hero's journey

Pre-mortem: After falling in love with Spain, losing some creative juice, and debugging my churning stomach — I'm finally back with a bang!

This piece is an extension of my opening thoughts on the role of narrative.

Below is my hero's journey of venturing into the improv jungle and finding a big part of my creative soul again. I suspect I'll be building on this post in two distinct ways: crafting something similar with my technical path (my brain's "other half"), and exploring what living with an improv worldview means to me.

A. Call to adventure: One defining moment is the early-stages of my third year of university. As a student who was feeling increasingly claustrophobic from the business & finance bubbles that I spent the majority of time in, I was craving a change. This led to a mental reset and a strong willingness to experiment with the unknown/uncertainty. Coincidentally, this line of thinking led me to the world of improv, as well as spur an unconventional career decision to spend 5 months in Tanzania (social impact consulting internship). The search began. Many creative activities and potential hobbies were started and dropped in the same time frame — salsa dance, pottery, pour painting, yoga, etc.
B. Inspirational spark: Otherwise known as the "supernatural aid", or just simply "mentor". I was surprised where the inspiration came, and it wasn't just a one-shot spark. It was falling into a classic YouTube rabbit hole of comedy-esque content — a medley of Whose Line Is It Anyway, Sacha Baron Cohen's unimitable (and improvised) performances as Borat, and a slew of SNL skits. At one point, I made some inspiring connection to my own life: I've always prided myself in being the class clown that could put a smile on anyone's first through my goofy personality and clever wit. For the first time, I asked: Is there something more there?
C. Crossing threshold: Enough passive consumption of performing arts content & improv shows slowly convinced me to commit to this new passion / hobby. I attended a few comedy shows on Granville Island to get a taste of the sport; it was an easy excuse to invite a friend out on a random Tuesday night. I inquired into the lives of these comedians: their motivations, their journeys, their creative influences. I dabbled in drop-in classes across the city at several comedy houses before gaining the conviction to put some actual skin in the game. I committed to myself: the next frontier would be to make improv a part of a my routine, through a dedicated training regimen. 
D. Trials & tribulations: Training in actual bootcamps with the Vancouver Theatre Sports League (and later: The Second City) was not an easy process. From the first class of Fundamentals I all the way to Advanced I, there were doubts in my mind whether I could even do this. "You can present seamlessly in a business setting, but you're so bad on stage" — that would be the type of negative self-talk I would be feeding myself. I wasn't naturally funny, I wasn't that quick-witted, I couldn't embody convincing characters that stuck, I didn't have all these pop culture references in my back pocket... These thoughts crashed around like a tidal wave in my head, and really stifled my confidence as a "comedian" for the longest time. I thought about quitting this journey probably more times than I can admit (~6?!)
E. Growth & new skills: It was a gradual evolution of a growing love for improv as a craft, taught to me by my first (and favourite) improv instructor Ted Hambly. A smart & standup guy (no pun intended), Ted was elegant in the way he navigated the lessons of scenework, blending practical activity with well-intentioned theory. Particularly, I love how he didn't shy away from going deep and difficult, even to an Improv I class. As I heightened and expanded the depth of my scenework on-stage, so too did I feel a unique feeling outside of the studio. A feeling of empowerment, a feeling of elevation. On the surface, this manifested in better storytelling and increased flexibility in my personal & professional endeavours — for example, my business presentation skills received a spike. 
F. Death & rebirth: In the typical Hero's Journey structure, the hero encounters a woman, who acts as a "temptress" (e.g. love interest) whose main purpose is to distract & dismay. Crossing this boundary, the biggest challenge awaits, formally called the Atonement with the Father/Abyss. That's a lot of terminology, so let's unpack this in the context of this journey of improvisation. It was hard to stay attached to improv as a hobby because other life priorities came up: maximizing the last of my undergrad, travelling the world, moving to a new city, starting a corporate job. By themselves, these are also very formative experiences that require sizable doses of care, effort, and attention. You can see where I was pulled in all different directions; truly a chaotic whirlpool of competing attitudes and unforgiving outcomes. My creative child, the one who loved improv, was swept up and washed ashore in a comatose state. The abandonment of the self-generated double-monster: societal expectations & internal tensions created a "squeezing" effect, limiting the colourful oxygen my creative mind craves. 
G. Revelation: This is where the hero finds themselves in a phase of "apotheosis" — the point of realization where a greater understanding is unlocked. I consider this point to be right before graduation, where I gradually picked up the pieces of my core identity. Or rather, I had to pick them up — there was a looming fear that if I didn't manage the transition into the corporate world intentionally, I would lose my entire essence in the process. Yep, a bit dramatic. But at its core, the realization centered around strength of a multivariate identity (fondly called "kaleidoscopic" these days); the idea that being a creative generalist with a weird atypical hobby is a competitive advantage and a barrier against other narratives. 
H. Evolution: It took me a full year after to return to the realm of improv — in the performing sense — and then another year to embrace this part of my identity. This sense of finally considering myself as an "improviser" was a liberating feeling. I brought this philosophy with me to varied settings, including job interviews, first dates, and creative circles. I could feel a physical phase shift from Old Me to New Me: improvising felt fluid, felt natural, felt whole. As the observer of my own actions, I could abstract out all of the improv principles I applied in-field, everything from heightening and escalating for dramatic storytelling value, to understanding character subtext as a proxy to consumer behaviour. I could link these principles with product management tightly, proving evolution in my mindset as a builder. I hosted a 3-part improv workshop series for ambitious tech folks in On Deck, and as Feynman says, if you can teach it then you know it. The renewal of intrinsic confidence is arguably the most valuable output out of this exploration, because for the first time in my life, there was a greater calling that led me to raw craft. Obviously there's another long ass memoir post about how my entire worldview now is anchored on the principles of improvisation, but that'll be saved for another time. 
I. Atonement: The toughest part about celebrating this unique creativity within me has been my historical reluctance to lean into improvisation hard. This means outside from the context of the stage, I had to integrate this antifragile philosophy into the web of my life. Unfortunately, the first year of COVID made it near impossible to accomplish this goal. The dreary dailiness sapped away the degree of flexibility I had, and my receptiveness to living a life of diversity and variety that I prided myself in before. 
J. Gift: 

To be honest, I found it difficult to write my story this way. After reflecting on this process, I realized the hero's journey is an idealistic way of depicting a series of struggles until a cathartic conclusion. Of course, real life doesn't operate in such a rigid fashion. People may go through unpredictable cycles of behaviour, a sinusoidal wave of change and growth. The idealistic version strips away the complex nuance of the day-to-day and the basket of heavy emotions. The story gets reduced into a simple order of operations that you'd learn in Grade 3 Math. It's almost as if assembling some hero's journey were as easy as stacking and toppling dominoes one by one. But to be fair, this type of tale is the easiest to embody — for those seeking an accessible branch of truth, being the hero doesn't seem all that bad.

My hero's journey representation is one version of a journey to finding yourself. Mine is unconventional by all standards, and I've learned over the years to shout that with pride rather than dilute the message with doubt. From the last exploration: narrativizing is a way to find meaning. As cliché as it sounds, we're all the main characters of our own lifelong series, right?

Then, the ultimate goal is to find a narrative about yourself that resonates with you & make sure everyone knows your story. You're the product, now go optimize for distribution.

Here's to leading a life as a hero, whenever you most need it and feel it :)

Published by Sam (samwong) 3 months ago on Wednesday the 23th of February 2022.

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