What do Tom Cruise, an Obscure Acting Technique, and Finding Your Niche All Have in Common?

Hint: It's not Mission Impossible.

A zebra, looking sideways, on a black background.
Photo by redcharlie / Unsplash

How do we make actors appear as if they aren't acting?

“Well,” Meisner might say, “what’s the problem with novice actors?”

They overact. They’re lost in their own head. They’re anticipating what’s coming instead of getting lost in the moment.

According to Meisner’s former student, Jim Jarret, anticipation is the enemy of a convincing performance. I would argue that anticipation is the enemy of high-level creative performances in general. And that includes business.

By trying to “act” (ie. trying to emote and anticipate their line) 98% of actors deliver stiff unconvincing performances that shatter our suspension of belief.

Meanwhile, actors who have studied the Meisner Technique and built up their craft over time, like Tom Cruise, deliver incredible, epic performances that make us forget who and what we’re watching. We’re drawn in, like moths to a flame.

So, how do they do it?

Simple: they build from the bottom up.

The Meisner Technique takes two full years of training to approach even basic mastery. It begins with a deceptively simple repetition technique that slowly grows throughout the first year of study. In the second year, students learn to work with “impediments” — like accents, backgrounds and stories, to “earn” the right to play a certain character convincingly.

Everything, absolutely everything, is earned and built up over time.

New business? Build your niche from the bottom up.

Anticipating, predicting, or deciding what our niche ought to be before we’ve done any work is self-defeating, futile, and will drive us crazy.

This is called “Top-Down” thinking and, while useful in certain situations, it ought to be avoided when you’re just starting out. Top-down thinking gets us into our own heads. It stifles us. It causes us to lock up. It leads to a stiff, robotic, unconvincing performance.

It’s like trying to swim with cinder blocks on our feet.

Top-Down makes sense when you’ve got a lot of clarity around an idea.

Let’s say you sit down to write a Medium article. You’ve been reading extensively about building an eCommerce store using Shopify, so topics come to your mind with lightning speed.

Within a few seconds, you can choose a topic, and within an hour or two minutes, you’ve produced something worth reading. The whole thing feels effortless and organic. Because it is.

However, top-down thinking isn’t suited for situations with high ambiguity. It’s forced, inflexible, and unnatural.

In other words: when we’re new to an area, like entrepreneurship, or we haven’t fully grasped an industry, deciding on a niche can be paralyzing.

Your business will likely never get out of the starting blocks because you’ll feel soul-crushing levels of pressure to solve a problem you don’t even realize you don’t understand yet.

Conversely, building a business or finding a niche from the Bottom- Up is an organic process.

Alex Hormozi, entrepreneur and venture capitalist, often talks about becoming a category of one. The difference between him and most other teachers is that he focuses on layering simple fundamentals that lead to positive feedback loops.

He’s all about stacking simple offers or positioning plays on top of each other over time until, all of the sudden, these little simple choices cascade into a very unique, inimitable category of one.

Building from the bottom up is exactly like playing with Lego. You start with building blocks, try fitting them together, and before you know it, after improving and refining your skills, you’ve built something special.

For example, his main business, gyms, might sound generic and boring upfront. But when you stack a personal fitness service, an online meal prep school, 30-day boot- camps, affiliate marketing partnerships, merchandise and clothing, recurring revenue, seasonal promotions, and all kinds of other tactics together, all of the sudden you’ve got a gym that doesn’t look like most other “vanilla” gyms

By stacking these fundamental disciplines and approaches Alex gave his gyms their own unique, profitable flavor. He created a category of one.

Now, once again, contrast that with what doesn’t work: picking the perfect, unoccupied niche upfront, often out of thin air, and trying to be innovative without laying any of the groundwork.

When you build your offers and niche, it’s typically not One Thing™ that will make you stand out. It’s many things.

This is, perhaps, the biggest mistake folks make when finding a niche today. They try to find a Blue Ocean, or Open Pasture, or Category of One but try to do it in a way that Sanford Meisner would call: “unearned”.

They approach the problem top-down instead of bottom-up.

We assume that, in a world of ~8 billion people, we’ll find some unoccupied or missed opportunities just by reading a few blog articles and books.

I’m guilty of this. Are you? From the outside looking in, this approach is obviously naive and arrogant. Why then, do so many of us do it?

Enter: The Dunning-Kruger Effect. Our supposed tendency to vastly overestimate our skill at something. Particularly when we’re new to it.

The less we know. The more we think we know. And therein lies the problem.

Pick something. Start somewhere. Get good. Find your flavor of ice cream somewhere along the way.

Just get started. Don’t stress about doing it right. Study the fundamentals and let it happen slowly over time.

Focus on improvement and adaptation. Not perfection.

You might stumble upon a major win early, but more likely, you’ll have to put in the hours to learn skills and lessons that you can stack on top of each other.

Take me for example. I’m a marketer-copywriter-sales-recruiter-productivity-freak-photographer-designer-personal-knowledge-management-junkie that raps, dances, does stand-up comedy, and spends his spare time watching videos at 3x speed and reading books about Nihilism, Determinism and the absence of Free Will. For fun.

My flavour of ice cream is going to taste very, very different than anyone else’s. But not because I came up with a nifty positioning statement.

My flavor will be unique because I put in the work. I “earned” my character, as Sandy Meisner might say to his students. It took years to develop those skills. My niche is all of those skills laid on top of each other.

I’m (just about) my own category of one.

There are few, if any, shortcuts to creating this — an unforgiving truth that took me decades to learn. Top-down thinking and chasing shortcuts stifled my creativity and got me stuck in my own head. All I needed to do the entire time was let it happen and be playful and humble enough to let go and enjoy the process. I wish I’d learned that years ago.

But better late than never.

“That which hinders your task is your task.”
— Sanford Meisner