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Being a consultant is like being an actor

Last August, I quit my full-time job to become an independent consultant. Best professional decision I’ve ever made. But let me tell you the truth: it isn’t for everyone.

Recently I was contemplating how to convey the complexities of consulting to people who are considering a career change (that’s a lot of Cs!). Suddenly it hit me — being a consultant is like being an actor, in so many different ways. Here are the most obvious similarities off the top of my head. I hope this sheds some light on the matter.

  1. It’s not just a career, it’s a lifestyle — Most actors (successful ones at least) don’t have the luxury of going to work at 9 every day and going home at 5 to relax. Being an actor consumes your entire life and changes the way you live. The same goes for being a consultant. Compartmentalizing the various roles you play becomes virtually impossible because your responsibilities never end. The way you approach each day and your relationship to your work is forever changed.
  2. Having a process makes you better — Actors learn a variety of methods and techniques and use them to hone their craft over the course of many years. Some actors practice method acting which involves drawing upon their own experiences to help get into character. Others ascribe to the Meisner technique in which they focus on being in the moment and improvise in response to the other actors in the scene. Simply put, actors consider what the role requires and use the appropriate exercises to help them get there. Consultants absolutely need to do the same to differentiate themselves from the rest of the pack. In order to thrive, you constantly need to learn new ways to do things, master new tools to bring into the room, and decide which to use in the given situation. No process means no progress.
  3. Dealing with rejection — Even William Shatner gets passed over. Actors spend more time auditioning than they do acting, and many consultants would tell you the same thing. Since most of our projects have a very clear end date, we always have to be looking for the next gig. No one, NO ONE, has 100% success rate. I have companies that pursue me aggressively only to back out just before we sign a contract, and others that won’t even respond to my emails. It certainly hurts, but you can’t take it personally. Sometimes you’re just not right for the part.
  4. Stress and lack of sleep — Actors (the lucky ones) spend 16+ hours a day every day for three months on set with a demanding director, hovering producers, asshole co-stars and ogling extras all around them. Everyone’s eyes are on them and there’s an intense pressure to perform. Remember how you used to feel the night before the first day of school? I would lie in bed unable to sleep, afraid I’d show up to school naked, afraid I wouldn’t be able to find my classes, afraid the other kids would hate me. Oh wait, that was last night. When you’re a consultant, that feeling never goes away.
  5. Working sporadically — Actors might seem like they’re always working because they’re always on some magazine cover or commercial or red carpet somewhere. But the reality is that they only have 2-3 major gigs a year, and those are the successful ones! Being a consultant means accepting the peaks and valleys. It’s feast or famine and it’s entirely out of your control. When the work is there, you pack the money away because tomorrow it might be gone. But of course, you must always be moving, opening doors for your next gig. And you have to be calm during idle time.
  6. Promoting yourself — Magazines, talk shows, reality shows, radio shows, websites, Twitter accounts, product endorsements, commercials, charity events, premieres, autobiographies, book signings, photo shoots, speaking engagements, parties, worldwide travel. Actors have to do it all themselves, and so do consultants. Without all the publicity, you can’t get recognition for your last project and you likely won’t find your next one.
  7. Facing public criticism — Putting yourself out there to such a wide audience means you’re bound to come into contact with people that really, really don’t like you. And because you’re already operating out in the public eye, they’re likely to make their objections very well known. Actors deal with nastiness written about them on a daily basis, from little-known blogs to the top top publications. Likewise having a manager give you constructive criticism in a private office is quite a different experience from having it aired for all to see. The sheer number of people you come into contact with as a consultant makes it all the more likely that people will talk. You can’t avoid seeing it, so you’ll just have to get over it.
  8. Having to play different roles — Rarely do actors get hired just to be themselves. The project needs a this or a that to make it come to life, and it’s the actor’s job to get up to speed quickly and really make the script sing. After all, their work is largely what people will consciously be experiencing. Consulting requires the same adaptability and versatility. You might pride yourself as an X, but sometimes a project requires you to be (more like forces you to be) a Y. So you’ll have to suck it up and be a Y for the time being, all the while trying to convince the director to take your character in a slightly different direction.
  9. Success takes time and perseverance — All actors look back on their body of work, look at certain projects and think to themselves, what the hell was I thinking?! You know what they were thinking? Shit, I hope I make rent this month. Being a consultant is really no different. You have larger goals in mind and keep your eye on the prize and take what comes your way while you build your empire, slowly, methodically, patiently over the course of many, many years. We all have to pay our dues, and you might be frustrated as hell along the way, but it’ll ultimately make you better and stronger. Sheer determination will get you everywhere.
  10. A shot at fame and fortune — When things work out, they really work out. Opportunities present themselves and you work your ass off to make the impossible happen, then hope for the best and hold your breath. And then one day the public responds with a resounding YES! and your career is forever changed. Suddenly you’re in a whole other league. Actors “become a success overnight,” but we all know that overnight was actually 10 years of obscurity. Eventually something tips and they finally get the chance to reap the benefits of all their hard work and patience. Consultants can become celebrities in their own right, but it doesn’t happen to everyone and it isn’t easy to maintain. But you always know the possibility is there, and the promise of getting the recognition you deserve keeps you moving forward.

If you’re a consultant and can think of other parallels between your life and the life of an actor, please share them with us in the comments!

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  • MarketCopywriter

    Hi Whitney:

    I follow you on Twitter and saw your link to this great post, a subject dear to my heart. I was an actor for a decade before having a family and starting 2nd career as a freelance copywriter (aka “consultant”)

    Everything you share is so very true. I especially like # 8.

    I find my foundational acting training helps me again and again specifically when I write copy. I use a form of sense memory when constructing narrative.

    And I've come to see I unconsciously use something like Uta Hagen's “substitution.” It helps me develop empathy for reader/customers, understand their core desires and pain points (“motivation”) and speak conversationally through copy.

    Also, just as I did as an actor when preparing for a role, I research and prepare exhaustively before thinking about putting fingers to key board.

  • kevinprentiss

    Another similarity is the aspirational nature of self expression. The source material (client) matters, but the juice from acting and consulting comes from the special spin that you get to put on the source material. The best actors and consultants own the material, they make it theirs.

    Both actors and consultants pay for the possibility of self expression with all the risks you list in your post. With the higher risk comes the possibility of bigger rewards – in both cases, it's fame and the money that comes with it. You just might get the huge recognition you deserve for your work.

    The alternative is to live someone else's vision, with lower risk and proportional reward.

    There is always tension between the client and the consultant. Hopefully this can be healthy creative tension. Same with actors, writers, and directors.

    Great post. Definitely matches my experience.

  • http://marksandpixels.com AJ Kandy

    The analogy is mostly apt, and I'd say it's as true for any creative professional, maybe more so for people who have to work in groups (musicians, filmmakers). I'd add that there is no single path to success, but as in the theatre it is important to constantly exercise your listening skills, ability to absorb new information, occasionally put yourself in new and uncomfortable positions, always empathize, always be asking questions…and of course, learn to improvise. After all, isn't half of consulting learning what happens when the script falls apart?

  • http://managingexperience.com John Whalen

    I agree Whitney. I had a colleague that describes what we do as “performance art” when we're providing recommendations on the fly and evangelizing User Experience. I always thought that was apt.

    Nice to meet you at REDUX-DC.