Act Smart!: What to do with that big, shiny new year of yours

Some thoughts and pointers on effecting real personal growth in 2007

I’m a big fan of fresh starts. It’s a huge reason I moved to Los Angeles, land of publicly sanctioned personal reinvention.

It’s also why this is my favorite season—at no other time is there so much public support for personal growth (or reduction, as the case may be). Don’t believe me? Dig out Sunday’s paper from the recycle bin and check the circulars. How many of them contain ads for products or services that will help you get organized, fit, gorgeous or otherwise value-added?

The problem, as we all know too well, is that the support usually evaporates right around the time (if not before) our own will to change starts to waver. So sometime around February, give or take two weeks, depending on your intestinal fortitude, you give up on giving up or starting fresh and settle back into your preferred flavor of stasis.

This isn’t the best prescription for change, period, but it’s especially deadly for actors, who have no predetermined path to walk, and it’s double-secret-probation deadly for actors who live in Los Angeles. Because all the things that make our fair city great, seasonless sunshine, a “you” out of context, a relatively easy life (just ask a New Yorker), can also make it a dangerous sinkhole for that thing you called your ambition when you rolled into town. It’s all too easy to put things off in a place with no sense of urgency, where life looks and feels like endless vacation.

So what to do? There are three main things, and then a whole lot of little ones to support them.

First, make sure the plan is one you want to make. Not your manager. Not your mother. Not some columnist for an online actors’ magazine. You, exclusively.

As human beings, we’re all somewhat susceptible to outside influence, but I think actors, who are trained in the art of sensitivity and thus learn to pick up on things faster than civilians, are especially so. An offhand remark (not ill-intended but not especially well thought out, either) can be enough to set us off on an odyssey of massive scale. I’m sure we all have our own examples; mine is the stand-up trap.

I cannot tell you how many times someone has asked me if I did stand-up, and then told me I should. Okay, I can guess: more than 20, less than 50. Which is a lot, I’ll grant you. More than enough to accommodate a margin of error and still merit consideration.

I also know that one should stay open to signs from the universe (or, for the less woo-woo, from one’s fellow man). Sometimes, people do point us in directions we might not have thought to travel. And I am fairly funny, both in general and in quasi-stand-up situations, so it wasn’t like anyone was giving me ludicrous suggestions.

But since I’d been married to a stand-up comic and seen the life up close and personal, I knew it wasn’t for me. Period. For the 2% of the time things were great and you were on stage killing, there was 98% of your life being eaten away with crap I had zero taste nor tolerance for: the road, the bad gigs, the hustle. I was willing to put up with a lot of grief to be a performer, mind you, but not the particular vagaries of the stand-up life.

In my case, I had experience with it so I could reject the notion (politely, of course) outright. If you haven’t any experience with it, the idea might be more alluring, dangerously so, if your current acting career is stalled, or you’re feeling at loose ends. So before you commit to a dramatic course of action that’s going to suck a lot of time and resources, whether it’s a notion that’s been planted in your head by an outside party, something you picked up from the ether or some small, secret desire that’s suddenly making itself known, do your research, both external and internal.

The external part is easy, in these days of the interwebs. You can also talk to actual human beings who’ve been where you’ve been or are already where you think you might want to go. As an old-school type, might I also heartily recommend the contents of your local library?

The internal part is a little trickier. If you’re reeeeeally in tune with yourself and reeeeeeally disciplined, just crack out that pen and paper and jump to #3. If you’re not quite that in tune, but still a big DIY-er, I heartily endorse Your Best Year Yet, by Jinny Ditzler. It outlines a values-based goals system, walking you through an exhaustive (and yes, a little exhausting) plan to unearth that which you truly desire and then helps you establish a 12-month plan for doing it. The book is a quick read and the exercise itself (once you’ve read the book) takes only a few hours. Yet people I know have accomplished amazing things with this program: My writing partner quit a 15-year, pack-a-day smoking habit.

I, on the other hand, wound up quitting acting. So, you know, be prepared for some surprising things to come up if you’re really honest and thorough.

Second, make sure it’s a plan (or change) you’re ready to make. Speaking of smoking and quitting, we all know cigarettes are no good for us, right? Hell, if you were born anytime after 1970, you grew up knowing it; you started smoking knowing it.

The truth is, unless you are really ready to make a change, it probably ain’t gonna happen. Even then, with certain addictions there’s a high rate of recidivism. A quick Google search on alcoholism pulled up the tasty statistic that approximately 90% of alcoholics experience a relapse within four years of quitting. Most smokers have to quit many times before they quit for good. (I’m smoke-free since 1987 and I still get the occasional rogue craving. Ugh.)

I don’t mean to discourage you from attempting change, whether it’s getting rid of a bad habit or starting a fabulous new one. I’m just saying to be prepared. Get your ducks in a row, as my former shrink/astrologer used to say. If you’re doing something that’s dangerous to you, by all means start the change process now; just do your best to get the support set up to help you succeed.

Third, whatever it is, write it down. It is not enough to keep a thought, however well-formed, in your head alone. You need to get it in writing. Whether you use a computer or pen and paper is up to you. Many people swear by from-you-to-physical-reality component of the old-fashioned way, but the main thing is to write it down, which helps keep you accountable to yourself. And look at it as often as needed to remind yourself and keep yourself motivated. Plaster notes around the house and car if that floats your boat. Just stay plugged in to the dream.

That’s it! If you like, feel free to email me your goal(s). I’d love to see where people are headed this year. And who knows, maybe I’ll do a little follow-up a few months hence—just to keep everyone honest.

Good luck to you. And may 2007 be your best year yet!