Act Smart! Generating your own luck (Shane Nickerson, Part 2)

Last month, producer/dad/Twitterer-extraordinaire Shane Nickerson shared the story of his Hollywood trajectory from Eager Hopeful to Frustrated Actor to Successful—and Very Happy—Hyphenate. This month, he shares what he’s learned from ending up on the other side of the camera, and how it can help working (and perhaps not-so-working) actors forge their own careers, as actors or, more likely, as successful hyphenates.

When Shane Nickerson shifted his focus to TV producing, he was resigned to it meaning the end of his career in acting. But he soon realized that the era of putting people in silos—saying actors could only be actors, producers only producers, and so on—was over.

Or maybe that it had never existed in the first place.

“That’s just not how this town works anymore,” he says. “And maybe never was, but now especially. You can do everything. I have friends that are writing, producing, acting, directing—anything they can. And very successful at all of it. If you’re talented, if you’re good, if you’re funny, people will want to use you in any way they can, whether it’s as a writer, an actor, a consultant.”

Of course, to get people to want to use you—hell, to get them to consider even recommending you—you have to be talented, good, funny.

That means work—work Nickerson believes is best done in the company of fellow travelers: like-minded artists (and not just actors) at your own level. By collaborating on projects and just hanging out together, you then each hone your individual skills and voice.

Besides, the newbies of today are the gatekeepers of tomorrow. Nickerson came up with fellow Groundlings like Jim Rash (Oscar-winning screenwriter for The Descendants, along with Alexander Payne and Nat Faxon), but as he says, “It happens with any group. Pick any theater group. Enough of them stay in town long enough and they’re going to end up being in charge. They’re going to decide what projects get made.”

Which brings up a delicate point: envy. It can be really, really hard, watching peers do tier jumps to greater levels of success than you’re experiencing in the moment, but it’s imperative that you stop viewing success as a zero-sum game, and start accepting others’ successes with grace. Not only are  poisonous feelings like envy and jealousy happiness killers, there’s a practical, self-serving consideration:

“If you’re complaining about how well other people are doing, if you’re bitter, if you resent the success of others, or start telling other people that they don’t deserve it because they’re not talented, you’re telling people around you that you’re not to be trusted, and people are going to stop hanging around with you. They’re going to stop inviting you to things. They’re going to stop helping you. They’re going to stop wanting to help you. You have to physically break yourself out of the habit. Don’t sh*t on other people. It’s not worth it and it’s not fair.”

How did Nickerson go about breaking that habit?

First, “I decided I was being very selfish, and I made a concerted effort to genuinely start being happy for people, as if it were me.” BOOM.

Next, he realized that someone else’s success did not equal his failure. “In fact,” he says, “it can benefit you: the more people you know that do well, the more chance that someone can say, ‘Oh my God, you know who’d be perfect for this, is my not-bitter friend. Who is super-excited for me all the time.'”

“If you cry about somebody succeeding because it’s unfair, if you want to eliminate that aspect, then get out. Because the only people who would ever make it are people who 100% deserve it. And I guarantee you that not everyone here does. You’re hoping for some unfairness that comes your way at some point. You can’t begrudge someone who gets lucky. Because that’s your entire motive for coming here: to get lucky.”

What, then, should an actor do while she’s waiting for luck to strike—or maybe even to encourage it a little?

“My advice is to start making funny stuff right now—don’t wait for somebody to let you. Because you don’t have to. Get a GoPro. Use your phone. You can film a funny video—and edit it together—on your iPhone. If it’s funny, the quality almost doesn’t matter. It really doesn’t. I’ve hired so many people off of a decent body of online work.”

Those people include a number of writer-performers from Upright Citizens Brigade who’d created a funny online video; he hired Rob Delaney based on the consistent hilarity of his Twitter feed. That’s right: you can help luck find its way to your door 140 characters at a time.

“I’m envious of people fresh to town right now. Because it’s such an even playing field. If you can put something online that’s funny, you will get a job.”

NEXT MONTH: Gearing up for a lucky 2013!

* * * * *

BOOK OF THE MONTH: While some cranks might crack that one “happiness” book per author ought to suffice, I found Happier at Homethe second book on the topic from New York Times-bestselling author (and, full disclosure, friend o’ mine) Gretchen Rubin, to be affecting in a deeper, yet gentler way. Where the first book describes a project, full of the kind of vigorous next steps, tips, and how-tos appropriate to beginning students, the follow-up is more of a relaxed recounting of assimilation. There are still wonderful ideas and structures you can easily adopt; the tone, for my money, makes it more likely you will, and that you’ll be inspired to think differently about what happiness really means to you.

 

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