The past couple of years have been tough.
I’ve come to the conclusion that your twenties are supposed to be hard – the transition from the structure and linear progression of traditional education to the sudden freedom of the “real world” is jarring, navigating the expectations and hierarchies of professional institutions can be overwhelming and often frustrating, and the social and cultural pressures that constantly push us to meet certain definitions of success and happiness can be mentally and emotionally challenging. But as I rounded the corner on the final third of my twenties, just as I was starting to finally understand who I was and what I wanted out of life, the universe decided to really kick my ass.
The best marker for the beginning of this chapter is the November 2016 election of Donald Trump, whose administration’s pervasive and overt evils and the cultural and political toxicity emboldened by his power have been a daily source of stress. It is on this backdrop we add the following:
December 2016: I am let go from let go from my full time job of five years, the only one I’ve had since college. I remain unemployed for the first 9 months of 2017.
August 2017: As a member of the Union Comedy team, after five months of planning to start a brand new long form improv theater in Boston, we announce the Union Comedy Theatre. Two weeks later, our development partners abruptly back out. We learn they had been courting another group behind our backs despite previously assuring us that wasn’t the case.
September 2017: My right lung spontaneously collapses during an improv show. I spend six days tethered to a hospital wall by an air pump so I can breathe properly.
February 2018: I experience an aggressive outbreak of alopecia areata. Large chunks of hair on my head abruptly fall out along with most of my facial hair. Almost eight months later it has still not completely grown back.
This is an incomplete list - the big ones. Scattered among them are a variety of personal and professional challenges that I won't get into here for the sake of brevity. It was only as I turned 29 this summer that I began to see hints of the other side of the storm. My luck is starting to flow in the other direction. I'm starting to have more wins than losses. I finally have a confidence in the future that I haven't had for several years. I can see now I'm almost through.
As I near the end of the chapter, I've been spending more time reflecting on it, trying to make sense of it all. Time has given me the ability to see these challenges in perspective. Distance has dulled the intensities of the moment-to-moment details and left only the broad strokes, the synopsis. I can't deny that those details were painful when I experienced them, but in retrospect the hardest part of it all was the psychological effect of being hammered with nonstop adversity. I knew even as I experienced them that I'd be able to make it through individual bad days. Much harder was having more bad days than good ones. Much harder was not knowing when things would get better. Hardest of all were the losses with no antagonist. When other people were involved in the bad event or tough decision it was easy to label them greedy or dishonest or heartless and believe their behavior would eventually catch up to them. But when your hair spontaneously falls out and your lung spontaneously ruptures and you're told that "it's just something that happens sometimes" it messes with your head.
We humans strive for meaning. We want our world to be clear and clean and fair. We expect that good people get rewarded and bad people get punished. Most of all we want every bad thing to be someone or something's fault. So when it came time to assign blame for the losses with no antagonist, I assigned it to the only individual involved - myself. I told myself this happened because I don't handle stress properly, or because I eat poorly, or because I drink too much, or because I exercise improperly, or because I work too hard or not hard enough.
My life felt completely out of my control and it was taking a toll on my psyche. It was becoming harder for me to see myself as valuable when all the evidence pointed to the contrary. I was unemployable to existing businesses, usually not even earning a response to an application. When I tried to start my own business I was very publicly rejected the first time and later privately rejected a half-dozen more. My body was falling apart on me. As the losses piled up I started to believe that I deserved it. Life had me surrounded and it was all my fault. Most of all I felt hopeless. It felt like everything I knew was getting worse and would only get worse forever.
On top of all that there was a lingering guilt. Despite my struggles I was well aware of how lucky I was. I lived in one of the best cities in one of the best states in one of the best countries in the world. I had a good education and a strong support system. I could still pay my rent. I could still eat. I had all the advantages I could possibly want and not only did I still feel like a failure, I felt like I didn’t deserve to feel that way. I was well aware that most people in the world were struggling much more than I was, so my struggles felt invalid in comparison. I was feeling bad about my life and then feeling bad about feeling bad.
Somewhere along the line I decided I'd had enough. I hated losing all the time. I hated not feeling like I was making any progress. I hated feeling powerless and guilty and anxious and hopeless and afraid. For answers I turned to the one thing I knew with absolutely certainty I was good at and the only place in my life I felt real growth - long form improv comedy.
"Improv lessons are life lessons."
Students of improv are likely familiar with this saying, and it’s something that sounds nice, but how many of us have thought about what it actually means? Let's forget for a moment that the practices and products of improv are often aggressively silly and remind ourselves that so many of us, despite its silliness, take improv very seriously. Anyone who puts years into studying anything must, for one reason or another, care about it. Anything we care about, at some level, we take seriously. So, for a moment, let's take "improv lessons are life lessons" seriously.
Over the past few years, with the help of this blog and by doing significant amounts of independent coaching, I've developed what I consider to be a fairly robust philosophy regarding long form scenework. It starts with a variation on the most famous improv rule of all:
Yes, And/Okay, Now What?
“Yes, And” is great. It’s a great motto for encapsulating the overarching goals of a scene and a great basic exercise on its own. But in the moment-to-moment twists and turns of a scene I’ve found that it can be unrealistically perky. It assumes all moments are easily welcomed. It assumes no new information is contradictory or incomprehensible or hard to integrate. It assumes perfection. “Okay, Now What?” honors the initial reluctance that comes with encountering a scene’s more difficult moments; when new information doesn’t immediately seem to make sense, or fit the scene, or takes a lot of work to handle. When our first feeling about a neg, or or confusing walk-on, or an uncomfortable scenario is more “ugh” than “yes”.
The difference is purely initial attitude. The method is the same - embrace and incorporate. “Yes, And” is a happy embrace because incorporation is relatively easy. “Okay, Now What?” is a reluctant embrace because things are suddenly more complicated and incorporation is a lot more effort. Either way, the embrace is key. Even the most problematic new information in scenes should be embraced, as ignoring it allows for lingering confusion and increasing discomfort between scene partners and the among the audience. Trying to hide from difficult moments, as much work as they may seem when they arise, only increases the duration and amplitude of their difficulty. “Okay, Now What?” asks us to look straight at these moments and all the effort they hand us, roll up our sleeves, and figure out how to make them a functioning part of the scene.
Using improv lessons as life lessons I decided to try applying “Okay, Now What?” to difficult moments offstage. Gradually, with no little effort, it started injecting an enduring calmness into my life I had never experienced before. Previously when things went wrong I would put a lot of mental energy into lamenting the problems that they created. I would imagine all the hypothetical things I could have done to avoid them or all the ways I could have prepared. I would resist the event. I would try to deny the reality of the situation or hide from its effects. But it’s the resistance that creates the friction. “Okay, Now What?” led me to stop clinging to the pleasant (or at least comprehensible) pre-event circumstances, instead encouraging me to reluctantly embrace the current post-event circumstances. It forced me to treat my new situation honestly. It forced me to look forward instead of back. Yes I failed, but there’s no sense in obsessing over how I could have avoided it now that it’s been cemented in reality. Okay, it completely erases the future I had envisioned, Now What can I learn from it? Okay, I have to come up with a new plan, Now What tools do I still have that can help? Okay that hurt, Now What can I do to move forward?
Becoming comfortable with reluctant acceptance led me to applying a similar improv lesson to my offstage life:
Meaning is Manufactured
This maxim asserts that anything that happens in a scene is only as important or unimportant as our characters decide it is. Something presumably trivial like breaking a pencil can suddenly become a big deal if our character has a massive emotional reaction. Inversely, something presumably significant like a death in the family can be no big deal if our character doesn’t care. The lesson here is that no event is inherently meaningful on its own - its level of significance is defined by our character’s reaction. Meaningfulness is a relationship between event and participant, and one where the participant determines the level of magnitude.
Just like in a scene, I began to understand that the events in my life had no inherent significance apart from how I reacted to them. Nothing was inherently “good” or “bad” unless I wanted it to be. I could take little wins and make them big ones by deciding they were a big deal. I could take big losses and make them small by brushing them off and moving on. As simple as it seems in theory, this was not an easy process. In the moment a lot of these events were not at all comfortable. In the moment there were a lot of unknowns. In the moment it was scary and sometimes physically painful. In the moment it was tough to have perspective and avoid seeing these things as “bad”, especially when people all around me were reacting as if they definitely were. All these things were difficult, and plenty of those moments were a lot less temporary than I would have liked.
Looking back on all the struggles of the past two years, I realized that I had been unconsciously defining their significance based on external forces. We live in a society where losing is supposed to be bad, where getting sick is supposed to be bad, where failure is supposed to be bad. I had determined that all these events were bad because I was using borrowed definitions of value. I was letting other people’s reactions, both witnessed and presumed, determine what my experiences meant. What helped the most was going beyond simply deciding those moments were not as negative as they appeared, but actively and mindfully looking for the ways they could be considered positives. What helped the most was training myself to completely invert my perspective on loss - I had to literally change my mind.
Reframing my perspective is where one final improv lesson came in handy:
Everything is Information
What this means in scenework is that every action or line of dialogue reveals something about the characters and/or the universe they inhabit. We can take the things they do and say and extrapolate them into broader perspectives or rules of the world. Applying this lesson to life outside improv helped me find value in even the most stressful experiences. Combined with the lesson of acceptance in “Okay, Now What?” instead of trying to hide from adversity or wishing it away I began to look straight at it to unpack its lessons. What new information was I receiving that could help me learn more about myself and my world? What did even seemingly insignificant things reveal? Life became an education and I was diving headfirst into the curriculum.
Slowly but surely I began to completely change my perspective on loss. Where I would have previously been obsessed with the hypothetical “should haves” and “if onlys” that might have changed my present circumstances, I started embracing everything as it happened and focusing my attention on moving forward. Here, even reluctance began to fade as I began finding value in even the worst situations. Instead of wishing to undo things that were out of my control, I looked specifically for the information they revealed and the opportunities they provided.
Losing my job was valuable because I hated working in a corporate environment but I never would have left on my own. Losing the income was stressful, but it forced me to pursue my improv career more aggressively. It removed a lot of the restrictive structure from my schedule, allowing me to do some traveling, some soul searching, and put more time into things I actually cared about. Most of all it made me realize that I wouldn’t be happy unless I was doing work that I found meaningful. Money would never be my main motivator.
Losing the theater was valuable because at the time we simply weren’t ready for the role. The year since has been chock full of lessons in business and leadership. On the business side, it meant an extra year of developing our skills, of solidifying our philosophy, and expanding our network of collaborators. On the leadership side, it meant I had to do a lot of maturing. I had to become more confident in my own abilities. I had to learn to be calm in stressful situations and to listen more than I spoke. I had to develop a reverence for and caution with power. Hardest of all, I had to learn patience. Good things take time and rushing can create more problems than it’s worth.
Collapsing a lung was valuable because it was a reminder that there are a lot of people in my life who care about me and have my back when I need them. I rarely ask for assistance with anything and I’m not often comfortable with vulnerability, so it was a big lesson in accepting help. It was also a big lesson in appreciation, both for the people in my life and my general health and mobility. The most painful part of the recovery was being trapped, and when I finally got released I made a point to note how good it felt and to remember to earnestly value each day as a gift.
Alopecia was valuable because it was a lesson in perspective - that the things we obsess over often appear to be a bigger deal than they really are. When the bald spots first appeared I spent a lot of time worrying about how other people would react. I expected to get a lot of “what’s up with your head?” I was pre-planning my embarrassment. In reality what I got the most was “I didn’t even notice” or, if they did, “wow, bummer.” I was putting all this negative energy into something I couldn’t see without the help of a mirror that hardly anyone noticed or cared about. My imagination was my own worst enemy. My anxieties were self-imposed and artificially inflated. In this case I needed to learn to trust external feedback despite what my proximity to the issue was telling me. This truly did not matter to anyone but myself.
Of the four events, losing my hair has been the most symbolic of the entire rough patch; it was completely out of my control, the outcomes I feared were either exaggerated or completely imaginary, I cared so much more than anyone else, and it is lasting a lot longer than I would have liked. But all of them combined into one big lesson: I was stronger than anything I feared.
I had spent all my life trying to avoid my biggest fears just to have them all happen anyway. My greatest phobia is needles and I got two big ones right in the chest while I was wide awake. I experienced a public failure so massive it appeared in several newspapers. I got trapped in a room for a week after my body broke down on me for no reason. I had moments of extreme vulnerability. I lost all my income. I lost a lot of my confidence. I was completely hopeless. I was out of control.
Everything I had always worried would happen did, but never in the way I expected. The stuff that hit me hardest I never saw coming. But despite their inevitability, my fears were never as insurmountable as I had always feared they’d be. My imagination projected a worst case scenario future that was completely unrealistic. I imagined no social support. I imagined no more opportunities. I imagined permanent failure in a world of impermanence. What was the point of all that anxiety if it wasn’t going to help me avoid the things I was afraid of? What was the point in all that worrying if I wasn’t even going to be right?
On paper this is a bad couple of years. In reality I’ve come to appreciate them.
Yes it’s been consistently stressful, sometimes extremely so. I wouldn’t ever choose to repeat the experience. But using improv lessons as life lessons I’ve come to see at lot of these stressors as valuable in their own painful ways. I’ve learned that that embracing life’s hurdles is the fastest way to clear them. I’ve learned that I define the impact and worth of my experiences. I’ve learned to never stop learning.
I’ve learned a lot about who I am - what my values are, what I want out of life and why I want it. I’ve learned that I’m stronger than the things I always thought would beat me. I’ve learned that people have my back. I’ve learned to savor every day I get.
I’ve learned to focus on doing good work. I’ve learned to be patient in order to see it pay off.
I’ve learned I’m not so out of control after all.