SURVIVING YOUR SUCCESSFUL CAREER
OK, this is for later on in your career, but it’s not bad to keep in mind: How will you handle success?
Getting everything you ever thought you wanted could be the worst thing that ever happened to you.
Let’s say all your years of hard work begin to pay off. You start booking and have a big series coming out, maybe a movie. The money has begun to come in and people are taking notice of you. It feels like it’s finally your moment. You are actually earning a living as a voice/actor. Your future looks bright. What could possibly go wrong?
Actually, quite a bit. Let’s look at some of the common pitfalls and missteps many successful actors– yes, even voice actors– can fall into– that you can hopefully avoid:
1. Momentary or sudden success makes you feel you now have permission to live beyond your means.
There is a saying, “A great way to insure your career will take a nosedive is to buy a house.”
For an actor who has spent years honing his/her craft, paying dues, barely making ends meet, sudden success can be a seductive shock. With a sudden influx of money it’s easy to start buying stuff– the fancy clothes, the fancy car, the fancy home, etc. It’s what you do, right? Such a relief to not have to think about money anymore! Plus it’s just fun!
I’m not talking necessities or smart investing in the tools of your career or even a well-deserved splurge. I’m talking bigger sums of “discretionary purchases” that would give a clear-headed CPA indigestion– stuff you can’t realistically afford now or in a year or two. You start by spending what you have, then start borrowing more and more, all based on projections of imagined steady and expanding future income.
It’s easy to forget that freelance work is irregular and will probably have dry spells. Fast forward a few years past this amazing moment of “success” and the money pipeline could again reduce to a trickle. And you’ll still have to pay those bills.
It’s a common story and this advice seems trite, but it’s true. Especially in a place like Los Angeles, where examples of this abound. It is far too easy to buy into the culture of conspicuous consumption that is funded by massive hidden debt. Sure, it looks great on the surface, but the lavish consumption that appears to confirm success is often founded on less than nothing. It’s a financial 18 wheeler running on fumes heading down a steep grade hill.
Be the exception and don’t take the bait. Live within your means, especially when the going gets good. The company you keep can help you with this or hurt.
2. Take your eye off your money and it could end up evaporating.
This is another common story for successful entertainers: “Success” arrives and you’ve suddenly got way more moolah coming in than is going out. Your CPA/lawyer advises you to incorporate, which means you will now have two separate entities to oversee– your personal and your corporate finances. There’s more money to sock away in various tax-deferred ways for retirement or the kids’ education, braces, etc. Legal regulations you must keep track of multiply and keep changing. You must track and report your professional expenses while reporting a variety of corporate formalities so Uncle Sam is happy, while making sure all bills are paid and accounted for.
This takes more and more of your increasingly precious and valuable time– time you’d rather spend honing your art and enjoying your success and tending to your thriving life.
Your time becomes at once increasingly valuable and increasingly scarce.
We actors don’t gravitate to our careers because of our math skills or emotional prudence. We are hired to tap into our crazy, our passion, our unfiltered reactions, our insticts. We are paid to feel, not to ponder, consider and ruminate.
So, you– the newly “successful” actor– hire a business manager your friend just loves to take charge of everything financial (for a cut of it all). At first, this a bit scary, but this kind of oblivion is also a relief. Now you just sign the checks that have been prepared for you and it all just magically happens. What previously cost you many unpleasant hours of your life now takes a few pleasant minutes. You like this. It’s a relief to suddenly have no idea what your bills are, how much anything costs, how much money you have or even where it actually is. You got into this career for fun, not to be an accountant, right?
With this new arrangement you have taken your finger off the pulse of your money flow. This ignorance may feel like bliss, but it may not play out so blissfully. Cautionary tales in this abound, some quite spectacular. You can start your research on the cover of the National Enquirer featuring the latest broke ex-star or musician and go from there.
Delegating control of your finances–at least in degrees– may be what needs to happen so you can keep doing what you do without getting overwhelmed. But, if you take your eye off your money completely, your bottom line may someday vanish.
Do what you gotta do, but don’t lose track of your cash.
3. You stop working at your art, stop going for it, and stop working.
It’s a common story: An actor becomes successful yet stops growing creatively. Stability supplants the earlier goal of creative growth and projects becomes more monotonous. Money or fame eclipse artistic development.
This established, successful actor becomes what I call a “lifestyle actor–” someone who takes a gig only to maintain a “lifestyle.” There is no longer a component of art or risk or creativity or even fun in the work they put out. It’s only about money and hanging on to what material existence already amassed.
This can mean that your creative powers start to slip and so does your career. Some keep a career going strong by keeping with the familiar and protecting the trappings of a successful and comfortable life. Every project seems merely a retread of what was done better before, but that becomes good enough.
It’s up to you. It’s not a bad life, but if you want to keep going strong and loving what you do, maybe you want to keep the creative fires burning and not settle in just yet.
For more of my thoughts on this, check my Fuel page.
4. You surround yourself only with people who say “yes” to you.
I’ve seen this happen to friends and we see it in tabloids happening to industry top-dogs. Gradually, they begin eliminating certain contrary voices from their sphere of influence. In effect, they shut out any external or friendly source of course correction. Finally, they are unable to walk back mistakes (personal or artistic) because they can’t even tell they are making them. This can be the overreach of a brilliant person seeking too much control or a weak or fearful person trying to avoid confronting the truth.
I really believe people personally and professionally always need trusted friends/family/creative partners who feel obligated to tell them “no,” or at least finesse an honest observation, no matter how uncomfortable. Without this corrective mechanism in place, things easily go off the rails in an “Emperor’s new clothes” kind of way.
We all need someone to sometimes tell us what we don’t want to hear, and what we need to hear.
5. Missing the parade:
This isn’t exactly a peril, but it is an easy misstep.
There is a moment when your big movie/television series, etc. is going to hit screens, or when it’s the hottest thing on the airwaves. This magical moment is a window of opportunity: You can choose to proactively exploit this moment and parlay this “heat” into your next step, or to just sit back and let it pass you by.
This takes some perspective and a willingness to push when you could as easily sit back and just let it wash over you. This “magic moment” can have a way of seeming so full and exciting it’s hard to imagine it ending. Of course it will bring good things and progress to your career– right? Not necessarily.
At some point, it will end and you may be left scratching your head wondering why it all stopped. You will wish you had done more to shake more opportunity and momentum from that shining moment.
6. Acting can bring out your good, bad and ugly
An actor is regularly called upon to tap into unfiltered emotions–the good, bad and ugly– and to magnify and wield sometimes volcanic impulses on cue at full force. It takes skill and self-control to do this in a session, but bringing these forces home with you can prove destructive.
The confidence, or “star-power” of a good actor can manifest as narcissism, arrogance, rudeness, or “prima donna” behavior back in the “real world.” It can result in impulsive outbursts or losing control and can prove ruinous to one’s personal life if not dialed back or muted. The irony is that actors are paid to develop and use these inner forces, but they are expected to shut off or at least contain them when not at work. This isn’t always easy or even possible.
In addition, the expectations that come with professional success for an actor can bring out terrifying psychological pressures as well. For some, success can serve to amplify deep fear of failure, jealousy or other destructive passions. It seems counter intuitive, but it’s true– having more than enough can heighten the fear of never having enough for some.
As a voice actor, you probably stand less a chance of succumbing to the large scale self-inflicted ruin more commonly associated with the on-camera world, but there are exceptions. One of my saddest Hollywood memories is of a very talented voice actress I knew and worked with who committed suicide right before she was to sing her nominated song at the Oscars. This tragic loss at an apparent moment of professional triumph will never leave me.