Ever take career advice from a meth dealer? Me neither, but Bryan Cranston has some excellent words of wisdom for all of us. And, of course, he knows a few things about achieving success in a competitive marketplace.
Even if you don’t recognize his name, chances are you’ll recognize the gentleman in the accompanying photo. Bryan Cranston became a Hollywood star through his iconic role as Walter White, the mild-mannered high school chemistry teacher who became a ruthless manufacturer and dealer of methamphetamine in AMC’s award-winning and immensely popular Breaking Bad.
No Johnny-come-lately, actor Cranston just turned 60, and he’s been a TV and film actor since the 1980s. Prior to Breaking Bad, he was probably best known for playing the silly and inept dad in Malcolm in the Middle in the early 2000s. But it was his very different role in Breaking Bad that catapulted him into orbit among Hollywood’s biggest stars.
And since Breaking Bad ended in 2013, a wealth of complex and compelling roles has been coming Cranston’s way. In fact, just this past month he appeared as President Lyndon B. Johnson in All the Way, HBO’s dramatization of LBJ’s first year in office and his efforts to pass the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Cranston’s LBJ is one for the ages; at times, he appears as tortured as Walter White. It’s well worth checking out.
So, why is any of this important to you? Because even if the film industry isn’t quite as nasty and cutthroat as the meth business, it’s still a tough place to earn a living, let alone become a star. And yet, good guy Bryan Cranston, who’s the polar opposite of Walter White, has done both. So, after many years of making a decent living in Hollywood before making the big time, he has a good amount of hard-earned wisdom to offer the rest of us.
Ultimately, Cranston’s achievements in Hollywood are an important reminder that even in the toughest professions, the difference between success and failure can come down to the intangibles: how badly you want something, how authentic you are, and even how well you treat your colleagues.
Most of these points and quotes came out of a great interview he did recently with Washington Post reporter Peter Marks. It’s worth checking out in its entirety, but for our purposes, here are Bryan Cranston’s Five Rules for Career Success:
1. Don’t just follow what seems like the most reasonable path, and don’t just chase the money. Do what you love.
As a young man, Cranston had a life-changing revelation. In fact, it happened while he was still in high school and had been planning – interestingly enough – to become a policeman. At 16, he had gotten involved in the L.A. Police Department’s “Law Enforcement Explorer Program,” where he was at the top of his class.
However, before Cranston graduated from high school, he wound up taking an acting course, and he discovered his passion for acting. He says that he realized, “Instead of pursuing something I was good at, police work, and hoping that I would fall in love with [it], my path should be to pursue something that I loved and hopefully could become good at. And that’s what I did.”
As proof that he doesn’t just talk the talk when it comes to following one’s passion (instead of focusing on the paycheck), he claims that when it came time to negotiate the contract for his work in “Breaking Bad,” he left matters entirely up to his agents to work out.
How many of us would be willing to do that? Only those of us who are so passionate about what we do that we know everything else is just details. (Of course, it also helps if you have complete trust in your agents and advisors.)
2. Focus on getting base hits – consistent base hits – instead of just hoping for home runs.
This is how Cranston balances out the first rule, that of following your passion. He had a tough childhood, growing up in a household where his father desperately wanted to be an actor, but insisted that he was meant to be a star. He ignored the roles that he thought were too small for him because he knew he deserved better. Might that type of attitude be a problem? Only when it gets in the way of real life.
In young Bryan’s case, his father’s unrealized (and unrealistic) dreams led initially to his parents’ divorce, then to a foreclosed home, and finally to Bryan and his brother moving in with his grandparents for a year. That kind of unstable home life can lead a kid to either go off the deep end or seek stability. In Bryan’s case, it was sufficient to make him want to become a cop, even if it was just for the regular paycheck that he knew he’d be able to depend on.
However, as we know, Cranston changed things up and made the move to a career that he discovered he was truly passionate about. And yet, he never forgot his father’s fatal error of being too focused on the big win.
As Cranston says now, “I never dreamt about the home run. I just wanted to get on base, just get on base somehow, some way.” And that’s exactly what he did, with a growing body of work that mostly consisted of supporting roles, from playing the recurring role of the dentist in Seinfeld, to a guest appearance in The X-Files. Interestingly, it was this one-time appearance that led to his breakthrough as Walter White. Just ask Vince Gilligan, who wrote the X-Files episode in 1998 and began producing Breaking Bad 10 years later.
Many of us dream of the big win, whether it’s hitting a grand slam in the ninth inning to win the World Series or getting lucky with a billion-dollar Lotto jackpot. But these fantasies can get in the way of achieving success in real life, one supporting role at a time.
For example, far too often I’m asked, “Can you make a video for me that will go viral? Because I really want to have a video that goes viral.” Ah, yes, my friend. You, me, and the rest of the 3.5 billion people who are on the internet. My advice is always the same as Cranston’s: Focus on getting on base. Consistently. Do that, and you’ll be much more successful than 90% of the other players out there.
3. Take chances.
And yet, going for consistent base hits doesn’t mean that you should be satisfied with only singles and doubles. Cranston takes roles that scare him, and so should you.
At 57, he segued from “Breaking Bad” to “All the Way,” and from playing a drug dealer to playing a U.S. President, thus putting his five-year reign as TV’s meth king as far behind him as possible. In choosing to go from Hollywood to Broadway, he also put his comfort zone far behind him.
That was not required for someone in his position. But it was a good move.
Going outside of your comfort zone is always a good move. As Eleanor Roosevelt famously said, “You must do the thing you think you cannot do.”
What scares you? For some, it’s the idea of going out on their own and hanging their shingle. Giving up a regular paycheck is scary.
For others, scary might involve having to market themselves and making a priority of business development. Writing blog posts or making videos in which you talk about why people should do business with you can be a pretty scary concept for many people.
But if you’re not willing to be stuck in a rut, you need to take chances.
4. Be real.
Robert Schenkkan, playwright of All the Way, says of Cranston, “There’s none of this pretentiousness. Bryan is just a normal guy, interested in everything. And then he walks on the set, and boom! — it’s all there. I don’t know what the magic juju is.”
This is great advice to every professional out there. Keep the magic juju for the courtroom, for the client meeting, for sparking your creativity, for whatever it is that you get paid for. But keep the pretentiousness out of your interactions with your clients, colleagues and everyone else. Be real.
Narcissistic or condescending behavior will send clients searching for another professional who’s easier to work with. If you’re truly a star, everyone will know it. And your clients will like and respect you that much more if you happen to be a real person, too.
5. Know what your job is.
Several years ago, Cranston shared what he claimed was his one piece of advice to young actors. I happen to believe it’s equally relevant to professionals: “Know what your job is.”
Sounds easy, right? But Cranston went on to say that for many years, he thought that his job in an audition was to get the part. And many readers of this will nod their heads in agreement: Absolutely, the first job is to get the job, right?
But Cranston suggests that, no, that is not your job. He says that an actor’s job in an audition is not to get the part, it’s to become the part. Somewhat Zen-like, isn’t it?
Think about it this way: Cranston’s point here is that when you’re focused on getting the part, getting the client, getting the job, you won’t do half as well as if you were purely focused on becoming that which you’ve been asked to become.
Ultimately, only so much is in your control; focus on that, and ignore everything else. In fact, Cranston states that he became much more successful in his auditions after he had that realization.
How does this relate to you and your work? Well, each of us can probably do a better job of truly focusing on who and what we are, screening out the noise, and finding beauty in the essence of what we do, and in doing it well.
And if we can do that half as well as Bryan Cranston, we will all have long and successful careers ahead of us.