I was on a panel recently and one of the questions we were asked was, “What do you think is the most important thing an actor needs to achieve success?” Some answers were “passion” and “determination.”
When it came to me I said, “Skills. Passion and determination mean nothing if you can’t deliver.” When asked to explain further, I said that, as far as the audition goes, the people in the room are looking to see if you have the skills to make the role come life in a way that will engage the audience and enhance the project. They want to see the effortlessly connected, dynamic result of your hard work. If you go in to audition passionately determined to blow them away, but you don’t know what you’re doing, all they’ll see is an unfocused mess—no matter how determined and passionate you are to make it good.
As an example, I said that I had just come from my accountant that day. I didn’t choose her because I admire her passion for accounting; I hired her because she knows tax law and can save me money. Same with my doctor. He may have had passion and determination to get through medical school, but all I care about is that he can read the lab results correctly and that he knows what to do when he puts the rubber gloves on.
It’s about the skill. And even though our profession has a large creative and emotional component, in the end, how frequently you work will depend on how skilled you are at getting and performing the job.
While passion and determination aren’t magic bullets and are far from being enough on their own, they can be helpful as part of a successful work ethic and as motivators to be the absolute best actor that you can be. But, it’s important to use these qualities in the most positively artistic way possible.
With determination, for example, there is a big difference between stubborn determination and artistic determination.
When I hear some actors say that they’re determined, it’s many times code for bull headedness. It means that they’re going to keep doing what’s not working, but with even more energy. Creativity is not linear. The answers that will most enliven your work and your life will be found through deep, open, and honest exploration. So, being artistically determined means that you’re aware of what you need to work on and doing that work willingly and energetically—to dive in and grow, enrich, and improve.
Determined to be a successful, working actor, but doing so in the rhythm of life and the spirit of creativity – incorporating everything that appears on your path is the way to go!
And yes, be passionate. But be passionate about the work, not the fantasy of fame and fortune. True actors are so excited about the process that they don’t see it as work at all. They have a passion for knowing themselves more deeply and specifically, and a passion for connecting to other people. They’re passionate about listening and learning about human nature. And they’re passionately curious about acting in all of its forms. They have a passionate dedication to learning and widening the scope of their art.
Having a strong sense of passion and determination and a week set of skills is a recipe for frustration and anxiety. You don’t deserve something just because you’re passionate about it. You deserve what you earn through doing the hard work of making yourself the most highly skilled professional you can be.
Someone saying that honing your skills and working your ass off may not seem as “inspirational” as telling you that being determined and passionate are going to be enough to succeed. But it’s honest.
And to real actors, what could be more inspiring than to hear that the real key to success is getting better and better at doing what they love?
To actually live this though, to be a true artist and do the work that it takes to be a truly great actor takes a tremendous amount of self-discipline.
The other performing arts have more obvious disciplines than acting. Dancers train their bodies for hours and hours a day; singers train their voices; musicians practice their instruments tirelessly.
Since acting’s requirements are less pronounced, it’s up to the actor to create the necessary artistic structure. An artist needs to live a life that supports his art and encourages development of his craft. Putting together such a life can be both exciting and intimidating, and no one can do it but you. In the “Life of the Artist” program that I teach, we help each actor create a life that keeps him living on artistic purpose 24/7. Even when life is not artistic, you are still an artist living it, and you need to experience everything through that filter.
Staying on point takes effort. Besides all of the distractions that the artist can fall into on his own, there is also the fact that many people won’t respect your artistic life and will fail to see the value in your activities. For instance, if you tell them that you need to read an hour each day to expand your imagination and improve your text recognition skills, they may dismiss this as “not real work.”
I have a student whose parents live in Michigan. They called to say that they were selling their home and he needed to fly back from L.A. to help. When he asked if his brothers, both of whom live in the same town as their parents, were going to be there to help, they responded that the brothers “had real jobs and were busy with those.” Unsurprisingly, this is how much of the world looks at artists and it takes a mighty discipline not to let these people pull you from your center.
In terms of the audition process, there are two immediate benefits to living an artistically nourishing life.
The first is that you are always in the acting gear, so that when auditions come up, you are already in the head and heart space that will create a great audition. You don’t have to try to remember what being a creative person feels like; you’re a creative person all of the time and the work of the audition is just one more expression of your continuous creativity.
The other benefit is that your artistic identity isn’t tied to just that one job. You are an artist walking into the audition and an artist walking out, whether the job is yours or not.
This does wonders in taking the pressure down and freeing you in the room to do the personal, dynamic, and risky work that books the role.
Discipline is also essential to great work. Auditioning is a process. It begins when you receive the material and doesn’t end until you leave the room. You need a way of working that gives you the discipline and focus you need to stay with each step of your process. Actors have a habit of wanting to get pretty before they’re interesting—to jump ahead in their audition prep and “solve” how the piece is going to look and sound.
In fact, an audition isn’t a problem that needs to be solved. An audition is an opportunity to explore, with diligence and determination, yourself, and a piece of material, until you find the most honest and resonant intersection of the two.
Creativity without discipline is just a mess. But, like the dancer and the musician, the great actor knows that beauty and truth don’t happen randomly, but come about through the concentration, perseverance, and vulnerability that discipline provides.
If you have chosen the path of the artist, you need to develop the discipline to stay on it —to not waver, to move forward with focus and clarity. Starting with the moment you wake up in the morning, everything you do needs to feed your artistic soul and give you the energy and motivation to continue to act and to grow—to be an artist all day, week, month, year, and lifelong.
And as you continue to develop and grow as a passionate disciplined artist, it’s a good idea to have goals that inspire you and encourage you to work toward.
There’s a lot that is positive in having guideposts to work toward in a career that is, by nature, unpredictable and unstructured.
Charting your progress by results on the other hand can be both dangerous and discouraging.
I had an actor say to me the other day that his goal is to book three co-star roles in the next six months. That’s not a goal, but a desire for a specific result that, because of circumstances entirely out of the actor’s control, will probably not work out.
Enforcing your agenda on the business is not goal-making, it’s an attempt to control the uncontrollable.
Results are guaranteed to no one.
Here are some thoughts on the differences between goal-focused and result-focused people:
• People focusing on goals tend to embrace process.
• People focusing on results tend to want shortcuts.
• Focusing on goals keeps you connected and aware.
• Focusing on results can create blinders that shut others out.
• In achieving goals you learn to be flexible and to problem-solve.
• In trying to achieve a result you become rigid and stubborn.
• Goal-oriented people are present for every step of the journey.
• Result-oriented people only show up for what they think will get them what they want.
• Goal-oriented people are open to help, knowing that sometimes they’re not the best judge of what is best for them.
• Result-oriented people can be closed off to any way but their own
• Goals create positive energy.
• Striving for results creates anxiety and fear of failure.
• Goals are rooted in realistic accomplishment.
• Results are rooted in desire and fantasy.
A poignant example of the difference between goals and results took place s couple of years ago at the U.S. Open, which saw Serena Williams two matches away from the grand slam
—a feat only three other female tennis players had achieved. She was playing someone to whom she had never lost and it looked like a clear path to the final. But somewhere in the second set you could see her really start to think about the result.
She fell out of the moment and forgot to take care of the business at hand. Suddenly,one of the greatest tennis players of all time couldn’t move her feet, breathe, or even get her racket back in time to hit the ball. The hugeness of the destination pulled her off the path.
Her opponent, with no expectations as far as the result went, (she had a plane ticket home that night!) was able to focus on the moment and achieve her goal, which was simply to play her best tennis in her first grand slam semi-final. And she won.
Presence in the moment always trumps desire for an outcome.
Now let’s see how the goal- and result-oriented actors fare in the audition room:
• The goal-oriented actor is excited for the experience and the chance to test how far they have come.
• The result-oriented actor looks at the experience as an obstacle to their desired result.
• Goal-oriented actors are present and available in their auditions.
• Result-oriented actors can be anticipatory and closed off.
• Because they are present and available, goal-oriented actors tend to be people with whom you would want to work.
• Result-oriented actors are harder to like because they are showing up for the job and not the audition, so it’s unclear who they really are.
• Goal-oriented actors lean in to the work and the room, experiencing all of the moments with a fresh, open mind.
• Result oriented actors can be defensive, not fully engaged in the room, and risk averse in their work for fear of losing the job.
Power comes from relaxation not tension, so don’t tie yourself up in knots over the result. Make your goal to savor the experience of the audition—to be present, connected, dynamic, involved, available, flexible, and likable.
And in a larger way, make your goal to have your goals fueled by passionate determination and disciplined, focused work.