February: Coming to Terms with Mediocrity

Performing with my best friends

Performing with my best friends

A big part of my childhood involved my parents and I desperately attempting to discover what my talent would be. Maybe even more so, I think we were looking for something I could be passionate about. I had attached myself to video games at an early age and I was perfectly content with that being my defining trait as a human being. Strangely enough there are now Youtubers who make several figures more than I with that same label, but I think ultimately it was a positive thing that my parents tried to pull me towards something more socially adaptable. That being said, I'm currently playing the new Legend of Zelda game and my god is it amazing.

I couldn't really tell you if this is just my suburban hometown or a defining trait of white children in general, but where I grew up everyone had a talent. Something they enjoyed and were good at to boot. Sports, arts, academics, etc. My sister, in fact, was and is still today a pretty damn good ice skater. 

For whatever reason I couldn't get into any of this. I remember a pattern of me expressing slight interest in something, my parents fully endorsing and encouraging me to do it, and then me just backing out half way through. I can't remember all of it, but things I remember include Baseball, Tennis, Wrestling, some weird Broadway for kids camp that really traumatized me, and a five year stint playing the Trombone. All things I remember at one point being super interested in, and then eventually just completely losing any passion for. I'd rather be playing video games.

I want to say this is systematic. Milennials have a weird stigma where we desire traits that make us unique. We like to be the person in the group who's all about X or Y. When we attempt new endeavors, and we learn there's no chance of us being the best at it either in our friend group or in our immediate area, we bail. I'd like to say that's why I bailed on so much in my childhood. But I think the true answer is a lot less interesting. I believe I have a severe problem with laziness.

I really really hate confronting that. Not only because it's a shitty personality trait, but because it opens up an endless void of potential I've no doubt squandered throughout my life. I don't think it's necessarily useful to think this way, but I can't help but wonder what my life would be like if I thought of things as "how do I make this fun for me" rather than "how is this fun for me?" I see a world where I stuck with Trombone and can riff along with my more music-oriented friends.

At first, Improv is the lazy person's paradise. If you are even remotely funny, you can get laughs fast. And when you get laughs, you feel on top of the world. When I auditioned for my high school's improv team junior year, I didn't have to prepare anything. I just had to show up and be my naturally funny self. I got on the team: the first time I'd ever tried out for anything and gotten it. Almost immediately I felt like I knew something was different about this. I was good at it, people thought I was funny, and most of all it was easy.

I think for everything, there's a level of talent you can ride before you eventually need to practice and grow. Take singing. I am very bad at singing, partially because I never trained, but also because I have no singing talent. I would immediately need to practice everyday if I were to ever hope to be a decently good singer. Some people have naturally good voices, they can sing a good amount of songs without ever practicing. But, if they wanted to reach particularly difficult notes, or improve their range, they'd need to train and practice. In an ideal world both me and a very talented singer could one day have the same range. I would just need to work a lot harder. 

Some people are so talented they can ride it forever. They don't need to practice or re-examine how they approach their work (Keanu Reeves). For me, it felt like improv could be that thing I could ride forever. I always (wrongly) felt like I was the funniest person in the room. And though I was noted frequently on my technique in my earlier years, I didn't take it to heart. I felt I could be naturally funny and it would take me anywhere and everywhere.

But then, in August of 2014 I auditioned for a house team and got rejected. I think it rocked my world a lot more than I would like to admit, I had enjoyed a very linear progress through the improv world thus far and had maybe expected it to continue. After all, I was still convinced I was the funniest person of all time.

At first, I was depressed. It never actually means this, but a rejection of your work from an institution you respect feels like a very personal insult. This is your work, you've put hours and hours and hours of your life into it. And these institutions see a small sample of it, and decide that you're not the right part. It's amazing how bad it can sting. I've applied to things I've hardly cared about and still felt oddly personally attacked by the rejection.

My improv took a hit. I was dealing with something I'd rarely felt on stage, self-consciousness. I second-guessed myself more often and I got angrier at myself when I made moves I didn't like. I felt stuck with myself, that I was limited by my cognitive level and physical shape of my body. I felt that I'd peaked as an improvisor and I'd wasted the previous three or so years on something I wasn't any good at. It was trombone all over again.

But amazingly, this year was also the year my college improv team was at its strongest. I was on a team with 14 other impeccably talented and motivated individuals.  But more than anything, we had a lot of fun together practicing and performing. While I was on the backline having an existential crisis my teammates were having a blast on stage. They were having so much fun that it almost became impossible to not join in with them. I did. And I learned to forget the things that were making me not want to perform while keeping in mind that I wasn't the hottest thing since Chris Farley. Then, the following March I auditioned for the same opportunity and nailed it. I've had ups and downs since then, but it dramatically improved the way I view my own mediocrity.

I learned two things:

1) Being aware of my limitations was the best thing that first rejection taught me. I could understand now that there are things I couldn't see about myself that others could, and that listening to them allowed me to improve in ways I didn't think previously possible. This has become useful in a variety of places, especially post-college. I've learned a rejection is not to deter someone from pursuing a given path, it's an invitation to work hard and try again. Sure, it can be frustrating when opportunities only appear once in a blue moon, but it allows you to take time off from stressing about what anonymous people on the other end of the table think of you.

2) Institutional validation is definitely awesome, but it can't be the only thing that sustains my passions. Every time I receive a big rejection I sit back and reexamine: am I still having fun doing this? Can I have fun when people aren't telling me I'm great at it? So far that's remained true for improv, playwriting, standup, and most forms of creative writing. Should it ever stop, I expect I'll go do something more fun.

In the past few years I've entered the UCB system, the crown jewel of improv theaters. There's a LOT of improvisers and a lot that look like me (bearded white dudes) and many of them are objectively a lot better than me. I am not one of the best improvisers at UCB and I may never be. But I enjoy doing this stuff a lot, and I'll keep working to improve and perform as much as possible, if I get institutionalized validation on the way, that would be dope. But I can't stop letting myself have fun until then.