Supported by Greenhaven Road Capital, finding value off the beaten path.
Jenna Fischer, Pam from The Office, has written a book, The Actor’s Life: A Survival Guide. Fischer is another overnight success that only took eight years. Sam Walton deflated the overnight success cock-and-bull story like this, “It’s true that I was forty-four when we opened our first Walk-Mart in 1962, but the store was totally an outgrowth of everything we’d been doing since Newport.”
Walton started his career as a franchisee, and only after a leasing miscue started Wal-Mart. This journey is more work for more reward with more uncertainty. It was the same for Fischer, who advised the reader:
“I had an acting teacher who used to say, ‘If you can think of anything you’re passionate about besides acting, do that. Your life will be better for it.’ And while it may sound harsh, I actually think that’s very good advice.”
On one level, Fischer’s book is a how-to, hands-on, up-close manual for someone who wants to be an actor. On another it’s about a formula for success; skill + perseverance + luck. Fischer wrote:
“The journey to become a working actor is a long and difficult one that requires a lot of hard work and perseverance. But it also requires something more obscure and out of your control: luck. Without a little luck on your side, you can be the most talented actor in the world and not achieve success. That’s the hard truth about this profession.”
That’s why Fischer, like Sam Hinkie, the Houston Astros, and Amelia Boone focus on the process, not the outcome. Fischer wrote that this may be the most important bit of advice:
“Your job as an actor is to create a consistent body of work. It’s not to book jobs. It is not to worry and beat yourself up over every job you didn’t book. Those decisions are out of your control. What is in your control is your approach to auditioning.”
While hard work on valuable skills + perseverance + luck may not be the right variables for all jobs, it was right for Fischer. Let’s see how.
“If you just want to be famous, become a reality star. If you want to be an actor, study acting.”
Fischer’s first job was in a commercial for the UCLA Medical Center. Her first line was, “Protection? Protection from what?” But everyone has to start somewhere. “I needed credits and this was a credit. Even better, it was real on-camera experience with a lot of dialogue.”
Fischer’s a fan of Steve Martin’s advice to be so good they can’t ignore you and (probably) also likes Cal Newport’s academic follow-up.
Newport’s advice is to pursue excellence, not passion. “Put your head down and plug away at getting really damn good,” Newport wrote. Once you’re good you have career capital, in Michael Caine’s words, these are the great roles.
Fischer needed ones that paid the rent.
But she kept improving. She graduated with a degree in theater. She moved to Los Angeles, and then after a year of waiting for her break, (it never came), she acted in anything that came along. She also took more classes.
“Training is not just something you do when you are first starting out, either. It should be an ongoing commitment. Professional athletes train in the off-season. So should you.”
“The trick to surviving the big move and your first year as an actor is finding the secret value of shitty situations.”
Though Fischer is funny in The Office, the book is not. But it’s not supposed to be. If an aspiring actor read this, compiled a checklist, and followed it — it just might work.
Fischer does tell some stories, some of them are funny, and with hindsight, each had a silver lining. Crappy catering jobs fed her. Temp work was flexible. Secretarial work, well, that was perfect.
“I spent that year (after college, before Los Angeles) working as a secretary/receptionist in a small business that specialized in selling marine audio equipment. I made coffee, answered the phones, helped the salesmen with their PowerPoint presentations, did the filing, processed invoices, and handled customers returns. Essentially, I was Pam.”
Elizabeth Gilbert had this realization in advance. “I need to write what I know, but I don’t know anything…I created – really intentionally – my own postgraduate MFA program.” Gilbert worked in a diner, collecting more character quirks than generous tips. Then she would hit the road and travel. One trip led to her Wyoming working as a trail cook. That turned into her first published story.
But it won’t be easy. Fischer wrote:
“In addition to talent, training, and hard work, living the life of a working actor requires a very special emotional constitution. You must have a strong will, you must be determined, and you must be able to withstand countless rejections without becoming depressed, cynical, or self-destructive.”
Perseverance is what Ken Burns attributes his success to, “I’m sure there are a lot of more talented filmmakers than me, with really great ideas, who just haven’t followed through.”
Luck and serendipity.
Luck, wrote Michael Mauboussin, cannot be changed yet luck changes our lives. Reed Hastings said that his lucky break was serving coffee, where he saw a new style of computer architecture. “That changed my life,” Hastings said.
So if luck is some uncontrollable variable what do we do? Fischer’s advice is to increase your serendipity.
“…you’re much more likely to be in the right place at the right time if you’re busy doing showcases, plays, and taking classes. Chances are you won’t be in the right place at the right time if you’re spending your days eating Lucky Charms your couch. Trust me, I tried.”
She had to get out there. At first, this was hard. She came to Los Angeles to be an actor, not to sell tickets for other actors or build sets for other actors or support other actors. But it was the other things, getting drawn into new groups and growing in new ways that were the real start of her journey.
Scott Adams writes that life is like a slot machine. Eventually, there’s a payout but you gotta be in it to win it. Only, Adams notes, life is even better, all it takes is time and effort to play the game. It takes hard work and perseverance then a little bit of luck. That’s Fischer’s story.
Thanks for reading.
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