It’s a good (and simple) question. The answer is complicated and heavy…
I started doing standup when I was a practising lawyer. Mainly because my mum told me I was funny (low bar).
I was creatively lost – comedy provided some kind of outlet. And I seemed to be reasonably good at it. And so, in 2007 I found myself in the finals of various country-wide standup comedy competitions and in 2008 winning the prestigious Hackney Empire standup competition. After little thought, I signed an shiny new agency agreement with Off the Kerb and my head was spinning. Now a hobby had become a potentially lucrative career. A career, however, that would require a huge amount of hard work without any guarantee of success. And one that would be in addition to my ‘day job’. ‘Just keep going and see where this goes’, I thought.
Having given up being a solicitor, I found a wonderfully flexible role as a trainer/coach at a prestigious global law firm that provided a solid base. It would allow me to explore a passionate interest in professional learning whilst balancing it with a new career as a professional performer.
The problem lay in my preference for introversion. I was training and coaching during the day and gigging almost every evening (I was obsessed with practising). I didn’t know it but I was burning out. I had no space to recharge my batteries. The harder I worked, the more unhappy and anxious I got, the better I did on stage. Go figure…
Whilst I'd always struggled with anxiety the feelings of despair I was now experiencing every day (and night) I simply ignored – I dismissed them as useless, unimportant and empty. I was being ‘neurotic’. I was being indulgent. They weren’t valid feelings. After all, how could they be valid if I was achieving such ‘success’ on stage and on TV/radio? The thing is, none of it was glamorous. All that glitters is not gold and all that... In my comedy life I was on my own 90% of the time with only my thoughts and anxieties for company. Hotel room after hotel room. Buffet breakfast after buffet breakfast. Audience after audience. Worse and worse the feelings got.
The low-point came during two consecutive shows at Reading and Leeds festival. The first evening I killed it. 5000 people laughing at everything I said. Everything I did. Like surfing a laughter wave – a wave that lasted for the full 20-min set. Coming off stage I thought I was invincible – my ego voice was deafeningly loud. I started to believe I was that good. Comedy, however, has a way of biting back at over-confidence. Sure enough, the next evening I died spectacularly in front of a similarly huge crowd. It was like a library. The same set, word-for-word. Just a different crowd and a different result. I came off stage and dived into a state of confusion and (strangely) intense sadness. The emotional roller-coaster was crazy. I felt like something had died. But in me. Narcissistic grief, I guess. And I couldn’t shake it off for weeks, months and then years. And whilst audiences laughed on stage, I cried off stage. The more they laughed, the better I did, the more I cried. A terrible equation. It went on and on.
After over 1500 shows, I crashed. I was depressed – my mental health was poor and I was on the edge. I had spent so long ignoring my need for balance and failing to recognise that my introversion wasn’t just a ‘feeling’ but a need that required attention - I’d totally lost perspective. Most strangely, I’d lost my sense of humour. Nothing was fun or funny any more. Steve stopped being Steve.
And so, I got some professional help, made some lifestyle changes and then made the decision to stop gigging. Totally. And it felt great. Like I’d been released from some kind of comedy prison. I had been trapped in what others told me was ‘success’ for such a long time that I’d lost sight of what was important. Stripped of all of that and feeling brighter, more optimistic and more resilient, it dawned on me that L&D was where I felt happy. More creative than anything I’d experienced on stage but soundly based on understanding that different people need different things. After all, effective learning and behaviour change is all about, firstly, knowing yourself. It’s a career where you can make a real, practical difference – in whatever capacity, industry or sector in which you work.
And so, answering the original question, I gave up because professional comedy isn’t what many people think it is. Having seen real success I also experienced the sacrifices comics have to make to achieve longevity. And I got to know myself in a way that I never imagined. What did I discover? Amongst many things was the clear indication that I wasn't designed to be a comedian. My hard-wiring isn't routed in that way.
Knowing that laughter isn't, in of itself, a meaningful end for me, I had a deep knowledge that levity and meaningful human connection is. And what is L&D if it isn’t about relationships and connection? If I could use my performance skills to help people connect more effectively then it was even better. The choice was a no-brainer. It’s a choice I have never, for one second, regretted.
Oh, and the week I gave up standup I met my wife. Connected? Maybe. Or perhaps just a happy coincidence. Either way, things got better.