After years and years working as a television actor, I’d beaten the odds. I was supporting my family, had bought a home and put my daughter in private school. All without ever waiting tables or parking cars!
I’d also learned to accept that working actors in Hollywood don’t act for a living, they audition. And, since most of the time they don’t get the job, in order to work even a little they need to audition a lot. The goal, of course, is to have as high a percentage of success as possible.
While my batting average was good, I couldn’t figure out how to make it better. I’d go into an audition and give a reading that was so dreadful my dead cat could’ve done better. I’d keep a brave face on but I knew—and was sure everyone else did, too,—that I stunk. But then, lo and behold, before I could call my manager to bemoan my failure, they would offer me the job. So how to improve my average? Try to stink every time?
Other times, I’d go into an audition and give a reading that was so good, so right on, that no one would be better. Different, maybe, but not better. But then, silence. Not a word. Nothing. The job would go to someone else. So how to improve my average? Even my best wasn’t getting me the job!
Luckily, a wonderful actress named Linda Carlson changed my thinking about all this.
“Your criteria for success are all wrong,” she told me. “You’re thinking the only time an audition is a success is when you get the job. But that’s not something you can control.”
“I know,” I said. “That’s what’s making me crazy! But what other ‘success’ is there besides getting the job?”
“Be present,” she said with a smile. “That’s the only thing you can control any way. Look. It’s a given that you know how to audition, so when you walk in the room your only job is to truly be in the room in real time. If even for one moment you focus on getting the job or about how long they kept you waiting or what a terrible reading partner the casting director is, you’re not being present.
“So if they introduce themselves, you remember their names. If they want to chat, you chat without worrying about losing your character. If they don’t want to chat, fine, you don’t worry that it might ‘mean’ something. No matter what happens, you’re completely present.
“And when it’s time to do your reading,” she said looking me right in the eye, “you read without one sliver of a thought about whether or not you’re going to get the job. Any part of you that stays attached to the outcome is a part of you that’s not really available to you. Just get totally and completely present.”
I remember so clearly the very next audition I went on. I remember walking into the room and noticing a wonderful Southwestern picture frame on the casting director’s desk with a picture of two smiling girls. I remember the poster over his couch. I remember chatting with them in a very relaxed manner, even perching on the edge of the desk. And I remember that I got the job.
The idea of being present is directly connected to The Look & Sound of Leadership™ and success in the workplace.
Imagine yourself preparing for an important meeting. As the day approaches, your adrenalin begins to rise. You tell yourself that if things go well, it will have a major impact on your next quarter. But if things don’t go well, well, you don’t even want to think about that.
Like an actor auditioning, you imagine that your success is directly connected to your performance in that room. And in some ways, it is. But if you allow yourself to be distracted by that reality, then part of your capacity is diminished. And if your capacity is diminished, it’s less likely you’re going to perform successfully. Which means the outcome you want to avoid is more likely to happen! A vicious cycle of fear creating reality.
To break the cycle, listen for when you worry. “What if they ask a question I can’t answer?” “What if they fold their arms and look at me like I’m rotting fish?” “What if it doesn’t go well?” “What if I bomb?”
Recognize that those “what if’s” are just distractions. If those sorts of questions help you prepare, great. But if those “what if’s” create anxiety, tune them out. Think of them like background noise: they are there but you don’t have to focus on them. Think, “I can have those thoughts and still do my job.”
Your job is to go into that high stakes room and be present.
Don’t get attached to the outcome. You can’t control that. Tell yourself that you’ll count every high stakes encounter a success if you can just stay present. Really listen. Really connect. If you can do that, you’ll stand out from those around you. Just be present.