David Harper, a recent transplant to Los Angeles, has a fabulous, sardonic sense of humor. But he’s also very smart. He knows that often, what stands in our way as we claim we want to achieve success is our own stubborn habits. Bad habits. Busy work. Stuff we think matters, rather than stuff we know could really make a difference. What does science tell us about how to succeed? Let’s check in with David’s POV, for an overview.

A Scientific Approach to Success in Hollywood

I may have cracked the code.

I’m always looking for results. Maybe it’s my years in the boardroom, maybe it’s my bawdy lust for success, or maybe I’m just hardwired that way. Beats me. I just like to get results. Results are fun. Results are measurable. Results give me something to drink to.

But here’s the thing: In order to get results, you have to do stuff.

I know, right?

And not only that, you gotta figure out what that stuff is. And if that wasn’t tedious enough, some of that stuff is gonna work way better than the rest, so now you have to figure out — from all the stuff you could be doing — what stuff you should be doing.

That’s the code I’ve cracked.

“The 80/20 Rule,” also known as The Pareto Principle (from the seminal work of Italian economist Vilfredo Pareto), tells us that we get 80% of our results from 20% of our activities. Or, as the late Jim Rohn put it, “There are always about a half-dozen things that make 80% of the difference.”

What if you could, in any endeavor, take the time to figure out what those half-dozen things were? And then what if you went to work on them? And kept working on them? You would almost automatically put yourself in the top 20% of your field.

I know, right?

So when I moved to Los Angeles, I thought, “What are the critical few activities that, if done well and consistently, could move my acting career furthest, fastest?”

I asked the experts. I asked the dilettantes. I asked the homeless guy on Venice Boulevard who everyone knows is a method actor from Long Beach. No one had an answer. Well, everyone had an answer, but none of them were consistent. I was puzzled. So I did what I always do when I’m puzzled. I went for a nice long walk. Well, technically I went out for yogurt, but my car was in the shop so I did go for a walk.

While I was walking (actually it was while I was eating the yogurt) I thought, “Instead of asking, why not just watch what actors do? Observe them in their natural habitat. Make notes. Compile data.” And with that, I set out to study Actorus Losangelesus. And while studying them, I cracked the code. I discovered a half-dozen things that, if done well, may actually guarantee success for the aspiring actor.

These are common activities you see every day in Los Angeles. The reason they haven’t led to success for most actors is that while they are common, they aren’t ubiquitous. In other words, I see a lot of actors doing one or two of these things, but I’ve yet to see any actor do all six. So I’m thinking that maybe, just maybe, if I put all six into practice it will create the alchemy that turns hard work into Oscar gold.

So starting now I’m going to do the following six things to put my acting career on the fast track to the Dolby Theatre.

  1. Send a random postcard to every casting director in the world, every day.
  2. Hang out at coffee shops in Hollywood and wait to be discovered.
  3. Go to every agent/manager showcase in town and beg them to like me.
  4. Start a weekly meeting for actors who want to complain about how hard the business is.
  5. Submit for everything, regardless of type, age range, gender, etc. Open casting is in.
  6. Show up to every audition completely unprepared, so I can be totally in the moment.

“But wait,” you say. “That’s a silly list. You would be crazy to do those things and expect them to work.”

They said Tesla was crazy, too. Well, he was OCD… he had this weird thing with the number three… anyway, not the point.

The point is this: Those things must work, or people wouldn’t do them. Right? People don’t continue to do things that don’t work, right? You have a regular habit of standing back and asking yourself, “Is what I’m doing working? Is it getting me the results I want? And if not, what do I need to change?”

You do that, right?


Okay, maybe my list is silly. But if we’re honest with ourselves, we all have one or two silly things on our list. Things that make us feel productive but get us nowhere. Things that make us confuse activity with progress. Things that keep us busy but not productive. You know, silly things.

Don’t get me wrong; I’m not asking you to never do anything silly. If you want to juggle produce while riding a unicycle on a tightrope, go for it. But although it would be a cool special skill to add to your resumé, it probably won’t do much to get you closer to a series regular role.

What I am asking you to do is take a step back and examine your work objectively. Ask yourself, “Is this working? Is this getting me the results I want? Is this moving me measurably closer to my stated goals? If it isn’t, what do I need to change? If it is, how can I do it better?”

A benefit of this approach is that it works for more than just your acting career. This will work in any area where you want to accomplish something. If you will take time out regularly to do this kind of objective introspection, and take action on your discoveries, I promise you’ll see positive results.

But hey, if results aren’t your thing, there’s always my list.

Freakin’ awesome, David! This is an outstanding smack in the actor-face, for those who will take the initiative to look in the proverbial mirror, *really* examine what they say they’re doing vs. what they’re actually doing day-to-day, and commit to putting more control into their own hands. Thank you for this, David. And actors reading? Let’s hear from you. What are YOU doing? Right now? Next? And after that?


About David Harper

David Harper was born. Now he lives. Soon he will die. Oh, and throw “he’s an actor” in there somewhere. Probably between the living and dying part. More? thedavidharper.com

Bonnie Gillespie is living her dreams by helping others figure out how to live theirs. Wanna work with Bon? Start here. Thanks!

Originally published by Actors Access at http://more.showfax.com/plus/pov/2013/07/a_scientific_approach_to_succe.html. Please support the many wonderful resources provided by the Breakdown Services family. This posting is the managing editor’s personal archive.

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  1. Avatar Ace February 2, 2016 at 4:28 am

    My daughter booked a lead in a pilot last year that wasn’t picked up to series. As upset as she was about not having work, what really bummed her out was that her co-lead had become a trusted friend and she was unhappy that they wouldn’t be working together. Now, my daughter has a serious gift for writing, but she’s only ever wanted to focus on her acting. I told her, “If you want to work with [said actor] again, write a screenplay.” She actually took my advice and is almost half-way through. In the meantime, her friend has just completed a first draft of a screenplay that was shared with her and has a potential role for her. There are never any guarantees, but if you have a working relationship with someone, carpe diem! She could have spent the last six months mourning, but she has been working (another pilot lead, another no-pick-up) and writing. She’s hoping to have her script ready to shop by June.

    Actors need “busy work” during their downtime, but it’s much better to create something and to work on things within your control. Continue to build on the relationships you’ve created (whether in a student film or an improv group). While nothing may come of that work, it will keep you sharp and hopeful and disciplined and NOT DESPERATE. I always feel that most of the items on David’s list (except #6, which is just unprofessional) come off as “hungry”… and not in a good way.

  2. Avatar Hilary February 2, 2016 at 5:45 am

    Thank you for this! Powerful questions that create awareness for all areas. This puts me in the driver seat of my life. I am on my way to my desired destination enjoying the ride and sometimes there are detours because someone says, “You should do …” I desire to become more and more clear on what that destination looks like to continue to be specific with the actions I take to get there. And, when I get a suggestion, adding the words “will these actions” will guide me to knowingness so I don’t waste energy. When I am feeling frustrated, I know it’s because I detoured due to fear. Thank you again!

  3. Avatar Austin Hook February 2, 2016 at 8:12 am

    Wow! He is absolutely right. It seems that most actors confuse activity with productivity.

  4. Bonnie Gillespie Bonnie Gillespie March 12, 2016 at 12:55 am

    Thanks, y’all!

    Austin — Right? Actor Busy Work is real. But it’s not “real effective,” that’s for sure. 😉

    Hilary — I’m so glad you found David’s words powerful. I so love this piece of his! Have you seen my column called “If only you would…”? It’s along the lines of the “You should do…” thing you mentioned. https://bonniegillespie.com/if-only-you-would

    Ace — Good for your daughter! What a wonderfully proactive choice she made! That’s phenomenal! Of course, there’s a difference between “Actor Busy Work” and just good ol’ WORK that actors DO! Good for her! Keep me posted on how it all goes from here!


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