Holy Shit, I’m just some guy
I wonder if everyone feels the same hubris I do.
I remember clearly standing near the side of the stage at a comedy show, while another comedian was on stage, and he was killing it. I had been on before him, and I viscerally felt the difference in the mildly amused response I had got compared to the laughs and applause breaks this guy was getting. It stung, in a way, every laugh that he got that I didn’t.
Deep down, I knew I was a good comedian, a better comedian. Better than I had performed, better than this guy. Better than anybody as far as I’m concerned.
If that’s true, then how do I reconcile the undeniable evidence before my eyes that this guy is making an audience laugh more than me?
The thing about cognitive dissonance, when you have facts that contradict your beliefs, especially a belief about what kind of person you are, is that you don’t reconcile them by choosing a more measurable, rational, or justifiable position. You take the outlook that’s more comforting, the one that defends your ego from harsh truths, no matter how much you have to twist your perception to pull that off.
Around the time that this happened where I was watching this other comedian be obviously better than me, I had been working on a book about comedy. I had this idea about how humour works in the human brain, and, it may surprise you to know, I like to over intellectualize things and theorize and inform people against their will. So I had a desire to complete this great work of scientific insight that would stun the world with how it unveiled the reality behind one of the great mysteries of human behaviour.
Well, I don’t know if I was quite that delusional about what kind of reception the book would get. I think part of the problem with how I pursue ambitions is that I don’t quite know why exactly I’m doing them or how to make it work. I definitely wrote the book hoping it would become something that people might recognize and praise me for, but I’m also cynical enough to know that it was more likely the book would be ignored. How much did my cynicism self create a prophecy? I don’t know. All I know is that I was driven to write a book that I wanted to be something that mattered in the universe without enough of a clear idea of what it means to “matter”.
Hell, I’m writing this thing you’re reading now and I don’t know what it’s for. I don’t know if I should be doing this or working on one of the other millions of creations I have in my head that I’d like to make manifest. All I know so far is that there have been times when I’ve worked hard on something and no one gave the slightest shit in spite of how confident I was in it, and other times when I made a thing without too much time or concern and just put it out there because I might as well, and I got lots of praise and feedback. But also the opposite circumstances have happened, where effort led to praise and casual creation got nothing, so I never know if I’m supposed to be letting my heart guide me in terms of unfiltered output, or try and make a plan, or what. In the meantime, I keep making stuff, who knows why.
Anyway, one of those things I put so much effort into without any certain goal was my book. While I was doing that, I was also trying to figure out how to earn enough money by doing things I fundamentally don’t want to do so that I can survive long enough to do things I actually want to do. And then on top of those things, I would still keep getting inspired to do whole new projects that I would add to the pile of existing unfinished projects. I’d go through cycles of increasing my list of ambitions until I had to admit I can’t do them all, trim them down to the ones I “should” do, only to start feeling like I have enough control again to start adding more projects that I just thought of.
None of this left any time for working on my comedy set, writing new material, practicing it, getting good. I would do those things, just, not enough to really get good. Solidly good. Good enough for an audience to validate me the way I wanted.
I knew all this back story about myself, so I “knew” that the reason that I didn’t have as good a performance as this other guy was because I was held back by all these other constraints. Part of them were because of my own failings as a person, but part of them were the constraints of life, like paying rent and the never ending waves of chores and tasks and unexpected expenses in life.
If I could just clear all this up, just get a little room, then I would be free to really get my act together, literally, in terms of a comedy act. I’d blow this room up. Everyone would realize that I’m way, way funnier than the other guy.
Who knows what made me have the revelation at that moment as opposed to many other similar scenarios I had been in before that. This was far from the first time I was not the funniest guy on stage. At that point it had been many years since I had been unjustifiably holding on to the praise I got from good performances years earlier. But for whatever reason, it was at this one particular night at this one particular show that it hit me.
Oh, I’m just some guy.
As in, I’m not some special genius who’s being held back by an unfair life.
Somehow it was seeing this scenario through the eyes of the audience that got me there. They don’t care why I was less funny than this other guy, or my hypothetical better self. If I started my performance by explaining why it wasn’t going to be as good as it should be, that would earn me more derision than sympathy.
Starting an act that way sounds like an obviously dumb thing to do, but I realized I was kind of trying to do exactly that, but off stage, after the show. Anyone I might end up talking to, I would make a point of explaining why I was off tonight, as if somehow I could make sure that even though they didn’t laugh, they could still walk away from the show knowing that I’m actually a good comedian.
I’ve since learned the art of not prompting anyone for feedback or preempting their evaluations with my own. I know now how to let people volunteer their opinions so that I can get a more honest assessment. When you do well, people will come up to you and tell you. If you have to go to ask, you didn’t do well. If you have to explain anything, you’re in denial of something.
What I was in denial of was that the guy on stage didn’t have an extra hour in the day that I don’t have to work on his set. We all have the same 24 hours, and we choose how to use it. There is some argument to be made that capitalist society puts pressures on us that aren’t fair, and some people get less time and opportunity than others. That is a reality. But the guy who is genuinely screwed by circumstance doesn’t have the privilege of standing beside the stage to evaluate his relative performance. He’s not even at the comedy club.
No, I had to admit that I was in a position to make it this far, to have the opportunity to express myself on stage, but was squandering that by trying to do it under my own terms, not the terms that the world wants from me in order to compensate me with success.
The guy on stage has to work at a job he doesn’t necessarily like, or fight with his girlfriend just before the show, or deal with some medical issue, or is paying off a debt, or whatever. We’re all dealing with our own unique shit, and that is part of the matrix of success. You’re not successful in spite of it, you’re not automatically successful if free of it. It’s just part of a human condition.
My condition. The one I was choosing to perceive as a burdensome circumstance between me and being able to release the staggering genius that I believed I had inside me.
Still believe I have inside me, if I’m being honest. In spite of the fact that I also acknowledge I’m not so special. How am I keeping this contradiction alive in my head?
Sometimes I wonder why I write these sort of rambling think pieces about what it means to be me and what it means to fail at my life, and then just for whatever reason, I’ll write other stuff, like reviews of shows I watch, as if anyone gives a shit. Why?
What I’ve gained from the experience is that each time I put something out there, mostly it’s ignored, sometimes people respond and say they liked it, and most of the time people if anyone gives feedback they’ll come at it from some angle that makes me wonder how they could have possibly got to that conclusion from anything I said. Did they misunderstand me or was I unclear?
The result of that feedback, or lack of feedback which is equal to the universe letting me know no one cared, is that it confronts me with the fact that the beautiful pieces of work inside my head don’t just come out because I decide to get them out. Once you start committing ideas, creations, to something tangible, you find that they weren’t what you thought they would be. I can write anything here, there’s no editor or person in charge who can tell what I should or shouldn’t say. Yet with complete freedom to express myself, I still feel like it’s not what I imagined I’d say.
The thoughts in my head are unbounded by an specificity that detracts from their beautiful expression. The mere act of creating them makes them less.
That’s what I wonder if everyone feels. That most people love their thoughts, and think that they are right about whatever opinion, and they’re interesting, and creative, and worthwhile. If so, I would assume that a lot of people don’t challenge that perception by trying to turn those thoughts into something that can be truly evaluated. In spite of how it may seem from so many people posting their bullshit on the internet, most people are not aspiring artists. They’ll speak their mind in conversations with friends, but always be able to feel like that wasn’t so representative of their inner selves because it was just off the cuff and not intended to be anything they stand by.
Whereas if you try to make a thing, in whatever media or art form, you try and crystallize it and hold it up to the world and ask if everyone thinks it’s as amazing as you think it is. Except, in the process of manifesting it, it doesn’t come out quite as beautiful as you thought. And you have to wonder why.
And you blame, I used to blame, I still kind of blame, all the circumstances around me. I would be special, but I’m constantly struggling financially, because I resent the work I have to fill my mortality with in place of creating everything that the world would agree is beautiful if they would stop imposing on me the need to labour at things I don’t believe are even all that valuable.
And that’s how I’m both a genius and any random guy at the same time. Inside, I feel this overwhelming confidence that I have ideas that would be so entertaining and fun and valued by other people, but I’m no better at getting them out there in their actual beautiful form than anyone else, maybe even worse at it, because of my particular personal recipe of failings drawn from the shared human condition.
I know, I believe, that I’m amazing, but I recognize that to the world, I’m not. And the world’s evaluation is fair, because what I’m definitely not amazing at overcoming the challenges that are just as much in the way of everyone else’s amazingness as they are in the way of mine.
A revelation that hasn’t helped me reconcile the problem. I don’t even think I was able to really express to you the problem with everything I just wrote above. In my head, it made sense. It was beautiful.