What a Comedian Can Teach You About Failure
Failure is a part of life. You’ve done it, your parents did it, I did it last night, the greatest people in the history of the world have done it, and we all know it. Unless you’re a narcissist, but they probably wouldn’t click on this article in the first place. Failure is a constant, but it’s almost never more constant than in stand-up comedy. Bombing is to stand-up is like what getting hit is to boxing: it’s the price of admission.
I bombed during a stand-up set last night, and in a masturbatory effort to try and make myself get over it I decided to share some of the techniques and tactics I use to get back on the proverbial horse cum microphone.
First, just chill. You can easily get swept up into a cycle of self-flagellation that isn’t productive at all. You don’t want to make any decisions, even decisions like “how shitty did that just go?” It probably was shitty, because if it didn’t go that way you probably wouldn’t be feeling this way. But don’t commit to that judgement. Just chill out, take a couple of deep breaths, and just feel shitty about it for a second.
Reward Yourself for Taking a Risk
When you feel awful and see you came woefully short of your goal, after you’ve taken a second to chill, the best move I’ve found is to remind yourself that you tried, and you could’ve not even done that. In the world of stand-up, there’s a ton of setup: writing jokes, finding a mic to hit up, arriving early, buying the drink minimum, signing up, waiting, watching a dozen other comics, waiting, then getting up for as little as three minutes to try out the jokes you wrote hours or even days ago. It’s a lot of effort for what might be the most uncomfortable three minutes of your life heretofore. The way to get something to feel decent about is reminding yourself that even though you didn’t stick the landing, you jumped over hurtles to get to the end of the track, and that alone is more than others did. It wasn’t really as bad as it seemed.
Focus on What You Did
One of the core features of depression is a belief that your life is firmly outside of your control; such it sometimes seems with comedy. You can’t force the audience to do anything, and the more you try the harder it is. What’s important to keep in mind is what is under your control and what definitely isn’t. What did you DO? What could you have done different? It is something — maybe the words you used, maybe the pacing, maybe the arrangement of material, anything that lies within your grasp. Studies show that taking any action reminds one that they have the ability to control things within their life, and that along creates a feelings of comfort.
Relentlessly Focus on the Positive
Enough said. If it seems dark and you fucked everything up you can sometimes abandon the project entirely. This is a mistake and is just a move to try and abdicate your goals or responsibility. Being hopeless is the same as being lazy. Relentlessly commit to seeing the positive, no matter how small that might be. “Hey, I didn’t give up halfway through this thing,” isn’t too ridiculous.
Disassociate Failure as a Character Flaw
Following the above, there’s sometimes a proclivity for people who have failed to form judgements about their character from it. This is a huge mistake, failure isn’t who you are, or about who you are, it’s about something you did (or didn’t do, as the case may be). Assigning an essential quality to the bad feelings you’re experienced isn’t productive at all. Look instead at your process, at where things failed. Was it your material? Was it your delivery? Where did it go off the rails? Assigning failure to a character flaw prevents you from doing any work to see where things could’ve gone right. It pre-supposes that you could’ve ever been successful.
Get Back Into It
Last night I bombed in front of a room full of peers. It was bad, and worse, while I was on stage I collapsed into the discomfort and tried to counter it by getting angry at the audience. Holy moly, it was terrible. Someone even told me “Hey, not too bad,” when I got off stage. I immediately snapped back “No, it was really bad.” But I immediately got back on the horse and went straight away to another open mic, got right back on the list, and got back on stage. The fastest surefire way to overcome the feelings of failure is to just get right back into the thick of things.