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Mr. William Shakespeare

Life Changing Lessons I Learned from Drama School and Acting

Over the past few years, I’ve attended some of the best drama and acting programs in the world. These include advanced scene study classes at the Aaron Speiser Acting Studio in Los Angeles, improvisation at the Upright Citizens Brigade in Los Angeles, and Shakespearean classical acting at the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art. I’ve also read hundreds of the best plays by the most talented playwrights in the world.

Through my journey into the acting world via auditioning, rejection, and success, I’ve learned a lot about myself personally.

The results have changed the way I view my everyday life in an amazing way.

Acting isn’t about “faking” anything — in its truest form, it’s actually quite the opposite. To be a great actor, you have to be able to live truthfully within the imaginary world of the script.

Our capacity to act truthfully, both on stage and in real life, depends on our ability to understand human behavior.

So how do we really understand human behavior?

First, we need to examine our motivations behind our actions. It is only when we know why we do the things we do can that we can truly understand ourselves and others.

And the only way we can understand ourselves is by being brutally honest constant observers of our objectives and actions.

Once I learned and began to apply these principles to my life, I’ve been able to achieve giant goals in other non-acting fields such as entrepreneurship, relationships, fitness, spirituality, and more. In difficult times, it has allowed me to become more rational and happier.

1. Let go of your ego.

Let’s face it: we all have defense mechanisms. They’re there for a reason — to protect us from getting hurt emotionally.

In order to deal with conflict and problems in life, Freud stated that the ego employs a range of defense mechanisms. Defense mechanisms operate at an unconscious level and help ward off unpleasant feelings (e.g. anxiety) or make good things feel better for the individual.”

When egos act defensively (e.g. when we insist that the other person is “wrong”), our judgement becomes clouded. When we focus too much on defending ourselves, we become blocked in our own self-development.

In order to progress, learn, and grow, you have to accept that the feedback you’re getting may be right and you may be wrong. If you can’t admit you’re wrong, and if your ego gets bruised when anyone gives critique, then you’ll always have a wall of distortion.

In acting, the line between someone critiquing your performance versus critiquing your personality can seem muddled. As you grow as an actor, you will also grow in your personal life, and vice versa.

For example, in a scene about love and loss, how can we act out what it feels like to be in love, or express the pain of loss, if we’ve never had that experience in real life?

Letting go of our ego doesn’t mean we let people walk all over us or abuse us. When we’re feeling criticized, the best thing to do is take a step back and ask ourselves, “Is this person really trying to help me or hurt me?”

Larry Moss says it best in his book, The Intent to Live:

“You must continue to let the rose become more sensitive; you must also increase the thickness of the hide. Translate criticism for yourself; see if it’s apt. If it is, don’t deny it, learn from it. If it’s not, move on.”

Most of the time when someone gives feedback, especially when it is honest, it is because they care deeply about you. But sometimes feedback from the people we care about the most hurts the most, because it probably hits closer to home and your ego.

2. Truly listen.

Too often in our lives, we are just waiting for the other person to finish so that we can say what we need to say. In acting, pre-planning how we are going to say a line instead of listening and then reacting is problematic.

Truly listening doesn’t mean just listening to the words someone is saying. It means listening to the subtext of them too.

In acting, the words are the clouds and the subtext is the ocean of murky truth.

Usually, people don’t say exactly what they want. Sometimes they just don’t know how to. It’s up to us to understand what they really mean by paying attention to subtext. This may mean paying attention to body language or tone of voice.

Practicing active listening will help build strong relationships, no matter what the context, whether speaking with romantic partners, new sales prospects, or your target audience. It’s by truly understanding what someone wants and feels that you are then able to connect with that person.

3. Act and react, moment to moment.

The ability to act and react is one of the keys that separates good actors from bad actors. This principle can be applied to almost everything in life.

If you’re familiar with any combat sport such as Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, you’ll understand that you can only plan so much of what you are going to do. Like Tyson said, “Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the face.”

You can only prepare as much as possible beforehand, because once you’re in the competition, all you can do is live moment to moment.

For instance, you might try to go for an armbar submission but if that is blocked or countered, you need to flow and be dynamic. In other sports, say, tennis, you volley back and forth, moment to moment, depending on what the other person gives you.

Improvisation classes at studios like Upright Citizens Brigade and The Second City are great ways to force yourself to live moment to moment. To be a good at improvisation, you need to be fully in tune with the other person.

Professionals and experts in any field do virtually all the preparation beforehand, so when it is time to perform, they can just relax, focus, and live moment to moment.

4. Understand human behavior.

When legendary acting coach Uta Hagen was writing Challenge for the Actor, one of the most well-known books on contemporary acting, she compared notes with a psychologist friend and found many fascinating comparisons between the study of human behavior and acting.

Needless to say, her notes on human behavior were very closely correlated to academic studies on human behavior including fundamental needs, wants, and more.

One of the most important keys to acting is that every single person at every single moment of their life has an objective (a want) as well as an action to get what they want. In acting, if you can identify what your character wants at any given time, then you will add a vital element of truth and direction in your work.

The same applies to life.

For example, if I want to get a raise at work, I may try to influence my boss by impressing, humoring, sucking up, commending, or even challenging her. (Steve Jobs, for instance, would only give respect when he was challenged.)

Once you can always identify what you want at any given time, then understand the necessary action(s) to achieving that, you can also start to see other people’s wants and needs clearly, as well as how they are trying to achieve those wants.

5. Overcome resistance.

As Steven Pressfield, author of War of Art, says:

“I think that Resistance, as I define it with a capital R, is that negative force that arises whenever we try to move from a lower level to a higher level.”

Whether it is for actors, writers, creative types, or just about anyone else, the thing holding us back from achieving what we want is an invisible force called Resistance.

This is what makes it difficult for us to just sit down, focus, and get stuff done. It is the reason why we procrastinate.

It is the force that holds us back from achieving greatness.

Here are some times that we commonly encounter resistance:

  • The launching of any entrepreneurial venture or enterprise, for profit or otherwise
  • Any diet or health regimen
  • Any program of spiritual advancement
  • Any activity whose aim is tighter abdominals
  • Any course or program designed to overcome an unwholesome habit or addiction
  • Education of every kind
  • The undertaking of any enterprise or endeavor whose aim is to help others
  • Any act that entails commitment of the heart: the decision to get married, to have a child, to weather a rocky patch in a relationship

The way to overcome resistance is to first identify that it exists, and then create habits that allow us to conquer it.

6. Be vulnerable.

“Actors must have the soul of a rose and the hide of a rhinoceros.”

The capacity to be vulnerable is probably the most important thing I’ve learned from acting.

Without being vulnerable, you cannot build deep bonds with people, you cannot let your guard down and take constructive criticism, and you cannot grow into a better understanding of yourself.

All too often, we try to protect the soft parts of our soul from being hurt by others, but we must realize that at the same time we are also shielding out the good things.

In being vulnerable, people will like you more because they will feel more connected to you. You can bet that the they feel the same way about the things you are self-conscious and vulnerable about, but they have been too afraid to voice it. When you expose yourself first, others will relate on a deeper level and will gravitate to you because of it.

In acting, the audience pays to see your vulnerability. You must figuratively be naked in front of your audience. They want to see your raw emotions, your pain, because they are too afraid to acknowledge their own or show it to others. And when two actors fall in love on screen, the audience falls in love too. They get the same feelings of pleasure through imagining that they had that love in their own lives, or by thinking about the love they already have.

You must be able to make fun of yourself, to be silly, to show love, anger, jealousy, lust, and everything in between in order to completely connect with your audience.

7. Love yourself.

Sometimes people notice that I love myself and accuse me of being vain. My response always is, “If I’m not going to love myself, who will?”

You can only give as much love to others as you give yourself first.

By the same token, the more you hurt yourself, the more easily you can hurt others.

Everything has an opposite.

When I started to understand what this really meant, it was mind-blowing. I don’t mean this in a literal way…black/white, love/hate, etc.

I mean it in the way it can apply to human behavior.

In his highly regarded book on acting, Audition, Michael Shurtleff says:

“In all of us there exists love and there exists hate, there exist creativity and an equal tendency toward self-destructiveness, there exist sleeping and waking, there exists night and there exists day, sunny moods and foul moods, a desire to love and a desire to kill. Since these extremities do exist in all of us then they must also exist in each character in each scene.”

Understanding this in life and in acting made me realize how apparent these opposites are in our day-to-day life.

In the famous play Fences by August Wilson, which was recently made into an Academy Award Winning film, the father figure played by Denzel Washington loves his son so much that he wants to protect him so he doesn’t go down the path that he did himself, yet, on the other hand, he is jealous and resents his son, refusing to see that the times have changed, and his son now has an opportunity to accomplish more than he ever had the chance to.

Opposites show up everywhere in our lives.

So often we say we don’t want something, when in reality we want it badly.

Or we crack jokes to cover up a situation with humor when there is so much pain inside that we’d be crying otherwise.

Or we bully someone else because we are insecure within.

You must know yourself in order to find the corresponding opposite to your current feelings.

What makes life interesting is that, from one moment to the next, it is never dull. Emotions can shift from joy to pain in seconds. This also separates beginners from professional actors — the ability to understand the juxtapositions in every moment, the conflicts between opposing forces, and never have a dull moment in their acting.

They embrace the unpredictable.

8. No one sees themselves as evil.

Hitler did not see himself as evil, he saw himself as a savior to Germans. He saw himself as helping the poor, bringing prosperity to his people from the invading immigrants and Jews. As an actor, you must understand that human beings always justify themselves. Even the greatest villain of villains doesn’t wake up in the morning saying he is evil. He justifies how he is making the world a better place or whatever else.

Actors often judge their characters, but if you judge them through your lenses, then you’re missing the point. You haven’t gone deep enough.

In life, sometimes there are people who seem like jerks. How are you supposed to relate to them? Why would you?

You must be able to understand how they justify their behavior and try to see the world as they do in order to connect deeply. If you practice patience in this way, you’ll learn to understand more about why people do the things they do.

The next time you meet someone that you don’t like, try stepping into their shoes for a moment to understand their perspective. Let yourself get to know them before passing judgement or making a decision about their character. You might find that you learn something brand new from them. Or you might just confirm that you don’t like them. :)

9. No matter what else you do, you must be brutally honest with yourself.

This may be the most important point, and here’s why: if you cannot be brutally honest with yourself, the previous pointers will not work.

Being brutally honest with yourself can be hard, even painful. You may find yourself coming face to face with some ugly inner demons. Butif you’re not brutally honest with yourself, you will limit your growth and lower your chances of success.

Here are some questions to ask yourself to keep that ego in check:

  • Are you really as great (or terrible) as you believe you are?
  • Is it really “never” (or always) your fault?
  • Do you have trouble admitting when you don’t know something, or do you have trouble being outwardly confident about the things you are good at?
  • Do you get defensive the second someone touches on a small insecurity?
  • Do you easily blame others for your problems?

You can’t fix or something if you don’t know what exactly is wrong with it.

It’s that simple.

But it hurts a lot until you overcome it… which you will.

Whether your goal is to become an entrepreneur, a leader of any sort, an actor, or just a good friend with a lot of close relationships, these lessons will help you in your life.

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Dominic Zhai

Dominic Zhai

Forbes 30 Under 30 | 7-Figure Business Founder | Entrepreneur | Writer | World Traveler

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