How To Choose: Practical Advice for Actors Making Tough Decisions

Amy Clites

  • Featured Columnist: "Thoughts From The Third Coast"

When I told my husband what I was writing about this month, he laughed.

“You’re going to give people advice about how to choose?  You’re terrible at making decisions!”

Honestly, he’s not wrong.  It is kind of crazy that I’m going to attempt to provide any solid advice about how to make tough choices.  I’m notoriously indecisive. 

Case in point: My last semester of grad school at Rutgers, I agonized over the decision about where to move after graduation.  Should I stay in the area and move to New York, even though it scares the shit out of me and I’m not sure I’m ready?  Or should I move to Chicago, where I have family and I’ll feel more comfortable?  If I don’t move to New York, will I regret it for the rest of my life?  But do I really want to move so far away from my support system?  In which city will I find more work?  Can I afford to live in New York?  Who will I live with?  Will I have to live with strangers?  OHMYGODIDON’TKNOWWHATTODO!

n-WOMAN-IDEA-628x314.jpg

For four solid months I read books, I researched neighborhoods, and I talked endlessly with my therapist.  I quizzed my classmates.  I sought the advice of my teachers.  Ultimately, I never had to make the tough decision because it was made for me.  I booked a year-long national tour out of showcase, which meant moving to New York.

But fate is funny and fickle.

On the day after I moved into my apartment in Jersey City to start my new life as a New York City actor, I got a call from the company manager saying our tour was canceled and the company was shuttering due to financial mismanagement. 

Well, holy shit, that news unleashed a cascade of tough decisions that required immediate action.  Where am I going to find a job?  What am I going to do about the sub-letter I had already lined up?  (Sorry, Joe, I still feel bad about that.)  How am I going to pay my rent until I get a job?

And as I soon discovered, the tough decision-making never stopped.

A Lifetime of Decisions

As an actor, you’ll be faced with tough choices your entire career:

Do I take that two-month gig at a theater out of town or that guest-starring spot on the TV show that shoots for two days? 

Do I sign with the big, powerful agency where I’ll just be another face in the crowd, or the boutique agency where I’ll get more attention and guidance? 

Do I keep my hair a natural chestnut brown or dye it a strawberry blond like my manager suggests? 

Do I let my photographer friend take my headshots so they can build their portfolio or pay more than I can afford right now for someone with more experience?

Do I get a crappy apartment in a better neighborhood, or a better apartment in a crappy neighborhood?

Do I keep my given name or change it when I join the union?

Don’t even get me started on the life decisions you’ll need to make, which run the gamut from “what should I eat for dinner?” to “should I really marry this guy?”

Basically, you’re going to have to make big and small decisions every single day.  And if you suck at it like I do, you need to develop a system that you can rely on when there’s no clear answer.

Minimize Decision Fatigue

Did you know that we make approximately 35,000 decisions every day (more than 200 of them about food!)?  It’s not surprising, then, to learn that there’s a thing called decision fatigue.  As the day wears on and you have more and more conscious decisions to make, you lose the energy to deal with them.  By the end of the day, you feel drained and unmotivated and, well, indecisive.

Of course, most of the decisions you make in a day are small – things like what to wear or which coffee drink to buy at Starbucks.  But all those little choices can add up and sap the energy you’ll need when it’s time to make the big decisions.

The first thing you can do to give yourself an edge when it matters most is to make small decisions routine.  Put together all your audition outfits in advance, so you will always know exactly what to wear.  Eat the same thing for breakfast every morning.  Have your go-to drink at Starbucks.  Take the same route to work every day.  Set a schedule for your workout routine and stick to it.  Eliminating some of those repetitive decisions you make every day gives you more brainpower when you need it to work on the hard stuff.

Don’t Fear Fear

The summer before my last year of grad school, I was asked to join some friends producing a show in Boston.  At the time I was going through a divorce and was feeling very nervous and uncertain about my future.  Although I was interested in the opportunity, I was also afraid – afraid that I wouldn’t have enough money, afraid that I wouldn’t find a place to live in time, afraid I wouldn’t find someone to look after my cat while I was gone.  Basically, I was afraid of the unknown. 

I clearly remember standing in the kitchenette of my studio apartment washing dishes and asking myself – can I simply acknowledge my fear, and do the thing I’m scared to do anyway?  Isn’t that what courage is?  Acting in the face of fear?  For me, it was an epiphany.  I’m happy to report I spent the summer in Boston, and although there were bumps in the road along the way, it was a valuable experience that I’m glad I had.

If fear is what’s keeping you from making a decision, can you find the courage to make the decision anyway?  (The answer is – yes, you can.)

Let Your Intuition Guide You

“I’ve trusted the still, small voice of intuition my entire life.” –Oprah Winfrey

Surprisingly, nearly everything I read about decision-making while researching this article barely mentioned intuition.  That is a glaring omission, imho, because for me it’s the most important decision-making skill I have developed.

To become a great actor, you must learn to trust yourself, right?  You can never be fully immersed, reacting moment to moment, unless you trust your impulses, your preparation, and your talent.  As a professional actor, you’ve learned to rely on your gut feelings and instincts, probably in a way that is much deeper than the average person.  It’s part of your training and it’s an essential tool of the trade.

Don’t just limit that skill to your profession – use it in your life.

Does it take courage?  Of course it does.  But trusting your gut feelings – your intuition -- not only makes for powerful acting, it can be a powerful guide when making important decisions.

So how do you tune in to that intuition, that still, small voice inside that’s telling you what to do?

Be quiet.  Meditation is a great tool, even if it just means taking a quiet walk around the block by yourself.  When faced with a challenging decision, it’s easy to let your thoughts get loud.  Overthinking can drown out that small voice.  Give yourself a break from your thoughts and ask yourself how you feel.  Sit with the feeling, and let it inform you.  Your feelings may contradict your thoughts, and that can be very valuable information.

Pay attention.  Mindfulness can also help you connect to your intuition.  Pay attention to your surroundings.  Listen to your body.  Notice your mental chatter, but resist the urge to judge it.  Whenever you find your thoughts wandering to the past or the future, gently bring them back to the present moment.  Perform your daily routines with intention – when getting dressed, washing the dishes, or choosing what to watch on Netflix.  Make a real connection with the people you come in contact with.  Notice your dreams at night.  What are they telling you?

Look for synchronicity.  If you haven’t picked up The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron yet, what are you waiting for?  Tuning in to your intuition means tuning into all the subtle clues around you, and Cameron’s book helps you learn how to do that.  You can call it the universe’s way of letting you know you’re on the right path.  Even if you don’t believe in that hippie-dippy nonsense, those coincidences -- those moments of synchronicity -- can expose a deeper truth about your life if you let them.

Chill out.  Give yourself some down time.  You cannot force a decision.  Well – you can, but you probably won’t be happy with the results.  Whenever possible, allow yourself time in which to do nothing – don’t do chores, don’t answer emails, don’t hop on Facebook.  Engage in an activity simply for the pleasure of it, like listening to your favorite album or taking a hot bath.  Lie down in the grass and look at the sky.  It is not a waste of time.  You could learn something important when you’re relaxed.

Accept There Is No “Best” Choice

I stumbled upon a remarkable TED Talk by philosophy professor Ruth Chang that gets to the heart of tough decision-making in a way I hadn’t considered before. 

When making a tough decision, she says that what makes it tough is that one choice is not inherently better or worse than the other.  Easy choices are quantifiable – the exact same product is cheaper at one store than it is at another, so it’s easy to choose which one to buy.  Hard choices, on the other hand, cannot be reduced to numbers.  Deciding to have kids or deciding not to have kids may have very different outcomes, but ultimately they have a similar value.  There is no “best” choice – the choices cannot be quantified.  One choice is not correct while the other is incorrect.

Making tough decisions empowers you to define who you are.  You get to decide the reasons for choosing one thing over another.  You get to be the author of your own life.  Remove the pressure to make the “right” choice by knowing that there may not be a right choice.  The better you know yourself – the more you tune in to your intuition – the more confidently you can make those tough decisions.

How do you ultimately handle those big decision-making moments in your life?  Head over to our Facebook page to join the discussion.

BIO: Amy Clites is a writer and actor who relocated to the Third Coast (the shores of Lake Michigan) after 20 years in NYC and LA.   She last wrote for OSB about having the courage not to be famous.  Check out her blog or follow her on Twitter.