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The Great Skills Set Reshuffle

Your Personal Toolkit Gets a Makeover

Are you one of the people whose life has been turned upside-down recently?

Maybe you’ve lost a job? Left the workforce to care for a new baby or family member? Or perhaps you’re instead looking to restart your career – or begin a new one - after a prolonged absence?

You may also find yourself at a bit of a loss if you’ve relocated to a new state – or a new country – without a job in place. Even if you DO have a new position, you could very well be dealing with a different corporate culture than what you have been used to. This is especially true if you’re changing careers.

I’ve changed careers dramatically twice before. Twice more in a not-so-major way. And over time, I’ve discovered that old skill sets have an interesting habit of re-emerging in new, useful ways. Here’s a little of my story, followed by a few suggestions on how you can evaluate and apply your existing skills to new opportunities.

I began my first career in the high tech industry as a financial systems analyst working for a large electronics manufacturer. Like many young people right out of college, it took a little time to discover my true strengths and interests. I eventually segued from a design role into sales and marketing of hardware, software, and consulting services to both Fortune 500 and startup companies.

My second career was not exactly as I had planned it. I’d always envisioned myself as a working mom, a career woman whose ambition and accomplishments would serve as a model to my children, especially to any daughters I might have. That idea went out of my head as soon as I held my first baby in the birthing room. I couldn’t see being separated from him for long periods of time. Or happily jetting off to a business meeting without imagining his little face crying for Mama. Fortunately, my husband was fully supportive of my decision to become a stay-at-home mom.

While my kids were growing up, I began a third career as a freelance writer developing marketing materials for small businesses and non-profit organizations and managing the financial matters for my husband’s medical practice. Some say that multi-tasking doesn’t work, but I thrive on juggling multiple balls at once. And, honestly, it reassured my inner businesswoman that I still had an identity beyond that of “mom.”

Six years ago, I decided that my freelance business would go into a new direction, one that I had always longed to dive into. Communications and organization may have always been my strong suit, but performance was my lifelong passion. I became a professional actress and voice talent.

You’d think that my earlier corporate experience would have been as useful as a screen door on a submarine. It IS a pretty far stretch between computer engineering and sketch comedy.

Well … surprise, surprise. Those old skill sets have come in pretty handy. Yes, I’ve dived seriously into acting classes and voiceover coaching, which I continue to enjoy taking. There’s always something to learn and work to master. As an artist, you’re never “finished.”

Apply your existing skill sets in new ways to new tasks

You have to develop new skills and different ways of thinking when you change careers. But now, there was some active reshuffling of my skill sets going on that proven invaluable. And anyone going through a similar reordering of their life and/or career will discover the same to be true for them. Here’s how it worked for me:

Technical computer science skills and systems development experience teaches logical thinking. Computers only do what you tell them to do. Maybe someday, artificial intelligence will transform into independent thinking, but we’re not there yet.

In both on-camera and voiceover work, logical thinking lends itself to script analysis, which is the process of figuring out what’s going on in any given scene. Acting is really about reacting to the other people and events going on around your character. Breaking down a scene essentially means that one event or exchange of conversation is going to affect your character in some way, which in turn must affect those others around you. How will you do this? Actions beget consequences. It’s the old if-then-else logic, even if the “else” is something unexpected or irrational. It’s still a reaction.

Sales and marketing experience figure heavily into supporting a new business.

While agents, referrals, casting sites, and current clients may provide new opportunities, it’s still incumbent on the voice actor to develop their own business with some form of marketing. Anytime a voice actor secures work outside of an agent, there will also be the ongoing need to prospect for business, network, negotiate, provide customer service, invoice, account for income and expenses, pay taxes, manage a network of customer contacts, and keep an online professional presence up-to-date.

Business in general requires its executives and employees to be well-organized, punctual, and more or less methodical. So helpful to an acting career!

I’m still surprised by how many creatives are challenged by keeping things straight and orderly. Once, I was helping a studio filter hundreds of actors through an afternoon program in which each could meet a panel of casting directors face-to-face after delivering a one-minute monologue. It was a pretty straight-forward system to queue or “batch” (an old IT term!) the actors to be “processed” as quickly as possible to respect the casting directors’ valuable time. I was amazed at the time at how many actors commented on my organizational skills, saying that they could never have done the same. Really?! It seemed that anyone in my old business life could have done the same thing. Thinking about it from a business person’s perspective, was how impressive most actors truly are. Few of my former co-workers would have had the guts to stand alone on a stage and perform a monologue before a panel of critical judges. Now, that takes talent! And bravery.

Punctuality is essential to a successful acting career. Forget those stories about the divas who hold up production by arriving hours after a call time. Very few actors can afford to risk their careers like that. Most I’ve met are conscientious, very hard-working people. There’s an axiom:

“Early is on time, on time is late, and late is unacceptable!” – author Eric Jerome Dickey

Translated to the entertainment world, it’s:

“If you’re 15 minutes early, you’re on time. If you’re on time, you’re late. And if you’re late, you’re fired.” – multiple acting coaches

Or something along those lines. Punctuality is essential. And you’re never going to get there without a somewhat organized calendar.

Coming from the corporate world, professionalism and attention to customer service were a given. Anyone who came across as deliberately provocative, belligerent, difficult, argumentative, or downright disrespectful wasn’t around for the long haul. It’s not that those values are absent in any way in the entertainment industry, but it certainly seems that more people get away with it. The worst ones may make the headlines in the tabloids you see at the supermarket check-out line, but it’s not just on the A-list or decision-making levels. There does seem to be an inflated sense of self in even some fledgling actors that they’re entitled to behaving badly. And I’ve seen a few get rather badly burned for it. Talk about self-sabotage! And so unnecessary.

Don't under-estimate the value of parenting skills! Life skills help you anywhere, anytime, and in most any capacity.

Parenting is considered one of the toughest jobs in the world. It changes you in fundamental ways. For me, it’s made me more selfless, more aware of the needs of others. I’m able to better see through the eyes of others and understand other perspectives. I’m more grateful for the blessings I have. And I’ve developed a degree of patience that I didn’t think possible. Yes, also the ability to clean up poop, vomit, and other unpleasant by-products of the human condition and not shirk so much at the thought of having to do it.

These parenting skills have certainly come in handy in my new line of work! Actors play off of others and need to pay attention to react to what the other person is saying or doing. We all do better when we help our scene partners perform at their best. It’s a business of constant rejection, criticism, and judgement, whether it’s deserved or not, and it takes a strong person to take it all in stride and provide perspective. The hours are long, we’re often at the mercy of a schedule we do not make or control, and occasionally we’re not too thrilled with the where, when, how, or why we have to do something. This is the downside of the business. Parenting experience comes in handy, especially when others on set are throwing tantrums like a toddler.

Evaluate your existing skills to recognize new opportunities

We all have more skills than we realize. If you’re not sure of the value of yours or how they can be presented as a strength, try this short exercise:

  • Write down your goals and needs. This could be for a specific job, a new career, or your desired lifestyle.

  • Break down each goal into individual pieces. What’s required each step of the way to move closer to reaching your goal? Set a deadline for yourself to meet each step, otherwise it may not get done.

  • List the skills that you think you need to be successful in meeting each one of these steps. They can be “hard” skills like learning an industry-standard software application tool or “soft” skills like being able to walk up and talk to strangers at a conference in order to start a business conversation.

  • List all the skills – major and minor – that you have. It helps to organize them by group, in categories like office skills (computer proficiency, even punctuality), social skills, industry-specific skills, etc.

  • Map your current skills to the individual steps that lead up to realizing your goal. Which skills satisfy a known requirement, like knowing how to use a specific software program? Which are useful, like a “soft” skill of working well on a team? These “soft” skills can be the deciding factor as to whether they hire you (who can take direction well, working as part of a team) over another candidate.

  • Can any of your current skills be reimagined or applied in a new way? The ability to write clearly and thoughtfully, in an organized fashion, can lead to opportunities within corporate communications departments, marketing houses, or advertising agencies, as well as to freelancer gigs as a technical writer, content writer, or communications specialist.

As another example, the ability to speak in front of groups and think on your feet can pave the way to many entry sales opportunities. It’s one thing to learn about a company’s products and services so that you can represent them. It’s quite another to be able to comfortably speak in public – after all, it’s long been considered the #1 fear of so many people. And if you can do so in an informative, persuasive style … you’re golden!

Link your existing skills as stepping stones to new opportunities

Give it a try! You’ll probably discover that you are more experienced and qualified for that dream job than you think. Even if you don’t have skills that map directly to your career objectives, I bet you have some that will make getting those additional skills a bit easier. Are you an avid video game player? Guess what … you’ll have a basis to explore careers in computer science, computer graphics, even voiceover for video games. You’ll need training, of course, but your previous experience – even from playing games – gives you an insight into an industry that offers multiple career opportunities.

We’re always learning new things, upgrading various skill sets just by being active in the world. Hey, I’ve learned more than I thought I would about home repairs since becoming a homeowner! Not that I expect to begin a new career as an electrician, plumber, or even a decent handyman, but just knowing my way around a hammer or a drill has made me eligible as an actress for a role in a commercial or industrial for one of the big box home repair conglomerations.

You may find that one of your former primary skills becomes an essential backup. One that may not earn you money, per se, but helps you to do so using a new skill set. And the things you enjoyed before, but didn’t earn a living at, can flip-flop to become your primary source of income. Much like someone turning a hobby into a thriving business. That’s what I experienced moving from the business world into entertainment.

I think of it as an inverse relationship. In my first career as a sales exec, the business and “hard” computer skills were the primary requirement for the job. My passion for performance, which helped enliven my sales presentations, was a “soft” supportive skill that was not deemed necessary to do the job well, but was invaluable, nonetheless. As an actor, the performance skills are primary, but the supportive business skills (organization, focus on customer service, professionalism) are what help to set me apart as a “smart” actor who’s known to be “easy to work with.”

Think of your skills as building bricks that can be shuffled around in multiple combinations to create different structures, those structures being the opportunities you want to pursue. You may be a brick short here and there – hey, you’ll know what you need to work on! – but the point is that you have a lot more material to work with than you may have originally thought.

If nothing else, it will help you assess exactly what you bring to the table and figure out what you need to get to your goal. And that type of goal-setting activity alone can take you a long way to achieving your dream.