Act Smart!: Lottery mentality and how it kills careers

Acting can offer a long, satisfying life in the arts or it can consume you like a raging fire burning through a wet log: slowly, painfully and indifferently. Here are some signs you may be on the wrong track, and how to make sure you stay on the right one.

I know how it goes, or at least how it starts: you, at whatever age, watching a movie or a play or a TV show (or now, a webisode) and thinking some variation of, “I can do that.”

It can be “I need to do that” or “I want to do that” or even “I can do that better than she can,” and you know what? Each of those things is the truth…maybe. Your native ability plus your drive plus your discipline and, let’s face it, a little luck can catapult you to the stratosphere, acting-wise. It’s happened to people before you and it will happen to others long after your star has faded, however brightly it shined in the first place.

Mostly, though, even those so-called overnight successes were 10 or more years in the making. That’s 120 months, 520 weeks, 3650 days of studied, focused effort that didn’t show up on the cover of InTouch or a segment of Entertainment Tonight.

It’s an easy trap to fall into, living in our celebrity-obsessed culture. But building an acting career has nothing to do with pursuing celebrity (and if celebrity is what you’re after, there are easier ways to go after it than pursuing acting).

Here are three ways to keep yourself honest and your honest-to-goodness acting career on track.

1. Be Here Now.

It’s great to have goals. If you’ve read this column for any length of time, you know that I’m a big fan of setting goals and systematically working toward them.

If you have the wrong goal, however, it can be disastrous to your spirit and, paradoxically, your chances of achieving it.

Take, for example, the cliched actor goal of winning an Academy Award. Nothing wrong with what it represents (fine acting, we hope!); even the vision of yourself, standing on stage, clutching that gold dude and forgetting to thank your mother is okay in and of itself.

Even if it’s enough to sustain you through days and weeks and months and years of work, though, there’s a danger when an external goal is your main driver. All that stuff about enjoying the journey isn’t just a collection of platitudes: it’s imperative for an actor. If you are looking starry-eyed toward the future, you’re going to miss opportunities you’re soaking in right now. Not to mention you will be a dreadful actor, since our stock-in-trade is our ability to live fully in every single moment.

Fix the destination in your head and give it a visit now and again, but spend most of your time in the present, working towards being fully present (and, of course, doing your marketing and networking and studying, etc.).

2. Control ALL of what you can.

It’s been fascinating, making the transition from a working actor to a person who works with actors.

When I was acting, it was easy for me to see all of the ways in which other actors were Doing It Wrong, at least, from a marketing and sales perspective.

Now that I have experience AND distance, I find myself shocked (or amused, or sometimes saddened) by how much power most actors give away, one way or another, and how cavalierly. I did it myself many times.

I’ve come to believe that a lot of it stems from Lottery Mentality: either they are sure they’ve been anointed from on high, destined for greatness; or they feel like none of those “little things” make a difference, so why bother? (So you know, when I was feeling low, I swung back and forth between the two.)

I’m here to tell you that it all makes a difference. I can see it, and I’ve had it confirmed by outside experts. Which means both that you should be addressing the range of things within your control, or addressing things within your control, period. It’s not an either/or proposition: to cop an improv phrase, it’s a “Yes, AND…” situation.

Get as good as possible at acting. Get as good as possible at marketing yourself. As someone who’s on her third career one built on the backs of the others, I assure you, none of it is ever wasted, even if you opt out.

3. Beware packaging.

Yes, I just got done telling you how important your marketing is. But remember, marketing is there to support the product or service in question – for example, you and your talent, if you’re an actor.

Actors with lottery mentality find it very comfortable to live in a dreamland of new headshots, socializing with the right people in the right places, and pursuing new and better representation. None of these things are bad, necessarily, but spending too much time on them gives one a false sense of moving forward. Re-read Points #1 and #2, and take note.

Here’s a tip: if you’re not sure where your head and time are at, start taking note of them. There are free time trackers that give you absolute proof of where you are and are not spending your time. Or roll your own, old-school: get a daily calendar broken into 10- or 15-minute segments, and start keeping track of your “actor” time.

Bottom line.

This stuff isn’t particularly sexy, nor is it particularly easy. If it was, I’d have been a much better and more successful actor (and I did alright by most people’s yardsticks).

But it is this stuff, along with the rest of the information you find in this newsletter and via a few other trusted sources, that will keep you and your acting career happy and healthy for the long haul.

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Want more?

Check out the acting resources page. It’s got links out to all kinds of good actor resources, plus information on how to sign up to get on the list for upcoming workshops.

Colleen Wainwright is writer-speaker-consultant 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 and not evil by helping creative types see themselves more clearly and talk about themselves more compellingly.

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