspiring and fun to read as well, which never hurts.
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Colleen Wainwright is a writer-speaker-designer who started calling herself “the communicatrix” when she hit three hyphens. She spent a decade writing commercials and another decade acting in them for cash money. Now she uses her powers for good instead of evil by helping creatives learn how to strut their stuff in a way that makes the world fall madly in love with them.