In late February, I was given the daunting but unforgettable privilege of giving a TEDx talk at Bridgewater State University. As I wait for the video to be released, I wanted to put together the thoughts shared in the talk (combined with a great many others that didn’t fit into the 11 minutes) for your reading pleasure. First, I covered the importance of finding your funny. Today: how to use that sense of humor to get you where you want to be (and away from where you don’t!)
At this point, we’ve already talked about how humor can help guide you toward things and people who are good for you, that will make you better. But it’s importnat to remember that things can change.
Think about the jokes we heard as kids- from joke books, from clowns, or recited by our own friends from candy wrappers and color-tinged Popsicle sticks. Our younger selves found those punchlines hilarious! But as we grew up and learned more about ourselves and the world, our senses of humor evolved. Or, in one of the saddest moments I could imagine, they disappeared altogether.
Just as humor and the ability to laugh and push you toward people and things that can make you better, a lack of humor in those same places can signal the need for a change. Too many of us resist making that change, for any number of reasons. But if you truly do, as the inspirational quote says, “want to spend your life laughing”, then that may require you to let your laughter be your guide.
Does it invalidate your choices? To quote an underrated animated comedy genius in Futurama‘s Robot Devil, “Definitely probably not.”
Some of the fear and anxiety that comes with changing course surrounds the idea that if it made us happy before and it doesn’t now, that the difference is because we chose wrong. And it might be. Was our arrival at this place- a job, a relationship, a task assignment- borne of fear, desperation, or not enough (or wrong) information? If so, it’s more likely that it could have been an ill-fitting decision from the start. More often than not, however, the idea that we choose wrong can be summed up by the phrase, “all other things being equal.” This assumes that we, our circumstances, and what we know are the same now as when we started. And truthfully, how often is that the case? Our jobs change direction. Our partners or friends evolve, as do we. We learn better. And all of these factors can contribute to how our decisions serve us as time passes. So if your wish to stay in a place that doesn’t make you laugh is based on fear that you chose wrong, the Robot Devil and I would like to try and calm your fears by saying, “Definitely probably not.”
Does it mean you’re a quitter? In the most literal sense, if you stop doing something that you were previously doing, then yes. But I’d then fire back with a different question: is that bad? If you’re involved in something that isn’t serving you, and you want to pursue something that will, doesn’t it make sense to move toward the fulfilling option and away from the draining one? The emphasis on the “and” in the previous sentence is to drive home the point that we sometimes strive to fix a rough situation by adding good things without taking away the bad. But the comparison between the two can magnify the problems in the former situation, and make the time spent in it all the more unfulfilling.
My go-to example in this instance is Steve Martin. In his wonderful memoir Born Standing Up, he talks about the precise moment he knew that he was done with standup comedy- his primary source of success throughout the seventies. He talks about the moment where the joy fell away and he could no longer connect with the work. His take on enjoyment at work is an important one, because it flies in the face of much of what we say we should feel about the topic:
Enjoyment while performing was rare—enjoyment would have been an indulgent loss of focus that comedy cannot afford. After the shows, however, I experienced long hours of elation or misery depending on how the show went, because doing comedy alone onstage is the ego’s last stand.
But once he no longer connected with the work or felt that his place in it was valuable, he walked away. And, to be frank, we stand to lose another comedic icon of our generation in Dave Chappelle in short order. He has come close to walking away from the craft that has made him so successful a few times, but (as with Martin) has solved his discontent through seclusion and reinvention. Could we stick with things that we’ve lost our laughter over? Sure, but it may be a better use of our time and energy to find our laughter elsewhere.
So how long is long enough? “Find work you love and you’ll never work a day in your life” isn’t true. We’d love to believe that it is, but it simply isn’t. It couldn’t be. Even when we’re doing things that we feel called to do, there are elements of it that we’ll like less or struggle to get through sometimes. But the key here is to recognize the difference between a momentary frustration and a larger ill fit or evolution away from what we need. In her neurological dissection of creativity and writer’s block, Alice Flaherty makes a fantastic observation about our relationship with our work:
So a sense of vocation doesn’t guarantee happiness at work. Nor does it guarantee being good at the job. Perhaps it merely gives the possessor a subtle feeling of megalomania, a sense of being in some manner chosen for a higher goal. Sense of vocation as disease […] even those with a true vocation never feel only the joy of work without occasionally feeling its terror. When your work is a part of who you are, and you feel you are working badly, you become foul to yourself.
It is normal to have days when you don’t love your work, or other projects you’ve chosen to pursue, or even the people around you. Those days can and will happen. Hell, that’s not even the goal of any of these things the majority of the time. And a few bad days without a giggle are not cause for a rapid shift. When the bad days outweigh the good, however, that’s when you should start using laughter as a litmus test. How many of the moments that sparked your interest, excitement, and best self still remain? How often do you get to do those things that make you feel most alive? Are you still moved to put in the work needed (especially in love, by the way)? Let the answer to those questions, coupled with a quick catalog of the last time you saw your smile, gauge if you’re doing what you should be doing.
To return to Steve Martin for a moment, he talks about the time period covered in Born Standing Up as a biography of someone he used to know, rather than his own autobiography. And if the you that goes up to bat in any walk of life feels like a wholly different person than the one who joined the team…let your laughter guide you elsewhere.