Auditions Don’t Have to Be Scary: A Lesson from Bryan Cranston

In his recent book A Life in Parts, Bryan Cranston explains the grueling process of auditioning for roles in television. He says when an audition is over, actors are often wracked with anxiety and self-doubt. The main question that haunts them in the time between the audition and the result is: Am I any good? Over the years, the process can grind on your self-confidence. He writes:

“If you want to be a successful actor, mental toughness is essential. Lay your whole self-worth on getting the role, on the illusion of validation, before long you’re left angry, resentful and jealous. You’re doomed” 

I’ve been there. A few years ago, I had the chance to audition for TV ad voiceover that would become a Super Bowl Commercial. I didn’t feel a great deal of pressure because I’m not an actor. This wasn’t my craft or my identity or my livelihood. Even so, as soon as the casting director said, “Whenever you’re ready,” I felt my throat tighten and my pulse race. Not surprisingly, I didn’t get the part and my appetite for future auditions plummeted.

Have you had one of these moments? You tried out for varsity soccer and waited for that list to be posted on the gym door? Or the high school musical? Or rushed for that one sorority or applied for that college or grad school program or job? The results of these auditions can prompt us to ask Cranston’s question: “Am I any good?” Over time, the question can evolve into “Do I have anything of value to offer?” and even to “Do I even matter?”

Eventually, Cranston had a breakthrough in how he approached these moments.

“But about twenty years ago something changed. I’d gotten to a place where I didn’t want to feel any of that negativity. No more post-audition self-laceration, no more competition, no ill will toward anyone else. I made a switch in the way I approach the process.”

Breck [a private coach] suggested that I focus on process rather than outcome. I wasn’t going to the audition to get anything: a job or money or validation. I wasn’t going to compete with the other guys.

I was going to give something.

I wasn’t there to get a job. I was there to do a job. Simple at that. I was there to give a performance. If I attached to the outcome, I was setting myself up to expect, and thus to fail. My job was to focus on character. My job was to be interesting. My job was to be compelling. Take some chances. Serve the text. Enjoy the process.

There was to be no predicting or manipulating, no thinking of the outcome. Outcome was irrelevant. I couldn’t afford any longer to approach my work as a means to an end. Once I made the switch, I was no longer a supplicant. I had power in any room I walked into. Which meant I could relax. I was free. (176)

This last line is what grabbed me. If outcome was irrelevant, “I was free.”

For Cranston, we frame all life’s auditions in one of two ways: through the outcome or the process. If they were equations, they’d look like this:

outcome > process = frustration 


process > outcome = growth

A few weeks ago, my eight-year-old son’s football team lined up for their final game of the season. As a coach and a dad, I had my eye on a specific outcome. A win would give us a 3-3 record on the season. Not spectacular, but respectable. But at the end of the first half we were losing 21-0. 

At the beginning of the second half, I could hear one of the dad’s yelling from the stands behind me. And his message wasn’t, “Pick up your block!” or “Play better defense!” It was a joyful and sincere “Have fun out there, boys!” And he meant it. The outcome was out of our hands, everybody knew we were getting obliterated, but we still had a vote in how we engaged the process, how we handled adversity and how we treated the game, each other and our opponents.

We often have very little control over outcomes: as parents, as leaders, as preachers, as artists. We can’t control whether we’ll “win” roles or parts or sales or campaigns. The problem with being outcome focused, however, is that when we don’t get our desired outcomes, we always need someone to blame: God, ourselves, casting directors, customers, rivals, critics, competition. The result is cynicism and self-protection. I used to have a colleague who was outcome focused; he never played games he wasn’t convinced he could win. As a result, he forfeited opportunities to stretch, grow and give part of himself away to others in the process.

Like Cranston, I had a similar breakthrough as a public speaker. I was in a high-performance environment where critiques and results ruled the day. The outcome was often measured by a specific audience size threshold. After months of suffocating under the pressure of being responsible for variables I couldn’t control, I shifted to the “What can I give?” model. And that tweak freed me up to stop caring about what I could get (influence, advancement, validation) and think creatively about what I can give every moment I stand to speak. 

The paradox, of course, is that Cranston’s shift in philosophy empowered him up to win roles he wouldn’t have otherwise won. Freedom leads to joy and joy opens the door to reckless abandon which catapults us into risks we normally wouldn’t take. And those risks, that process, opens the door for all sorts of beautiful outcomes, no matter who lands the part.

Copyright © 2017 Steve Norman, All rights reserved. 

Craig Custance