Tuesday, June 19, 2018

Review: The Actor's Life - A Survival Guide

The Actor's Life by Jenna Fischer is part biography and part guidebook to those with dreams of acting. Jenna Fischer's credentials speak for themselves: she went from a nobody, to Pam on The Office. The book elegantly uses her career journey as sources of both advice and cautionary tales.

While I'm not quitting my day job to be an actor, I did find the book spoke to me on a number of levels.

First off, the book gave me a fresh perspective into the world of TV and Movies. I appreciate more than ever what a struggle it is to land a notable TV/Movie role. Since reading the book, whenever I see a quirky commercial or notice a scene with actors buzzing around in the background I think: every individual on set had to work their tail off, passing numerous hurdles, just so they could be there. It's down right impressive.

Second of all, while Fischer almost certainly didn't intend it as such, the book strikes me as interesting social commentary. Throughout the book, I came to appreciate how important an actor's 'look' was. If your head-shot shows you with a beard, then you better show up at the audition with that same beard. I also learned that many commercials contain just a few lines of dialog, far fewer than you'd expect.

This all works because our brains are optimized to recognize patterns and make assumptions. Imagine we cut to a scene with a seasoned plumber talking to a frazzled new mom. Thanks to the look of the players, the use of costume and set design, we need only a phrase or two of dialog to know what's going.

The fact that we have these shortcuts in place isn't on the surface a bad thing. Heck, it's probably what makes movies and TV even work. The challenge is that pattern recognition and assumption making doesn't stop when you turn off the TV. This can have real world implications, from the hiring manager who passes on a quality candidate, to the Police Officer who makes a fatal error. I don't know the best way to limit the impact of these biases, but I do know Fisher's book underscores they're pervasiveness.

Finally, the book spoke directly to me as a programmer who works for himself. Like Fischer, I'm my own CEO. Much of the advice she gives her readers, from building a like minded community, to making your own work, apply directly to folks like myself. Most importantly, she talks about how actor's never stop hustling; they're always working hard to land their next gig knowing that it won't be handed to them. Fischer may have had huge success as 'Pam,' but it doesn't mean she's automatically offered another amazing role.

This is a lesson I've learned from years of working for myself, and it would have been sound advice to have had at the start of my self-employment adventure.

If you're interested in being an actor, definitely pick up Fischer's book. But I'd say her wisdom applies to anyone who wants to make it as their own CEO. The road may be longer than you expect and the journey harder, but the reward is that much sweeter. Just ask Pam, uh I mean, Jenna.

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