How to Stay Positive in a Competitive Environment
Improv comedy can be a constant fight. When you’re on stage, you’re fighting with yourself and the audience. When you’re off stage, you are often locked in a competitive battle on who can be funniest. Even if you enjoy it all, it’s a lot of competition.
So what happens when you hit your breaking point? Everyone does at one point or another. And, if you’re struggling to start your comedy career, how do you keep moving forward when all you want to do is stop and just give up?
Don’t worry. What you’re feeling is totally natural. Here’s how you can help yourself.
1. Let yourself feel mad/sad/afraid
In my experience, the only way that you can start having positive feelings is when you acknowledge that you are pissed off or whatever negative emotion you have.
So much of the negativity that arises from myself is by just fighting my feelings. “I can’t be angry because I shouldn’t be angry because I have a roof over my head.” Don’t you think I know that? Yet the only way that I’m going to move forward is if I just accept, however illogical it is, is that I’m angry, possibly for no reason.
You had a bad audition? Be as bummed out about it as you can be. Be petty and jealous, but don’t take it out on other people. Be vocally bummed and talk about how you don’t like being bummed. As soon as you vent it, chances are that you will either a) feel relieved, or b) make the steps towards not feeling even more bummed.
BONUS: For maximum happiness, express your negative feelings in constructive ways towards the people you feel them to.
For instance, if you ask an improv director why you didn’t get a part, and you are not placing blame, you could work towards resolving your feelings. Sometimes it’s something specific they were looking for or, more than likely, it’s some intangible element that can’t be explained.
If you receive feedback that is equally constructive, you can both improve the situation. If the feedback leaves you feeling worse, then cut that relationship off because the only person in charge of your own satisfaction in life is yourself.
Of course, this bonus point could also be written from a place of privilege, so take it as you will. I only wish you the best.
2. Do what you want
I’ve seen so many people be sad because they didn’t get a thing from a place. I’m incredibly lucky and privileged to not have had that problem, so I’m talking from a space of privilege. But what happens when the thing you want isn’t coming easily?
This is your career. This is not your Mom’s career. This is not Will Ferrell’s career you are leading. This is your career and yours’ alone.
Comparison is the death of happiness (it has been for me). Your path is your own, as is your own happiness. If you keep trying to do fast-paced improv comedy, but you keep finding yourself drawn to weird spool art, stop forcing yourself to do improv and go do spool art.
Similarly, we trust pre-existing structures to give us reward. A McDonald’s can give you a hamburger. Second City can give you a job. But, sometimes, the hamburger that you want has to have cilantro, pepper, and lemon juice. You can’t get that at McDonald’s, but you could make it yourself.
The pre-existing structure is in business for itself and not for you. Because of this, it can (and often does) treat you unfairly. But the structure should not define you; just because you get to put a thing on your resumé does not mean you are a good person (ex: the 45th President).
You still have the power to do the thing you want to do. Unfortunately, it means going it alone sometimes.
You have to do what you want to do the most. That can feel isolating, as you might be the only one on your path and it’s certainly much easier to follow your 101 class through the class ranks. But that might not be your path.
So you want to do spool art? No matter what your friends are saying, go do spool art. And, if you fail at doing spool art, you’ll fail on your own terms and not because of expectations placed upon you. More than likely, you will fall into more people doing spool art OR your enthusiasm will create community for spool artists. Passion attracts people.
3. Take time away
When you’re busy being competitive constantly, it’s easy to get entangled in the competition. However, life is not full of struggling to be number one. It also has flowers and cafés and marathon sessions of Babylon 5.
You’re allowed to take time off from your passion to recharge your batteries and get perspective. If you’re constantly fighting to be where you want to be, you’re going to have a hard time remembering why you liked the thing in the first place. So! Take a break.
You might also have this voice in your head: “At least I’m doing something that I love!” Yeah, but you’re ignoring those negative feelings, which just compounds the negativity. Don’t force yourself to keep doing the thing you like, even though you’re running exhausted. If need be, force yourself to take a break.
BONUS: Take a month away from improv. Just don’t do any of it. Don’t see shows, don’t take part in theater, just don’t do it. Remember what life is like in lieu of recreations of other parts of life. Vacations are strongly encouraged, but primarily just relax and recharge your batteries before you dive headlong back into the maelström.
When you take improv breaks, you can either get recharged and remember why you like improv or realize that you might like something else (again, spool art). Whatever happens, it’s the right thing to do.
4. Outright Leave
You don’t like being competitive? Then don’t. You still get to win.
This is kind of related to doing what you want, but this is a lot more of a drastic measure. If the environment is toxic, don’t think you’re being brave just by braving the toxicity. Stamina and determination may get you a lot of places, but if you’re swimming a pool of sulfuric acid, a can-do attitude can only get you so far.
For this, you’re going to have to do the ultimate selfless act: realize that you just can’t do it. And that’s really, sincerely okay.
In the Asaf Ronen episode of Improv Nerd, Asaf talks about moving from New York City to Austin. He said something like being ready to be a “big fish in a little pond.” Since then, he co-founded The Institution Theater and has gone on to achieving exactly that: being a big fish.
Instead of competing in the same game, he started a new game.
You can do that, too. Don’t be beholden to any pre-conceptions of staying in LA or NY to get a sense of personal satisfaction. Be in LA because you want to be in LA and not because of any obligation to stay because you need to “win.”