“You should never be the smartest person in the room.”
My whole life I have fantasized about being a cast member or writer on Saturday Night Live. I LOVE SNL, without apology. When people complain, “Oh it isn’t what it used to be,” I roll my eyes and think, “Another hater who just doesn’t get it.”
Knowing that the odds are not in my favor to end up on SNL in this lifetime, I set a new goal, one that was attainable—to study at Second City in Chicago*, home to many alumni who went on to become beloved featured players on SNL (Vanessa Bayer, Jim Belushi, Aidy Bryant, Brian Doyle-Murray, Rachel Dratch, Robin Duke, Chris Farley, Tina Fey, Mary Gross, Bill Hader, Tim Kazurinsky, David Koechner to name a few).
*Christine, our beloved Canadian would want me/need me to tell you that there is a Second City in Toronto and boasts the likes of Martin Short, John Candy, Mike Meyers, Gilda Radner, Dan Aykroyd, Eugene Levy, and Catherine O'Hara (Note: Christine added additional names when she read my initial list to make sure it was known the amount of talent that came from this one too 😂).
I did some research and found a week long intensive at Second City in Chicago offered to anyone willing to pay the fee. It took me three years after that initial inquiry to find the courage to sign up and go do the thing.
Why did I need courage?
Good question. After all, I am a professional speaker who stands on the stage and performs for people all the time.
I have heard from audience members too many times to count, “You could be a professional comedian!” to which I demure and say, “Oh I don’t know….” But really yeah, I know—I could be.
Despite my natural inclinations for hilarity and entertaining, the idea of putting myself in a room with other people and a teacher who is trained in all things improv scared me.
I have never done theater or acting of any kind.
In our class were two semi professional actors, a newly graduated doctor from med school (there to work on her bedside manner), three college students, and two leaders who were sent by their company to learn improv so they could be more effective communicators.
And there was me, the professional speaker pursuing a goal to get as close as I could to my SNL moment.
Our teacher, who I think is named Brian and I am 100% sure is Canadian (shout out), was a bundle of frenetic energy, excited to take us through the improv methodology. We did warm up exercises and got down to business.
In our first full on demonstration of potential talent, we had to make up a language and use it with a partner, who would use their made up language and, through their efforts, the rest of the class had to see if they could figure out what the pair were talking about.
This kind of silliness might be something you think I am great at, and you would be wrong.
I was super on edge about this. The first pair (who eagerly volunteered got up) and in a matter of seconds I was like, “Oh no, I am going to crash and burn at this…”
They were incredible. Relaxed, funny, and in the moment. They were made for an assignment such as this.
The reality that it was going to be my turn soon enough sunk in. As I pondered my public humiliation that little voice in my head said, “Lookie there, you aren’t the smartest person in the room today are you?”
I made a decision that I was going to lean 100% in to the discomfort of not being an expert at this thing called improv. I would be a beginner. I would give myself permission to learn something new and not be too hard on myself if it was clunky and novice.
That was day 1 of a 5 day program.
At the end of the week I had done so many things outside of my comfort zone and I was really, really proud of myself. Was I the newest Tina Fey or Amy Poehler? Nope, not even close. But my goal was to study improv and learn the process. And I did that. I made new friends too--a few who I am still in touch with.
This month we have asked you to step back and ask, “Am I taking control of my own professional development?”
I want you to add to the list this question, “When was the last time I let myself be a beginner at something?”
As adults, we tend to only show up in places where we are, at the very minimum, competent.
We prefer to be in spaces where we are excellent.
And there is nothing wrong with that--after all, we preach that you should play to your strengths.
But there is nothing wrong with being a beginner.
Start small. Choose a low stakes activity you want to learn to do and get started.
It’s OK if you aren’t the smartest person in the room. In fact, finding places where you are not the smartest might be the key to your own growth and development!