words of wisdom

No, but...

Here’s a crazy thought:

I realized this week that I’m coming up on a decade of being a full-time, professional entertainer. A decade! TEN FREAKING YEARS.

I never had another option or a backup plan; it was always going to be what I’m doing now or some form of it. So I set out ten years ago with no real plan - just grit and the desire to get paid for doing something that I’m passionate about.

It took maybe 6 or 7 of those years to even feel like I’d made any progress. Then, I started getting more creative with the show, taking risks, and exploring more outlets for performing like producing my own shows or doing fringe festivals. It’s taken a long time and a lot of work to tell people I’m a professional entertainer and really believe it myself.

I didn’t really know what I was doing back in 2009, so I just started saying “yes” to everything. I figured being the person who always made stuff happen would lead to good things.

Them: “Can you do a show outdoors on the side of a hill?”
Me: “Absolutely.”

Them: “Can you do a show during halftime of a basketball game?”
Me: “No problem at all.”

Them: “Can you put a different show together for us by next week?”
Me: “Yes, of course!”

Over the past ten years I’ve said “yes” to more things then I can remember. I’ve moved across the country for jobs, driven overnight, lost money, lost sleep, and given more than I’ve received. But somehow I was convinced I would eventually get something out of it.

Many years ago I started changing my approach. I changed my answer from “yes” to “no, but…”. And suddenly, things started getting better. I started enjoying my work more and people started to take notice.

I had said “yes” to a job at the Disney World resorts but what I thought was going to be a full-time gig ended up being only a fill-in, part-time gig. After a year of being on-call and seizing every opportunity, I decided I didn’t really like a) performing outdoors and b) performing for children/families. I decided I would stop doing both of those things moving forward, so when Disney called to offer me the full-time position I thought they’d given me a year before I turned down the offer and moved back to Chicago a month later.

Disney: “Do you want to go on full-time at the BoardWalk next year?”
Me: “No, I don’t think it’s for me…but I know someone who would do a great job for you.”

I haven’t done a single gig for children/families since then and only a handful of outdoor gigs - but always on my terms. It was life-changing.

“No, but…” are real-life magic words. They get you out of things you don’t want to do. They keep you sane. They help you make decisions that will benefit you long-term.

The key is to give an emphatic “no”, then follow it up with a “but…” where you offer a detailed explanation or offer to help in some other capacity.

I get random calls all the time. People want to pay me less than I’m worth. People want me to work for free or for (oh-fuck-off) exposure. People (usually friend or family) want a favor and expect it of me.

I respond with a “No, but…” and explain my rate or my schedule or my value or why I can’t just fly across the country for a freebie. Then, I put them in touch with a friend who can do it or help them brainstorm some other options. I do about a hundred shows a year and I probably turn down about twice as many. Not every gig is for me and realizing which ones are has made all the difference. The truth is, my best opportunities have come from saying “no” to things, not from saying “yes”.

I’ve been slowly eliminating things I don’t want to do from my life the past few years and I’m nearly there. 2020 is about to be the year of saying “no” to as much as possible.

This isn’t advice only for performers. “No, but…” (or perhaps “No, because…”) works in any situation.

Your friends want you to go out for a late night bar crawl, even though they know you’re training for a half marathon? (“No, because I have to wake up early…”)

People keep taking advantage of your expertise but refusing to pay you? (“No, because I have bills to pay and can’t keep offering my services for free.”)

People want you to do a thing you don’t want to do at a certain time at a stupid place? (“No, but maybe next time.” while you’re actually thinking “No, because it doesn’t make me happy.”)

The irony of preaching “No, but…” in the city of “Yes, and…” is not lost on me. But I stand by it. Saying “no” to things you don’t want to do is the secret to having time for the things you want to be doing.

Other Thoughts:

  • Warren Buffett seems to agree with me.

  • I’ve been enjoying this lately. You probably will, too.

  • Have you joined my Thursday Thoughts mailing list? I won’t be on social media much longer so sign up so you’ll never miss a post.

  • The banner photo is from my appearance last month on Pittsburgh Today Live. Watch it here:

Be Kind

I found out that a member of my building’s custodial staff passed away sometime this week.

I only interacted with him a handful of times but he was always kind in those brief encounters. He was a decent, caring man who was always working hard to ensure the building was clean and up to standards.

I couldn’t help but think that he passed away while he was still employed here, probably to support his family and make ends meet. He didn’t get to retire and enjoy the later years of his life with his loved ones. He spent his final months serving others to make their lives easier. To make my life easier.

My building isn’t that fancy. It’s nice and secure, but I don’t live in one of the most luxurious towers in Chicago. Still, there are benefits to living here. We pay for security, parking, and more. The staff helps ensure our safety and quality of life. It always gives me peace of mind to know that my wife will be safe and secure while I’m on the road for weeks at a time.

It may not be the fanciest building, but it is a nice place to live and I’m thankful for it every day. I’m grateful for the staff and the neighborhood and the proximity to local destinations.

I found it hard to write something meaningful this week, for many reasons. Mostly, I think the highly politicized news cycle made it difficult for me to find purpose in my ideas. The weight of the world can sometimes make my daily struggles seem very trivial.

I read this story last week that really broke my heart. It made me want to be nicer to everyone around me - the remaining staff in my building, strangers on the bus, my friends, my wife. It was a stark reminder that my life is pretty great and I’m very, very fortunate.

All I want this week is to be grateful for my place in the world and the fact that I get to travel for a job and entertain people everywhere I go. I get plenty of days off, have a beautiful and talented wife, and a lovely apartment where I spend the majority of my time. I don’t take it for granted.

Be grateful for the people around your that make your life easier. Go out of your way to thank them. And remember the oft-quoted phrase “Be kind, for everyone you know is fighting a hard battle.”

Have a good week. Do your best. I’ll see you next Thursday.