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I’m an avid fan of the cable television program Inside the Actors Studio. Each week, James Lipton, dean emeritus of New York’s Actors Studio Drama School at Pace University, interviews a famous actor or director. I love the passion with which these artists talk about their craft and the courage with which they tackle their fears and doubt. Yes, they are famous, but they are still mortals wrestling with the same insecurities as the rest of us. And the lessons they offer give a glimpse of the greatness in each of us that lies just beyond our doubt.

When Lipton interviewed Dustin Hoffman, the actor talked about the difficulty of “finding the character” of autistic savant Raymond Babbitt in the movie Rainman.  Hoffman had researched autism, but when the filming began he still hadn’t “found” the character.

The cast and crew did three takes of an early scene followed by some improvisation. At day’s end, director Barry Levinson called Hoffman over to see the improv takes. Levinson was laughing. Hoffman told James Lipton that he was convinced he’d blown the day and was ready to resign. Then he viewed the takes. Raymond was responding with a terse, gutteral “Yeah!” to every statement by his flashy brother Charley, played by Tom Cruise. Hoffman had no idea what else to do so he went with this gut reaction.

“And that was it, that was the place!” he exclaimed. He’d found the character in an improvised moment.

“A take,” Hoffman told Lipton, “is the actor’s time to fail. Every art has a failure quotient” and for Hoffman, having to film without finding the character put him on the verge of failing. But “Failing isn’t the worst,” he added. “Putting something out there that’s safe so you don’t get hurt or because it worked before—that’s a sin. You’ve failed yourself. Put something out there that’s ‘Oooh, oooh in that place’ with somebody. That is worth everything.”

When he let go of the worry and fully embraced the moment, it worked brilliantly. Yes, he was talking about film but his words apply equally well to leadership. It is a performing art. When leaders put something safe out there so they don’t get hurt or because it worked before, they are failing themselves.

As any artist knows, the greatest challenge is learning to honor our own strengths. I find it reassuring to hear masterful artists like Dustin Hoffman confess to the small voice of insignificance and uncertainty. I find it inspiring when they choose to step into their fear rather than back away. Melanie Griffith once told Lipton that every time she starts a new movie, she’s so scared she can barely recall her own name. “You do the homework,” she said, “and then you have to put it all aside. That’s the scary part.” Similarly, Tom Hanks admitted that every time he steps onto a new set, he fears that he’ll be discovered as an imposter. Yet he continues to step onto new sets and deliver award-winning performances.

Every day we have the choice to play small or to put something out there from the core of our own being. So the next time your gut suggests a courageous course of action and your head overrules it in an effort to play safe, think like an actor and trust your gut. Get out of your head and engage others from the heart. Invite them to bring all of who and how they are to what they do. Step through the doubt and put something out there that’s “oooh, oooh, in that place” with someone.

In short, don’t fail yourself. Who knows? It may lead straight to your own greatness.

[The above is adapted from Chapter 11 of In Our Right Mind.]

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