Model Questions vs. Actor Questions

How to ask the right questions as a newbie

Newbie indie consultants tend to have a LOT of questions on their mind. Most of these are bad questions because there are no great or terrible answers to them at the newbie stage of the game. The good-enough answers, on the other hand, are obvious and not worth overthinking.

The problem is, newbies pay so much attention to the bad questions, they often forget to look for the good questions that can actually pay huge dividends if asked early enough. So how do you avoid getting sucked into the black hole of bad questions while looking for the good ones?

The key is to think like an actor rather than a model.

Bad Questions

Here are some examples of bad questions.

  • LLC or S-corp? (or equivalent question in other countries). The right answer is “probably LLC,” but if you don’t trust me, sure, go with S-corp. It’s not too costly to fix this if you get this wrong.

  • Blogging to attract inbound leads, or proactive email pitches? The obvious answer is the right one: try both, see what works, double down. Cheap effort.

  • Targeted, researched pitches versus spray-and-pray? Targeted, obviously. But sure, waste your time on spray-and-pray for a while. Maybe you’re one of the exceptions.

The only reason to waste a lot of time on these questions is that you don’t actually feel ready to get going with serious trial-and-error for whatever reason.

Bad newbie questions are not bad because they aren’t worth asking at all. They’re definitely worth say 15 minutes of fairly mediocre mental effort and googling to get to good-enough starter answers. So what makes them bad?

  • They’re bad questions because they can trap you into endless analysis-paralysis and hold you back from actually trying things.

  • They’re bad questions because you’re trying to fix an information deficit (which calls for trial and error) by over-analyzing information you do have.

  • They’re bad questions because they are read-fire-aim or ready-fire-steer questions that you’re posing in ready-aim-fire ways.

  • And most importantly: they are bad questions because they distract you from looking for the good questions to ask.

Unfortunately, the few good questions worth asking early on tend to not be asked.

These are not questions mentors or advisors can just formulate for you to ask, because they tend to be highly situation-specific. They are the good questions for you to ask.

So how do you quickly get past the 100 bad questions everybody asks, while making sure you spend serious time on the 4-5 questions that are good for you to ask, that nobody can tell you how to ask?

I have a meta-question that you should ask about every question that occurs to you:

Is this a model question or an actor question?

I need to detour through a discussion of actors vs. models before I can explain how to ask the meta-question.

Models versus Actors

Modeling and acting are both gig-economy professions. Both have a bit more structure than most gig-economy careers. In particular, there exist agents and audition processes for both. Neither is a plug-and-play under-the-API gig economy career like rideshare-driving though. You need talent, aptitude, some training, an element of luck, and a decent amount of mindful strategizing to succeed at either.

But despite their similarity, there is one crucial difference between them.

Modeling is a career based on looking like other models. Acting is a career based on looking different from other actors.

This is not a subtle point. Modeling is a high-end commodity labor market, acting is a differentiated labor market.

The difference is right there on your TV screen.

Actors tend to be recognizable and imitable (their style is unique enough to allow for recognizable impressions and caricatures). They try hard to make a unique impression and create a memorable new idea in the viewers’ head. Benedict Cumberbatch, for instance, changed everybody’s ideas about what Sherlock Holmes could look like.

Models, on the other hand, tend to be interchangeable and unmemorable. They either embody a particular standard of beauty really well (like ramp models), or a particular societal role like “mom” or “office worker” really well (ordinary commercials). They try hard to conform to an idea the viewer already has in their heads. You can’t impersonate or caricature a model, only the broader category that they exemplify well.

Of course there is a fuzzy area of overlap and crossover. Flo, the character in Progressive Insurance ads in the United States, is really more actor than model, and the campaign has been developed more like a television show than an ad campaign.

And of course, there are plenty of B-movies that feature very forgettable model-like actors.

And then there are exceptions like Daniel Craig (James Bond) and Stana Katic (Kate Beckett in Castle) who crossed over from modeling to acting successfully (it’s hard to go the other way, since successful actors by definition are too recognizable to “work” in most ads).

But the basic distinction is a solid one.

The distinction has only a very weak correlation with fame. Actors versus models is a distinction observable both in newbies and famous examples of both.

There’s a game I play with my wife we call “I’ve seen him/her in something else” that is especially fun with obscure actors who have bit roles in lots of shows and movies. Something about them “pops” in a way that transcends the context of a particular story. I’m pretty good at this game, and I usually figure out where I’ve seen an actor before my wife does.

But the game doesn’t work well with models!

This was driven home for me in a very powerful way recently. Walking around downtown LA a few months back, I walked past a photoshoot in progress (a frequent thing around here). The model looked very familiar, but I couldn’t immediately place her.

It took me a couple of minutes before it hit me: it was Cindy Crawford. Only the most famous model of the 80s (as well as star of a few B-movies). Can you imagine that delayed recognition happening with say Meryl Streep, Samuel L. Jackson, or Jack Nicholson?

The takeaway is this: even the most obscure actor tends to pop recognizably from their context, but even the most famous model tends to blend into their context.

Two Kinds of Questions

Now here’s the thing: for almost all of you, the good questions are going to be actor questions, and the bad questions are going to be model questions.

At the same time, 9 out of 10 questions that occur to you to ask are going to be model questions. So your meta-process should be: quickly get to good-enough on the “model” questions, while keeping your eyes open for your unique version of the true “actor” questions.

The reason is simple: even though there are a lot more “modeling” gigs in the gig economy overall, they tend to be staffed by contract agencies rather than true free agents, and mostly offer no financial or life-satisfaction advantages over similar paycheck jobs. They’re basically consolation prizes for jobs.

If you truly want to be an “indie,” then you are going to be fishing for “acting” gigs, not “modeling” gigs. In the short term, model questions help you tread water. In the long term, you sink or swim based on your actor questions. So the sooner you figure out what defines you as an actor, the more quickly you’re likely to break through.

Here are some examples of model vs. actor questions:

Model questions

  1. What certifications should I get?

  2. LLC or S-Corp? (US-specific)

  3. Should I get into the SBIR game? (US-specific)

  4. What industry niche should I pick?

  5. How do I craft a pitch?

  6. How do I describe my services?

Actor questions

  1. What is the first thing people notice about me?

  2. What are the unique associations that attach to me?

  3. What do people typically want to talk to me about?

  4. Who do I naturally attract and repel?

  5. Why did I get this gig as opposed to someone else?

  6. Could anyone else do this gig without rescoping?

To make it crystal clear, let’s cast all these example questions into actual model/actor questions:

Model questions

  1. How tall do I need to be?

  2. Should I try to break through in LA, Paris or New York?

  3. Should I try to get a famous agent?

  4. What roles in commercials can I fit into?

  5. What kinds of portfolio photos do I need?

  6. How should I dress for the audition?

Actor questions

  1. What movie/show do people remember me from?

  2. What catchphrases do people associate with me?

  3. What scripts come my way?

  4. Which directors/co-stars do I have good chemistry with?

  5. Why did I get this role?

  6. Could anyone else play this role without a rewrite?

Notice something? Model questions can be asked and answered before doing anything. Actor questions typically require you to already be in the game before they can be answered.

Another lens. Think about how actors and models are discovered. There’s a chance a model might be noticed by a scout on the street, but most are heavily groomed for the career from a young age, often by parents, and go knocking on the doors of agencies.

Actors on the other hand, are more likely to be noticed by casting agents or scouts in actual performances on stage or in bit roles. While there are famous stars who begin life as child stars, and there’s more of a learning curve to it, acting is much less of a career you can be groomed for. You have to just dive in and strategize your way to success.

It should be obvious that actor questions are all versions of the question, “what makes me pop memorably from context?”

Model questions are all versions of the question, “how can I fit harmoniously into the context?”

Getting to Good Questions

Newbies mostly obsess over the questions they do for one of two reasons: they are procrastinating on actually trying stuff, or they are trying to hold on to the securities of paycheck jobs by asking questions that are analogous to ones you ask while navigating a paycheck career. They usually don’t need the obvious answers pointed out either. Mostly, when they ask more experienced people these questions, they are wishfully hoping for miracle answers that aren’t there.

Of course, knowing how not to overthink the bad questions is not the same as knowing how to ask the good questions.

What’s a good question, beyond being an actor question that you have to ask and answer in a unique way about yourself?

A good question is one to which the answer supplies a ridiculous amount of liberating leverage. A question to which the right answer proves unreasonably effective in moving your career along. A strategic question that’s right for you, even if it looks banal or even ill-posed when asked for other people.

Most importantly, they are very fertile questions that lead to lots of good follow-on questions that generate more energy, via a cascade of self-discovery.

A good place to start looking for your good questions is to think about how people typically mock or typecast you.

In my own case, long before I started writing, a friend used to make fun of me for always “looking for the punchline” in conversations. I decided to own that. It eventually turned into a central skill in both my writing and consulting a decade later.

As an example of typecasting, my first viral blog post, The Gervais Principle, an analysis of The Office, led to an endless stream of requests to do the same kind of analysis for other TV shows. That’s basically typecasting.

Though I refused to let myself be typecast as “blogger who analyzes TV shows,” reflecting on that typecasting led to a series of very good questions and commitments that helped me develop my consulting practice. Some of those good questions, which will make no sense for anyone else, include:

  • Am I good or evil? (answer: slightly evil)

  • What’s my favorite deliverable medium? (answer: plain email)

  • What’s my signature shtick? (answer: 2x2s)

It would take too long to explain how I got to these questions from reflecting on a viral blog post, but trust me, the dots do connect.

Getting to good questions is a process of following a trail of clues, and solving the mystery of who you are as a free-agent. When you’re done, you’ll have a story rather than an answer, one that energizes your career rather than merely removing some uncertainty from it.

And the only way to get to the good questions is to actually get started on your gig-economy career. They cannot be asked or answered a priori.