Why I Don't Like Not Being Good At Things

Malcolm Gladwell is full of baloney when it comes to some things. His "10,000 hours to become an expert" theory is not one of those things.
Publish date:
November 6, 2013
comedy, talents, malcolm gladwell

Here are some things that I do not like doing because I am not good at them.

I don't like running, dating, doing standup, exercising, eating healthy, waking up early, getting rejected, being fake, budgeting money, taking things slow, having patience, having confidence, trusting people, staying off social media, planning out my week, keeping myself on schedule, keeping my dog on schedule, avoiding distractions, being around unfunny people who think they are funny, suffering fools, using words like "team," having a sponsor, keeping my schedule up to date, letting myself feel sadness and grief and other uncomfortable emotions, keeping my place clean, cleaning my place, making a perfect cat-eye with eyeliner, taking a shower every day, washing my dishes every day, washing my nylons every day, taking a break, taking it easy, indulging sadists and sociopaths, resisting making a joke or asking a question that could offend because it's so fun to get a reaction, resisting nicotine when I am stressed, being in the moment, meditating, resisting Internet K-holes.

Here are some things that I like doing because I am good at them: writing, talking about writing, reporting, talking about reporting, strategizing, talking about strategy, having sex, making out, being sexy, being funny in the moment, interviewing, being cruel, being kind, saying what other people are thinking but don't want to say, spending money, spending time on social media, talking about dating and relationship and male-female strategy, thinking or saying the worst thing possible to get a laugh, scolding my mom and telling her that it doesn't always have to be about getting the laugh, indulging people and detaching with love people who I've given up on and do not trust, angrily cursing people out behind their backs who I think are gigantic phonies, asking for money, counting money, doing all manner of flimsy prayers and incantations and culty nam-myoho-renge-kyo chants to get money instead of putting in the hard work required to guarantee consistent and multiple income streams, talking about things I need to do instead of doing them, being hard on myself, being hard on other people, seeing flaws in other people, seeing flaws in myself, talking to my therapist, qualifying at an AA meeting, charming strangers, taking vitamins instead of working out, planning for some future day in the future but not right now when I go running everyday and don't eat flour and sugar and regularly incorporate all the things I'd like to do perfectly, watching TV.

I do not like not being good at things.

Tonight I am doing one of the things I am not good at doing. Sometimes I am good at doing it. But not always. So that means I am not good at doing it. Tonight I am doing a show with some comedians that are hugely funny and hilarious and are good at doing it because they have done what I have not: they have racked the 10,000 hours that old schtick-science maestro Malcolm Gladwell has correctly identified and cited via the work of Herbert Simon and William Chase (in a very non-schticky way) as the key to becoming a true master at anything. (And to be clear: there is an incredibly strong argument to be made that this too is baloney. But it's a nice metaphor. Like "The Hero's Journey.") His 10,000-hours rule is in the book "Outliers." I listened to it on my iPhone. I am good at buying books on Audible.com and listening to them on my iPhone instead of doing the required work to get myself to where I want to go in an area that I have not yet mastered.

I am not a stand-up comic.

Don't get me wrong. I think I am hilarious. I can probably sell to myself without feeling like a phony that I am a "comedian" -- in the way that Howard Stern or Jimmy Kimmel is a "comedian" (no, I am not comparing myself to them -- but in the sense of a performer and someone who is comedic and can reliably get laughs) but -- a stand-up comic I am not.

To me a stand-up comic means that you are a comic who goes up to mics almost every night and you have been doing this enough to have mastered it so that no matter what, even if you have an audience of people who are all holding up signs that you suck and are a worthless piece of crap, you can consistently nail your material, again and again, no matter what.

So why am I doing this show tonight? This is not a plug, incidentally. It is sold out. The show is with my heroes, my idols, my friends: Bonnie McFarlane, Rich Vos, Jim Florentine, Colin Quinn. They, you see, are stand-up comics. They have all logged that wonderful amount of time which I have logged in the areas that I love to do because I know I am great at them -- say, interviewing people, being funny in the moment, writing, reporting, being brutally and uncomfortably honest. Sex? OK, I don't think I've logged 10,000 hours in that one, but I think that I have just the right amount of will-she-stab-me-in-the-eyeballs abandon that men seem to find intriguing.

I just did something else I am not good at: staying on track. I am very associative in my writing and my thinking which is why I can often translate people who are even more incoherent than I am -- and like that wonderfully famous improv game of the Harold, I am usually able to keep the different threads on track and then come back to it in one final piece of togetherness and thematic unity. But we all saw what I did. I asked, "So why am I doing this show tonight?" and then I answered something else. I went on a tangent.

I am doing this show because I always say yes to things that make me feel uncomfortable because good things always come from putting yourself in an area of discomfort that exposes yourself to healthy risk. I may fail. I may not. But I am trying and forcing myself to do something that often I can be very good at if I am able to find the right rhythm and belief in myself and in-the-moment-ness where I am out of my head and going with the flow -- but which I have not mastered, and which I am not always good at. Thereby: Not good at.

I would rather be, what my friend Scott Einziger -- who worked on Howard Stern for many years and who I was confiding in him about this anxiety -- calls "the turd in the punchbowl" than not face that near-puking unease that comes from trying and risking.

When I came to New York in 2005, I had been doing stand-up for a few years at different mics and clubs in Chicago.

I came to New York with no intention of doing standup because at that point I wasn't even sure I was good at what I am now pretty sure I am good at, which is working in the field of Manhattan media. But one night I was hanging with a doctor friend who was going to a mic to support another friend doing standup. His friend went up. I was tipsy, buzzed with liquid confidence, and I went up to the mic and killed it, doing the same material I had been doing in Chicago but with an out-of-my-head cockiness that came from not giving a crap about anything -- which is the perfect cocktail for being funny.

I can't do stand-up material now. I just can't. I can't do "jokes." I can if I absolutely have to, but I just feel like too much of a phony doing that. The potential for seeming like one of those guys who does stand-up once a year for all of his friends so he can tell himself he is a stand-up comic just makes me die inside. I would rather go up and do storytelling, make jokes in the moment about my life and the absurdity of my existence as I experience them rather than try to summon up the fakery necessary to sell the idea that I have been telling these one-liners for 10,000 hours and boy, just another night out at the club, right, guys?

When I killed that night in 2006 at the open mic with my doctor buddy, I got asked to do a paid show -- and on that show with me was Hannibal Buress. Hannibal Buress was not yet Hannibal Buress and he would call me up and ask me if I was going to go up to different mics he was going up to. We both didn't know that many people in New York, and he made me laugh a lot. I liked being around him. He hosted an open mic at the time that I would occasionally go up to. Then I got asked to do different contests and radio shows and I did well on those. Sometimes I did not do well. Sometimes I seemed so fake and schticky and uncomfortable in my own skin that you as an audience member felt uncomfortable which is where stand-up comedy goes to die. If you are rooting for the comic, if you are distracted by the person's unease, if you can sniff out their flopsweat, it is game over.

Tonight I am doing this show because I belong to a great podcast network filled with very hilarious comics. I've been doing my podcast since July now where I interview people and I make jokes in the moment, and I feel confident that it is hilarious and entertaining and extremely enjoyable. My dear friend Bonnie McFarlane who has done Letterman multiple times and who I love to joke with as she has the exact same pitch-black sense of humor that I do insisted that I needed to do the show. Bonnie is also on the Riotcast Network, which is hosting the show as part of the New York Comedy Festival. So I am.

One of our hilarious and gorgeous interns at xoJane, Blair Socci, is mid-way in her career in logging those 10,000 hours and she hosts an open mic so I went to it last night so that I could properly fail and I told my little stories and I got my little laughs and I was OK. Tonight I will probably be OK, too. Maybe I will be dreadful. Maybe I will be OK and then not OK and then dreadful and then amazing. Maybe I will be the funniest person you have ever seen in your life and Colin Quinn and Rich Vos and Jim Florentine and Bonnie McFarlane will all retire from stand-up comedy because they realize that probably there won't ever be anyone as funny as I was on this very night on November 6, 2013. I don't know. But I know that the only way that I have continued to get anything in life is to force myself to do things where I cannot pull out my 10,000-hours card and confidently show it to anyone who asks for it. It's the only way to get those hours.

So maybe if I can even cheat my conundrum.

I am good at making myself do things I am not good at.

Let's see if I can like it, too.


Find Mandy long-form at http://tinyurl.com/stadtmiller.