I was made aware that it was International Mountain Day on Saturday. I have done precisely zero research as to the intent or context of International Mountain Day, but funnily enough the very idea of standing at the foot of a mountain is enough to get me thinking a lot about the mountainous tasks that are placed in front of us, the mountainous ambitions that lead us to them. Like Cool Runnings. Have you ever seen that movie? It’s a potentially problematic 90s Disney movie about the Jamaican bobsled team attempting to join (and win gold at) the Calgary Winter Olympics in 1988. Now… I’m going to be hopping between International Mountain Day and Cool Runnings analogies in fairly inconsistent fashion, but bear with me. Let’s start with the mountains.
Trying to climb a mountain all-in-one-go and before you are ready is likely to kill you. That’s not the way you climb a mountain. You have to train your body and your mind in the skills that will get you up to those heights. You have to take your time (and you will almost certainly never do it on your own). Ultimately, long term gains are made through the accumulation of short-term goals. So you take baby-steps toward the mountain. Then you take strides. Then you tackle the mountain one part at a time. And maybe you reach the top. But you know what? It’s a fucking mountain. Maybe you’re not the person that reaches the top, and that’s okay. You can come down again with no shame at all. Maybe you can just enjoy the climbing. This, like everything in the world, ever, applies to improv.
There are plenty of us that begin creative pastimes purely because we enjoy it. We take joy in the process, we don’t care how far it goes, we’re just there for a good time. It’s like a good board game, or a five-a-side football team. Or maybe it’s just the catalyst you need to hang out with your friends. For some, it’s about finding the opportunity for creative expression. But there is no denying that some of us are in it with a particular dream in mind. We have an ambition. An ambition to achieve something, an ambition to be something or even to receive recognition for that something. We want fame. We want fortune. We want to win at something. To be the best. To make history. We look up at that mountain with a hunger to be the one at the very top. We look at the 1988 Calgary Olympic Bobsledding event and we want the gold medal (stay on target, Ed…).
I have to admit that there was a time in my life where that hunger was the chief driving force in my life. I believed I was fated to achieve and be recognised in the film industry. This is not how I am today. I mean, I still want to achieve things and do fun new things (in or out of the film world) but that big-picture, mountain-peak hunger isn’t there any more. It was making me miserable. I wanted so badly to be successful, but then I actually met some people that were successful… and they were just as miserable as I was! They too were comparing themselves to others and bitter when they didn’t reach the top of their mountain. Where was their gold medal?
The problem was not that I went into the film world with those mountainous ambitions, but the expectation I placed on myself to achieve them (and quickly) caused me to constantly question the choices I made, to resent the opportunities granted to people other than myself, and it left me in a perpetual state of dissatisfaction in my life. I was constantly wondering what the choices I hadn’t made would have wrought for me. What did my life look like in parallel universes? If I had taken that job over this job, would I have climbed the ladder faster? If I had worked on my own projects more, would I have been discovered? If I had just given bobsledding a go, would I have made it to the Winter Olympics with a matching team of quirky cohorts like the characters in Cool Runnings.
Okay. Enough with Cool Runnings. It’s bad enough trying to work mountain metaphors into this without bringing a John Candy sports-comedy into it. But the reason why I keep mentioning it in my admittedly scatterbrained argument is because the film genuinely triggered an important realisation in me about my own mountainous ambitions when I rewatched it at a low-ebb of my life. In the film’s third act, when John Candy’s disgraced coach character is asked why he cheated at the Winter Olympics when he was an athlete, he says that he “had to win”. Then he said something that still lights up my brain:
“A gold medal is a wonderful thing. But if you are not enough without it, you’ll never be enough with it.”
That was when I realised that I would never be satisfied. That if I was going to continue, I had to either adjust my mountainous ambitions or become content with the misery that comes from expecting glory, and that any achievement of that glory would likely be replaced with more hunger and more misery. I realised then that my ambition was ravenous enough that it threatened to eat me alive. And after eight gruelling years of burning myself out, I gave up on film-making. That’s a gold medal that I am happy for others to hold.
What does any of that have to do with improv? Well, I see this same hunger in people in the improv world from time to time. I see that mountainous ambition. I see people that want to be the next Amy Poehler the way I wanted to be the next Edgar Wright. I see that burden of self-expectation, and the anxiety that builds as time passes and they are not being invited on to the cast of SNL. These people become perfectionists of their own performances and shows. They resent that they are not more successful than they are, or even recognised as much as they would like. They want their group to perform at a certain venue at a certain slot and to be treated as peers with certain people. They hunger for that gold medal, or to reach that peak.
And again, there’s nothing wrong with ambition! But I discourage anyone from the kind of expectation that makes one bitter when you don’t achieve the result that you want. You cannot control these things, no matter how much you want and/or feel like you deserve them. And of course, some people do achieve their dreams through improv, but those people have often worked extremely hard for a very long time in many endeavours until the cream of their body of work has risen to the top. They’ll have tried and failed and tried again. And they’ll probably have seen people surpass them, and surpassed others too. But I would bet that if they achieved that ambition, it was because they appreciated the work, not the result. The climb, not the summit. Nothing wrong with those lofty goals, but appreciating the climb means you appreciate those short term gains, and then maybe those gains have accumulated to something.
The way I feel about these things now, especially in the wake of the past couple of years where improv has been somewhat taken away from me by the pandemic, is that every opportunity to be creative (especially with safe, IRL improv) is absolutely precious. To do it with people that inspire and enthrall you is a joy. I want to be good at improv because that is the gateway to the most fun. I couldn’t care less if there are any further gains than that. I have been that gold-medal-hungry-bobsledding-mountain-climber, but I like to think that I now improvise purely to have the most fun. It‘ll be nice if it takes me up the mountain, but I’m enjoying where I am now.
What I am trying to get to is that I think I’m getting closer to being able to say that improv is enough for me without reaching any “summits”. I still want to be good. And I still have ambitions. I am, after all, only human. I just want to do it more and enjoy it. And I have to remember that if I’m not enough without a “gold medal”, I’ll never be enough with one. And if I can end any given day succeeding in that notion, then I must have kissed my lucky egg that morning…
… if you don’t get that reference, then you never watched Cool Runnings and this entire blog has probably been lost on you anyway!