The Scariest Thing I’ve Ever Done

September 28, 2016, By Glenn Zweig

I once left a perfectly good paying job with loads of student debt and almost no savings to my name to launch a company.   I’ve flown planes, jumped out of planes, paraglided off 5,000 foot cliffs, scuba dived at night in shark infested waters and climbed mountains with gale force winds in sub-zero temperatures. But all of those activities pale in comparison to what has been far and away the most frightening thing I have ever done in my life.  And that frightening thing was…

Performing in an open mic night at a local comedy club. 

First a little background.  I enjoy public speaking.  I earned some college scholarship money winning oratory competitions in high school and have delivered dozens of speeches over the course of my career since that time.   There can be 1,000 people in the room and it wouldn’t faze me.  I don’t mean to say this in a braggadocio manner.  It’s just that 99% of the time, I’m speaking about a topic in which I’m a subject matter expert.  That’s usually about the company I’m working for or the industry I’m working in.  The audience may agree or disagree with what I have to say but I would generally enter the speech with a very strong, well-formed opinion on the topic.  I had a command of the material. So there was really nothing to be scared or embarrassed about.

I also enjoy making people laugh.  I tend to see the humor in just about anything and it’s usually just a matter of time before I have people I’m talking to at cocktail parties in stiches.  If I had a nickel for every person over my lifetime who has told me that I was really funny and needed to try standup, I’d be a wealthy man.   So after years and years of hearing this, I finally said what the heck.  Why not throw caution to the wind and give it a whirl.  How hard could it be?  So I wrote up a few punchlines, applied for one of the open slots at a well-known local comedy club and was ready to go.  Or so I thought…

A week later I was sitting in the audience watching the other amateur comics trying out their material with little success.  For the most part, they weren’t very funny and they weren’t getting many laughs.   I was feeling pretty cocky at this point.  After all, I’m pretty good in front of audiences, my friends tell me I’m funny and I’ve come up with a really solid routine.  This would be a cakewalk.   Heck, this might even be the launch of my new career.  As I hear the emcee announce my name, I jump out of my seat, strut up to the stage with the confidence of a veteran comedian with three HBO specials under my belt, grab the mic, turn and face the audience and then…

FREAK OUT!!!

If I said there were even forty people in the entire room that night (and ten of those fellow comedian wannabes), I’d probably be stretching it.  This was nothing. I had spoken in front of audiences ten, twenty times this size before and been fine.  But standing there in front of only a few dozen people all awaiting my opening line to get them bending over with laughter was terrifying!  I could see they were all staring straight at me with that skeptical attitude of “Go on funny boy, make us laugh.  We’re all waiting.”

After taking a huge breath, I started my first bit with what I’m sure was a very shaky, nerve-rattled voice.  No laughter.  Just crickets.  And boy was the sound of those crickets deafening!   That’s o.k.  I was just getting warmed up.  I delivered the second bit with a little more oomph.  Still no laughter.  I continued punchline after punchline.  Nothing.  Not even a chuckle.  My fleeting five minutes on stage felt like an eternity.  If I had a choice between hearing another deadly silent pause or being punched in the face, I would have easily opted for the latter.  I believe the only reaction I got during my entire set was when I concluded by thanking the audience which garnered a little sympathy applause.   It was the most uncomfortable and unsettling five minutes I’ve ever experienced.

And yet I wouldn’t trade the experience for anything!

In fact, to be sure my lackluster performance wasn’t just a fluke, I actually tried it a second time a few months later.  I wrote up a new act, practiced a few more times and gave it another shot in a different club in a different part of town.  Different venue.  Different audience.  Different routine.  Exact same result.

Am I some kind of masochist you might be wondering?  Not really.  At least not in the classic sense of the word.  But I do believe it’s healthy to get out of your comfort zone once in a while.  It’s way better in my book to try and fail than to never try and always wonder what if.

When I started my first company, I knew the odds were dramatically against me.  I knew it was an extremely high failure rate.  But I had made two promises to myself earlier in life.  The first was that I would start a company before I turned 30.  The second was that I wouldn’t be disappointed in myself if it failed.  The only failure in my mind would have been to not even try.   I knew that I could very easily live with myself if I looked back on my life while on my deathbed and see that I failed at something.  Or many things for that matter.

But I would dread the thought of getting to my final curtain call and realizing that I had lived my life too afraid to try anything. 

My philosophy was no different when it came to trying standup.  So what’s the worst that could happen?  I would probably never see these forty complete strangers again.  And let’s just say that I were to run into one or two of them in a coffee shop.  What could they possibly think that was so horrible?  “Hey, there’s that guy who wasn’t very funny for five minutes.”  And that’s assuming they would even remember my face.  After all, I’m sure it was a lot more dreadful and memorable for me than it was for them.

But now let’s flip the switch and think of the alternative scenario.  What if I was good at it?  Better yet, what if I was outstanding at it?  What if I had the entire audience falling out of their seats in hysterics? And then what if the club manager had been impressed enough to want to book me for a paying gig?  What if a scout for America’s Got Talent or even The Tonight Show had been in the room that night?  Imagine the possibilities.  Admittedly, this would have been a pipe dream with slightly better odds than winning Mega Millions but you never know.  Stranger things have happened.  The point is if you don’t try, you’ll never know.

You’ll just spend the rest of your life always wondering “what if”. 

So what are you waiting for?  What’s holding you back from something you’ve always wanted to try?  Something that’s always been in the back of your mind?  Something that you keep saying to yourself over and over “not today but some day?”  Too afraid to fail?  You’ll survive.  And you’ll be a better person for it.  Life’s short.  Way too short.  Don’t wait any longer.  Don’t live with regrets.  It’s time to take it off the bucket list once and for all. Let that “some day” be today.

 

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