Out of the many things I learned from my acting career, one of the most practical and important lessons involves how to behave in a professional environment. Considering I’m a college student aiming for a degree that I’m hoping will help launch me into a professional realm I’d enjoy working in (I imagine the money I make from my books, if they get published, won’t be enough to make a living), professionalism has been weighing on my mind a lot lately. But really, professionalism isn’t just relevant to careers, or to college life. I’d say by the time you’re in high school, you’re expected to demonstrate at least basic professional behavior. Because, really, they’ve been drilling it into you since kindergarten.
When I started acting, my parents were very concerned about what movies would do to my attitude. They’d heard all these horror stories about children turning into little self-absorbed monsters and growing into barely-functional adults. In fact, I bugged them for four years until they agreed to let me audition for an agent. Once I landed my first movie role, though, they had to talk to me about some things. They said that I must always, always, always thank anyone who does anything for me–this includes hairdressers, make-up artists, wardrobe people, AD’s (people who tell you when you’re needed on set, when you need to go to the school trailer, etc.), the guy/girl who tapes your mark down to the floor, or even just some random crew member who was nice enough to grab you a Nutri Grain bar you could eat between takes (I was obsessed with the strawberry ones during The Pacifier for some reason). In addition, I always had to hang up my wardrobe when I was finished with it. Sure, I could have left it on the floor of my trailer for a wardrobe person to pick up, but hanging it up when you’re done is just common decency.
This attitude was reaffirmed for me by the lovely and kindhearted Bonnie Hunt (links to her IMDb page), who gave me my first and best acting advice during Cheaper by the Dozen: “It’s nice that you’re talented, but remember that the most important thing is to be kind.”
This is what professionalism is. Be a kind person, and you have already reached a level of professionalism that many can’t seem to reach. Listening to my parents resulted in strong relationships with crew members that I may not have had otherwise. People always like to talk about the actors, directors, and producers, but I made so many wonderful friends in the hair and make-up trailer. One of the make-up artists on The Pacifier named Linda asked me what music I liked. Being eleven years old, I was enamored with Hilary Duff’s album Metamorphosis, so she played it for me every time I entered the trailer. Another worker on that film, Sandra, who did my hair, had a little box of finger-sized cards with different qualities printed on each of them–“integrity,” “love,” and “intelligence” were among them. Whichever one you picked was the one that characterized the rest of your day, and I always loved choosing a new one while getting my hair done. The wonderful thing about being kind to these people, who I often considered more talented than myself (I didn’t know how to properly apply make-up. Still don’t.), was that I grew to respect them, and they respected me. And when people respect you, that makes them eager to work with you again. That is valuable in any industry.
This extends to other aspects of professionalism. For example, being punctual. My grandfather once told my mother that if you show up to something late, you’re giving the impression that you do not respect the other person’s time. This is not kind or polite. Quite the opposite–it’s like giving someone the proverbial finger. The same applies to meeting deadlines (watch me eat my words if/when I become an actual author and have to meet book-related deadlines). The deadline your boss/agent/whoever has given you is likely the most efficient time for your work to be finished. If you don’t meet your deadline, you slow down the work of others, especially if you’re working on a collective project of some sort. For instance, I’m an editor on my college’s newspaper, and whenever someone doesn’t send in their article, the entire editing/printing schedule is slowed down.
If you do slip up and show up late, or miss your deadline, don’t give excuses (unless, of course, you have a legitimate one). Acknowledge that you were late, apologize, and then move on. When you present an excuse, it’s almost like you’re preemptively arguing with the person about why whatever made you late is something you prioritize above their personal schedule. “Sorry, I was late because the line at Starbucks was super long,” translates to, “My coffee is more important than making sure your schedule is respected.” Basically, just be a decent person.
The area I worry I will have the most trouble with when I enter the professional world as an adult is emotions. As a highly emotional person, it is easy for me to lose my head when I encounter a stressful situation. Sometimes, this leads to rash behavior, which certainly isn’t conducive to maintaining a professional attitude. And if whatever emotion you demonstrate is drastic enough, it could mean losing your job, or worse–damaging your career.
Let me tell you a story. I recently submitted materials to a literary agent. When I researched her online, I found some troubling information about her. I became so freaked out over the idea that a possibly sketchy agent was in possession of my writing that I wrote a very anxiety-ridden post about it on a writer’s forum. Now, the intention was not malicious or slanderous–I posted it to ask fellow writers for advice about the situation and to see if anyone had insight into the legitimacy of the agent (there are a lot of scammers out there, so it never hurts to be careful). The problem was the presentation. Anyone reading that post could tell there was a crazed, eye-twitching ball of anxiety pounding away at the keyboard, using more ALL CAPS WORDS and exclamation points than were appropriate. What I did was fine. The way I did it was ruled by an emotion that I should have let cool off before I posted something on the Internet.
So, guess what? That agent, as well as several other agents, saw the post. Nothing bad happened because of that–from what I hear, none of the agents thought it was “terrible.” But still, I was embarrassed, because I am not proud of how I presented myself in that post. Re-reading it, I saw immature and paranoid behavior. I saw someone trying to be professional and failing.
Did I ruin my career? No. Did I make an ass out of myself? I believe so.
Essentially, what I’m saying is, if you are kind and can keep your head, you will go far in the professional world (in theory–I’m going off my experiences with acting, working for a college newspaper, and being a student, so take it with a grain of salt). There are several other things that factor in–efficiency, self-motivation, stamina, patience, etc.–but I think these are the most important. Being a professional means having to deal with people. And when you’re interacting with people, it is always best to be nice–not just because it will make your life easier, but because we are all humans, we are all in a similar boat, and having someone be nice to you when they don’t have to be can improve your day.
Also, you should shower regularly. But I hope that goes without saying.
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