First published in Status Magazine.
The Improv Place asked an impossible question; given the choice of success versus mastery, what would you choose?
81% chose mastery.
But what are either of those things in practice and how would you change your practice in order to strive for one or the other?
Firstly, there is no singular benchmark of success for improvisation. What is it for you? Getting on television, playing big or famous live venues, getting paid for a gig, teaching, touring, playing with people you admire, getting onto a team? Whatever you think it is, your parents or friends might see it differently. I spent years working on a fringe show that got 5* reviews, but it was the two-hour shoot where I had one line on a TV commercial that had my family excited. My bank account also considered the latter more of a success.
Success scares the crap out of me. I have to choose something that looks attainable in a short space of time and I create habits that drive me towards that. Once I’m successful there, I’ll look at the next thing. Or if I fail, I’ll change tack. For others, they may prefer to look at the big picture and strive for a big audacious outcome, mentally walking back through how they might get there. One Big Success.
I was doing stand-up comedy in my 20s (I’m 41 now) and I was finding it hard. Good, but hard. I made a 5-year plan and measured my successes by ticking off goals as I went. These included ‘getting paid for a show’, ‘getting somewhere in a competition’ and ‘headlining’. I found myself on the other side of these goals (hooray me!) three years in and I wasn’t really that happy. I realised that stand-up - on that circuit at that time - were challenging me, but I wasn’t loving it. I was backstage while MC-ing a Funny Women show, looking at the talent around me, crushing it on stage and thinking ‘is this what I want to be doing’? Around that time I saw Arthur Smith playing in Portsmouth. I’d played the same stage. I was in my mid-late 20s and he was in his 40s or 50s. I remember thinking that if I was still doing stand-up at this venue 20 years on I wouldn’t be that happy. I imagine he was though; and he was excellent.
I started taking improv ‘seriously’ at about the same time that I was embarking on a stand-up career. The Maydays were handed an award by Jimmy Carr, I was a Funny Women Finalist and both avenues were looking good. But it was by looking at my Arthur Smith future that made me feel like stand-up wasn’t the right path for me. It was panel shows and sit-coms that I wanted, not the stand-up itself. And it was the external validation in those ‘fame’ gigs that was my actual need, not the work itself. On the flip-side, I knew that if I was still playing pub improv gigs in my old age, I would be happy. That would be fulfilling enough. That was the moment where I chose mastery over success.
Here I am, then, 17 years on and feeling very happy with my choices. I chose the path that I perceived to be less successful. I couldn’t see a clear route to TV or personal notoriety by choosing improv, but I did want to be really good at it.
When we surveyed The Improv Place, those people that didn’t vote for mastery, voted against it because it felt too difficult, like ‘gaining’ mastery wouldn’t be doable. But ‘gaining’ mastery is ‘succeeding’ at mastery; I don’t think you can ever reach mastery in improv, not really. For me, it’s the difference between striving and attaining. When I look at success, it puts me in a mindset where I feel that I am failing. If I haven’t got to the next touchstone yet, I am actively failing. I have not yet achieved the success, my ego believes that I am a failure or at least that I could do more to succeed. Success comes with a finish line that keeps moving ahead of us.
Mastery, however, means that every time I do a show and every time I rehearse, I am on the path of mastery. I am becoming more masterful. You gain mastery from failure, but you don’t get success from failure! I learn from my mistakes and I get better at my craft.
The great thing about mastery is that success becomes a delightful side-effect; a lovely surprise that is an added bonus for all the work you are enjoying. When I get great job offers I am thrilled and when I don’t, I’m not worrying about them, I’m happy carrying on with my craft.