Should Actors Have a Career Plan? The Pros + Cons of Planning It All Out

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Planning for a career in the performing arts is not for the faint of heart. Rejection, luck, and struggle are often the only names in the game. Instead of simply going to school, applying for a job in your field, and carrying on until retirement, creative professions often require a bit more hustle and bustle. For most, you’ll need to work (sometimes several) survival jobs while simultaneously honing your craft, auditioning, and networking. How do you prioritize? 

Well, you could create a career plan. But what does that look like in this day and age? With all the changes in the industry, it sometimes feels like the old sayings about planning land a bit hollow. Here, we’ll help you to find some sort of footing in the ever-shifting sands that are foundational to a career in entertainment.

What is a career plan?

A career plan is a tool—it can be a complex living document or a simple bulleted list—that helps you to create and take action on your long- and short-term goals.

What does a creative’s career plan look like?

When it comes to templates, there are plenty of options out there. Pick one that makes sense for how your brain works. Don’t like it? Try another one the next time you reevaluate your work life. This is no one-size-fits-all situation. That said, a good career plan will probably include the following:

1. An assessment of your skills, strengths, and weaknesses

This can be as simple as a list or a more detailed synopsis that breaks down specifics. No matter the form, it’s vital to understand what you bring to the equation as a performer, where your skills could use some work, and what you could possibly add to your toolkit (like getting better at accents or learning to sing). 

2. Opportunities to engage in educational or enrichment opportunities

Research local learning opportunities like classes and workshops, as well as any events that might offer the chance to network. This section also doesn’t have to involve leaving the house; maybe it’s books you want to read, movies or TV you want to watch, or small, personal creative projects you’re working on. However you keep yourself firing on all cylinders and cultivating a deeper creative practice, list it all out. Oh, and give yourself some time frames and limits so you don’t get off track!

3. A set of achievable goals

Sure, we’d all love to star on “Saturday Night Live” or land the lead in a Martin Scorsese picture, but you can’t really set an exact date on those highest-level dreams, can you? Instead, this is the space for your S.M.A.R.T. goals—a selection of mile markers you can control. Don’t say you’ll get cast in five projects by June; say you’ll go to five casting calls by June.

Is having a career plan helpful?

“It’s easier to have a creative plan than a career or business plan,” says writer, actor, and podcast host Akilah Hughes. “Your value is in your taste and your abilities. Do what you’re good at. There are so many false starts in this industry.”

In short: Only you can answer this question. We’re living in a time of constant change in how people consume art and entertainment. So, really, the most vital part of your career plan may be your malleability—or at least a realistic understanding of how your goals can, will, and maybe should evolve over time. 

“It’s probably far more impactful and important to be flexible than it is to plan anything,” says Hughes. “You need to be able to swerve if there’s suddenly a roadblock.”

Tips to bolster your plans

Actor clapboard

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1. Figure out your survival jobs.

Unlike more traditional career paths, performers regularly need to rely on survival jobs—i.e., the gigs that pay the bills while you chase the dream. “It’s important you figure out as young as possible a day job you can do that isn’t soul-sucking,” Hughes says. “Find the thing that will pay the taxes. Because even if you book ‘the big thing,’ you can’t rely on the old idea of what a career is. But what you can rely on are the skills you have that translate to outside entertainment.” 

2. Seek out a creative community.

It can sometimes go without saying, but it’s important to repeat nonetheless: Meet up with and make friends with other people who create things—writers, directors, dancers, actors—and work together. Collaborate on projects, or just enrich your own creative practice with the company of other artistic people. 

3. Keep making your own stuff.

Ninety-nine out of 100 times, nobody is going to hand you anything in this industry. To that end, it’s vital to keep creating and making things that showcase and hone your voice. Not only does this keep your talents sharp, but you’re actively creating opportunities for yourself instead of waiting. 

4. Constantly reevaluate your goals.

“We don’t know what the next technology is that is going to pop off,” says Hughes, referencing how YouTube, Instagram, TikTok, and the like have transformed what it means to have a career as a performer. “The format of your project might be completely different than what you thought it was going to be.”

5. Be flexible.

Perhaps the greatest skill you can cultivate through a career plan is knowing that at any moment, it could all be upended. Flexibility and adaptability are the only things that are going to buoy any sort of career stability in the performing arts. Now that we have lived through the tech boom, COVID-19, and multiple industry-shuttering strikes, one thing is abundantly clear: “There can be a tectonic shift at any time,” says Hughes. Be ready to pivot or get left behind.

A career plan for performers can often feel more conceptual than it is literal. A lot of your new “career wins and milestones,” Hughes says, won’t necessarily put you on solid financial ground. “You have to have the spirit of self to know that you should just be enjoying the opportunities that you get as they come along—because that is the career,” she says.

Success is going to look different for everyone. How you feel about it is more important than what it looks like to others or how thorough your blueprint is—so try your best not to take it so seriously. Life is exceedingly unpredictable, and you ultimately can’t control the mountains of luck needed to foster a successful career. Good luck!