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The Purpose of Motivation in Acting (and Life)

The Purpose of Motivation in Acting (and Life)
Photo Source: Photo by Jon Tyson on Unsplash

Three-time British world memory champion Ben Pridmore once made the decision to break the world record for memorizing the digits of pi to 50,000 decimal places. Halfway through the process, he saw an article announcing that a Japanese man had just exceeded 83,000. So he stopped.

Any student of mine will notice that I never discuss motivation when it comes to acting; I believe the writer has taken care of that for the actor because the performer must continue what they’ve written regardless of the why. The why for actors is to get to the end of the script and the why for the character is already factored into the plot, given circumstances and, oftentimes, the dialogue. The progress of actors seeking their character’s motivation is an unnecessary impediment, like a man trying to find a motivation to breathe. Just do it and you’ll find out why. Instead of asking why the character is speaking, it’s much more useful to ask what the character is trying to achieve. 

When it comes to living life and reaching goals, however, your motivation is a handy thing to be aware of as it can save you time, energy and even money. Pridmore’s motivation for spending countless hours memorizing the digits of pi and break the world record was to be the first to do it. Though he could have amended his goal to reach 100,000, he clearly weighed the relative merits of time and reward, and the possibility the champion would be at 200,000 by the time he got there and decided his time would be better spent on other things. 

Do you have goals in your life and career? Do you know why you want to achieve them? The motivation for pursuing life goals dictates whether or not you will ever attain them. If your motivation for going to a job you loathe is to pay rent and avoid ending up on the street, you don’t need to fuel that motivation. If you go to a studio every day and act your heart out, but become despondent at the lackluster reviews for your performance, you cannot claim your sole motivation every day is simply to act—you also want approval, adoration, acclaim, and respect. 

READ: How to Replenish Your Self-Confidence

Be careful of goals that are actually the McGuffin in your life story (something that provides a trigger for your plot but turns out to not be the end goal). Is your motivation to be the best at what you do? How will you know when you get there? Is your motivation to become financially independent? If your expenses grow along with your income (which they almost always do), how will you know when enough money is enough to make you happy? Is it to be regularly employed as an actor? If you always play characters you don’t like in productions nobody sees, where does that leave you? 

Motivational quotes abound and yet most people who share them still fail to reach the level they would consider a success. “If your ship doesn’t come in, swim out to it,” sounds awesome. “Don’t stop when you’re tired, stop when you’re done,” is another cracking quote. “Don’t watch the clock, do what it does: keep going” is one of the cleverest I’ve seen in recent times. And yet none of these are of any use to us unless we know why we’re putting in the effort in the first place.

One might suggest Sisyphus be like the clock and just keep going, but why? He pushes a giant boulder up a hill day after day only to have it roll down again. Stopping only when you’re done is a terrific exercise in commitment, but if that commitment is to paint the ocean yellow with a toothbrush, one might ask what the point is. If Sisyphus’ motivation is to be strong and resilient, he’s chosen an excellent task. If it’s to get the boulder to finally rest at the top of the incline, he’s wasting his time and energy. 

If actors honestly answered the question of what motivates them, many would no doubt confess the desire to be creative and employed. But underlying all of that is the desire to be accepted, appreciated, and rewarded in some fashion. Few actors are simply happy to act without at least the respect of their peers and a solid portion of their audience.

Though you may regularly update the motivations for your goals in life, to know what they are in the first place can only help keep you moving toward them.

Paul Barry is an L.A.-based Australian acting teacher, author of “Choices,” and a Backstage Expert. Barry runs regular on-camera classes in Los Angeles and online around the world. For more information, check out Barry’s full bio!

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The views expressed in this article are solely that of the individual(s) providing them,
and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of Backstage or its staff. 

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