Improve yourself one friend at a time

Everything I’ve achieved or changed has been a result of orbiting better/stronger/faster people. What can you get better at? The possibilities are endless…

One of the smartest things I’ve ever heard about getting smarter is to work towards being the stupidest person in the room.

This does not mean, of course, that you should actively act like a dummy, but that you should take pains to surround yourself with the kind of people who inspire you to become the person you aspire to become.

If we translate this to acting, it’s easy to think “Oh, cool—I’ll just hang out with better actors!” And hey, there’s nothing wrong with that: one of the other very smart things I’ve ever heard about improving oneself is to watch who you watch; examining (and, to the best of your ability and in your own way, reverse-engineering) what your comedy improv or dramatic or commercial heroes do can be very revealing and helpful.

But since actors are artists who draw on their full selves for their art, I think it’s also important to up your game across the board. For example…

1. Seek out better learners.

Who do you know who’s always learning something new? And/or who assiduously works at deepening the knowledge they already have? This could be anything, from a language to a skill, from a sport to book-learnin’. People who are perpetual students will teach you ways of becoming more adept at taking in information, plus you’ll be able to learn lots of great stuff from them second-hand. Learning how to learn well is probably the best investment you can make in yourself.

I work my damnedest to spend as much time as possible around people who live this way. My blogroll is rich with resources for online reading, and a carefully curated Twitter feed keeps me in touch with my favorite smart people and what they’re learning now. (Okay—there are some people I follow just for their deft hand with a fart joke.)

2. Gravitate toward great hosts. 

Civilians are always shocked to find out how many performers are deeply introverted and/or shy. (For the uninitiated, there is a difference. And a famous essay. And a book, and a TED talk.) While there’s nothing wrong with either introversion or shyness, each can hamper you in obvious ways when it comes to networking and self-promotion. You may never become a social butterfly if it’s not in your DNA, but I believe everyone is well-served, if you’ll pardon the pun, when we learn to be better, more gracious hosts. This can be anyone from the person great at throwing dinner parties to someone comfortable at introducing people. Basically, who makes you feel at ease? Spending more time around them should teach great interpersonal skills. Plus, it will be pleasant, by definition!

My friend, Matt Lawrence, who is currently the community manager for Biznik, has taught me volumes about being a great and gracious host, as has my friend and Women’s Business Socials founder, Jodi Womack.

3. Align yourself with the business-smart.

Full confession: while I am an excellent employee, I’m a lousy hustler. And yes, hustle is a part of business, as is showing up on time, knowing how to handle money, and generally being organized. It’s great if you can meet other actors who are also good business people, but please don’t limit yourself to that orbit. You’re likelier to find more candidates amongst the civilian population; you can learn just as much from them as you can successful actors.

Some exceptionally good resources on being better at business that are still compatible with an artist’s soul are books by a few (better, smarter) friends of mine: Danielle LaPorte’s The Fire Starter Sessions, a kind of Artist’s Way for the new millenium; and Design Is a Job, by Mike Monteiro, which he wrote specifically for designers but which contains vast riches for all creatives willing to do some mental translation.

And in a stroke of meta-learning, my friend Chris Guillebeau’s second book, The $100 Startup, is filled with great, practical information he’s culled from thousands of small business owners on creating a successful, fulfilling career. (Remember: as an actor, you are a small business!)

4. Surround yourself with the sane and fit.

As long as we’re confessing, there’s plenty of room for improvement as far as my mental and physical health are concerned, too. While it’s wonderful to have personal examples in your life, this is one area where it’s sometimes easier to start with the structured environment of a trusted group, class, or some professional help. In addition to becoming more mentally/spiritually/physically fit as you go, you’ll also begin to meet people who are further along the path who can serve as inspiration and encouragement.

My new friend Cheryl Strayed, author and beloved columnist “Sugar” on The Rumpus, is one of the most inspiring people I know; pick up Wild, her lush and compulsively readable memoir about hiking the Pacific Coast Trail all by herself, and you’ll see why. And when I need inspiration and guidance about improving my own physical fitness and goal-achieving, I look no further than my friend Jason Womack, a prolific writer and public speaker on the subject (and husband of the aforementioned Jodi!), whose recent book Your Best Just Got Better is crammed full of fantastic tips, processes, and ideas for self-improvement.

By the way, every one of these people whom I now call “friend”—my actual, real-life, hang-out-in-person friend—is someone I initially “met” through their internet presence. Don’t let your physical location stop you from broadening your reach and improving your circumstances; start where you are, and build from there.

The people you hang out with will help determine whether you’re moving forward or hanging back. So online or off, make sure you’re hanging with the right crowd: people who inspire, educate, and uplift you by their example.

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