Hear about the the limitations of always playing it safe and why the ability to handle rejection can be such an incredibly powerful asset during your career. Andy Whelan shares his story of how he relaunched his career from being an actor to a small business owner and eventually a career coach. Afterwards, I’ll share my thoughts on how I manage rejection in my own life and career.

Key Career Insights

  1. When you’re thinking about career change, try to focus on the people you’re going to serve or the value you’ll have an opportunity to provide rather than just focusing on what you gain.
  2. Our tendency to avoid pain can prevent us from truly pushing the boundaries of our career and finding work we find more meaningful.

Tweetables to Share

Resources Mentioned

  • Andy mentioned his involvement with Young Storytellers, inspiring young people to discover the power of their voice.
  • If you’re interested in hearing more career insights from Andy, he’ll be speaking at the Adobe Max Creativity Conference in Las Vegas, Oct 18-20, 2017.

Listener Challenge

Mental Fuel®During this episode’s Mental Fuel segment, I talked about the importance of identifying one mechanism in your life that can recharge you when you get rejected. What’s one thing that you KNOW you can do to help you stand back up after you get knocked down? If you have a useful technique to manage rejection in your own career, share your tip with the Career Relaunch community by leaving a comment below.

About Career Coach & Actor Andy Whelan

Andy Whelan General Assembly
Andrew Whelan is an accomplished career coach and small business owner. His background also includes performing at The Second City and Late Night with Conan O’Brien. His results-oriented, growth mindset approach to coaching has helped hundreds of graduates and freelancers achieve professional success. His current coaching focuses on General Assembly immersive students and entrepreneurs, guiding them through their branding and job search.

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Thanks to General Assembly for Supporting this Podcast

General Assembly LogoThanks to General Assembly for sponsoring this episode of Career Relaunch. General Assembly is a pioneer in education and career transformation, specializing in today’s most in-demand skills. Visit GA.co to lean how to boost your career. Use Promo code ‘RELAUNCH‘ for 20% off your 1st class or workshop.

Episode Interview Transcript

Teaser (first ~15s): The first thing was allow myself to feel really rejected for a moment and be okay with it, because as an actor, I was trained to be completely connected to my emotions. But then when I was getting rejected, I would reject on my emotions because I didn’t want to feel it.

Joseph: Hello, Andy, and thanks for joining me here on Career Relaunch. I want to hear all about your life as an actor and business owner, but before we get to that, can you just kick us off by telling us about the work you do there at General Assembly?

Andy: Absolutely. Thanks for having me today. I’m a Career Coach currently at General Assembly in the San Francisco campus. What I do is I work with our full-time immersive students who go through either 10-week or 12-week, full-time programs in areas like user experience design, data science, or development. I help them through the course, build their materials, like resume, cover letter, learn how to interview, build portfolios, and then I work with them one-on-one when they graduate to make that transition into a new career.

Joseph: Can you give us a glimpse into the types of students that end up enrolling in courses there are General Assembly and also maybe a very brief summary of what General Assembly does for people who aren’t familiar with the organization?

Andy: General Assembly is an accelerated learning or technical boot camp. It is part of the industry now. What we do is we train people for roles in the technical market, startups, companies anywhere from Adobe, Dropbox, down to very-early-stage startups, from engineering to design to product management and data science.

Our graduates graduate in 10 to 12 weeks, and then they move into a full-time job search. They come from right out of college through—I’ve worked with people who were very successful in marketing or animation or other areas. We are international, and we focus on areas that are hiring for tech market and for tech positions right now.

Joseph: What are the one or two major challenges that you see that students are struggling with when they come to get your career coaching as they’re enrolled in the courses there at General Assembly?

Andy: I think the first challenge is fear: ‘I’m not going to be good enough,’ ‘There’s not enough jobs,’ or, ‘It’s not going to work out for me.’ The other is often in transition. Someone’s worked really hard in their past career, and they’ve been successful, and they’re very unwilling to let go of some of that to focus on what skills they have and the things they’re doing recently to move into the next career.

Joseph: Speaking of former identities, I get approached by a lot of career coaches to be on this show. In this case, I actually approached you because you’ve got such a unique background, and I was really intrigued by your career trajectory. I was wondering if you could just take us back in time, Andy, before you’re doing this great career coaching for General Assembly. Tell us a little bit about your life as an actor.

Andy: My first career transition probably happened in college. Unlike most people who felt the influence of their family and started studying, I was a premed major, and I started studying…

Joseph: Oh, me too.

Andy: There you go, right? So we both went through that process. That’s right. I remember when you’re giving your talk, just this idea of having that feeling like, ‘I don’t know. I’m not sure, but I’m already this far.’ As I was studying, I realized it wasn’t bringing me the joy that I thought it was, and I felt like it was a job already, and I was in school.

On a bet from a roommate, I auditioned for a play in college, and I was cast in the play. That kind of changed my experience in life in general because I felt like both personally and professionally, I started to belong in a way.

Joseph: What was the experience like for you emotionally between going in for that first audition versus all the other premed work that you had been doing before? Can you illustrate what that contrast was like for you?

Andy: The way I would describe it is going from black and white to color. I would go to class every day. I did the work. I was in the library all day, and I was very good at that. I’m very good at studying and testing and doing all those things. I just felt like I was checking things off. Then when I moved into auditioning and then getting into a play and going to rehearsal at night, I felt like I was doing something that mattered to me, and it was important. The energy level that I had changed completely.

I felt like it’s an idea of I would get up and I was happy to start my day. I felt this feeling that I was doing something that not everyone else was doing. I wasn’t playing it safe, and I was actually enjoying the process.

Joseph: What happened next for you with acting? You go in for that first audition. How did you eventually end up breaking into the world of acting?

Andy: First, what happened was I went to Circus University. I spent a year there in a Master’s program. I had been building sets for them at Circus Stage. My connections there helped me to meet with the theater department, and they offered me a scholarship to teach some set design courses, work at Circus Stage, and then take an MFA program at Circus University. I went and did that.

I went through that process for about a year, and I realized I just did not want to be in school anymore, so I left and I moved to Chicago. I had a connection. Again, the story of my career professionally is really about connecting with people and then saying yes to an opportunity they offer me. Someone said I move into Chicago, ‘Do you want to put your stuff in the truck and go to?’ and I said, ‘Okay.’ I started working, building sets. I was a carpenter and a welder for Steppenwolf.

Then the Goodman Theatre out there, one of my connections that I met at a theater I was building sets at said, ‘The Second City is looking for someone to work, and they need someone to sort of stage manage, help out over there.’ So I called them, and I went over, and I started working for them.

As I had been for most of my career, I started in a support role and learned as I went and then got an opportunity. I started there stage managing, and then I started taking classes at Second City. From that point, I got the opportunity to write and perform on their business side. That was really my first move into professional acting and writing.

Joseph: What exactly does it take to break into acting? I know that you mentioned you started off at Second City. What was the transition for you getting your first big acting role?

Andy: What it took for me was a willingness to just continuously fight to get noticed and learn more and then learn how to suppress all the fear that comes around standing in front of people and performing till the point where I did it enough to feel comfortable.

On the professional side, it means learning how to have no money all the time. My friends who are successful—and I worked with a bunch of people over there who are now very big stars—they started to get successful roles, and then they were on the news as ‘the new star,’ ‘the new hit,’ but I had watched them struggle for 15, 20 years, having no money, everybody living in a single apartment, pulling your money.

One of my friends who’s quite successful now lived in his parents’ house until he got his first big television role. I’m not talking about till you’re 19. We’re talking mid to late 20s because it’s just a very difficult road. It takes incredible fortitude to say, ‘I’m going to do this.’

Meanwhile, all of your friends who you went to college with are now getting married, having children, have careers and cars and regular bills. They have cable TV and you’re shocked that they can pay for cable TV. It was a lot of that. It was just the idea of, ‘Oh, again?’ I’m budgeting to make sure I have enough to eat this week so that I can go audition, continue to learn.

Most of it in Chicago for me was doing shows at night for free with my friends because we wanted to perform as much as possible.

Joseph: I think it’s very well-understood that becoming an actor or an actress involves a lot of rejection. I was just wondering if you could give us a glimpse into what the auditioning process was like for you.

Andy: When you’re new and you are first trying to get an agent or a manager, no one knows you and they’re expecting you to possibly bring an opportunity for income to them, because that’s how they earn their living. It’s that weird middle where no one wants to bring me on to be my agent because I’ve not done anything, but I can’t get into auditions without an agent.

It takes a lot of time. You have to go and you have to accidentally run into them everywhere they go. You have to continuously get your friends who are being represented to ask, to walk you in, to meet with them to get started. Then you have to go through the process of getting headshots, putting a resume together.

It’s true, if you’ve ever seen a film about actors, you wait in line. Sometimes, I would get in line at 10:00 in the morning in New York City in the winter for an audition for a play on Broadway, and I would maybe get seen at 3:00 or 4:00 in the afternoon. I’d be standing outside the whole time to get in.

I’ve had moments where I’ve gone on stage in a Broadway theater and started my monologue and said maybe three words, and someone in the back who you can’t see goes, ‘Thanks so much.’ Then you’re like, ‘Okay, cool. I’m done,’ and that was your day because you spent all day waiting in line.

Joseph: Wow, that’s just like that scene in ‘La La Land’ where Emma Stone goes in, and it’s exactly what she goes through. What’s that like to deal with rejection on the spot like that?

Andy: What it felt like was a great way for me to step outside and say, ‘Great, now I’m going to show you.’ I was definitely fueled by this idea that anytime you reject me is another bit of energy, another way for me to say, ‘Great, I can’t wait to come back and show you how amazing I’m going to be.’ In the beginning, it was fueled by this anger and this idea that I’m supposed to be here. As my career grew…

I’ve had times—I mentioned this to you before—I’ve had a day where I’ve had five different auditions that I was sent to by an agent and rejected by all five. Going through that, how do you then go, ‘Oh, great. Let’s make dinner.’ That’s what I’ve had to go through.

The change for me was an understanding of a couple of things. I think the first thing was allow myself to feel really rejected for a moment and be honest, because I went through this phase where I would not get something, and in my head, I was trying to tell this story of, ‘Well, I wasn’t right for it,’ or, ‘They don’t know what they’re doing,’ or, ‘That project’s not very good anyway,’ instead of being honest and saying, ‘I’m really disappointed. It really hurts that they don’t recognize me for this role, because I worked so hard to do the craft that I do.’ The first part was me saying, ‘I’ve got to feel this and be okay with it.’

It’s hard too, because as an actor, I was trained to be completely connected to my emotions. But then when I was getting rejected, I would reject on my emotions because I didn’t want to feel it.

Joseph: That’s so interesting, because I’m listening to your story here, and I know that we’re talking about acting, but I think it’s so applicable to other career aspirations that people have whenever they’re trying to shift into a new role or a new job. They put out a bunch of applications, and they never hear back, or they hear back and they get rejected. It sounds like, in acting, it’s about as brutal as it can be because you got someone looking you in the face, rejecting you on the spot.

I know I’ve met you before. I know you’re a really positive guy, and you have a lot of resilience, but for those people out there who struggle with the idea of rejection—and I’m one of them. I think it hurts when it happens—do you have any suggestions on how you manage to bounce back again and again? What worked for you?

Andy: What I think I go through a lot is this idea that if I don’t get the job, which is the perfect outcome, that it must be the worst outcome on the other end of the spectrum, and I’m really somewhere in the middle. I have to not generalize and say, ‘I’m horrible,’ or, ‘I’m not good enough for this.’ I have to get more specific and say, ‘Where was I in this process? How did I really do this?’ whether it be a job interview or an audition, ‘How did I actually perform that moment? Was I the right fit?’ and then take some opportunity to learn from it rather than sit back and feel sorry for myself.

The other thing I do is I only give myself a limited amount of time to be depressed about it. It doesn’t mean I’m not depressed anymore. It means, ‘Okay. I’m still really angry or upset or sad about this moment, but this is the deadline I’ve given myself to step up and go back into this and go submit again, go apply again, go do whatever.’ I try really hard to give myself a limited amount of time to be focused on the negative and what I didn’t get and focus on what the next thing is.

Joseph: I know eventually, you ended up landing quite a big gig with the Conan O’Brien show. Can you tell us what it was like for you to successfully make it through an audition for a pretty big and famous show? What was that moment like for you?

Andy: My constantly going to auditions and not getting work and really recognizing I’m fairly talented, but there are people out there that are just unbelievable, and there always have been. I’m competing against people that, the moment they were born, everybody just stared at them. It’s hard. I have worked with people that I’m sweating on stage, and they walk out, and before they open their mouths, everyone just is following them and completely in awe of them.

Some of the people that I worked with who were really successful at Second City ended up starting to write for Conan O’Brien. They left their positions, and they started writing for Conan. I had an opportunity to move to New York, and when I went to see them and hang out with them socially, they were the ones that said to me, ‘Listen, we really like you. We want to give you this opportunity.’ They went to their casting director who then met with me.

Going to meet with her, she was incredibly supportive and said, ‘This is the way we operate here.’ I was doing a lot of the little bits in between guests, and she said, ‘We’d love to have you be one of our regular crew who does this.’ So that was the real audition. I no longer was standing up there, trying to do a monologue. It was showing my work and saying, ‘I really want to come in and do this,’ and then them knowing I was a dependable person who would come in, who would stay late, who would be in the rehearsal process and just rehearse and not be difficult.

I think that was the moment for me that I recognized I’m doing something I love, I’m getting paid for it, and it was coming from the work I had done in the past because people knew that they could trust me with their writing.

Joseph: What made you decide to shift into the work you did next?

Andy: Working for Late Night with Conan was not a full-time opportunity. Actors generally don’t get unless they’re on a television show with contract. You’re paid per appearance, so some weeks, there’ll be a lot of opportunities for me, and some weeks, there wouldn’t, so I couldn’t always guarantee making a decent living through an opportunity like that.

I was still doing commercial work. I would go do something really fun at Conan, and then I’d have an audition for some horrible product to sell as a commercial or do an industrial, which is like you go to a company and you talk about, ‘Here’s the new plan,’ and then they film it. I was still doing that on the side.

That’s a little bit depressing because when I moved to New York, I studied at the William Esper Studio, which is a very well-known, a Meisner technique acting studio, and these great actors have come out of it. I felt like I’m an accomplished actor, and then I would go and sell toothpaste. It was really sometimes difficult.

You’re not getting paid the incredible amounts of money that maybe commercial or television or film actors are making, so you got to survive. What I did was I relied on my past skills. I did carpentry. I did a lot of maintenance work, starting with the building I lived in. I made a deal with my landlord to say, ‘Let me take care of these things in the building so I don’t have to pay as much rent.’

That turned into cleaning. I would start to clean people’s apartments in order to make money to survive and pay my rent while I was acting and hustling and trying to do as much as I could to get noticed in New York. Word got around that I was dependable, I was easy to work with, and I had reasonable rates, so I started to build a business in that way.

What I realized was I started to enjoy having money in my pocket every day, so I just said I’m going to start to focus on being really friendly, doing the best I can, and learning along the way but also being incredibly dependable.

Joseph: Was there something about your past acting experiences that ended up having a direct role in your ability to succeed in the business world?

Andy: I think my training in improvisation allowed me to say yes. One of the founding principles in improvisation is ‘yes and,’ where in order to continue a scene, you have to say, ‘yes and,’ because if someone comes up to you and say, ‘Hey, my shoe is on fire,’ and you look at them and say, ‘No, it’s not,’ the scene can’t continue. But if you say, ‘Yes,’ and I’m going to go and try and find some water, and then you throw something on it, and you go, ‘Oh, no. It’s gasoline,’ and they go, ‘Yes, and now my whole body is on fire.’ That’s how you start a scene.

When I would meet with people, and they would say to me, ‘Can you do this?’ I would go, ‘Yup,’ and then I would just figure it out afterwards.

Joseph: Why do you think people don’t say yes to things more often? Because I know that that’s a bit of a theme that’s emerging here: you say yes, and then you have opportunities come your way or you figure things out as you need to.

Andy: We don’t consider the outcomes. We just consider the task at hand, and so all that other stuff is fear, ‘If they say no to me.’ This has happened my whole life, right? It started with asking people out on a date, and you get a lot of no’s. Then my head will say, ‘Well don’t ask anybody because they might say no,’ or, ‘What if they say yes? Now I actually have to go and talk to them for a couple of hours.’ It’s all this fear around what actually happens once the next step occurs. That’s why I think a lot of people are just too afraid to say yes.

If they say no, then there’s no attempt. There’s also no rejection, because if I don’t go after it, I don’t have to worry about what happens when they say no.

Joseph: Yeah, it’s almost like you’re self-handicapping yourself kind of out of self-preservation psychologically.

Andy: Yeah, and you can’t grow that way. There’s no growth if you don’t evaluate it afterwards. There’s always this idea—and I hear this a lot. I talk to people outside of here, even just in social situations—they say, ‘Oh, yeah. I’m thinking about doing this,’ and I know what that means is, ‘Boy, it’d be really nice if I could do this. I’m not going to attempt it, because if I attempt it, it means I’ve got to fail.’

There’s very few people that I’ve seen who have been successful right out of the gate. We all put that on ourselves, like, ‘I’ve got to make it right away.’

Joseph: When you look back on these career changes, Andy, what’s something that you wish you had known about career change that you now know?

Andy: When I’ve done a couple of changes, I went from acting to running business and moving into selling that business. That moved into moving to a small state where I was teaching at a Fine Art college.

All of that, at times, turned into ‘It’s about me. I’m focused on this, and I’ve got to make a change because I need to earn a pay check.’ If I’d stepped back and said, ‘It’s about the people that I’m going to help when I make this transition,’ whether it be running a maintenance company or teaching or being a career coach, I think that the transition would have been much more positive in some lights because I would have been focused on the people I’m about to work with, the people I’m about the help rather than I need to figure this out and get this going as quickly as possible with the least pain.

First, I don’t like rejection. The second is I don’t like, sometimes, going through the process of now I have to start building a new community, now I have to start applying, now I have to start learning. Some people who do this have been doing it for 10, 15 years, and they’re way better at it than me.

Joseph: I’d love to wrap up talking a little bit more about your work as a career coach. I know one of the things that you focus on is this growth mindset approach to coaching. I don’t know if that directly relates to what you’re talking about, but can you just explain what a growth mindset approach is?

Andy: The concept behind it is I can learn something, and I can actually grow within it versus the opposite, which would be, ‘Everything that I was born with is what I get to use to build my career, build my life, and build my friendships. Challenges should be avoided because I’m not going to succeed anyway.’

A growth mindset says, ‘Challenges are welcome because that’s where I learn.’ When I felt an opportunity to improve and that I can build these skills, it just takes time. What that means is it directly relates to, if that’s true, then my only avenue is the hard work required. If you are not putting in that hard work, then you really have this sort of fixed mindset, which is, ‘It doesn’t matter anyway. I’m going to get what I get based on what I already have.’

This concept is I’m looking for continual growth, but I need to have a plan, and I also need to have people around me to support me. Then success I think comes much faster, and when success doesn’t come, you have an opportunity to really get that feedback required to know what it is I need to do to build on what I’ve just not gotten.

Joseph: One more thing before we wrap up. If there’s someone out there who is trying to get into a profession that inevitably involves a lot of either in-your-face rejection or implicit rejection, do you have any advice that you could share on how you stick with it and how you stay resilient?

Andy: If you’re always used to getting what you want, you have to practice having someone say no to you. You got to start to work with people who will be your mentor. When you’re dealing with this type of rejection, work with somebody who is successful in a place you want to be but who went through a ton of that rejection because they’re the ones that will constantly remind you that this is the journey. It’s not that moment.

For me as an actor, it was this idea that I just want to be able to tell people I’m on this show or I’m doing this. What I learned over my life so far is that what I really want now is an opportunity to learn more about myself. The other bit of advice I would say is make sure, through this process, that you practice self-care. You have to learn the things that you can do that make you feel better about these moments where you’re feeling lousy and do that.

We forget to take an hour for ourselves and go for a walk. Anybody who loves doing photography or hiking, the minute the transition happens, there’s this idea that, ‘Oh, I can’t do this because I’ve got to put all my energy into meeting people, skills, going after this new career.’ I would argue, those things that make you happiest are the ones that will recharge you when you get rejected. Practice those over and over again so that you are ready each time, because it’s about the recovery time.

It’s not really about the rejection in my opinion. We’re all going to get rejected. I get rejected all the time. I’ll ask people for stuff. I’ll ask my boss for something, and they’ll say no, and I go, ‘Oh.’ I can’t sulk for four hours in my office. I’ve got people to help. What I have to do is I have to take a moment to decide what’s of importance right now and then move to the next thing.

Joseph: Speaking of recharging your battery, before we go, I also want to touch on a project that you’re really passionate about, which is Young Storytellers. Can you just give us a glimpse into what that’s all about?

Andy: It’s great. It’s a program that started in Los Angeles, and there are many well-known celebrities and a lot of people who volunteer. Now it’s in San Francisco. I was part of the pilot program.

We go into local schools and teach 11, 12-year-olds. I think the last person I mentored was in fifth grade. We, through an eight-week period, teach them how to write screenplays and do exercises that teach them to create a story. At the end of that, we, myself because I love to perform, but then other local performers come in, and we actually perform their screenplays in front of their entire school.

The thing that I think is amazing about it is we allow these students who sometimes might struggle in some traditional learning to come in and excel, and they get the spotlight for the day. It’s amazing here because it’s like little VIP badge that they wear all day because it’s their play, and it is amazing to watch.

I highly recommend, if you have something like that in your area, to investigate it, because for me, that allows me to stay creative even if I’m not necessarily doing what I started off to do in my career. I can be guaranteed a time to perform at least every quarter, which for me is great.

Joseph: That’s great. I think it’s good to feed that muscle around the thing that you’re really passionate about. Very cool. Finally, Andy, where can people go to learn more about you if they want to get in touch with you of if they’ve got any follow-up questions for you?

Andy: You can definitely find me through LinkedIn. I’m also at General Assembly in San Francisco. I will be speaking twice in October at the Adobe Max Conference in Las Vegas. I always recommend to people, for professional connection, definitely hit me up on LinkedIn, and we can start a conversation there.

Joseph: Fantastic. Thank you so much, Andy, for giving us a glimpse into your former life as an actor and some of the lessons you learned along the way. Most importantly, how you stay resilient in the face of major challenges. I appreciate you sharing your story. Thank you.

Andy: I really appreciate the opportunity. Thanks so much.

About Joseph Liu

Joseph Liu is dedicated to helping people relaunch their careers and do more meaningful work. As a public speaker, career consultant, and host of the Career Relaunch® podcast, he shares insights from his decade of experience relaunching global consumer brands to help professionals to more effectively market their personal brands.

About Joseph Liu

Joseph Liu helps aspiring professionals relaunch their careers to do work that matters. As a keynote speaker, career & personal branding consultant, and host of the Career Relaunch podcast, his passion is helping people gain the clarity, confidence, and courage to pursue truly meaningful careers. Having gone through three major career changes himself, he now shares insights from building & relaunching global consumer brands to empower professionals and business owners to build & relaunch their personal brands.