Performance necessity is your creative outlet. A must.
Who would miss you if you didn’t show up and give your best? Each day is a new day for creation and for showing up. The Pro shows up and stays, just like Pressfield says. He shows up for his writing session no matter what and doesn’t leave until the whistle blows. He takes his craft seriously. he doesn’t blow it off, choosing to sleep in or shirk his daily output. He shows up, every day, and gets after it. He’s happy to do it, too. If he is dedicated to it. He knows what he has to do, has the tools to do it, and he executes. It is simply what he does.
For some of us, not having the creative outlet is like damning a large body of water, building up pressure. If they do not have a release valve for their built up creativity, then they may have an outburst of emotion. And so they must choose a time each day — a discipline each day — to release the creative tension. Whether it is first thing in the morning is your time or 11 o’clock at night, they have to have their creative release. This is as much a part of them as eating. This is survival. This is release. This is a large part of who they are. It is unwise to think that they can (or should) get by without releasing it. Their creative outlet is a sort of catharsis from the daily grind. This is what they rely on to maintain their sanity and clarity of purpose.
The touring musician gets his creative outlet each night in his performance. This is the set time each day for him to release, to give, to make his contribution to his audience. The rest of the hours each day are for administrative tasks, travel, and trying not to go crazy from the road. It has been said that a day on tour without playing is a difficult day. There’s no public creative expression on that day, and the musicians miss it. As a professional, it is all about playing live and sharing their creative energies. Professionals show up and play each night. They would not have it any other way.
Comics have it the same as professional musicians. Only they get more opportunities for nightly expression. They, too, have a set time each day for release, to give, to make their contribution to the audience. If they’re lucky, they get an additional time each day for another performance, which most relish. The serious ones are always trying to get better, always trying to improve. They’re recording their performances. They’re reviewing their work. They’re taking notes. They’re seeing what worked and what didn’t with the audience. Where are the laughs? How strong was I tonight? What did I think would work that did not? How were my opener and closer? Good comedic work is all about the post-mortem and self follow-up for improvement. The dedicated are always trying to get better.
Good comics know all about Ray Dalio’s principle of pain + reflection = progress. Early stand-up performances are all about pain and how much of it you can tolerate. So much of early stand-up dates are simply vetting mechanisms of who can tolerate being terrible and yet still getting to the stage regularly. Seasoned comics say it doesn’t even matter how well you think you’ll do because you’re going to be terrible anyway. You need to learn to accept sucking early and often. Green comics need to have a high pain threshold and an extraordinary amount of determination. If they can take the pain, reflect on it, learn from it, and begin to get an iota better, that’s progress, tiny progress in the right direction. Like a Pixar movie, the goal for comics is to move from suck to non-suck. The only way to do that is to get to the stage as frequently as possible. Get up there. The pain of the early stand-up performances is the gateway to progress and improvement.
Early in Kevin Hart’s standup career, he endured tremendous pain in beginning to get good. He and his mentor would drive to New York City from Philadelphia several nights a week to get up on stage and to hang out with the other comics. Despite his mentorship, he had very little support. New York offered multiple opportunities to perform each night, regardless of what night it was. Naturally, it was too expensive for them to stay the night, so they commuted. Hart would have up and down early performances, often being ridiculed by audiences and the other comics, and certainly by his mentor. But he hung in there and fought back. They would perform and hang-out until 4 or 5 AM, then drive back to Philly so they could both go to work the next day on little to no sleep. Hart did this for years while breaking into comedy in New York City. Years of pain + reflection to earn progress for a craft. That is extreme dedication.
Improvement at stand-up is a good metaphor for beginning a new skill. We all know that when we’re new, we suck. How can we be good with no experience? Yet that is how many of us feel when we start something new: high expectations to performance; peer pressure to already be good; the desire to be respected for performance; and immediate, early harsh self-judgment. As usual, we’re our own worst critic (though it may be even worse in stand-up).
There’s no doubt that the early stages of new skill development are hard. We exacerbate these times with critical self-judgments of our own performance. We’re not forgiving of ourselves and our supposed lack of talent. I should already be good, we think. We have no patience. Where does this come from, this ridiculously high expectation of performance at something new? We forget, again and again, that is it OK to suck when you start. It just feels crappy. The hardest thing in the world of performance is doing without judging. It probably always will be.