There's a story I always tell about the moment my life really changed in 2004.
At the time, I was in an unhappy marriage, had a PR job, felt ashamed at the burgeoning career I threw away after fancy stints at the Washington Post and the Des Moines Register, hated myself that I was now too old and pretty much done at 28, poured the majority of my creative energy into trying to promote my ex-husband's band which he did not ever want me to do in the first place so that worked out REALLY well, and perhaps most pathetically, compared myself via Google to peers who were my same age but FAR more successful.
Great recipe for self-loathing and paralysis.
The guaranteed one, I think.
I'll tell you the day that it all changed. It was the day that I stopped Googling people like "Michael Colton" who was the other Style intern at the Washington Post with me in 1997 and could now be seen doing "Best Week Ever" on TV (TV! which at the time, before having done a few hits myself, I thought was pretty much EVERYTHING). It was the day that I took positive action -- action other than berating myself for having thrown away my potential because obviously at the age of 28, I was clearly over.
The big action I took was believing I had a voice.
I started a blog -- which was embarrassing (to me, because I felt like a loser for having had actual credits and now I was using a .blogspot address along with 12-year-olds who wrote about their cats). So I called out this fact and called it "Bloggy McBlogalot" -- and here's where it was revolutionary. I actually owned my credits in the description, instead of being ashamed.
I wrote: "Who am I? I've written for the LA Times, the Village Voice, the Des Moines Register, the Sun-Sentinel, the Washington Post, and now Blogger." And I identified myself as a player -- specifically, a "writer and comedian." I was doing standup shows consistently, and I was taking courses at The Second City and Improv Olympic in both writing and performing, and my world was changing.
There was one very critical moment that put me in the frame of Being Okay With Myself to even have the belief to do this blog (now published to "private" so I can release as an eBook). Keep in mind, doing this blog is what led to the New York Post, which is what led to xoJane, which is what led to me writing this for you right here and now. The moment came from a life-changing improv teacher. Her name was Mary Scruggs.
Mary taught my second-level comedy writing course at Second City, and my first day in the class we all had to go around and introduce ourselves. When it came to my turn, I did what I always did. I apologized for myself.
"Well, I used to have kind of a hot career when I was younger because I got an internship at the Washington Post right after college but now I have a job where I'm filling in as the director of donor relations for Northwestern University so I just kind of keep rich people up to date on their named professorships and endowments and stuff like that."
I looked down. I knew how uncool my job was. It wasn't even corporate evil chic. I was a writer for where I went to college. Here my university expected me to go on and do great things, and now I had some staff job working with them, sucking up to millionaires and billionaires to try to keep the funds flowing. Every day was an orgasm of hyperbole. CUTTING-EDGE PROFESSORSHIPS. STATE-OF-THE-ART INTERDISCIPLINARY COLLABORATION.
Mary stopped me.
"Mandy," she said. "That is so cool! I don't know anybody else who has a job like that. Think about all the experiences you have that no one else does! I mean, no one else is the director of donor relations at Northwestern and has these other experiences you've had working at newspapers. It's awesome!"
Energetically, my entire state changed. Mary gave me the approval I would never give myself, and suddenly it helped me able to love myself, my career and every step along the way instead of just berating myself for "supposed mistakes" that in actuality were molding me into who I was becoming.
I was owning my shit. Mary was also right about it being a cool gig. It was only because of that job (which in retrospect, was terrific) that I learned how to speak to the rich and powerful, how to employ the art of persuasion in getting things done, how to be constantly demonstrating value and gratitude in relationship cultivation, how to respect and accommodate the unbelievable insanity of a powerful person's schedule and so much more.
Had I stayed in newspapers I never would have had the skills that helped me so much when I returned to newspapers later on. What Mary gave me was the ability to believe in myself and my life.
She gave me permission to KNOW that my life added up. That I added up.
Mary passed away far too young a few years ago. In a bit of synchronicity that gives me chills to this day, I was purchasing a Second City course for a shy young man as a gift the very morning after she died. I hadn't been on the Second City Web site in years, and there it was, clear as day. Mary Scruggs had just passed in the night at the age of 46.
I gasped, cried, called many friends who also knew her, emailed the new director of donor relations at Northwestern to ensure a condolence got sent to the family, emailed a friend who works on "The Colbert Report" because she started with Stephen years ago and I continue to remember her as an angel in my life to this day.
Because of Mary, I stopped walking around with radioactive shame and painfully unfunny self-deprecation (because honestly, it's only funny if you don't actually hate yourself ). My frame shifted. I could write for myself again! I could even do a blog with my own voice. Fuck needing the prestige of having it come through the "vessel" of a job that society had agreed upon as the correct showcasing of talents.
I could just use and believe in my talents. Life didn't have to be a clawing resume fest as if I were constantly trying to squeeze in Spanish Club along with 20 other activities to make college recruiters think I was something special. I could just know I was something special.
The fine line in all of this is what I tell people who wave their hands and say, "But having too much confidence can turn you into a jerk!"
What I say is if you are already a pompous arrogant narcissist to begin with, you obviously don't need any "own your shit" tips -- and you almost always have zero idea that you are that guy. But for anyone who lives in fear of being That Guy who's too cocky or confident, you can rest assured: YOU WILL NEVER BE THAT GUY. Just the fact that you WORRY about being that guy is your built in stop-gap. Instead, move the dial far, far over to give yourself the fighting self-confidence chance you deserve.
And yes, it's still incredibly important to recognize your place in the power structure. Be deferential, gracious and anticipatory, always.
Because if you make the choice to see yourself as a player -- if you choose yourself instead of waiting to be picked -- you will become one.
And for me, when I started my blog back in 2004, by seeing myself as a player, by knowing that I was a writer and comedian, it changed everything. IT GAVE ME PERMISSION TO CREATE. Instead of having to drown and soak everything in apologies and self-deprecation.
Ultimately, it's how I went from sitting in a PR job office in Chicago secretly watching clips of "The Daily Show" online to sitting in Jimmy Fallon's office as one of three finalists for a writing job there and having Jimmy tell me, "You're here because we love your packet."
Nope, I did not get that job ultimately (a hilarious writer from UCB did, and he deserved it), but it helped lead me to an even more perfect job: this one right here at xoJane.
It's also how I ended up signing a deal with 51 Minds, which led to me pitching to networks and filming a fully funded TV pilot presentation. Nope, the pilot did not get picked up. But it lead me to being even more savvy about the reality TV show process as we consider doing something similar, right here at xoJane.
And both of these moments would have been impossible if I had not changed the "framework" in which I saw myself. If I was constantly putting myself down and critiquing myself as being a poseur, an imposter, a failure and any other ego-driven putdown (or even doing subconscious self-sabotoge that is so easy to fall into, like being late or not giving myself enough time to prepare or partying too hard). Instead, I allowed myself to succumb to doing the unthinkable: I was actually trying.
There's the rub. You have to be willing to tolerate the discomfort of believing in yourself.
That means being willing to stop playing the games that can be found in "The Drama of the Gifted Child," a book about the after-effects of growing up with narcissistic parents, and incidentally, a favorite of Al Gore's. One of those destructive games is the perfectionism of being afraid you won't measure up, leading you to do self-sabotaging things like cramming for a test the night before, and then when you get a B or C instead of an A, you can have the "out" of saying, "Well I just crammed for it, and I didn't really try." Because how mortifying to actually try and give it your all -- and then fail? Then, you would be a failure, right?
No. Fucking. Way.
I think the big secret that no one tells you about life is that no one just suddenly bestows opportunities and titles and states of being upon you. No one says, "Ta da! You're a successful writer now." This is never going to happen.
Until you have the internal belief and framework that you ARE what you want to BE (yes, even a doctor -- albeit with the temperament that you are a FUTURE doctor) and become your best advocate, it will be very hard to make the leap to becoming exactly what you want to become.
Shake off the cobwebs of shame and self-doubt and self-hatred. If you have these afflictions, all it's doing is holding you back -- unless that's what you feel comfortable with, then sure, keep doing exactly what you've been doing all along that will lead you to the same place it always has led you. Certainty can be a very comfortable state.
But what if you changed your framework to this: You can be certain by trying new things that sometimes you will fail (which is a critical part of success), but ultimately it will lead you to achieving the ultimate accomplishment of having had the guts to go for your dream. Few people can say they have done that.
If you detach from the outcome and the need for validation, the LIFE FORCE JUICE of creating and trying things out (and yes, even failing) will make you feel more alive then you've ever felt. Something will awaken inside you.
I'll leave you with something that Seth Godin wrote and handed out to seminar attendees last year. It's a manifesto of sorts, and I love it. "Pick Yourself" was the theme. And this says what I've been saying above better than I ever could.
Two notes: 1) The "ship" quote he's referring to is one of Godin's favorites. He cites the story of an engineer reluctant to release to Steve Jobs the software he was working on because he was an artist and it took time. Jobs famously responded: "Real artists ship." Meaning, real artists deliver.
2) The "lizard" he's referring to below that we must overcome is the lizard brain that is primitive, animalistic, fight-or-flight telling us, wrongly and constantly, "danger danger danger" or as Godin writes more eloquently in "Linchpin": "The lizard brain is the reason you're afraid, the reason you don't do all the art you can, the reason you don't ship when you can. The lizard brain is the source of the resistance."
You want the authority to create, to be noticed and to make a difference? You're waiting for permission to stand up and speak up and ship?
Sorry. There's no authority left.
Oprah has left the building. She can't choose you to be on her show because her show is gone. YouTube wants you to have your own show now, but they're not going to call you.
Dick Clark has left the building. He's not going to be able to get you a record deal or a TV gig because his show is long gone. iTunes and a hundred other outlets want you to have your own gig now, but they're not going to call you either.
Neither is Rodney Dangerfield or the head of programming at Comedy Central. Louis CK has famously proven that he doesn't kneel to the tyranny of the booker -- he picked himself.
Our cultural instinct is to wait to get picked. To seek out the permission, authority and safety that comes from a publisher or talk show host or even a blogger saying, 'I pick you.'
Once you reject that impulse and realize that no one is going to select you -- that Prince Charming has chosen another house -- then you can actually get to work.
The myth that the CEO is going to discover you and nurture you and ask you to join her for lunch is just that, a Hollywood myth.
Once you understand that there are problems just waiting to be solved, once you realize that you have all the tools and all the permission you need, then opportunities to contribute abound. Not the opportunity to have your resume picked from the pile, but the opportunity to lead.
When we take responsibility and eagerly give credit, doors open. When we grab a microphone and speak up, we're a step closer to doing the world we're able to do.
Most of all, when you buckle down, confront the lizard and ship your best work, you're becoming the artist that you are capable of becoming.
No one is going to pick you. Pick yourself."
-- Seth Godin