Act Smart!: Stop waiting and start doing (Part 1)

Shane Nickerson started his Hollywood career as a valet parker, hungry for acting jobs he couldn’t seem to get. Today, he’s a sought-after TV producer, a P90x-ripped husband and father of three, and one of the funniest people on Twitter. He’s also a joy to be around—there’s a magnetic quality about Shane that comes only with deep self-acceptance and real engagement with life. His story of trying to make it the conventional way, then finally waking up to the thrill of creating his own career, is as instructive as it is inspirational.

shaneLike many of us, when Shane Nickerson moved to Los Angeles, he brought a set of expectations with him about how things worked here, gleaned mostly from books available to him at the time: that to succeed, you needed to focus on getting auditions in front of gatekeepers. That your career lay in other people’s hands, not your own. It’s obvious to him now what a waste that was.

“When I think of how much I could have been doing while I was a bellman, while I was a waiter, while I was a caterer—while I was a doorman at the Regent Beverly Wilshire Hotel, standing there, doing nothing… I could have been making funny videos about it, or who knows? I could have been doing a lot more instead of just, ‘Oh, I need to have a job that allows me time for auditions.’ That I wasn’t getting. It didn’t make sense. But you’re programmed to think like, ‘Oh, this is how it works: you go, you get a job that allows you to have time to audition, and then you just wait for the auditions to start rolling in.’”

While he found artistic fulfillment, a core group of friends, and even the odd TV role through the Groundlings,  larger success in film and TV continued to elude him even though—or perhaps because—he wanted it so much.

Not surprisingly, this led to a certain amount of frustration and unhappiness.

“I started to get jealous of my friends around me who were doing really well, who I thought weren’t any funnier than me, or better than me, but just, for whatever reason, were lucky or smart or whatever. When I look back, I think the mistake I made was that I judged somebody’s talent by what they did on stage, but it’s so much more than that. It’s your ability to go in and be personable and likable and not be awkward, and you know, be able to have a meeting and leave a good impression, audition confidently.”

Ultimately, his reputation and connections at the Groundlings did lead to an offer for work in TV—on the other side of the camera. He took an entry-level production gig on Instant Comedy with the Groundlings thinking that it would at least be a better-paying day job. But he turned out to have a knack for TV production; it wasn’t acting, but it was creative, interesting, and fulfilling—almost ironically so. As Shane puts it, “…this unexpected producing career was falling into place the way I’d always hoped my acting career would.”

As he moved up the ladder, getting more exciting jobs—with corresponding leaps in responsibility and pay—he had to make a choice: focus on the dream of acting in TV that he’d moved here for, or focus on this new career path shaping television. Getting clarity on the decision required brutal honesty around his motives for pursuing acting in the first place. The bottom line?

“I wasn’t doing plays, and I didn’t love it so much that I had to be out every single night. I just wanted to be on TV. There’s a big difference, I think, between that kind of actor and the kind of actor who doesn’t give a shit where they end up, they just need to be onstage—they need to be acting, they need to be performing. Inhabiting other characters, exploring different types of people, and that’s in them. Those are the people that are just, like, those actors you watch on stage and you’re, like, ‘That’s the next level.’ That’s different.”

Having fearlessly faced up to the truth, Shane was free to truly pursue this new path. Surprisingly (or maybe not), it did not mean the end of performing for him; just the end of worrying about it.

NEXT MONTH in Part 2: What Shane has learned from being on the other side of the camera that can help you step in front of it, and other invaluable gems.

* * *

BOOK OF THE MONTH: As I read Turning Prothere was much vigorous nodding and many solo fist pumps—it is a book where you see your deepest, secret creative struggles in print and feel the relief of recognition. You’ll also find plenty of great tools, checklists, and inspiration for staying on track with your creative goals in this great, short book by Steven Pressfield. It’s a terrific follow-up and companion piece to his groundbreaking The War of Art (which I’ve reviewed at length, and re-read myself almost as often as I pimp it to others).

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