#313: A Powerful Way to Reframe Your Setbacks

Steven Wright is one of the most unique and hilarious comedians to ever hit the standup circuit.

He’s known for his lethargic voice and his slow and deadpan delivery of ironic and philosophical one-liners. And in 2017, Rolling Stone magazine ranked him as the 15th greatest comedian in its list of the 50 Greatest Standup Comics.

If you haven’t heard any of his comedy, take a few minutes to watch some of his bits on YouTube. They really are great.

I tell you all this because as successful as he became, Steven almost didn’t make it as a standup comedian. In a recent episode of the Joe Rogan podcast, a few of Joe’s guests told the story of how in the late 1970s, right at the start of comedy career, Steven got a shot to perform at a very respected comedy club in Boston.

The notes that follow are a very basic, unedited summary of the show. There’s a lot more detail in the audio version. You can listen to the show using the audio player below. Or you can subscribe on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, Google Podcasts, Amazon Music or wherever you listen to podcasts.

It was open mic night, and he had 5 minutes to perform. The story goes that the audience laughed hysterically at only half the jokes. The other half generated awkward silence.

When Steven’s 5-minute set was over, he went back stage, collected his things and was on his way out the back door of the club, when the club owner stopped him and said, “Where are you going?”

Steven replied, “I’m outta here. I suck at this. They only laughed at half my jokes.”

The club owner looked at Steven in disbelief and said, “Are you crazy? You have 2-1/2 minutes of excellent material! See you next week!”

And so began the career of one of the best comics of all time.

Turns out that in comedy—as with many other artforms—when 50% of your material is excellent, that’s a great start.

Actually, scratch that. It’s not just a great start … it can land you at the very top of your game if you keep at it.

Being in a business where you sell your creative talent is not easy. You already know that. Some of your work will be very well received. Some will be OK. And some will get very negative feedback—often from what feels like left field.

It’s hard not to take those things personally, both the good and the bad. But how often do we completely distort reality because we focus all of our energy on the bad stuff at the expense of the good things? The great feedback. The great, happy clients.

When that happens, we need to remind ourselves that we have the proverbial 2-1/2 minutes of excellent material … and not focus on the other 2-1/2 minutes that fell flat.

Because in order to produce excellent work, we will invariably produce some material that just doesn’t quite hit the mark.

You can’t have the good stuff without the bad stuff. But the good news is, as we get better and more experienced, the ratio shift. It might be 50/50 early on. But it improves to 60/40, 80/20, 90/10 and beyond.

But look … wherever you are in this journey … whether it’s half of your stuff that doesn’t land well or only 5 or 10% … whatever you do … be fair to yourself. There’s nothing wrong with you. You are producing excellent work. And it’s important that you focus on that fact more than you have been.

Change the conversation you’re having with yourself. And be proud of the fact that you belong to a very exclusive club of brave and courageous souls who put themselves out there every day and share a piece of themselves through their work.



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