How to Improve Your Acting Skills, Even When You Think You Don’t Need To

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Photo Source: Spencer Alexander

Most actors aren’t as good as they think. 

Now you’re upset, right? How can I make such a foolish claim? It’s heresy, and I should be burned at the stake. But you know what? It’s true. Most actors aren’t as good as they think. That’s why they go into shock when they don’t get a job

Here’s the response I usually get when I call a client with bad news about an audition: “Are you kidding me? Is this a joke? I crushed it!” Then, after a little bit of thinking, the actor will decide the casting director is a clueless boob with no taste or that the role went to the producer’s lover. The possibility that maybe, just maybe, their audition wasn’t that impressive never enters their mind.

The Dunning-Kruger Effect and Actors

In 1999, two psychologists from Cornell University named David Dunning and Justin Kruger came up with a theory that explains this behavior. According to Psychology Today, “The Dunning-Kruger Effect is a cognitive bias in which people wrongly overestimate their knowledge or ability in a specific area. This tends to occur because a lack of self-awareness prevents them from accurately assessing their own skills.”

These two wise guys aren’t just claiming that we sometimes believe we’re much better at something than we really are; they’re also saying that our incompetence prevents us from seeing our incompetence. So, riddle me this: How can we improve if we don’t know we need to improve? 

Actors who suffer from the Dunning-Kruger Effect tend to:

  1. Overestimate their talent
  2. Not see their own mistakes
  3. Ignore the skills of others.

Four Ways to Improve Your Acting Skills

It‘s crazy how much a limited perspective can blind actors from seeing themselves clearly. So how can you address this problem when it might not even be possible to trust your own self-assessment? Here are a few ideas from a guy who didn’t go to Cornell:

  1. Never, ever stop studying. Don’t assume you’re the master of your own domain. Assume there’s always more to learn. This way of thinking will force you to constantly grow while expanding your command of craft and technique. 
  2. Get feedback from your teacher and the other actors in your class. Ask them to be honest. Sure, their responses might be hard to hear, but this is the best way to understand how they see your abilities. There could be a disconnect if you believe your diction is perfect, but no one else can understand a word you’re saying.
  3. Avoid confirmation bias. This is when you only pay attention to views that confirm your beliefs. This path leads to the death of growth, so listen to opposing perspectives, and allow yourself to be challenged. 
  4. Don’t underestimate your competition. Why would you go into an audition assuming the other actors are terrible? Wouldn’t it make more sense to assume they’re as good as they come? Wouldn’t that force you to up your game? 

Also, try saying “Dunning-Kruger Effect” 10 times really fast. Why? No reason. It just sounds like fun.

In short, an acting career is hard enough without you getting in your own way. Give some thought to this subject, and see if the Dunning-Kruger Effect applies to you. And if you decide it doesn’t, there’s a good chance it does. (Isn’t science fun?) 

This story originally appeared in the April 1 issue of Backstage Magazine.

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Secret Agent Man
Secret Agent Man is a Los Angeles–based talent agent and our resident tell-all columnist. Writing anonymously, he dishes out the candid and honest industry insight all actors need to hear.
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