How Stand-Up Comedy Taught Me That Approval Is Overrated
Three years ago, I called a stand-up comedy instructor to sign up for one of his classes. “I do not like being on stage, and I am not funny,” I said. “Do you think I can still take the class?” Thankfully, he said yes.
In every lesson, I would stand up in front of my classmates and share my jokes. Feedback was instantaneous: They would either laugh or they wouldn’t. If they laughed, I’d keep the joke for the final showcase performance. If they didn’t, I’d scrap it. I was thankful for this feedback. I didn’t want to embarrass myself at the showcase.
Most jokes I wrote didn’t make the cut. But by the end of the 10-week program, I had a five-minute set of solid jokes.
I was asked to be the closing act. And to my delight, the audience laughed! A lot. I took the set to open-mic nights, and it was received just as warmly — not bad for someone who’d never heard the words “you are funny” directed at her in her entire life.
In comedy, I didn’t want to prove I was good. In fact, I knew I was not good. My goal was to learn to get better.
I’ve noticed that a lot of people look for feedback in their hobbies, but they seek only approval at their jobs. Could it be that companies themselves make it difficult to learn, and push people to look for approval instead of improvement?
How Companies Discourage Learning
There was no way I could create a good comedy set without feedback. You can never really know if your own jokes are funny. The only way to find that out is to test them in front of an audience. Professional comedians test their jokes in small gigs before they go on a big stage. Done right, feedback can be as useful at work.
It often isn’t. In most workplaces feedback is part of performance reviews. Everyone hates performance reviews. One recent report estimated that 22% of employees would actually call in sick to avoid facing an appraisal.
What’s more, other researchers suggest that more than half of a given performance rating doesn’t even have to do with the person being evaluated — it hinges on the traits of the person doing the evaluating. If this sounds intuitively right, it’s something that companies themselves are beginning to affirm. In the past few years, major employers have abandoned the annual review. PwC discontinued annual reviews for all 200,000-plus employees as early as 2013. Deloitte, Accenture, and KPMG followed suit.
One of the troubles with the traditional performance review — linked as it is with raises, promotions, and training opportunities — is that you need to prove you’re already good to be rewarded. So that’s the mind-set with which many of us approach feedback in these experiences. We look for approval and validation, knowing that negative feedback can be used against us, rather than help us grow.
As a result, a lot of us get triggered into a fixed, defensive approach to our work. We hesitate to take the risks that creativity and innovation depend on. Failure doesn’t look good, so we hide our mistakes and become subtly more antagonistic — trying to find ways to win over the “judges,” rather than experiment with methods to improve our work.
Stanford researcher Carol Dweck has argued that passion for learning, rather than hunger for approval, is where true success is born and sustained. Just scrapping performance reviews doesn’t change the fact that the approval of a few people is directly linked to your livelihood. Even with that particular ritual gone, many of us don’t automatically embrace what Dweck has long called the “growth mind-set” that’s needed to truly learn.
Is there a better way to kick this addiction to approval? How do you keep learning, rather than just trying to show your employer and the world how good you already are?
Approval Shouldn’t Be Your Driving Force
Sometimes, self-promotion really is necessary — like when you need to land your next job, client, or funding, for example. By all means, try to get your bosses on your side. Just don’t let their approval drive you in the process. Here are some reasons why, which stand-up comedy helped me come to terms with:
It will reduce your risk-taking. To have an impact and improve, you need to get yourself out there. Stand on that stage. Write that article. Cold-call or e-mail that person. There’s no learning without doing — or without making yourself vulnerable to other people’s judgment in the process. The more interesting work you do, the more haters you will have. Don’t let that stop you.
It will diminish the pleasure you take in your work. One of the reasons we enjoy our hobbies so much is that we do them for ourselves. Because we want to. Because we enjoy it. We don’t care so much what people think. Wouldn’t it be great to find the same pleasure at work? Choose the projects you enjoy and give them your authentic self. Get into flow and forget others’ opinions.
Approval can be a misleading measure of success. We believe we’ve made it when we get accepted to a great college or graduate program. When we land a job at a prestigious company. When we close a funding round. When we get a promotion. These achievements are just a stamp of approval. They don’t necessarily represent impact or value added. Did we improve people’s lives? Did we build something useful? What’s worse is that our need for recognition is insatiable. We can never have enough.
In the new economy, the approval of a few gatekeepers becomes less and less necessary. You can self-publish if you’re a writer, freelance if you have the skills, and crowdfund if you have the ideas. The market decides. You can never predict the market’s reaction to your work. You can only focus on honing your craft and putting your best work out there.
How To Embrace Feedback
Isn’t the pursuit of approval a basic human need, you might ask? The answer is yes. When we’re children, we learn to seek our parents’ approval as a means of survival. That’s why, as adults, negative feedback can trigger us into fight-or-flight mode.
But however ingrained it may be, that reaction isn’t universal or unchangeable; it often depends on the context. I was surprised by how painless it was to get feedback in comedy, contrary to feedback at work. What makes learning a hobby easier? If you can put your finger on that, you may be able to better embrace feedback in other areas of your life, too. These are a few steps you can try:
Don’t put all your eggs in the job basket. I cherished feedback in comedy because I didn’t see myself as a comedian. The stakes were low. You need to lower the stakes at work to be able to approach it with a learning attitude. If your sense of self-worth (and income) come just from your job, failure and criticism will hurt a lot. Develop your life outside of work — including other streams of income. You’re not just a marketer. You’re perhaps also a parent, a friend, a cook, and a basketball player.
Adopt an eternal-novice attitude. There’s no shame in being a rookie in a new hobby. Try to separate the quality of your output from your identity. Don’t say to yourself, “I am a good marketer.” Say, “I am a marketer who loves the job and keeps getting better at it.” See the difference? Most people overestimate their skills. If you believe you’re already good, you stop learning. And even if you were good in the first place, you can soon become obsolete.
Strengthen your relationships. You need some people in your life who accept you regardless of the success of your professional endeavors — people who won’t love you any less if you don’t get that promotion or job offer. Surround yourself with them, and you won’t be looking to fulfill your deepest emotional needs through your work, as though your life depends on it. You can embrace your career with a little more playfulness. You’ll welcome feedback just as you do in your hobbies.
Accept it if it helps you improve, and discard it if not. It isn’t about proving to the world how good you are. It’s about getting better all the time. Have fun. Have a laugh — preferably with others.
Originally published at www.fastcompany.com on February 2, 2017.
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