My Eleventh Commandment: a BBC “Pause for Thought”

Here’s the text for the 18 May 2021 “Pause for Thought” I offered on the Early Breakfast Show with Vanessa Feltz on BBC Radio 2 – about comedy classes, failure, and what to do when we mess up. You can listen in here.

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A few years ago now I signed up for an improvisational comedy class. Improv, as they call it. Now, I’m one of the least funny people you’ll ever meet, but I wanted a challenge.

Improv is a team approach to comedy. You create a story ­­– with others – in the moment. There’s no advanced planning. You start with an idea and you see where it goes. So my improv teacher might say, “Okay, Trey and Vanessa, up on stage. Here’s the scene: you two are long estranged siblings meeting for the first time in years. Go!”

Now, there’s no script – you’re improvising­ – so you have to listen, play, stay open. When it works, it’s hilarious.

It turns out, though: I really stink at it. Every class, I was bombing. One particularly humiliating night, I whinged to my teacher: “I’m so locked down on stage, I feel like I’m dying up there.”

She said, “Trey, you feel like you’re dying up there because – you’re dying up there. You’re trying to control everything. Let it go. What’s the worst that could happen?”

I said, “I could fail really bad.”

She said “Well, you’re already doing that. And anyway, failure is good for the soul.”

I dropped out of class, but her wisdom stuck. In improv, in life, we’re gonna fail. We’re gonna mess up – in small ways that bring laughter, in colossal ways that bring us to our knees. Failure is part of living a true story.

Writer Francis Spufford calls it “the human propensity to foul* things up”. We’ve all been there, we’ll be there again. The question is: what do we do when it happens?

My natural tendency is to ignore it or cover it up or – better yet! – blame somebody else.

But when I got sober, my recovery friends said “we’re only as sick as our secrets” and they challenged me to take an honest inventory of my messy life. To write down the epic failures, the micro-mistakes, the harm I’d caused others and myself. And then to share it all with someone I trusted.

It was scarier than improv, but accepting my failures with compassion has been so good for my soul.

So my eleventh commandment is not another moral from on high, but instead a suggestion for when we foul things up.

Here it is:

Be honest and ask for help.

In my experience, it will set you free.

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*He actually uses a different F-word that radio broadcasters don’t endorse. 🙂

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