The Scene

Who Do You Think You Are?

Success is not an accident.

Not a single improviser you admire got to where they are by being randomly plucked off the street or out of a class, getting tossed onstage, and spontaneously excelling. All of them started from a place of being generally terrible and improved over time by doing an enormous amount of reps. Yes, some of us start with a higher baseline of ability in certain areas. Some of us are more naturally attuned to what's comedic or faster learners or more willing to look foolish in front of strangers. But to be truly skilled - to be able to execute consistently at a high level - takes intentional long-term dedicated effort. 

In Embrace Slumps, Ignore Success we examined the ups and downs of that long road of artistic progress. One of the big early pitfalls for a lot of us is constantly comparing our progress to those around us. This can be especially tough if we aren't gifted with a higher baseline ability. Since most improv takes place in and around some sort of theater system, performers with higher baselines generally have more early "official" opportunities than their peers. They are a better short-term investment for the theater, which needs its new performers to be capable onstage more or less immediately. This early success can end up exacerbating the divide between high baseline and low baseline performers. The high baseline performers benefit from the resources that come with being a part of the system - regular, higher-quality stage time with more experienced teammates and instructors who have an expectation of execution. For those of us without those early opportunities, this can end up being a massive hurdle in our development and a big blow to our confidence. Not only are our peers getting cast over us, they're improving faster than us because of it.

This is when a lot of us start to wonder if we'll ever be really good. If maybe we just don't get improv. If maybe we should quit. These are perfectly normal thoughts that should be completely ignored. 


We live in a society that has quantified progress. Our entire educational system is structured in a linear graduated path. Each year, if we're doing it "right", we level up along with all our peers. We spend eight years in elementary school. Then four in high school. Then four in college. From there the path splits - grad school, doctorate programs, the military, sports, the professional world - all of which have their own hierarchical systems with growth checkpoints and markers of progress. Improv theaters function in much the same way. If we're doing it "right", we go through the levels of the school one after the other. Then we make our way through the performance development system. Less strictly scheduled but still tiered, the "better" the show the "better" the time slot. If you're performing on Saturday at 8pm, you know you've made it to the top.

Because progress is quantified, because we were raised our whole lives to level up with our peers, it can be massively discouraging to we feel like we aren't keeping up. If we see others moving faster than us or even passing us from behind it can feel like failure. But when it comes to improv there is no "right". This is a journey that takes years, decades. Some of us start with those higher baseline abilities and get that early systemic success. Some of us take more time to get up to speed and have to do everything on the outskirts of that system. In the end we're all trying to get to a place where we feel creatively happy.

In that regard, the only way to truly fail is to stop moving. 

Because we'll be spending a lot of time in and around one (or several) theater systems over the course of our improv careers, it's important to understand how they function. The better we understand the system the more we'll be able to use it to our advantage. The first thing to recognize is this - 

A system's #1 priority is to sustain itself.

That goes for any college, corporation, sports team, and yes, improv theater. No one individual's success is more important than survival and growth of the organization as a whole. This means that any decision a system makes is starting from a place of "how does this benefit the system?", not "how does this benefit the individual?". There is nothing inherently wrong with this. It can and should be a symbiotic relationship. A healthy system can more easily support performer growth. But there are limits to how much this can benefit us as individuals.

Plenty of us got into improv because we have dreams of emulating our comedy idols. "Making It" - a vague and variably defined combination of status and success in tv & film - was a big part of why we got started in performance and why we continue to perform. Because it is so vague and variably defined it can be difficult to determine how to get there, so we rely on the theater system to show us the way. This is especially true for systems like The Second City and UCB that have a decent amount of alumni who fit our definition of "Making It". Having recognizable alumni can be beneficial for a theater's reputation, but it's not something it can (or will) directly pursue. The tv & film industry (Hollywood) is a massive system in its own right, and one that is particularly difficult to break into as a performer. It helps to be talented, which you can certainly become in an improv theater, but just as navigating an improv system takes patience, practice, and commitment, so does navigating the Hollywood system. Improv theaters may be able to help us make connections or put us in front of producers, agents, and managers, but as long as they aren't in the business of tv & film production, that's about as far as they can take us. The rest is in Hollywood's hands.


If the goal is indeed "Making It", we should always carry the awareness that we are a commodity in competing systems. Improv theaters and the tv & film industry are both businesses that sell products. Improv systems sell education and live comedy. Hollywood systems sell pre-recorded narratives and commercials. Improv systems make us good at what improv systems sell. Hollywood systems make us good at what Hollywood systems sell. They both value some of the same skills (writing & acting), which is why we could all name some people who made the leap from improv to Hollywood. But it's not at all the case that improv systems lead directly into Hollywood systems. The path doesn't exactly line up. If we want to make a jump from an improv system to the Hollywood system, we need to make a conscious choice to shift our focus from one to the other.

If we are trying to transition from an improv system to a Hollywood system, we might find it to be difficult to leave. Because a theater's #1 priority is to sustain itself, it will heavily emphasize stability. Systems inherently resist change, and if we've made ourselves valuable to our theater as an instructor and performer, it will naturally try to retain us as long as it can. It takes a lot of time and energy to grow a competent improviser. It's an investment. And especially if it's making money off of our abilities, it benefits the theater to keep us around as long as possible rather than hand us off to another system. This resistance can manifest itself in different ways. At its worst and most damaging it will be a widespread systemic insecurity - the idea that no one at our theater could ever possibly be good enough to "Make It" so it's not worth trying. Particularly susceptible to this are small theaters that haven't ever produced a notable performer and those with poor and/or manipulative management. At its best and most challenging it will be the abundance of new and exciting shows to perform in, constant creative growth, and the unwillingness to leave our friends and give up our community status to start over somewhere else. This will be a problem for big theaters with a vast community, notable legacies, and plenty of diverse opportunities. Most places will have varying degrees of both.

In short, a theater system will not "Make" you. It doesn't have to in order to sustain itself and it's often not in its best interest. That's the bad news. The good news is the people who are going to "Make It" will do it anyway with or without a theater's direct assistance. So, if we wanted to, how do we become one of those people?

The first step is believing it's possible.


Much like how our education systems train us to progress along a predetermined path, our social systems train us to behave in predetermined ways. Frequently this comes in the form of associating aspects of our personalities with where we come from. This could be literally physical location ("She's nice because she's from the South"), family history ("He's rude because he comes from old money"), or personal backstory ("I'm afraid of water because I almost drowned when I was a kid"). Humans love to justify things based on the past, and that's something we often play into even if we don't recognize that we're doing it. If the environment we're raised in expects us to be polite, we'll eventually start behaving politely even if we don't want to because it's easier than fighting against it. Of course some of us will choose to be polite because it's a nice thing to do, but social pressures are strong and plenty of us who might prefer to be rude will choose to be polite simply to avoid social repercussions. Whether we realize it or not, we are constantly submitting ourselves to social expectations. Consciously or unconsciously, we consider what other people might think before we make our choices. This is great when we are compelled to act virtuously (like being polite) but can be a hinderance when we are pressured to behave in a way that prevents us from improving ourselves or accomplishing personal goals.

Social systems, like any others, resist change. We prefer that people behave in consistent, expected ways and play consistent, expected roles. We like to feel in control, and one of the biggest things that helps us feel that way is when other people are behaving predictably. However, because none of us are born successful, if we want to be, we're going to have to change in some ways. If we really want to achieve our goals we're probably going to have to adjust things like our attitude, our priorities, our image, and our circle of influence. As we make these adjustments, we should expect to encounter some social resistance along the way.

Early in my adult life, when I was still trying to figure out who I was, I posted this photo on Facebook.

It's a simple selfie; nothing special. But at the time it was somewhat uncharacteristic for me. All through college I was a floppy-haired nerd with no real confidence. I wasn't cool and I wasn't supposed to try to be. I think my friend was being a little tongue-in-cheek when they left their comment, but it struck a chord with me.

"Who do you think you are??" 

At the time I honestly had no idea. I wanted to write for television but I had no clue how to make that happen or even where to start. It seemed impossibly out of reach and in the back of my mind I never really expected to be able to do it anyway. I wanted to be comfortable with myself and not a constant ball of anxiety who would run from every challenge I was presented with. That self-esteem felt similarly out of reach, which only compounded its absence. The comment left me embarrassed. I knew the image I was presenting in this photo was dishonest and my friend had called me out on it. On the other hand, it was an image I vastly preferred over my "honest" one. The guy in the photo was cool and confident. The guy posting the photo was definitely not. I wanted to be the guy in the photo. I didn't want to be the guy posting it.

Over the next several years, I slowly figured out how to become more comfortable with myself. I discovered improv, which forced me to push my limits constantly and fail often. I learned that failure was never as terrible in actuality as it was in my imagination. I learned that whenever I forced myself to get back onstage after bad shows I was a little bit better. The whole time, that comment stuck with me. It would pop into my mind every time I had any self-doubt. But the interesting thing was that the more confident I became about my abilities, the more comfortable I became with myself, the more I started to actually like the person I was becoming, the more its meaning began to change. I had originally interpreted it as a deterrent - "this isn't who you are" - but over time it became an invitation  - "who do you want to be?". "You can't have what you want." became "What do you want to have?".

It wasn't until recently that I understood that the comment in its original interpretation was my social system resisting change. Whether my friend intended it or not, it initially acted to discourage me from pursuing anything beyond what I already had and being anything other than what I already was. For a while it worked. I considered what other people would think before I did anything. I shied away from doing things that I considered to be "not me". I would let other people's opinions define who I was. I let myself be defined by my past. It was only by forcing myself to not care about what other people thought that I really started coming into myself. The more I was able to ignore discouraging feedback, the more I was able to push myself to pursue the things I wanted to do instead of the things other people wanted me to do, the more confident I became. The more I was able to let go of where I came from, the faster I grew. I've encountered plenty of social resistance as I grew into the person I wanted to be, but "Who do you think you are??" stuck (and still does) because of its fluid interpretation. I have since managed to transform it from a barrier into a motivator, but only because at some point along the way I decided I wasn't going to let it beat me.

Lots of us will submit to social resistance without even knowing we're doing it. We'll accept whatever we've been given by where we come from or what we've done, play into the images and personalities we are told we should have by other people, often because being told who we are and how to be can be easier than figuring it out on our own. But when we submit to these external definitions at the expense of being honest with ourselves and pursuing who we truly want to be, we commit ourselves to dissatisfaction. Instead of pursuing what we really want, we behave how other people tell us to behave. We look how other people tell us to look. We do what other people tell us to do. We want what other people tell us to want. We let ourselves get trapped by the judgments, desires, and expectations of others.

There's an Alan Watts quote I've found to be useful whenever I find myself unhappy with myself:

You're under no obligation to be the same person you were five minutes ago.

The idea is that we're not as locked to our past as we assume we are. We are perfectly capable of changing practically anything about ourselves just by deciding to do it. Fixing bad habits, learning new skills, improving how we treat people, how we treat ourselves, what we prioritize, how we think - we can adjust all of these things by deciding to do it and committing completely to making it happen. It might be difficult. It will take time. But if we believe in our ability to make it happen and ignore external resistance, nothing can stop us.

People will tell you you can't have what you want. Ignore it. Even better, use it as fuel.

This doesn't mean we should stop listening to other people entirely. It means we should learn to recognize whether feedback is constructive or restrictive. Are they resisting our change because someone's getting hurt or is us changing making them uncomfortable? Are they doubting us because they think we can't succeed or because they see hurdles we don't? A lot of it depends on who is giving the feedback. Feedback from trusted close friends and family who have our best interest in mind and are rooting for us is more likely to be constructive. Feedback from people we aren't close to and don't trust is more likely to be restrictive. "Who do you think you are??" was definitely initially restrictive. It was only through a lot of work on myself that I was able to make it constructive.


So what does any of this have to do with "Making It"?

The point is we have chosen a massively popular, very difficult goal, and we're going to encounter all sorts of external resistance as we seek it. That resistance, if we let it affect us, can slow or even stop our journey completely. If we really do want to succeed, it's in our best interest to believe so strongly in ourselves that we can power through no matter what gets thrown at us.

Theater systems provide opportunity but they can also become a distraction. They lay a clear path for us to follow, which is helpful when that path was created by people who have managed to make their way to some desired position and want to show us how to get there. On the other hand, a popular path can become overcrowded and our journey can be slowed by traffic. A well-worn path can become obsolete if whatever resource it leads to gets depleted by others. A lengthy path can be a distraction, especially if it leads somewhere we don't actually want to go. We should utilize these systems as a resource but recognize when it's time to move on. Even if we still feel like we're moving, the best thing to do might be taking the leap to the next system. There will be times in our careers where we will have to pass on good opportunities to get to something better. We shouldn't be afraid to let go of a good thing, even if we don't yet see the great thing up ahead.

It's also important, especially early in our journey, to disassociate systemic success from our individual value. If we're having trouble breaking in or if we've gotten forced out, it can hurt to feel like we got kicked off the path. But let's remember how the system functions. The upside to any theater system is its efficiency. It becomes very good at identifying people who will thrive within it and separating them from those who won't. If we don't fit the system's "type", it either doesn't let us in to begin with, or it eventually forces us out. But just because we're not the system's type doesn't mean we're not valuable. It doesn't mean we're not skilled at what we do. It only means we aren't a good fit for the system, whose priority is not the success of any individual but to sustain itself.

System fit does not equate to individual value and is not a requirement for success. Think of all the Harvard graduates who aren't billionaires. Think of all the UCB Harold cast members who don't have their own television shows. The downside to any system is homogeny. Because it needs to be efficient, it doesn't necessarily support uniqueness. Another downside is that if a system gets large enough, it moves too slow. If we want to really "Make It", we have to be both unique and move quickly. Successful people use systems when it's advantageous and find ways to work outside of them when it isn't. Bill Gates isn't any less successful because he dropped out of Harvard. Broad City isn't any less successful because Abbi Jacobsen and Ilana Glazer never made a UCB Harold team. They used the opportunities presented to them when they could, and made their own when they either couldn't get them or had no more use for them.

We are responsible for our own success.

Understanding this can help us move freely when the predetermined paths don't seem to be working for us, or when we encounter some resistance along the way. It also helps to understand the systems we're getting involved in. The more we understand what they value, the more we can use them to our advantage. If we're trying to "Make It", it benefits us to practice the things that Hollywood sells, like writing, acting, and video production. If we're trying to succeed in a theater system, it benefits us to practice what they sell - live performance and teaching. No matter what, the biggest thing we can do for our success is knowing exactly what we want and not letting anyone or anything discourage us from going after it. After that, we chase it as hard as we can, knowing for sure that one day we'll catch it.


I'll finish with a video and some advice that works both onstage and off :

Make a decision. Commit to it as hard as you can. Never look back.