Recently, my reading has slowed--it’s been difficult to focus on one book, or one idea even; however, Skip the Line by James Altucher grabbed my attention immediately.
Almost everything I read gets filtered through the lens of, “How can I apply this to acting and/or writing,” and given that Altucher experimented as a comedian, public speaker, author, and investor these tips were spot on, not just for me, but any career. And that is how good advice should be. It shouldn’t be specific to one industry, you should be able to apply it across genres.
Skip the Line is an answer to the often misquoted “10,000 Hour,” a number of professors like to float in front of their students as the only way to, “Be the best.” But what if being the best is not your intention? Is it really necessary to “Be the best” if you’re not a golfer, pianist, or trying to get into Harvard? Does it even matter? Is being in the Top 1% of your field good enough, or Top 5% for that matter as Tim Ferris likes to push?
According to this book, yes to both and there are hacks to get you there. Furthermore, what even is, “The best?” How can you say one actor is better than another or one genre of music or one flavor of gelato? There’s no marker because it's all personal taste, therefore, how do you skip the line and push past the gatekeepers and sandbaggers blocking the way?
Here are the seven key takeaways from my favorite book I’ve read in 2022:
Every skill is made up of smaller skills. For example, to be a good actor you need to be decent at memorizing, a good orator, a student, have a pension for improv, observant, thick-skinned yet sensitive, brave, daring yet grounded, and a little stupid. While the last is god given or self-inflicted, the rest are things we can work on.
Every skill set has smaller skills that make it up. Be it sales, writing, comedy, trading, or any other craft or skill there are small abilities that make that job easier for the performer.
Our task is to figure out what those skills are in a given field and then master them. For example, Tim Ferris is known for his ability to quickly master difficult tasks such as memorizing languages or learning to cook at a master's level.
In his book, The 4-Hour Chef, a book that is more about learning than cooking, Tim tackles the same concept. When a person is learning a language they shouldn’t be trying to read ancient Greek, the Aneid in the original Latin, or Tolstoy in Russian. We must start with the basics. Every language has its top 100 used words. Likewise, verbs, phrases, and tenses that can accomplish most tasks. Therefore, when picking up a language it is better to learn the essentials than try and master the grammar and/or more difficult nuances of the language.
Cooking is the same way. In fact, every skill is. While there are intricate complex dishes and sauces Gordon Ramsey will willingly scream at you for, there are also basic combinations such as pork and time, tomato and basil, that can carry the chef through almost any meal.
Therefore, whatever the skill is we must learn the Top 100 words to speak the language of that ability.
This one, admittedly, I need to work on. In every field, we should be looking for someone who knows more than us (a mentor), a student who knows less than us we can teach, and our peers to challenge us.
This is a combination of several learning ideas into one. Every business class ever recommends, perhaps a bit self-servedly, to find, and hire, a mentor. While it doesn’t have to be a real person, books, courses, and audio all serve the same lesson, it certainly helps if someone is there to show you the ropes and help you not make the same mistakes they made.
Once you get your feet wet, you should then be practicing the Feynman Technique, that is, teach someone else what you know in the simplest form possible. Einstein was famous for saying if he couldn’t explain relativity so a child could understand it, then he himself didn’t understand it.
When we teach something to someone else, be it in the form of a class, a lecture, or a blog, we are interacting with the ideas in a unique way. Thus, by arranging the thoughts into our words and metaphors we move the information from surface level to a deeper part of our consciousness and test whether we fully understand the concept or not.
Lastly, we need rivals, co-creators, and conspirators. We need allies. We need friends. We need enemies. We need peers. It is our equals who push us, who challenge us.
If you ever played a sport this is what your coach was trying to get across to you at practice, why competition is a necessity. Not only do our skills get tested and pushed, but our connections with those teammates grow.
No one makes it in a vacuum. The self-made man is a bullshit artist. When we look back at art movements, music scenes, and creative explosions of the past we see connections and networks of creators interacting, challenging, and lifting each other up.
Find someone who knows more than you, teach what they know to someone who knows less, and challenge yourself by connecting with people who are your equals.
As Leo Bloom put it, “Where did we go right?” This idea is beautiful and simple: how many things have to go right for your idea to work? If the number is high, it's probably not a strong idea. If the number is low, then you may be on to something.
For example, let’s say you wanted to write a best-selling book on the acting business. How many things have to connect for your book to be a smash hit?
First, you have to write it (1). Then, you have to edit it (2). Thirdly, you will need to shop it to publishers which is no small task. Then, it has to be printed (4), marketed (5), and pitched to bookstores (6). This is not even navigating the political aspects such as getting on the New York Times Bestseller list or creating the content around a book to make it go viral. So we are already up to six connections and we are barely getting started.
Does this mean you don’t write the book? Maybe. But if you really want to, or believe you have a solid idea, what are some alternatives to skip the line? For example, could you self-publish? Yes, but still risky. Could you write a blog? Yes, and also free for the most part. Could you do a Youtube course, start a podcast, or share your ideas via social media to test them out? Absolutely.
Then, perhaps if the idea takes root, the blogs can become a book, you already have a following, and your pitch is easier because your connections are less.
The point here is to think about how many things have to go right for my idea to work at the level I desire. Let’s take another example, the traditional “Move to Hollywood and Become a Star.”
What are all the things that have to go right for you to “Make it?” One, you have to move to L.A. Two, audition (a lot). Three, join a class. Four, get an agent. Five, hope your agent is good and has connections. Six, be likable to enough people. Seven, be attractive enough to fit into the Hollywood mold. Eight, gain traction with casting directors. Nine, meet the right director. Ten, appeal to the right demographic. And so on and so forth.
Does this mean you shouldn’t be an actor? No, it simply means that being an actor on someone else’s terms is not the best strategy. What are other ways around the traditional system that can catapult you to where you want to be? Can you self-create and be happy? Do theatre? Write? Produce? Go the commercial route?
There are endless ways we can get around the gatekeepers and the stepping stones, but we have to think about them before the challenge arises.
This one has already become a part of my daily practice, although I typically make it to seven ideas rather than 10. Creativity is a muscle, and we have to work it out. How do we do that? Mental pushups, or ideas.
Get your brain used to the idea of creating ideas in the same way the body adapts to workouts. Progressive overload is your friend.
Use your phone, or better yet, a pen and pad, and write out 10 ideas a day. They can be anything from business ideas, script concepts, plays, posters, art, music, or the next hot item on Amazon, but the point is to force yourself to actively think about creating new ideas and track them.
Will they all be good? No. But you are not Stephen King, your job isn’t to publish every idea that comes to mind but to get the juices pumping daily.
Once those ideas get flowing, then allow them to co-mingle and encourage them to have intercourse.
This is a classic concept in screenplay pitches, “It’s Conair meets Alien,” or, “It’s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles but with Baristas instead of ninjas.”
All great ideas are someone else’s ideas plus someone else’s, or as author Cormac McCarthy put it, the sad truth is that all books are written with other books.
Whether it's the muse or some awesome 1990s sci-film, that spark of inspiration is less about a divine lightning strike and more about letting your brain play.
Find the jeu, as they say at Pig Iron, and let your imagination play with concepts. Are all of them good? No.
But every now and then great ideas come by seeing the similarities. For example, a few years ago there was a slew of Sherlock Holmes meets H.P Lovecraft stories that seemingly spawned at the same time--and they worked. Cthulu versus the World’s Greatest Detective? Brilliant. That’s idea sex.
Not every movie needs to be produced, but we need to test out the ideas. Not every story needs to be a novel, every blog a book, or every clever phrase a t-shirt.
Ideas come and go, but we must play with them to see if they work. If we have a great concept for a film, let’s go with the “Conair meets Aliens” idea from before, do we immediately sit down and write? Maybe, if you just enjoy writing screenplays.
But is the idea any good? How can we find out? Well, that’s the point of a pitch deck, a synopsis, a logline. Get the idea down on paper, and test it on your friends, networks, and co-workers. Gage their reaction. Does it interest them? Do they glaze over?
Once we start having the ideas, then we need to test them to see if they have merit. Will most of them fail? Yes, they will. But this is a test, not an investment.
Going back to the movie idea, why would someone invest millions of dollars into Con-Alien if the audience doesn’t exist for it?
Good ideas are always a little scary, in improv that’s called, “Following the fear.” When we were kids we learned not to say things that would get us in trouble, and while in polite society that is usually a good idea, in the arts or the idea space that gets you nowhere. When we are afraid to do something that is exactly when we know that’s what needs to be done. It’s dangerous. It’s exciting. It’s alive.
We must be willing to follow the fear, and be ready to fail. In the business world, there is a concept called, “Adaptive Leadership,” or what do you do when you are faced with a problem that has never been seen before?
While there are several steps to the process, one of the key metrics of Adaptive Leaderhsip is developing a capacity for failure. When we don’t have the answer key, the manager's handbook, or the How-To guide we are going to make mistakes. The key is learning from those mistakes and failing forward.
Tied to the first idea on the list, being the only is better than being the best. Carving out your own market rather than competing will always yield better results.
Be it in a new space, writing a blog instead of a book, or teaching on TikTok instead of in the classroom, we must always be on the lookout to be explorers on new frontiers.
Take my favorite example to complain about: casting. You can move to New York, get an agent who has a dozen other people who look like you, take a million classes to prove you are more dedicated than the other guy, go to auditions where everyone looks like you but with better hair and tighter abs, and do this day in and day out letting someone else decide for you what you do and do not get to do, or you can find your own path.
So many people want to be actors and stars, and proving their passion means something that they put on blinders and take up the tailpipe. We think, “This is the way it is.” There is nothing wrong with this process if it works for you, but it's a slippery slope to the 1% this way and it's always on someone else’s terms.
Furthermore, who benefits? Not you. Think about another example, sports. Is Tom Brady the best? Sure. But what about all the other QBs who sacrificed their bodies, backs, and brains to get left on the chopping block? And who benefited from it all? The audience.
This is why reality TV works so well. It takes a mimetic process and lets it play out, occasionally poking the bear when things get stale. Why write a drama when humans will willingly participate in the process and let us watch it all for a grand prize?
This is why it is better to find your own way. Whether you like them or not, social media stars and Youtubers, streamers, and other content creators jumped on this bandwagon. They found their niche, their audience, and their platform and they made you compete with them, and not the other way around.
Now that this market is flooded, where do we look next?
When it comes to being good at something, you have to do the work, but there are shortcuts we can take by thinking hard and not just working hard. We live in the economy of ideas, but once people build their nest on the mountain they don’t want you coming by and ruffling their feathers.
Furthermore, what’s on the other side of the mounting once you reach the top? Another mountain.
Therefore, just because we win capitalism doesn’t mean the race is over. It goes on.
But what this book offers is a way to look past the bad advice we all receive early on--the naysayers. When a person says you can’t do something, what they are saying is “they” can’t do it--unless they're your parents and you are five, that’s a different story.
Advice is a form of nostalgia in which people dust off their past and try and make something of their mistakes. Skip the Line is a great example of passing on lessons learned to help someone else.
I wish I had read it sooner.
Holy hell you booked that big corporate industrial payday! You’re ecstatic, elate, and euphoric. Maybe you will buy that vintage jacket on Poshmark, after all this will put you in the green for the rest of the month.
Bad financial decisions aside, we can save that topic for another blog, these sorts of jobs are the bread and butter of most working actors. Industrials, internal commercials, ads, explainer videos, spokesperson, and corporations need good talent to get their message across. But, Mamet and Tarantino they are not.
Shortly after you book the job you will likely receive an email with the script. Then, the fear sets in.
As you open the attachment a block of text fills the screen. Line after line of jargony, long-winded copy that reads like stereo instructions scrolls on for page after page.
If your lucky that expertly crafted tome will be on a teleprompter (if you’re a bloody producer make sure that godforsaken text is on a teleprompter, especially if the actor is looking at the damn camera); however, odds are you’ve been saddled with rattling off dense text and tasked with making it sound natural, witty, and charming. What do you do?
At every talkback ever the one question that is always asked is, “How do you memorize all those lines?” Oddly enough, this is a fascination with the average person, and yet actors, despite doing this all the time, hate this question (get over yourself). Book after book is written on memory, recall, and the ability to learn things quickly--and yet, actors rarely like to share their secrets.
Sadly, there is no grimoire that contains the Secrets of Hermes that Shakespearean actors pass down to commercial sell-outs. Instead, the boring secret to all memorization is, like the old joke goes, “practice, practice, practice.”
Still, when it comes to the world of copy and commercials that can often be easier said than done. After all, who wants to practice saying acronyms and HR double-speak?
Having done over a hundred of these jobs myself, I’ve learned a few Do’s and Don’t’s when it comes to memorizing, shall we say, difficult text.
Most of my strategy is identical to how approach theatre and film, with a few exceptions. While not the primary focus of this blog, here are my three tried and true techniques I use for everything:
If there is one method above all others I love it is “Coding.” Once I’ve read a script, or at least gone through the script with the classic, “Bullshit, bullshit, my line, bullshit, bullshit, my line,” approach then I will set to coding Acts and Scenes.
While this sounds cooler than it is, this approach is simply taking the first letter of every word and writing it down. When I first started, I would write all my lines down by hand and then write the first letter of each word on a separate piece of paper. Now in my 30s, unfortunately, baseball has caught up with my arm and I can’t write an entire script out anymore. Plus, I believe this may have been excessive.
The point here is to move the text towards something less abstract and look at just the letters. This way, the words become symbols and your brain is already recalling what the symbol stands for in the context of the line.
Think of it as a bridge toward memory. First, you read the text. Then, you code it. Finally, with dozens of repetitions, you move away from the text and towards the code. Now, you can simply look at the page of letters and the lines will begin to come to you.
Still, this is not a hack. It’s simply a way of getting the reps in.
Say it out Loud
No matter what method you use, it all comes down to repetition, and there is no better way to repeat text than to say it out loud.
When we speak the lines we are getting three in one. First, we must read the text, then we must say it out loud, and finally, we hear ourselves saying it. Thus, in one go around our brain has registered the copy three times, as opposed to just once (reading it).
Furthermore, our job is to say lines out loud. In our head, we read smoothly, perfectly, and with deep inflection; however, when we try saying the lines out loud we suddenly find our voice flat, the words clunky, and the rhythm off.
If the first time you are saying the lines aloud, on your feet, is in front of the camera or in rehearsal, you’re in trouble.
David Mamet makes this joke in one of his books when he asks, “What’s the point of rehearsal? For the actors to memorize their lines.”
Say it out loud. Say it again, and again. The behind-the-scenes of a working actor are boring. Good, be boring. Be boring in life and brilliant on stage. As Oscar Wilde put it the only artists who are interesting in real life are “bad artists.”
We may be striking at the core of acting approaches here rather than memorization, but it is impossible for me to memorize a line if it means nothing to me.
When a writer wrote the line, they had a purpose: subtext, exposition, maybe they simply thought it was witty; however, I do not have access to what the writer was thinking. Sure, I can break apart a scene and look at the pieces of dramatic structure, but I will never truly know what the writer was thinking when they put that line in this text.
Therefore, no matter what the ultimate meaning of the story is, no matter what the writer’s intention was, I, the actor, must make the line make sense to me. It could be wrong, that’s why we have directors, but from the start, I must make it make sense to me.
How do I say this line as myself? What does it mean to me? What is my connection in life to a line such as this? Have I ever said it before? Has someone else said it before?
Furthermore, when it comes to corporate copy, this will save your life. Often, the writer was forced to include handbook information from PR and/or HR and the words you are forced to spew have never been said aloud before. Therefore, you get to play with it and make it yours.
Otherwise, you will read it like a bad SNL host.
Now that the lead is fully buried in this rolling smog of words, let’s get to the meat of the blog and talk about the actual mechanics of memorizing corporate work.
Give Yourself Time
Don’t cram. You’re not a stoned college student who needs to pass Econ 101. You are a professional and your job is to be the expert in A) Acting, B) Your part.
Working with a shoddy actor who barely knows their lines ruins the room from the start. Walk into a shoot with your lines half-baked and watch the energy in the room dissolve. Everyone’s day just got longer.
Don’t be that actor. There’s a myriad of reasons why you shouldn’t be that actor, but let’s go with, simply, don’t.
The best strategy is to start early. Memorization rarely comes in the form of instant recall. Photographic memories have been proven to be bullshit, and the people who compete in memory challenges explain it’s all a strategy.
Therefore, when it comes to text, give it time to breathe. Start working on it as soon as you have the script, so your anxiety and cortisol stay low. Having to memorize while your mind is running circles around the “failure” you will be if it’s not memorized, is a tragedy waiting to happen.
“But I work great under pressure.” Stop. You are a professional. Your job is to crush it on site. The way you do that is by knowing the lines like Tom Brady knows defenses.
On the day of a million things will be happening: coffee, makeup, costume, hair, rehearsal, lighting, awkward surface-level small talk with fellow actors. Don’t wait for “pressure” to fuel your mind.
Take it in Chunks
Do not try and memorize it all at once. The brain doesn’t work that way. Would you look at the list of U.S. Presidents and try and recall them at one time?
No. You build a working memory of 5, 10, then 15. You start small and then you add on.
Likewise, this works with copy as well. Start with the first line. Then, move to the second. Now, work on the paragraph. And so on and so forth.
Additionally, you will likely come to words and acronyms you do not understand. Make sure you know what the hell they mean. Again, this is like Shakespeare. Words have specific meanings to specific times and peoples, corporations included.
Figure them out and roll them into chunks.
This one is the fun one. Set goals and rewards. Delay gratification and set up rewards.
Coffee, donuts, and lactose-free ice cream they all work, but prime your mind to expect a reward. If you are working in chunks, set mini-goals and big goals; however, give your brain rewards for deep focus.
On the same topic, the mind cannot stay in a concentrated state for long. Fifty minutes with a ten to 15-minute break seems to be the sweet spot, however, it’s a law of diminishing return.
This is another reason to give yourself time. Typically, I will start with deep focus sessions of 50 minutes followed by a ten-minute break. Then 40 and 20, 30 and 30, and typically a long break before returning to the lines later.
Each round I will reward myself with something. Usually something small like playing a game or grabbing a coffee, but hell, I’ve even used new shoes as bait for the brain.
The process of chunking, time, and rewards creates the key to memory: moving short-term information into long-term. The chunks give you manageable sizes, the breaks force the brain to recall, and the rewards provide the stimulation needed to keep going.
Try Different Approaches
At some point, you will hit a wall. Take a break. When the break doesn’t work, try a different approach. Writing the lines, singing the lines, walking the lines, recording the lines, listening to the lines, whatever you can do to change it up and create something new, try it.
Again, this is rout work and repetition and the brain needs new stimuli to stay interested. Actors got into entertainment for a reason, and likely we are not Tesla sitting alone in an attic with a stack of books.
Challenges and False Deadlines
The brain loves games and challenges. Set a goal to memorize a page a day. Tell yourself you will have the script beat two days prior to the shoot. These sorts of false goals prime the brain to strive for excellence.
Companies know this, and you should too. Setting unrealistic deadlines works miracles, after all, you typically take as much time to complete a task as you give yourself. Therefore, use this to your advantage. Certainly, you can move the goalpost, but the more work you put in to meet your artificial deadline the easier the lines will come in the crunch.
Often when I am doing teleprompter work or corporate work I will play a game with myself, “How close to word perfect can I be? Can I get this in one take?” Little games to challenge the brain and make the text a fun thing.
This is born out of my training with Pig Iron and “Finding the jeu.” With any work from Commedia to corporate, there is play. An actor’s job is to find joy in all things. What is unique about this experience? How can I have fun with it?
The more fun I am having, the more fun people around you will have. The more prepared and professional you are the lighter the burden to carry is. Then, even if you mess up it doesn’t matter because it’s not a “lost take” because you are unprepared, but a gaff that happened.
Always remember, everyone is allowed to mess up. A cameraman botches the slide, the sound guy forgot to press record, and the director’s phone goes off. Everyone on set is allowed to make a mistake.
What we are not allowed to do is fail to be prepared. The cameraman cannot leave the lens at home. The sound guy cannot forget the mics. The actor must know their lines.
Don’t be the actor the crew tells horror stories about. Bad acting is acceptable, and usually a question of taste anyway; however, if you’ve been cast then the acting is approved. Everything is forgiven except for the cardinal sin of “Not knowing your lines.”
When it comes down to it the actor has one job, “Be prepared.” We all know some days the tears don’t come, the back hurts, the stomach aches, things happen; however, when the shit hits the fan there is one thing that must remain constant, “Be prepared,” and role with the punches.
Brock D. Vickers
This is the beginning of a new part of life: a habit: an idea: a routine to dig at what makes a man great.