Since much of what an actor does every day is centered around the “what if” of portraying a character, the balance between “what if” and “what is” is probably much more difficult to achieve than for non-actors. But for sure, people in every industry struggle with reconciling these two states of mind about many things. Learning how to strike the balance is a key to enjoying the time spent — intentionally — in each world.

Take a look at the (crude, but awesome) figure that I’ve included in this week’s column. The goal is to hit The Zone (and spend as much time as possible there). That’s the healthiest place in both the What If and What Is parts of your life, and the ever-important balance between both worlds.

Click to enlarge a great deal.

When What Ifs Help

What Ifs are great when you need the motivation to continue. Sometimes the day-to-day is so boring or disheartening that the fantasy of how things will (or could) be someday is enough to really keep the dream alive. Knowing there’s the chance that you’ll be able to leave that survival job behind, that your name will appear in TV Guide, that you’ll be asked to join Oprah on the couch for a chat about your latest philanthropic endeavor (y’know, since you’re using your fame to make a difference in the world), may be exactly what you need to keep you going to one more cattle call, one more EPA, one more chemistry read.

Obviously, a major space for What Ifs in the actor’s life is reserved for visualizing yourself in a role. What Ifs often give you the “as if” you need to do your best audition. Sure, there’s research behind the character’s life and you’re making choices based on that too, but it’s often the commitment you make to this fictional world you’ve entered for the sake of the audition that makes a difference in whether your audience goes on the ride with you. Let’s face it, What Ifs are a big part of how you do the craft of your job, no matter what school or technique you come from.

When What Ifs Hurt

What Ifs are a bad idea when you find yourself playing around with so much Actor Mind Taffy that you drive yourself (and your friends) nuts. You can’t seem to stop thinking about how you could’ve auditioned better. How they went with your nemesis. Again. How you would’ve booked this part if only you hadn’t eaten that onion sandwich right before the preread. Or you spend your time imagining how much better your career would be if only you had signed with that agent who wanted to sign you last year (but you were so sure things would work out with your existing agent… who now has left the business). How you should’ve chosen LA instead of NY. Or made the move to LA sooner. Or used the other headshot. Or stayed a blonde.

Whatever. Those are all things you can’t go back and undo or redo in order to find out what could’ve been, what would’ve been. It’s like the game of LIFE and how you choose your road at the fork and hope you land on the huge career with the awesome payday, rather than the career you can’t maintain if you end up with too many little baby pegs in your plastic car. (Eesh, does this game exist anymore? I really need to update my pop culture game references. Maybe there’s a game on Wii that’s like the old board game I’m remembering. Anyway.)

Since you can’t go back and undo or redo and then experience the exact same opportunities, the more time you spend obsessing on that stuff, the more of the dark side of the What Ifs you’re experiencing.

Also within this area are things like spending more time wondering about the role that got away than preparing for the next one or comparing yourself to others. It’s all bad news and it’s the worst part of the What Ifs. I guess the good news is that we all do it, no matter what career we’ve chosen. The better news is that we can STOP doing it (and should, quickly) if we want to move forward and see some progress.

When What Is Helps

Knowing where you are and really understanding your current situation is most valuable when you need to get focused on what’s working and what isn’t, so you can take steps toward improvement. Many people avoid looking at What Is because it’s sometimes uncomfortable to take note of areas that need fixing. Maybe your level of debt is out of control. Maybe you need to get in better shape. Maybe you aren’t as good at comedy as you were back when you were in an ongoing class. But if you don’t stop and take stock of What Is, it’s really easy to ignore, blissfully, what career barriers you’re putting up — and keeping up — for yourself.

What Is is also a great place to force yourself to go if you’re the kind of person who has a tendency to spend too much time in the land of What If. Many actors (and artists of all kind) are so brilliant because they are very good at the What Ifs, but because you’re trying to sell your creative gifts in the land of What Is, sometimes you’ll need to anchor yourself to reality.

When What Is Hurts

If you’re the kind of person who sees What Is as a death sentence, who wallows in self-pity over how nothing’s ever gonna get any better than it is right now, then you don’t want to spend too much time pegged to the extreme in the land of What Is. You want to get there to evaluate yourself, to check in with what buyers are looking for, to push yourself when necessary. But if you use What Is as an excuse to stagnate and live in habits, refusing to stretch and grow and improve your craft, your business savvy, yourself, you’re only hurting your chances at ever being given the opportunity to play. Or grow. Or share your gifts.

Striking a Balance

As with all things, the best gift you can give yourself involves two elements. ONE: Know yourself. Know your tendencies. Are you more likely to do too much What If-living or are you dwelling in the quicksand of What Is? Where do you spend most of your time and your energy? And is it in the “helping” or “hurting” part of each world? Not sure? Make a list. Make a list of everything that is good and everything that is bad about your acting career right now. How much of that list is you focusing on What If and how much of it is you focusing on What Is? It’s like learning which side of your brain is dominant. Once you know your default setting, you can learn how to turn that into a strength!

TWO: Find balance. Once you are sure you know yourself and where your default setting is in the whole What If vs. What Is arena, you can get better about visiting the “other side” when it serves a purpose. If you’ve learned you’re a major “What Iffer” who spends more time dreaming about the fantasy career than taking any concrete steps right now toward that fantasy, then you can create a short-term goal of simply spending a bit more time each day focused on a “little thing” you can do to get from where you actually are now to where you’re headed. Not TO the goal. Yet. But IN the direction of it. Even a tiny shift in your focus is going to make a difference in your ability to reach your ultimate goal. Because the ultimate goal is actually made up of a whole bunch of wee, little goals you can accomplish in very short periods of time.

I know everyone who is really craft-driven would love to never have to think about the business side of this industry. And everyone who is really business-savvy would love to apply logic and rules to the path of success actors travel. The punchline is, this is one industry in which neither the pegged-to-the-wall artist nor the pegged-to-the-wall logistician is going to win. An artist with no business savvy could do great in a community way outside of Hollywood. And someone who wants to apply logic and fairness in order to calculate a scientific path to success could do really well in an objective field… which acting in a major market ain’t!

Balance, balance, balance. Once you know whether you’re more of a What Iffer or a What Isser, make a deal with yourself to visit the other world more often. And in a healthy way.

Lemme hear from you on this, beautiful people. Where do you “live” and how do you “visit” the other side?

Wanna be sure your tools *and* your mindset are in peak form? Let us get you in gear with some FREE training right now!

Woo HOO!

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 Please support the many wonderful resources provided by the Breakdown Services family. This posting is the author’s personal archive.

(Visited 2,001 times, 1 visits today)


  1. R B Ripley March 6, 2015 at 6:21 am

    As always, great insights offered in such a digestible, powerful form. Thanks for all you do!

  2. Lisa-Marie March 6, 2015 at 8:25 pm

    So relevant to me currently! I feel like I’m not quite balanced between what if and what is. I like to imagine what I can achieve but can feel bogged in my current circumstances. This is a really great perspective to explain how I currently feel and I’m definitely going to reassess my thinking to make it more productive.

  3. Bonnie Gillespie March 6, 2015 at 8:56 pm

    RB — Thank YOU for enjoying this! 🙂 I love anything with a wee graphic, no matter how crudely drawn. 😉

    Miki — Aw, you’re the best! Miss your sweet face!

    Lisa-Marie — Excellent! Remember to go easy on yourself. Just recognize, “Oh, this is that thing I do. I’m in this quadrant over here,” and start to ease back toward the zone. It takes practice, but it’s doable! 😀


Leave A Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.