How stand-up comedians can teach us priceless skills for life and work
People think that all comedians do is be funny and make people laugh – but this is only a fraction of the story.
Stand-up comedians demonstrate a truly amazing skill-set. Comedians are courageous, inventive, engaging, and daring. They live life on the edge. Comedians expose themselves and their vulnerability, and the source of their comedy is themselves and their lives. They are incredible communicators. When disaster strikes, they can often turn it into triumph. Sometimes they fail, and die on stage – but they’ll be up there for the next show, when they may well be storming it. Wouldn’t it be great if you could be inspired by them to apply some of these attributes at will in your life and work?
So here’s an opportunity to analyse what comedians do – and the attitudes and approaches they use – an opportunity to draw out lessons for all of us to use in our personal and professional development. My assertion is that this learning can be applied in very many important departments of everyday life. This could include:
- building relationships and making connections with people
- gaining confidence and self-esteem, and achieving successes which fear may be holding us back from
- being persuasive and winning people over
- hugely developing our creativity and imagination
- learning how to gain appeal and popularity
- increasing self-awareness; being yourself more, and handling emotion effectively
- coming to terms with life and enjoying it
- living more often in the present moment
- transforming life’s challenges, disasters and causes of suffering into value creating opportunities
Let’s look at some of these areas, and identify particular attributes and widely applicable life skills worth emulating.
Fear, courage and confidence
Stand-up comedians demonstrate the ability to handle fear and to work constructively with risk, every time they go on stage and when they’re about to go on stage – or indeed any time they might wonder why they decided to be a stand-up comedian in the first place. They can teach us about managing emotion, handling nervousness, working with risk and danger, coping with being disliked – and more broadly, developing confidence, self-expression and self-esteem. They’re also masters at reliably turning what could be a debilitating and scary experience into something more akin to buzzy excitement.
Coping with disaster
As well as dealing with the potential upsets that face them in the course of performance, comedians are specialists in thinking about disaster – because it’s a staple of comedy material, where things going wrong is more interesting and funny than things going smoothly. We can learn from them, then, about processing and coming to terms with challenging circumstances and horrible stuff that happens to us – remaining optimistic and holding pessimism at bay.
Comedians have incredibly creative minds, constantly using their mental resources in a very active way – looking at things very differently from the rest of us, exercising imagination, challenging convention and adopting highly unusual perspectives. This is a key aspect of the comedian’s mind – and it’s working away in the background all the time, not just while performing – observing life and processing whatever is observed in this creative way.
Comedians are consummate communicators, skilled at making a strong bond of connection between themselves and an audience, and quickly building a relationship with individuals. They are very aware of which individuals could cause them problems, and which others could be key allies, in any situation.
They have a great deal to teach us about being an energized, charismatic communicator, about engaging with people individually and collectively, being responsive to people and to circumstances – and being instinctively sensitive to the reactions of others around us. This sensitivity is a key factor in the legendary phenomenon of comic timing – which is as much about listening as it is about speaking.
We can also learn a great deal from comedians about being spontaneous and instinctive, living in the present moment, and being able to think on our feet – and about how to turn an unexpected and unwelcome turn of events into an opportunity to create value or advantage.
Even though they’re not always being spontaneous when they’re on stage – because they will be drawing on a familiar, body of material – comedians still have to deal with whatever may come up at any moment of a performance. And more to the point, every piece of their material was originally created in a moment of spontaneity.
Making sense of life
One of the most valuable things we can learn from comedians and adapt to our use lies in their habit of employing their art to study life and the human condition – using themselves and their experiences as their raw material. Inspired by their example, we might become more observational, think about things more deeply, look below the surface and perceive patterns in life and in our own experiences, and make sense of them – and cope with life better as a result.
Likewise, comedians need to be totally aware of their individuality, their peculiarities, and quirks; because this becomes the essence of their comedy material and of their unique comedy ‘persona’. This especially applies to personal shortcomings, because these offer the greatest potential for comedy. This whole process enables them to distinguish themselves from other comedians on the circuit, and be all the more memorable to audiences.
There is a lot for us to emulate here about self-discovery, knowing ourselves, and being our own unique selves – including our imperfections – having our own unique take on life, and using that in the way we live and express ourselves.
Humour, of course, is central to comedy. The fact that comedians manage to achieve so much with it may inspire us to approach life with more humour, and not always take things too seriously; to be entertaining to others, to be able to generate and enjoy that healing gift of laughter; to use humour as a tool for personal development – and perhaps most importantly of all, to laugh at ourselves: playful deprecation of ourselves rather than of others.
Professional comedians also routinely demonstrate the importance of appropriate humour, as they tailor their material and their act to different audiences and different settings.
Finally, professional comedians develop their material, their style of comedy, their persona and their distinctive take on life – non-stop CPD – continuously over their whole career. They are perpetually adding new bits and leaving out bits that don’t seem to be working so well, constantly growing and responding to changing circumstances, trends and fashions.
This may encourage us all the more to have life-long curiosity and inquisitiveness, to constantly learn and evolve, and to develop our own personal repertoire of thoughts, ideas, observations – our own style of expression, our own world-view and our own individual value-creating contribution to our community. Enjoy!