perfectionism

VO’s Unfair, so, Grow a Pair!

by Paul Strikwerda in Articles, Career, Freelancing, Personal 16 Comments

Two pears

The other day it happened again.

In mid-session, I gave one of my voice-over students a simple script for a cold read. I thought he’d be excited to try something new, but this is what he said:

“You’re giving me this now? Are you trying to trick me? You gave me zero time to practice and get ready. I don’t think that’s fair.”

“Wow, I wasn’t expecting that response,” I said. “You’ve grown so much in the last few weeks, I thought you’d be up for a challenge. Maybe we should use this as a teaching moment?”

He agreed.

“First off, just as there is no crying in baseball, there is no fair in voice-overs, or in any freelance job for that matter.”

“What do you mean?” my student asked.

“Let me give you a few examples.

Yesterday, some A-list actor made fifteen grand for saying three lines in a 30-second commercial. Today, a VO-colleague got a nineteen hundred dollar check for narrating a lengthy novel that took her a month to record, and two weeks to edit. Is that fair?

How about this one:

A voice-over veteran auditioned for ten jobs a day for four weeks straight, and landed none of them. Meanwhile, a newbie walked up to a microphone, yelling a few words and hit the jackpot because some producer thought he sounded “raw and authentic.”

Here’s another one:

A fellow voice actor had been recording eLearning programs for the same company for six years at the same rate. His work was consistent, and he never missed a deadline. He came to think of himself as the go-to voice of that company. So, when year seven came around, he raised his rates a little, in line with the increased cost of living.

He never heard from the company again.

Is that fair?

Now, here’s something that happened to me.

A few weeks ago I auditioned for a very prestigious job that would have paid the mortgage for at least six months. At the end, it was between me and another person. Why didn’t I get the job? The reason was simple: the client preferred a female voice.

“Tell me,” I asked my student, “do you think that’s fair?”

He made a noise suggesting a lightbulb was slowly coming on in his head, so I continued…

“The idea of “fair” presupposes that there’s some grand equalizing principle at work in the world that gives equal opportunities to people with similar education, abilities, and experience.

Well, wouldn’t that be nice?

In many ways we may be equals, but that doesn’t mean we’re equal, or that we’re treated as such. What do I mean by that?

In a highly subjective and personal business as ours, things like training and experience count for something, but they will never get you hired. The fact that you’ve taken a few voice-over classes, and you’ve been knocking on doors for a few years, entitles you to… nothing.

The only guarantee I can give you, is that there are no guarantees.

No matter how hard or how long some people study, they’ll never become the next Albert Einstein, Yo-Yo Ma, or Don LaFontaine.

That’s not unfair. It is what it is.

On paper you may be the most experienced voice talent in the room, but a casting director isn’t listening for your resume or seniority. She needs to make her client happy, and the client wants someone who sounds just like his grandfather selling cattle in Kansas during the Great Depression.

Oh… but the specs didn’t say that, right? How unfair!

That’s because the client didn’t know he was looking for that voice until he listened to the top ten auditions.

My student let out a despondent sigh.

“That’s why the audition was a “cattle call,” I joked.

“But seriously, the only “fair” thing about this situation is that to most people in the middle, this crazy business is equally unfair. With “people in the middle” I mean the vast majority of voice-overs who aren’t making millions voicing The Simpsons, but who aren’t new to the business either.

I call them “the Nobodies.”

It may sound derogatory, but I don’t mean it that way. I mean it literally. Not figuratively.

Voice actors get hired for the way they move their lips; not for the way they move their hips. We’re not in the game for our glamorous looks, but for the way we sound. You and I… we are a no-body. Personally, that makes me very happy because slobs like me still stand a chance.

“But what about things like merit,” my student wanted to know. “Isn’t winning something like an Audie, or a Voice Arts™ Award going to open certain doors? That would be fair, wouldn’t it? I mean, winning a prize makes people more in-demand, right?”

“It’s a definite maybe. Let me explain.

Even though audio books have become increasingly popular, most people still think of a German car when they hear the word Audie. Secondly, I’m not sure clients will hire you on the spot because you won some gold-plated statuette they’ve never heard of. Accolades may be well-deserved, but they’re only worth their weight if they mean something to people outside the cheering in-crowd.

Even Oscar winners need to audition again and again, unless a part is especially written for them. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. It keeps people sharp and humble.”

I took a long sip of water, and formed my next thought.

“Then there’s this weird phenomenon in our business that’s hard to prove. Let’s pretend people actually know about your reputation as a prize-winning narrator. They might not consider you for their next project because they assume you’ve become too expensive. Do you think that’s fair?

I once thought I could convince a client to hire me by telling them about the famous brands I had worked with in the past. Big mistake! The software giant I was auditioning for, ruled me out once they heard a close competitor had used my voice in 2015. This is what I also learned:

Most clients aren’t very interested in what you did for others, years ago. They want to know one thing:

What can you do for ME, today?

I’m not saying accolades aren’t awesome, but as the Dutch soccer star Johan Cruyff used to say:

“Every advantage has its disadvantage.”

That’s unfair too, but here’s the ugly truth:

In an unregulated business, those in power, and those with the deepest pockets get to determine what is fair.

“Pardon me, but that’s depressing,” said my student. “First of all, you’re giving me a lecture instead of a lesson. Secondly, I thought you were supposed to encourage me. Now I don’t even know if I want to be a voice-over anymore.”

“Language is a wonderful thing,” I said. “Especially if you like to play with words. To the ear, there’s almost no difference between “the termination,” and “determination.” The choice is yours.

If you want to end this, it’s going to be the termination of something promising. If -on the other hand- you really, really want to become a successful voice-over, allow what I’ve just said to strengthen your determination.

Please don’t be a chicken. You didn’t hire me to stick some feathers up your butt, so I could make some money off your dreams. That would be unethical. Just like that coach in the gym, you hired me to take you through a series of exercises designed to build your muscles, and give you a strong spine. You’re gonna need it!

And just like in the gym, change is a gradual process. Some days, your muscles might ache because of the resistance training. Sometimes, it might feel like you’ll never reach your ideal weight because you see other people getting fitter faster. But remember:

You’re on a personal path.

Those scary slim people you admire so much were born with different bodies, and different metabolisms. Some of them go to the gym every day of the week, and stay there for hours. Others like you can only afford to come twice a week for a 45-minute session.

You know what isn’t fair? Comparing yourself to others!

Compare yourself to yourself instead. So, here’s what I want you to do.

Forget the word fair.

Instead, focus on the word Prepare.

My goal is to help you be the best you can be at this moment in time, and to become even better in the future. Forget the silly randomness of this subjective business. You cannot control it. But one day soon, opportunity will knock on your door, and you’d better be ready! That’s the part you can control. Do you get that?”

My student made an affirmative noise. 

“Before we end this session, I want to give you one more piece of advice. I’ve known you for a while, and you’ve told me more than once that you’re a perfectionist. That mindset will hold you back, and that’s why you probably didn’t want to do the cold read I just gave you. Am I right? Were you afraid of making mistakes because I didn’t give you any time to look at the text?”

Reluctantly, my student agreed, and I went on:

“Please listen to this:

Be soft on yourself!

I strongly believe that living is learning. As human beings, I feel it is our job to evolve; to unearth and develop what we’re capable of, and to share those gifts with the world. 

To that effect, life offers us lessons. And unlike in voice-overs, life’s unscripted. You never know what it will throw at you next, so you have to be prepared to catch it while you can. Sometimes you need to improvise, and try things you’ve never done before. Sometimes you’ll get it right, and sometimes you won’t. As long as you keep on learning and growing, you’re doing great. This is what I want you to remember:

No matter how long you train, and how hard you work, you will never be perfect, and that’s perfectly fine. You want to know why? 

Because perfection has nowhere to grow.”

My student’s response was so quiet that I could almost hear the penny drop. Then I said:

“Let that sink in for a while, and let me know what you think, okay?”

“Fair enough,” said my student.

“Fair enough.”

Paul Strikwerda ©nethervoice

PS Be sweet. Please retweet!


Perfectionism Is A Trap

by Paul Strikwerda in Articles, Career, Journalism & Media, Personal 29 Comments

Drummer“Practice makes perfect.”

It’s one of my least favorite sayings in the English language. Yet, last year, this expression topped a poll of words of wisdom Britons picked up in childhood, and continue to use well into their older years.

It did better than “the grass is always greener on the other side,” and “good things come to those who wait.”

Why do I dislike “practice makes perfect” so much?

First of all, as is true for most clichés, it is a broad generalization. Secondly, perfection is a very loaded notion. Some people believe we should reserve that qualification to describe the divine. 

“Practice makes perfect” assumes that those who work hard will be rewarded. If only that were the case! Life isn’t fair, and hard work doesn’t necessarily lead to success. The millions of Americans who are working their butts off for minimum wage can attest to that.

And finally, I don’t believe we are created equal. Not everyone was born to win Wimbledon, or write a best-selling novel, no matter how hard and how often they may try.

But let’s start at the beginning by looking at the notion of practice.

GOOD INTENTIONS. BAD ADVICE.

People who tell you “practice makes perfect,” are usually trying to be encouraging, but they rarely define what they mean by “practice.” Of course the general idea is that the more one does something, the better one gets at it. As if repetition alone will lead to positive results.

Practicing can be very helpful, but it won’t make you a gold medal winner, or a world-famous musician. There’s one thing that consistent rehearsal will do, though. 

Practice tends to make permanent, but is that always beneficial?

If you practice the wrong things over and over again, you’ll only become better at what you’re not good at. It’s hard to unlearn bad habits.

If you really want to master something, you have to have a natural talent; you have to develop that talent from an early age, and you need what Swedish psychologist K. Anders Ericsson calls “deliberate practice.”

Deliberate practice is a type of practice that’s rich on feedback, aimed at correcting mistakes. Ericsson says it’s the only factor that explains differences in performance in sports, arts, sciences, and intellectual games. Deliberate practice is not something you can do just by yourself. You need precise guidance, evaluation, and accountability.

MORE THAN REPETITION

Guillermo Campitelli is a lecturer at Edith Cowan University. He investigates individual differences in performance, judgements and decisions.

Campitelli has been involved in a study that re-analyzed previous research in the fields of chess and music, including data from Ericsson’s original deliberate practice study.

Campitelli’s research in chess expertise has shown that there is a huge variability in the numbers of hours of individual practice required to become a national master. One player he studied achieved that level after 800 hours (or 2 years). Another did it after 24,000 hours (or 26 years). A significant number of players dedicated more than 10,000 hours of individual practice, and never achieved that level.

His re-analysis showed that, on average, practice only accounts for 30% of the skill differences in music, and 34% of skill differences in chess. Campitelli concluded that deliberate practice is important, but other factors should be taken into account as well. Factors, such as our working memory capacity.

Our working memory capacity or executive functioning, is the ability to store and process information at the same time. Some of us are better at it than others, depending on the gene pool we came from.

People with high levels of working memory, outperformed those with lower working memory capacity in tasks such as piano sight reading, even when the latter group had extensive experience and knowledge of the task (source).

THE FLAW OF FLAWLESS

Practice isn’t all it’s cooked up to be, so let’s now turn to the notion of perfection. I think striving for perfection puts unnecessary pressure on people to achieve something that isn’t necessarily humanly possible, or even desirable.

One way to achieve perfection is to avoid errors. What could possibly be wrong with that? Well, avoiding errors can lead to people sticking to what they already know by playing it safe. That’s boring, and it stifles growth and creativity. Those who are trying to avoid something are usually motivated by fear, which can take away the pleasure of accomplishment. 

If we really wish to make progress, we need to push ourselves out of our comfort zone, take risks, and accept that we will make mistakes along the way, from which we will (hopefully) learn. To me, steady progress is a better and more enjoyable outcome than perfection.

There’s one last reason why perfection isn’t such a great goal.

LISTEN TO THE BEAT

In a lot of popular music, live drummers are being replaced by drum machines. These machines don’t make any mistakes. They’ll give you a consistent, perfect beat every single time. That’s something professional drummers cannot do.

Professional drummers aren’t robots. Even when playing to a super steady metronomic beat, they tend to fluctuate slightly. According to researcher Holger Henning, these variations are typically small, perhaps 10 to 20 milliseconds. Yet, listeners can tell the difference. Not only that, research has shown that these human variations are more pleasing to the ear.

Many electronic music programs now have “randomizing” functions to help producers add imperfections back into the music to give it a more human feel. However, they cannot produce the same rhythmic variety that people subconsciously recognize and prefer. There’s is no improvisation, spontaneity, or heart and soul in software. 

Musician Jojo Mayer says in his mini-documentary Between Zero and One:

“Digital computers are binary machines, which means they compute tasks making decisions between zero and one — yes or no. When we play music and generate it in real-time, when we improvise, that decision-making process gets condensed to a degree where it surpasses our capability to make conscious decisions anymore. When that happens, I am entering that zone beyond zero and one, beyond yes and no, which is a space that machines cannot access yet. That’s the human experience — right between zero and one.”

To put it differently: It’s the imperfections, that make a performance perfect.”

Think about that, if you’re a perfectionist.

Keep it in mind, the next time you wonder if voice actors will ever be completely replaced by text-to-speech software.

Take it from me: It will never happen!

Deliberate practice helps you prepare and perform better, but it doesn’t make you perfect.

And that’s perfectly fine with me.

Paul Strikwerda

PS Be sweet. Pleased retweet.

photo credit: Drummer with the cut outs at Oswestry Music Live 2008 via photopin (license)