You Have To Want It Less

From what I keep hearing, training programs seem to be telling actors ‘To make it in this business, you have to really want it.’

While it seems logical, it turns out, that it’s not necessarily true—at least not at every level.

Think about it: How many ‘perfect’ roles have you missed out on because you wanted the job so much that you stressed yourself out and blew the audition? (More than you want to remember, right?)

Why does this happen?

The Federal Reserve Bank and the London School of Economics did some research to see what kinds of rewards motivate people to perform at their best, and it turns out that when dealing with a complex task (such as acting), the bigger the reward offered for a job well done, the worse people actually performed at the task. The studies indicate that when there’s too much riding on a situation, people shut down. The stakes are just too high to allow creativity to blossom.

If you want to hear more about this study, watch the video at the bottom of this blog entry.

If you would rather take me at my word and run with it, here’s what I suggest: Next time you have an audition or gig that makes you feel particularly nervous, take notice of what kind of self-talk you are using. Are you fantasizing that this gig might lead to something huge? More lines? A recurring role? Your agent’s undying love? If you are, then you have probably raised the stakes too high to allow yourself to do your best work. Why not see what you can do about changing the self talk to reflect a much smaller reward? Instead of something big, try something like ‘If I book this one, I’m going to spend an afternoon at my favorite museum to celebrate’ or ‘If I prepare well for this piece and actually do what I set out to do, afterwards I’m going to  Santa Monica Pier to ride the ferris wheel’, and see what happens…


5 responses to “You Have To Want It Less

  1. I have found this to be EXACTLY true. Thank you for the validation and for making me feel so damn smart.

  2. [quote]f you are, then you have probably raised the stakes too high to allow yourself to do your best work. Why not see what you can do about changing the self talk to reflect a much smaller reward?[/quote]

    I’d add “How about just doing your job” to this but then again, I think most actors fall into the daydream-myself-into-“motion pictures” and less into “Hey, I have a job to do.”

  3. Michael, I hear what are saying, and it’s frustrating to me that so much about the way the industry is currently set up actually encourages actors to send themselves into a tail-spin over ‘what ifs’ instead of fostering a workplace that brings out the best work actors have to offer.

    It makes neither artistic nor financial sense for instance, for an agent to send an actor on an ‘important’ audition. By using the word ‘important’ the agent raises the stakes right out of the gate, and the actor must spend energy that could have gone into acting just trying to get back to his or her creative best. It makes no sense, and yet it happens every. single. day.

  4. Great post. Makes a lot of very practical sense. And I am so glad I read this today. I am putting so much ‘importance’ on a tv event this Friday and your post helps to put things into a bit of perspective so that I don’t overdo it.

  5. John Lithgow was interviewed by Jenelle Riley for an article in today (1/5/2011) and in it he talks about this topic a bit. The article is most definitely worth reading in it’s entirety, but here’s an excerpt that reminded me of this blog post.

    “Back Stage: Do you remember any of your really bad auditions?

    Lithgow: Well, if you don’t get the role, the audition is by definition bad. But I always try to enjoy them. I always tried to think of it as, “Well, they’re giving me a chance to act.”

    And having directed early on, I’d seen hundreds of actors audition. And I remember realizing this great truth: The actors that you want desperately are the ones who don’t appear to need it. It’s not that they don’t want it; they don’t seem to need it. Those are the ones you’re just dying to have. So I realized you have to cultivate that affect; I’m coming in to audition you. Do I really want to work with you?”

    The entire article can be accessed here:

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