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September 2016


“Mike Birbiglia’s 6 Tips for Making It Small in Hollywood or Anywhere”

by Mike Birbiglia (New York Times, 9/2/16)


What are the big take-aways?


I went and saw the comedian Mike Birbiglia’s new movie, “Don’t Think Twice,” a few nights ago. It’s a well-written -acted and -produced ode to the dedicated actors in the second-tier comedy and improv troupes which feed emerging talent to the premium entertainment circuit and top-tier TV shows like “Saturday Night Live.” For me, the major take-away from the film, echoed in this article, is that there is an important (and perhaps necessary) place in any industry for folks who love the work but who – for any of a huge constellation of reasons – don’t become big stars. Moreover, the satisfactions of doing what you feel passionate about, without the too-often unsustainable pressure and scrutiny that can come with certain forms of “success,” may be well worth the financial and status trade-offs.


Why do I like it?


I like the six tips. On tour with his new film, Birbiglia does Q&A sessions after some of the showings and he is always asked for advice about how to make it big. As he puts it, “[t]he truth is they should probably pick someone more successful to ask — I make small films, small one-man shows Off Broadway and small comedy specials for Netflix — but I’m the person who showed up to talk to them,” and so he offers them the advice in this article.


In what situations would this be useful?


Birbiglia’s first tip, “Don’t Wait,” may be the best tip anyone can receive about getting started at anything, whether it’s taking a new position of leadership or influence, sparking a new business enterprise, engaging in activism, or beginning any new expression of creativity in any medium. In Hollywood, for example, he suggests: “Write. Make a short film. Go to an open mike. Take an improv class. There’s no substitute for actually doing something. Don’t talk about it anymore. Maybe don’t even finish reading this essay.” I agree! (Maybe don’t even finish reading this blog post!)


The other five tips are also terrific: “Fail.” “Learn from the Failure.” “Maybe Quit” (which, in leadership coaching, we might reframe as “hold your objectives lightly” and be open to other ways you can manifest your mission than the one you are committed to now). I love this one: “Be Bold Enough to Make Stuff That’s Small But Great.” And remember, “Cleverness is Overrated and Heart is Underrated.” As Birbiglia adds, importantly, “there are fewer people competing for heart, so you have a better chance of getting noticed. Sometimes people say, ‘One thing you have to offer in your work is yourself.’ I disagree. I think it’s the only thing.”


What other resources might “pair” well with it?


For one kind of pairing – by way of a fine example of the points Mike Birbiglia makes in his article  – I recommend his movie, “Don’t Think Twice.” Birbiglia is great in it, as it Keegan Michael Key and the luminous Gillian Jacobs.


For an experiential pairing, I recommend taking at least an improv workshop, if not a whole class. It’s wonderful training for leaders of all kinds, with its emphases on critical practices such as “yes, and…” thinking, accepting the reality that is being co-created by your team, and the “go big or go home” attitude. The original book by Keith Johnstone on the topic is still an excellent resource; I reviewed it a few years ago in the Leadership Library.


Another pairing, which I highly recommend for women in particular, is Tina Fey’s Bossypants (also previously reviewed here in the Leadership Library).


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