Talent & Insecurity

Q: You have worked with so many famous actors throughout the years. Have you identified any particular traits that talented people have in common?

Thanks so much for your question. I think that my answer will surprise many. In my almost 30 years of teaching and coaching actors I have found that the truly talented are humble and insecure, and that the ungifted think that they’re brilliant. With great talent comes great insecurity!

I remember a conversation that I had in the 80’s with an icon in the music industry. She confessed to me that she threw up before every live performance. You would never know this from the air of confidence that she projects when performing. In the years since, I have witnessed numerous examples of this – including actors freaking out after they have won some of the biggest awards at the Oscars, Emmys and Tonys. They worry that the great performance was a fluke and that they will never work up to that level again.

Let me explain the positive benefits of self doubt. Those who question their talent work harder. The doubt translates to a work ethic. The insecure actor will not take anything for granted.

Now, please do not misunderstand me. An extreme amount of insecurity is crippling, and I would advise that anyone who suffers to this degree go see a therapist. If you are not able to function or even to pursue your career because of fear, definitely consult a mental health professional. I am addressing artists who think that they shouldn’t have any self doubt at all. Many struggling actors think that successful actors don’t experience the same anxieties that they do.

If you have ever watched the audition rounds of the talent shows, you will see how often the opposite is true as well. Reality television does not create these characters, I can tell you from personal experience that they exist in the real world. Invariably, the contestant who claims to be the next Whitney Houston can’t sing a note. The braggart is without talent. You see this time and time again.

At my own studio, we suggest that everyone, even advanced actors, take the twelve week foundation course (“Basic Technique”). I have had some very big names who insisted on going back to the beginning. They know that there are no advanced mistakes and that fundamentals have to be constantly drilled.

On the flip side, I offer an option that allows actors who wish to study at my studio but want to skip the Basic Technique class the chance to audition for a ‘higher level’ scene study class. The vast majority of those who audition are delusional. For these folks, I recommend they find another studio altogether – because they have a distorted sense of their level of ability and aren’t open to hearing otherwise.

I have been saying this for years. Turns out, my theory was confirmed by Justin Kruger and David Dunning, who did a series of experiments at Cornell University and wrote a Nobel Prize-winning report. The title of the report is “Unskilled and Unaware of It: How Difficulties in Recognizing One’s Own Incompetence Lead to Inflated Self-Assessments“. It is called the Dunning-Kruger effect.

In their experiments, Dunning and Kruger found that people who thought they had scored the highest on the tests they administered had actually done poorly, whereas those who thought they hadn’t done very well were actually at the top. This report is a must-read for all artists. Of course, the truly gifted among you will think that you suffer from the Dunning-Kruger effect. You will be the ones who worry that you are self-deluded, LOL. Trust me; the ones who are deluded will not see themselves!

To those of you who feel insecure about your talents, I say: it is your very sensitivity toward life and toward your fellow human beings that is a core part of your talent. You must seek to find balance. It is okay and natural to question your talent. Do not think that this disqualifies you from having a wonderful life and career. In fact, you share the trait with many whose work you admire.