Act Smart!: Ten Habits of Successful Artists (The Icarus Deception, Part 2) (February 2013)

True—and truly successful—artists don’t limit themselves to the “how-to”s of their own discipline; they steal from the best of everything.

If you paid close attention to last month’s piece on The Icarus Deception, you may have noticed an interesting (and hopefully, enticing) list on a page I took a photo of:

IMG 1599

And because I don’t want you to have to strain your neck cricking it sideways, here’s that list typed out neatly and completely vertically—and numerically, because I’m a Virgo:

  1. Learn to sell what you have made.
  2. Say thank you in writing.
  3. Speak in public.
  4. Fail often.
  5. See the world as it is.
  6. Make predictions.
  7. Teach others.
  8. Write daily.
  9. Connect others.
  10. Lead a tribe.

As I’ve said before, some of the greatest resources for improving your acting career lie just outside (and even far afield) of Obvious Actor-Safe Zones. I try to provide actor-friendly reviews of these books, podcasts, articles, and so on, but I thought this list provided a great opportunity to do a full-on translation from civilian-speak. Hopefully, you’ll pick up not only a few good habits, but a better sense of how to find useful information in the wild.

1. Learn to sell what you have made.

On the surface, this looks like something someone who makes things for Etsy or for mass manufacture would say. But everyone who creates things is well served by learning how to describe and promote those things clearly and non-obnoxiously. Whether you’re “selling” your guest appearance on a major show or your own webseries/podcast/blog/whatever, knowing how to talk about it in a way that makes others want to see it is a tremendous skill. And helping you to do that is the main reason I write this column: the Act Smart! archives are full of ways to help you do this.

2. Say “thank you” in writing.

Aside from this being a good thing for others, acknowledging your gratitude with a note helps orient you toward an attitude of gratitude, which is beneficial to you. In my own life, the times that have gone the most smoothly are the ones where my own peace of mind has been solid, not the ones where the circumstances are the most razzmatazz-y. (And as an additional benefit to you, when you make other people feel good, they are generally more well-disposed toward you.)

3. Speak in public.

I’ve gotten so much out of public speaking, I think everyone should consider learning how to do it. It helps you gain the clarity of communicating so that you can learn to say what you’ve made; it helped give me a little of the confidence to take more chances (i.e., fail more often). Even if you think you’ll never need to make a speech in front of people, it can be great to get a little practice in it. Toastmasters is a wonderful organization that can help you, and it costs very little to join. (Although I have yet to meet an actor who did not envision themselves in front of a lot of people, needing to make some kind of speech. Ahem.)

4. Fail often.

Sometimes, I think the biggest mistake I made as an actor was not sticking around to make more mistakes. I was scared to look stupid—even in class, which is the very place to do it, and as much as possible. Were I to do it again, I like to think I’d try more often, and care about how I looked a lot less.

5. See the world as it is.

My life changed for the better when I embraced reality-based living. I can’t guarantee that yours will, but I’d be willing to wager on it. And I’m not, as I like to say, a betting woman. It is fine to have dreams, but be careful about living in them—thar be dragons.

6. Make predictions.

Takes on a special and specific meaning in the middle of awards season, but if you think about what’s behind it—gaining a deep understanding of your business and the market, learning to deconstruct what makes a work good, great, or “enh”—it makes good sense for actors all year ’round. Besides, Oscar™ pools are fun! (Hey, even non-betting types occasionally play these kinds of ponies.)

7. Teach others.

The best way to learn something is to do it, but the only way to really master it is to teach it to someone else. Teaching forces you to externalize the internal, to verbalize the steps involved in getting somewhere, to really understand the mechanics about something. And slowing down to do that kind of enriching work expands and strengthens your brain. After doing it for almost 50 years, I know how to write reasonably well, yet I always learn something when I teach someone else. And if you don’t know how to do something well, the quickest way to learn it is to teach someone else—you’ll have to, because you can’t fake your way through it! Bottom line: teaching is a generous act that gives back to you in ways you can’t imagine. It may improve your acting, or it may just make you a better, more well-rounded person—which will improve your acting.

8. Write daily.

I wish I could remember where I first heard this, because boy, has it proven true: Writing is the foundation of wealth. Whoever said it did so well before the advent of the internet, when it became even more true. There is no part of your life that will not be improved by learning to write better, and the key to that is some kind of daily writing exercise.

9. Connect others.

Whether you’re talking about The Industry or the world in general, things fall apart pretty quickly if we’re not looking out for each other. And if you need some purely selfish reasons for doing good in this area: (1), you will develop a better sense of the rich resources in your own network by doing this; and (2), people love a connector.

10. Lead a tribe.

This is the trickiest of the list, because it is so easily misinterpreted as “Create something that nets you followers (whom you can then leverage).” A better way to think about it is “Initiate something awesome, then find a way to include people.” Many of the Cool Kids of the Internet have done this, whether they were strategic about it or not. If you’re interested in finding out more about this generous way of thinking—and I hope you are—I recommend Icarus author Seth Godin’s 2008 book, Tribes: We Need You to Lead Us.

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