How to Make Acting a Safe Career Choice

Trading Excess Potential Payout for Better Odds of Success as a Means of Making Dream Jobs Safer, More Feasible Career Options

One time when I was a child, our teachers gathered us in the gym to hear the principal speak about planning for our future. I don’t remember much about the speech, but one thing did stick with me: his talk about the foolishness of trying to become a professional athlete. He didn’t think there was anything wrong with being a pro athlete. His point was the same point most of us make to anyone who thinks they’re going to go pro in something fun: the odds that you’ll succeed are extremely low. Even if you’re an amazing player, even if you’re the best in your whole school, that odds are still stacked high against you. It’s a gamble, in other words, and you’re wagering a piece of your life. You’re putting a tremendous amount of time and effort into playing this sport, time and effort you could be expending on learning a more marketable skill, so if you don’t succeed you might not have a lot of alternatives. And odds are you won’t succeed.

This problem is inherent to all occupations that are what I call high-reward-high-risk careers (HRHR). I’m talking about things like acting, art, music, and, yes, sports. These tend to be fields that a lot of people enjoy doing in and of themselves and are highly competitive. Therefore, you must have the skill or luck of a god to succeed. They’re basically the career equivalent of investing in highly speculative stocks. Sure, there’s a chance you’ll become filthy rich, but more than likely you’ll lose your money. As with most financial things, prudent people take the smaller reward with safer odds.

The thing is, it doesn’t have to be this way. There’s no law of nature that says you must risk it all to pursue a dream job of this variety. Many people who want to enter these fields would be happy to settle for a simple living wage in order to be part of them. Sure, maybe some people are attracted to them because of the big bucks they see the top performers get (sports in particular), but the people who really love the fields don’t even care if they got rich off of them, they just want assure they won’t end up unemployed and homeless in the future before pursuing them as a career.

Take acting, for example. My girlfriend’s brother is doing a master’s program in Theater and wants to be a professional actor. He is well aware that the odds he’ll succeed are slim and that getting a master’s degree is going to saddle him with a lot of debt for a skill that’s not very marketable. It’s a gamble, but he does it because he loves acting. Not that he wouldn’t want the big bucks, but I’m sure he’d jump at the opportunity to make a living wage at it instead. The point is being able to do what he loves for a living, not getting rich and famous. If there were some way he could act professionally that just paid the bills he would be happy to take it.

I think there is such a way.

By the nature of HRHR careers, a few people get tons of reward and the rest get nothing or next to nothing. But, what if there were a way to spread that reward around, and therefore, the risk? What I’m talking about is a sort of HRHR insurance, though it would function more by means of a contractual vehicle between professionals than from a payment premiums in the event of disaster like most insurance. People who aren’t yet making the big bucks can’t, after all, pay premiums. The way it would work is a certain number of HRHR professionals get together and agree to pay a certain percentage of their earnings for a certain period of time (the agreement could last for life, but I think that’s a bit much) into a trust fund in the event they are successful. This trust fund, then is used to supplement the incomes of the rest of the parties to the agreement whose incomes are below a certain threshold so that they may pursue the work they want without having to worry about whether it pays enough for them to survive.

The underlying logic of this is that the odds that any given one of them will succeed are low, but get a big enough group together and the odds that someone in that group will succeed become quite high. For example, if you get 1,000 serious (as discussed below, strict screening with a high bar will probably be necessary for this to work), professional actors together, the odds that any given one of them picked at random will become a famous celeb and make millions a picture are low, but the odds that someone in the group will become a famous celeb making millions are quite high. It will certainly take some math and careful planning to figure out a feasible number with an appropriate standard, but as the group gets bigger there will be a sweet spot where it is big enough that success is all but guaranteed for at least one person in the group. And if more are successful, that’s all the better.

The real question, then, is whether the size of that group will be small enough that the people who do become highly successful will make enough to support the rest of the group. This is why screening is so important. The group itself must ensure that its size does not get so large that the potential payout makes it no longer worth it. Therefore, the group must screen applicants for quality and seriousness to ensure they actually have a halfway decent shot of succeeding, which may entail some very stiff competition. There is still no absolute guarantee anyone will succeed, but even if the group must be kept to a size to make the potential payout worthwhile, and that only gives them a 1 in 3 shot of someone in the group succeeding, that’s still far better than the 1 in a 1,000 or more odds they would get on their own.

Screening also goes to the issue of motivation. The problem is you might get some people who try to get on board one of these with no intent to truly try, but simply to collect the check when one of the others becomes successful. Screening these sorts out is, of course, no easy task, but it should be possible to limit these sorts enough to make whole project tenable. After all, most of the people who go into HRHR professions do so out of a passion for the field. How many artists or actors or famous musicians are simply in it for the money? If that was all they wanted they would be far better off going into investment banking.

So yes, even with something like this in place, HRHR occupations will probably still have some risk to them. The point isn’t to make this sort of thing risk free. No career is. Plenty of people go to med school and don’t become the type (or any type) of doctor they wanted to be. The point is to make it a reasonable level of risk. Functionally, it’s not much different than 100 people buying 100 lotto tickets and agreeing to split the jackpot. They increase their odds of success 100 fold while still expending the same amount of money and incurring the same level of risk. The idea is that they are willing to exchange some of the potential reward for getting better odds because they view the reduced reward as still worth it. Really, it’s a balancing act. They’re trading excess potential reward to improve the horribly low odds.

The beauty of these sorts of agreements is they cost people nothing extra on the front end to sign up. For HRHR pros, if none of them succeed they have spent nothing other than the time and effort of trying to succeed in such a career, something they would have expended anyways trying to become an HRHR pro. But there’s a good chance one of them will succeed and they’ll all get a moderate payout for doing what they love, which hopefully will allow them to continue doing what they love.