This has been a time of great uncertainty, punctuated by moments of certainty, bookended by more uncertainty. People are leaving their jobs at unprecedented rates thanks to the Great Resignationthen realizing that the grass may actually be greener where they were originally. And as COVID lingers, the unwanted gift that is frowned upon to re-gift, we have been forced to come up with new ways to adjust, adapt, and perhaps even, dare I say (at the risk of the news media rushing to quell the possibility), thrive.
Luckily, I’ve spent my entire professional life in the trenches of an ever-evolving entertainment industry where adapting to difficult circumstances is the only reality I know. A global pandemic ain’t got nothin ‘on conniving agents, toothless managers, and network executives justifying their salaries by taking meetings that almost always lead to nothing. So allow me to pass my wisdom on to you. If you follow the suggestions closely, you’ll swim around every obstacle you face — or at the very least the sharks that come at you.
‘Bite off more than you can chew, and then chew like hell.’
This has always been one of my favorite quotes and is a big part of my life philosophy. Mostly because I love eating, so food analogies really resonate with me. It’s a great base-level plan for success. Taking a lot on can be tiring, but if you want to separate yourself you have to actually separate yourself. You won’t stand out just by doing a good job; everyone has to do that or they get fired. No one has ever been noticed by doing “just as well” as others. You have to do more.
This does not mean you need to work yourself to the bone until you suffer physical and mental burnout. Most people are actually very lazy, doing the bare minimum just to get by. All you have to do is a lot more than the bare minimum, and you’ll start soaring past them. When your coworkers or competitors clock out, go harder with the added motivation that everything you do now is separating yourself by leaps and bounds. So biting off more than you can chew doesn’t mean eating until you feel sick. Just eat until you’ve eaten the most.
(Side note: I’m writing this on an airplane while wearing a mask, except when I eat, so I’m just eating the whole flight. It’s hard to write with a mask on; the lack of freedom affects my fingers. But I do it nevertheless, since magazines don’t stop for pandemics and because this feels like a safer way to communicate as a stand-up comedian than standing in front of hundreds of people, all laughing their droplets at me.)
You can’t control everything, so control everything you can.
You can’t always control outcomes. Nor can you control world events that, as we now know all too well, can throw everything completely off. Most people just do their best and wait to see what happens. This is exactly the right strategy. Except people are also lying to themselves about what their best is. They think that working toward goals or tackling projects is linear: I’ll do my best at A, then B, then C, and we’ll see how it works out. That is a lazy approach. It presumes that everything moves in a straight line. And rarely does it. There are tons of factors that can change the entire course, even at step A, and suddenly you’ve failed right out of the gate, leaving B and C hanging out all alone, never getting a chance to be seen.
The people who will not only survive, but thrive, are making contingency plans every step of the way. If A only sort of works, how would that affect B? We now need a plan B for B. What if A fails totally? We need a plan B for A. If A and B work, but in this way, not that way, how would we need to adjust C?
You see, successful people anticipate everything. Because they have already mapped out many paths to their goal, they are far more likely to achieve it. How you get somewhere doesn’t matter. You just have to get there. (I hope the pilot of this plane knows this. Maybe I’ll slip a note under the cockpit door.)
Chill and improvise. If you don’t let anything faze you, you can’t be fazed.
Sound obvious? It is. Unfortunately, most people can’t do it. They freak out the second something doesn’t go their way, but there’s no reason for this. It’s a completely counter-productive reaction. Not only is it unhealthy, it takes away your ability to problem-solve. For example, I grew up with a severe speech problem, a stutter and disfluency where my vocal cords would lock up and I couldn’t utter a sound. (A problem this hysterical baby crying next to me does not suffer from.) I used to get so nervous at the prospect of talking in front of even a few people. It was a seemingly insurmountable problem. Now I perform live in front of thousands of people, appear on TV and news programs to millions, and my heart rate doesn’t raise a single beat. Not even when Chelsea Handler hurled insults at me at the slightest misspeak during my Chelsea Lately appearances.
I learned how to increase my performance under stress by taking it a step further. While most comedians stick rigidly to the script, I’m known for making much of my shows up on the spot through improv. This is the ultimate high wire of comedy, because if I don’t think of a funny thing to say in the moment, I’m screwed. I just shift the way I look at things (see the humility and perspective section below), and now I simply stay chill when I improvise. . . and when I tackle problems. Not panicking literally buys extra time that no one else has because they’re too busy freaking out. It’s the only way to turn the ultimate embarrassment of a leaked sex tape into an empire. You can even smooth the wrinkle you’re staring at in your phone. Sort of like an intellectual Botox. When you’re chill, you can more easily and calmly look at things from a different angle and be creative. (For example, the plane is now out of food and I already dislodged the one piece of Pringle’s that was stuck in my teeth, so I’m officially out of nutrients. But I just lifted my tray table and found some chip crumbs. solved!)
When things go wrong, have humility and perspective.
Despite how much you plan, things will still go wrong. Most people let this crush them. Thrivers don’t even let it faze them. What happens when a super important thing is going awry? Realize that you cannot always control outcomes. You can only do your best (your actual best, see above). We all feel so much pressure to be perfect and to always win, which is insane. No one is perfect and no one always wins. So don’t stress out over something that can never be achieved.
When things go wrong, remind yourself that you’re not expected to be superhuman. You’re only one person. You are not a god. No one expects you to do more than your best. So go easy on yourself. Really take that in. And then add a little perspective. No matter how important this project is, it’s not. We are on a planet of 8 billion people (and countless species), with our own goals and priorities, most pressing of which is basic survival. And all of us are just floating around on a tiny marble in outer space, in a vast, unknowable universe.
Don’t be loyal to a mistake. Admitting your missteps conveys strength, not weakness.
As with most things in life and business, the conventional wisdom is often the opposite of the truth. People have this misplaced and purposeless sense of false pride that makes them stick by a mistake for fear of looking foolish or like they didn’t know what they were doing. The greatest geniuses of all time made lots of mistakes. “To err is human” and that’s the only way to grow. So, to pretend like you don’t make any not only looks absurd (since it’s obvious to everyone you did), it also guarantees you won’t learn from it and thus will never get any better. Yet this is how most people operate.
This loyalty to a mistake holds so many people back their whole lives. The good news here is this gives you yet another competitive advantage. To cash this one in, all you have to do is make mistakes and admit when you do. How easy is that? I use this technique in my stand-up all the time. When a joke I tell bombs, I don’t pretend like nothing happened. I say something like, “That was the least funny thing I’ve ever said in my life.” And it makes everyone laugh. It diffuses the tension, and gets everyone instantly back on my side. I look at it like this: in a world of hecklers, if you own yourself, you can never get owned.
Innovate. Take chances. Push boundaries.
It’s the only way to be truly great. There is no better differentiator than being different. It’s right there in the word. As a comedian and entrepreneur, I’m always trying to innovate. Sometimes it’s in my subject matter, or an idea for a TV show that has never been done. When the pandemic hit and lockdowns were announced, entertainment venues shut down globally and comedy clubs shuttered everywhere. Without the clubs, my colleagues (fancy word for often drunk or stoned comedians) and I had no way to earn a living. People didn’t have an outlet to let loose and laugh with others, and be entertained at a time when they needed it most. So, I created the live comedy club experience online.
In the past, my money would have kept an idea like this to myself. But it’s important to know your own weaknesses and current limitations, and never be afraid to admit them. Only then can you bring in the missing pieces that can make magic happen. I immediately called my friend and fellow comedian, Steve Hofstetter, who’s much better than I am at efficiently executing ideas. He instantly loved the idea and we went into business together founding Nowhere Comedythe world’s first virtual live comedy venue.
Comedians were able to tour the globe without leaving their hometown; borders no longer mattered with most shows attended by people from the US to Australia and Japan. Communities that were never able to enjoy live comedy — people with disabilities, social anxiety, financial limitations, or those who live far from any clubs — were all able to see and interact with their favorite comics live without leaving their couch. In just under two years, we’ve been called one of the top innovators that changed comedy. We’ve produced and hosted over 700 shows, from up-and-comers to A list names like Bill Burr, Mike Birbiglia, Sarah Silverman, and John Cleese. This concept made millions of dollars for comedians who were out of work, brought laughter and community to people who needed it, and reinvented the way live comedy could be performed. And it changed my life. So there’s a good chance that the great idea you’ve been keeping warm in the back of your head could change yours. And maybe even the lives of others.
Diversify. If you do lots of things, you’ll never need a backup plan.
Because all of them can’t go away. If one thing dries up for a while, focus more on different parts of what you already do. This is the best way to thrive when times are tough. It’s much easier to strike while the iron’s hot if you have a lot of irons in the fire. Jeremy Irons told me that once. For example, even though he’s a famous actor, he also owns an ironing business. It’s called Jeremy Iron’s. They also do dry cleaning. (Which this baby next to me desperately needs. He’s got the remains of the day all over his bib.)
Don’t listen to anybody but yourself, unless it resonates as true when you hear it.
Even if it’s written by a handsome, over-eating comedian, trapped near a baby on a food-less plane. (Maybe especially then.) There’s a lot of wisdom out there, but if you’re honest with yourself, you know which bits are up your alley, and which are just wisdom for somebody else. And lucky for me, some useful bits just came my way thanks to this kid throwing his food everywhere, and some of it landing on my lap. Looks like it’s wet cranberries for dessert, so I better go. I’ve got more eating to do.
Ben Gleib is a comedian and former host of GSN’s Idiotest (now streaming on Netflix). He is also cofounder of virtual live comedy venue Nowhere Comedy.