Tapping Your Comedy Muse: How to Master Creative Flow to Revolutionize Your Comedy Writing

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Tapping Your Comedy Muse: How to Master Creative Flow to Revolutionize Your Comedy Writing

Table of contents :
Tapping Your Comedy Muse......Page 2
Table of Contents......Page 3
Introduction......Page 4
Getting The Most Out of Every Moment......Page 5
Outside of Flow......Page 6
Inside of Flow......Page 7
The Undisputed Champions of Flow......Page 8
Part 1: The 8 Factors of Achievement......Page 11
Part 2: How To Take Control of Creative Flow......Page 12
Skills......Page 13
Responsive Environment......Page 14
How To Use The 8 Factors of Achievement......Page 15
How to Take Control of Creative Flow......Page 16
The 9 Factors of Flow......Page 17
Flow Goals......Page 18
How I used goals to develop my improvisational style......Page 19
Using Feedback to Fuel Creative Flow......Page 21
Balancing Challenge and Skill Level......Page 23
How To Restore Balance......Page 24
Achieving the Ultimate Focus......Page 25
Eliminating Distractions......Page 26
two ways to avoid distractions......Page 27
Eliminating the Worry of Failure......Page 28
How to eliminate self-consciousness......Page 30
Bending Time......Page 32
What to do when time drags on......Page 33
Enjoying Every Moment of “Work”......Page 34
Tapping Your Comedy Muse......Page 35

Citation preview

Tapping Your Comedy Muse How to Maximize Creative Flow to Revolutionize Your Writing

By Jared Volle

Copyright © 2015 by Jared Volle

Table of Contents Introduction 1. The Inescapable Truth About Writing Comedy 2. The Undisputed Champions of Flow 3. How This eBook Is Organized The 8 Factors of Achievement 4. Motivation 5. Skills 6. Responsive Environment How to Take Control of Creative Flow 7. The 9 Factors of Flow 1. Flow Goals 2. Using Feedback to Fuel Creative Flow 3. Balancing Challenge and Skills 4. Achieving the Ultimate Focus 5. Eliminating Distractions 6. Eliminating the Worry of Failure 7. Eliminating Self-Consciousness 8. Bending Time 9. Enjoying Every Moment of "Work"

Introduction The Inescapable Truth About Writing Comedy As comedians, we live and die by the material and performances we create. We aren’t paid to write material, we’re paid to get results on stage. The audience doesn’t care how many hours you spend writing or rewriting material. The only thing they care about is whether you’re funny that night or not. It’s entirely up to us to use our writing time effectively. If you want great material, you have to put in the time and effort to write it and hone it to perfection. But not all “creativity time” is created equal. Some days you struggle and end up with only mediocre ideas, but other days you find yourself in a creative flow where everything clicks into place and you create some of your best material with ease. In this eBook, you’re going to learn how to maximize your time “in the zone,” and produce killer material faster than ever before. I’m going to give you a blueprint for getting into and then protecting your creative flow so that you can get the most out of yourself every day. It’s a huge promise. I know. But I’m confident in it for two reasons. First, I live what I teach. I’ve worked with A-list comedians, built companies, and graduated with a 4.0 from the top Creativity & Innovation Master’s program in the U.S. Achieving these goals would have been impossible if it weren’t for my ability to consistently get into a deep creative flow while working. Second, this eBook isn’t simply “what I think.” It summarizes the best of what motivational and creativity scientists have found through decades of research and has translated those findings into actionable advice for comedians. As with Faster & Funnier and Creativity For Comedians, this eBook represents an intersection of psychology and comedy. My job is a simple one. It’s putting in the grunt-work of going through mountains of research (admittedly, I love it), discovering ideas that can help me succeed in comedy at ever-greater levels, testing them out in my own career, and then translating those ideas into something that is both easy to understand and easy to apply to your comedy career. I can do this because I’ve lived in both worlds: I’ve stood in front of audiences of 1000+ waiting for them to stop applauding so I can get to my next joke and I’ve been the nerd sitting on his couch devouring psychology textbooks. I don’t want to tell you what I think, I want to tell you what I KNOW works. Everything in this eBook has been put to the test and triumphed. That means it’s something you can trust in. The process works.

Getting The Most Out of Every Moment Flow is the ultimate state of creativity and productivity for any creative person. Think of it as “being in the zone.” Flow is paramount to comedians because it leads to extremely high-quality material with less stress and wasted effort. Perhaps it is easiest to see the true benefits of flow by looking at characteristics of non-flow.

Outside of Flow Outside of flow, creative people often describe continual struggle: Difficulty finding creative inspiration, hopelessly searching for ideas on where to start or “where to go from here,” and constant second-guessing. Each step forward is usually met with another step back. In this environment, it is no surprise that creative work comes to a standstill. Unfortunately, this is where many creative people spend the majority of their time. But they press on because they know that when they get into a creative flow, magic happens. All the struggling is justified by the great work they created in their flow state. Thus, they often spend time struggling through non-flow because they know that when they “get in the zone” the results will be worth all the trouble in the end.

Inside of Flow However, inside of a creative flow, most people describe a feeling of invincibility; pure, unadulterated engagement in their creative pursuit; increased self-efficacy (belief in your own ability) and happiness; and, perhaps most importantly, the feeling of self-actualizing their creative potential. But it’s not simply that more-creative work was done (increased quality) or that the flow-state allowed them to do that work for a longer period of time (increased quantity). The true power of creative flow lies in reaching a point of self-actualization. In flow, we don’t feel like we are “doing creative things.” We feel like we are being the creative person we were always meant to be. It is no surprise that such powerful emotions have lead to the greatest creative ideas the world has ever seen. This power is available to all. Those that understand the mechanics of flow are able to consistently enter that state again and again, regardless of industry or circumstance.

The Undisputed Champions of Flow In the next few pages I’m going to show you how a group of “lazy” people are consistently able to: put extreme focus … into a mentally difficult activity … day-in and day-out … for hours at a time… to quickly master new skills… all while experiencing intense enjoyment. Sounds too good to be true right? … but you undoubtedly know someone like this. This is a state of pure flow, and it’s the Ultimate Advantage in stand-up comedy. It’s been used by elite businessmen, top-level athletes, and world-renown artists to achieve success on massive scales. In this book, I’m going to show you how you can achieve even your most ambitious comedy goals by harnessing the power of flow and directing it toward specific outcomes that lead to massive achievement. So who is this group of “lazy” people that are able to consistently direct their focus, refine their skills, and achieve their goals? You’ll probably find them a little strange at first… but you’re going to find them inspiring as well because flow has been studied in almost every profession or hobby you can think of… and the laws of achieving flow are universal. The same factors lead to flow, regardless of industry. That means when you master flow, you master your personal and professional life. So who are they? … gamers. And they’re the undisputed masters of flow. Gamers are a great example of flow for two reasons. First, we can all relate to loving games. Maybe not video games, but all of us have our own activities where we achieve a similar flow. Choose any activity that you intensely enjoy (maybe even obsessed with) and you’ll see these same principles at work. Second, gamers illustrate the raw-power behind being able to consistently achieve flow. Just think about some of the startling statistics found in the video gaming industry. A study of gaming behavior found gamers spent an average of 20 hours a week gaming. 9% of the participants showed signs of addiction while 4% played video games over 7 hours a day! How is it that a person that many people stereotype as lazy can spend more than 7 hours a day with one, singular focus? It’s not because video games are easy. In fact, many are extraordinarily difficult to master. It’s because video games are designed from the ground up with one purpose in mind… to provide flow. Video gaming has grown to more than an 80 billion dollar industry because game designers have an unparalleled ability to get gamers into an intense state of flow. Here’s exactly how they do it. There are 9 factors of flow, but three of them play a dominant role. When these first three

factors are aligned, creative flow is not far away. Here are the first three factors and how video games use them to put gamers in flow: 1. Flow-Inducing Goals - Gamers follow the storyline. They understand where they are and where they need to be. Simply put, the goal is to win… and there’s a fairly clear path toward that victory. As you’ll learn later, the type of goals that produce flow isn’t the same as the longterm and short term goals you might have for your career. 2. Effective Feedback - A gamer can make a mistake, die, and try again. The ability to keep trying allows him to learn from mistakes and quickly develop his skills at a new game. Contrast this with the ambiguous feedback we get in the real world that makes it difficult to know exactly how well we’re doing at any given time. 3. Balance Between Skills and Challenge - Games start off easy, allowing a gamer to explore his new world. As the gamer’s skill increases, the challenges grow as well. He’s never bored because the game is providing a challenge, but the challenge is never so high that he gets overly frustrated or gives up.

When these 3 factors are aligned, a flow-state is almost inevitable. Here’s what happens when the first three factors align:

4. Action & Awareness Merge - Early on, a lot of effort goes into learning the controls. The gamer sees where he wants to go, thinks about which buttons to press, and awkwardly makes his way there. But a short time later, he’s not even thinking about the controller. His awareness is in the game… and ONLY in the game. 5. Distractions Are Excluded - As more and more of the gamer’s attention is focused on the game, he sinks deeper into flow. Distractions become irrelevant. Any distractions that do arise are either written off or minimized, allowing the flow to continue. 6. No Worry of Failure - If a player makes a mistake, he can always try again. There’s no need to constantly second-guess a move or feel anxious. If his character dies, he can try again. In the real world, this doesn’t mean you’re free to “do something stupid.” There’s a time for long-term strategy and a time for taking action. 7. Self-Consciousness Disappears - As the flow gets deeper, the gamer becomes so focused on playing the game that self-consciousness disappears. Worries about the past or future drift away. When self-consciousness is gone, the gamer feels a spike of positive emotions. In fact, these positive emotions can be so significant that many researchers argue that this is why video games can be so addictive. 8. Time Becomes Distorted - Any time a person is deeply involved in a flow-activity like this, his sense of time becomes distorted. Hours fly by and only feel like a few minutes. Think about the last time you got caught up in a TV show or a game only to look up and see that

you’ve blown through hours in what seemed like only a few (intensely enjoyable) minutes. 9. The Game Is Fun For Its Own Sake - Games are fun for their own sake. A gamer isn’t trying to “get something” from playing a game. It’s not like a horrible job he must grin-and-bare until he gets his paycheck. Playing the game is its own reward.

Now I gotta ask… aren’t you jealous?! Never mind the video games. Don’t you want to be able to… quickly immerse yourself in a project learn how to master personal and professional skills quickly? and have work feel more like play? Here’s the great news, just like video game designers have been able to master these principles and provide flow to millions of gamers worldwide, you can master flow for yourself and direct it toward achieving even your most ambitious goals in comedy. What could you do if you were able to spend 50 hours a week in a state of intense mental focus? And what if you felt intense joy while doing it? What if you loved every moment?

How This eBook Is Organized Part 1: The 8 Factors of Achievement In the next chapter, I’m going to share with you the 8 critical factors of achievement. These factors are going to completely change how you work. The problem is that “Achievement” is an ambiguous goal. How exactly do you “start achieving?” Ambiguous goals result in ambiguous, inconsistent actions. It leads to ineffective action at best, and, and worst, constantly second-guessing yourself, procrastinating, and struggling with a crippling fear of failure. So this eBook starts by showing you exactly where you need to be directing your energy to achieve your career goals. By breaking achievement down, you’ll have a roadmap to success that you can consistently take action. Your circumstances will change over time, but the map stays the same. You can start applying this information today, and you don’t even have to fit anything into your to-do list.

Part 2: How To Take Control of Creative Flow In part 2 of this course, we’ll dive down deep into how flow works. I’m going to take the 9 factors of flow introduced earlier and give you concrete strategies for consistently achieving flow in your writing and performances. I’ll also show you specific strategies I developed early in my career that helped me achieve flow more consistently and achieve more in my stand-up comedy career. Understand that this eBook is NOT a to-do list. I don’t want to give you more things to do. I want to show you a few simple shifts that you can implement immediately in your comedy career that’ll allow you to get extraordinary results in less time, all while experiencing intense pleasure along the way. This eBook is also about depth. You won’t just learn what strategies you can take to master flow, you’ll learn how and why those strategies create flow and lead to achievement. Lasting transformation occurs when you understand the big picture. To-do lists don’t change careers, because to-do lists don’t get done! This eBook is going to put you on a path that is clear and compelling. You’re not going to be “pushing” yourself to achievement, you’ll feel like achievement is pulling you in. When this happens, the whole game shifts. That’s when massive achievement is possible.

8 Factors of Achievement There are 3 main components to high-achievement: motivation, skills, and a responsive environment. These factors multiply on top of one another to exponentially increase your ability to achieve your career goals.

Motivation Contrary to popular belief, motivation isn’t simply something you have or you don’t. Motivational researchers have shown that how motivated you are to do something depends on 3 factors: goals, emotions, and self-efficacy (the belief that you can obtain the goal you desire). Goals provide short-term and long-term focus and enhance your ability to take action on audience feedback. They’re also a primary source of emotions. Emotions are the “fuel of achievement.” High-achievers don’t just set a goal and then get to work. Achievers are driven by intense emotions like excitement, curiosity, or the desire to contribute or become successful. Those emotions drive achievers forward. It amplifies their skills when their at their best and provides resilience when things get tough. Self-efficacy is how achievers take action. Achievers never start off fully prepared with all the knowledge and skills to achieve their goals, but they get themselves to take action anyway because they know that they’ll eventually break through and succeed. Self-efficacy is how the comedian starts writing before they know how it’ll turn out. It’s also how the athlete wakes up early and practices despite no guarantee of becoming a professional athlete. It’s how the entrepreneur launches a new business idea even though there is no promise it’ll succeed. Building a significant career doesn’t require certainty… it requires self-efficacy.

Skills Skills don’t come from nowhere and, contrary to popular belief, NOBODY is “a natural.” Mastering any skill requires effort, time, and learning. Consistent effort and learning over a long enough period of time creates the same result every time… mastery. You might have heard of the 10,000 hour rule (sometimes called the “Ten Year Rule”). 10,000 hours is a rough estimate of the time it takes the brain to rewire itself for mastering a set of skills. The number 10,000 changes depending on the industry or the skill being studied (no studies have ever been done on stand-up comedy). The number isn’t what’s important… what’s important is how universal this process is. You can literally take anyone, put them in a state of consistent flow long enough for the brain to rewire new habits and drop old ones… and they WILL master the skill… every time.

The brain is designed to rewire itself… but the process takes time. When neurons in the brain consistently fire together, the brain wires those neurons together until firing one sets off a single, harmonized chain reaction. That’s how a professional baseball player can see a 100 mph pitch, decide to swing the bat in 1/10 of a second, and then fire all the correct muscles in perfect order to hit the center of a round ball with a round bat. But 10,000 hours of swinging a bat doesn’t make someone an MVP. When I played baseball in college, my coach would make us put the ball on a tee until we could consistently drive the baseball to the back wall of a narrow batting cage. If you hit the ball a fraction of an inch too low it’d hit the ceiling. Hit it too high and the ball will hit the ground before it hits the back wall. This is where effort and learning come into play. High-achievement requires the kind of mental focus found in flow. When you focus on a specific goal, you teach your brain exactly what outcome you want. When you’re able to get detailed feedback (such as in the batting cage example), your brain is able to finer adjustments to create a more detailed “map” of success.

Responsive Environment Even highly motivated and skilled people can fail to achieve goals. That’s because there’s a third factor of achievement that isn’t directly under an achiever’s control… their environment. Here’s how powerful environment is: Have you ever heard of the comedian Lenny Bruce? If you know your comedy history, you certainly have. If not, you’ll probably be very surprised to learn that Comedy Central ranks Lenny Bruce as the #3 stand-up comedian of all-time, only surpassed by Pryor and Carlin. How could such an important comedian not have household name recognition like every other comedian in the top 10? It all comes down to his environment. The comedians of the Golden Age of Comedy owe much of their success and fame to Lenny Bruce. Bruce was the first true counter-cultural comedian. Working in the late 1950s and early 1960s, his critiques of society and “vulgar” language got him arrested on multiple occasions. The world wasn’t ready for his style. They were used to very formal and polite jokes, the kind Bob Hope did to perfection. While Bruce was successful in some respects (i.e. later he was recognized as the “genius that started it all”), he fell far short of achieving the financial success he deserved. After fighting endless lawsuits, Bruce gave his final performance and declared bankruptcy. The environment always affects success. Both Pryor and Carlin were successful because they broke through boundaries. Bruce broke through boundaries as well, but he did it at a time when the world didn’t appreciate it. He was deemed a villain by 1960s America, while Pryor and Carlin were hailed as heroes a generation later. I’m not saying that Lenny Bruce should have toned down his material to make more money. He knew the arrests and lawsuits would stop if he did. He knowingly fought against what he believed to be an unjust system. Like it or not, we are all working within the environment we have. It’s up to us to either change it, adapt to it, or find common ground through a

mixture of the two. Dealing with your environment requires two skills: the ability to understand the environment and the ability to adjust to it. Achievers are people that are able to take their motivation and skills and apply them in a way that takes the environment into account. It’s not blind perseverance. They see what’s working and what isn’t and then they adapt. “Adjusting to the environment” doesn’t mean that comedians should water-down their material to fit with what the audience currently wants though. If that were the case, we’d all look alike. It means that we are intelligent about our careers. When we decide to try something unique and different, we do so knowingly. We see what’s currently working, but we are always free to try something new.

How To Use The 8 Factors of Achievement You can use these 8 factors of achievement to help produce a creative flow while writing and performing. Unlike “achievement,” these 8 factors are concrete and actionable. You always have the opportunity to focus on one of these factors. As you learn more about the 9 factors of flow, you’ll see how these two concepts of achievement and flow are work together. These 8 factors of achievement also give you long-term focus. You now know the core components of achievement. By focusing your efforts on these factors, you can reduce uncertainty and second-guessing. It’s quite easy to go through these 8 factors and identify your strengths and weaknesses. From there, you can break down the problem further. For instance, if you identify a lack of skills, you can break that down into performing, writing, and marketing skills. You can break those factors down even further until you find something that you can take immediate, forceful action on. This will not only lead you into a creative flow, but it’ll also help you stay completely aligned with your long-term goals.

How to Take Control of Creative Flow Given that the majority of highly-creative ideas come about during flow-states, the most important question you should be asking yourself is this: How can I maximize my time spent in creative flow? Here’s the GREAT news… The path into flow is both predictable and consistent. There are no mysterious forces that allow a creative person to enter a flow-state. Rather, there are various criteria (or “factors”) that creative people satisfy for GETTING INTO and STAYING in a creative flow. When a creative person satisfies enough of the criteria, a flow-state naturally emerges. While what happens inside of a flowstate can often appear magical, getting into that state is simply a matter of mechanics. Entering a flowstate comes down to only two things: Knowing what to do to enter flow (strategy)… and doing what you know (application). Anyone who reads my comedy blog or has taken one of my online comedy courses knows that I focus a lot on mechanics. Mechanics go a level deeper than strategy. Strategy is about knowing what to do, mechanics is about knowing why it works. Earlier, I showed you that motivation is made up of 3 factors: goals, emotions, and self-efficacy (belief in your ability to achieve your goal). Mechanics is what provides self-efficacy early on. When you understand the mechanics, motivation skyrockets. Understanding “the why” is what gives you an unshakeable belief that leads to taking action. When you know WHY something works, you trust the process and take actions you otherwise wouldn’t have. As you read on and learn more about the 9 factors of flow, you’ll see how understanding these mechanics plays a huge role in your motivation and ability to get into flow. There are 9 factors of flow. While you can begin anywhere, the first three factors are the most influential. They’re also the most actionable. You can’t simply tell yourself to “not worry,” but you can destroy self-doubt by achieving satisfying other factors of flow. Importantly, each flow factor compounds on top of one another. Satisfying one factor provides marginal benefit, while satisfying only 4 or 5 of them is usually enough to reach a tipping-point and move into a flow-state. Thus, as you satisfy more of these factors, your ability to get into a creative flow exponentially increases. Entering flow is much like tipping a set of dominoes: All 9 factors don’t have to be met at the same time. They’re interconnected. When you act on one, you influence all others.

The 9 Factors of Flow 1. There are clear goals every step of the way 2. There is immediate feedback 3. There is a balance between your current skills and current challenge 4. Action and awareness merge 5. Distractions are excluded or minimized 6. There is no worry of failure 7. Self-consciousness disappears 8. Sense of time becomes distorted 9. The activity is fun for its own sake

Flow Goals When a comedian is in flow, he knows what it is he needs to do. This isn’t about having a distant goal or dream of what he wants to obtain or achieve. It’s about knowing the goal of the step that lies directly in front of him. Far-off goals give general direction, but they don’t help a comedian achieve flow. As goals get further away, “what needs to be done NOW” become more and more vague and, therefore, less actionable. The less actionable your goals are, the more time you’ll spend secondguessing yourself. The goal “become a successful comedian” isn’t actionable because it begs the question “Ok… now what?” Your creative momentum dies, and flow dies along with it. Instead, a flow-goal is an immediate point between your ultimate desired outcome and where you currently are. The more immediate the action is, the more focus you’ll have. If you want to get into flow consistently, always give your brain concrete, immediate goals to pursue. You do this by being specific about what you want to achieve in your writing or at a performance. You can always change the goals if you feel pulled toward something different. What’s important is that you give your brain a starting point. If you’ve ever caught yourself procrastinating, it was likely because your goal was too vague or so large that it couldn’t possibly be completed in one sitting. Find a goal that is concrete (you know EXACTLY what needs to be done) and that you would be able to complete relatively quickly. For example, one of the easiest ways to begin a writing session is with the small, simple goal of finding a better setup or punchline for a specific joke that you really enjoy telling on stage. Because it’s a joke you already like, you’ll enjoy working on it. Focusing on it allows you to re-live the pleasure you feel when it kills on stage. This strategy gives you three powerful benefits: a clear goal that you can immediately take action on, a small goal that you know you can achieve, and the pleasure of working on a piece of material you enjoy.

How I used goals to develop my improvisational style If you asked my fellow comedians what type of comedian I am, they’d undoubtedly say I’m somewhere between a storyteller and an improvisational comedian. I rarely “stay on script” throughout an entire set. But I didn’t start out that way. The first few years of my career, I almost always stuck to my written material. I was scared to say anything on stage that I hadn’t obsessively written, re-written, and rehearsed. If you follow my blog, you know that I reached a point in my career where I got fed up with the results I was getting on stage, threw out all my material, and started from scratch. About 6 months after I threw out all my material and started again, I did a show with TJ Miller (from How to Train Your Dragon). I thought he was incredible at coming up with off-the-cuff humor and being present with the audience. Whether he was doing a comedy club or an open mic, he always seemed to be entirely authentic and real… never doing material from his head. I admired this ability and knew I needed to develop the skill for my own career. I didn’t know how, so I started small. I challenged myself to do at least “some” audience-work at the beginning of each set. I’d hit a quick off-the-cuff line then retreat back to the safety of my material. When I realized that using improvised humor was an amazing way to open the show, I upped the challenge. I started asking myself the question “How long can I do audience-work without using ANY of my material?” At that point in my career, my best guess was that I could last 4-5 minutes. When I thought about “shooting from the hip.” 4-5 minutes felt like an eternity. The first couple of times out I lasted about a minute. About three months after starting the challenge, I did a solid 12 minutes of improvisation to open my show. I thought that record would stand forever. That is, until I got booked for a helluva hell gig… About another 3 months after hitting the 12-minute mark, I was booked as the headliner for a show in Colorado. The booker told us that there was a bike race that day and that the bikers wanted a beer afterward. Bicycle races are huge in Colorado and I’m a triathlete myself, so I thought “sounds easy enough." When we all got there the “bicyclists” weren’t there… there were about 60 hard-ass Harley riders already drunk by 3pm. I watched them eat every comedian alive. The show was a disaster. It was obvious from watching them that the audience didn’t want to hear jokes. They seemed to have two rules: a) I’m drunk b) I want personal attention. So my new goal for the show became “whatever I end up doing on stage… it CAN’T be material.” I was the single craziest show I ever did in my life (a guy that I later found out was nick-named “crazy Jack” took off his pants, rushed the stage, and pole danced on my mic stand during the middle of my set). But that biker show was one of my proudest experiences as a comedian. I showed me that I could handle anything and keep the audience laughing the entire time. I ended up crushing that show. When I went back and listened to the recording, I learned that I had killed on stage for a full 26 minutes before doing a single “joke” (which didn’t work, so I quickly went back to the audience).

This is how a goal can be used effectively to get into flow on stage. I gave my brain a specific goal to shoot for on stage. The goal was also an immediate one. On stage, I didn’t question whether I should go into material or do crowd-work to start the show. That decision was already made: crowdwork first… always. Knowing that I’d do crowd-work at the beginning of each set forced me to be completely present with the audience. The goal also provided a balance between my current crowdwork skills and my challenge. In the beginning, the goal was simply to hit 1-2 improvised lines and move into material. Reaching the goal that night didn’t even require the audience to laugh at the improvised material. The challenge was very low (as was my skill). As my skill increased, I increased the challenge as well. This minimized my worry of failure while keeping the challenge high enough to enter flow (more on that later). Today, crowd work and improvisation are staples of all my performances.

Using Feedback to Fuel Creative Flow The second aspect of flow is the ability to get immediate feedback on the evolving work. For short-term goals to be effective, you must be able to determine whether you are getting closer or further away from your desired outcome. One of the most rewarding aspects of being a comedian is the ability to know exactly how well you are doing while performing on stage. The audience is either laughing or they aren’t. This feedback provides clear goals of what to do the next time you’re working on material. Thus, each time you perform, you enhance your ability to get into flow the next time you write. However, there is a major problem that comedians face regarding getting feedback. For feedback to help a comedian achieve flow, the feedback MUST be immediate. Usually, a comedian spends a significant amount of time writing and rewriting their material before the material ever gets on stage. Sometimes the time between writing and performing is only an hour or so, but often it can be several days… or even a few weeks! Flow cannot exist for long when feedback is a future activity, even if that future is only hours away. To produce flow, feedback must take place at the same time you are developing your material. When there’s no immediate feedback, it’s very difficult to be motivated to do anything. How inspired could a comedian be to write material if he had no idea whether he was writing quality jokes or not? He’d write a joke, look back at it to see if it’s funny and think “I dunno.” It’s easy to see how this would drain any inspiration to write another joke. So how do you get immediate feedback when you’re at home writing on your computer? All great creators do it the same way, they give feedback to themselves. The only way a comedian can give himself feedback is by understanding what leads to great material or a great performance. The comedian that is able to stay in a creative flow is the one that knows how funny each punchline is. He’s motivated to keep writing because he can see that something special is developing in his material. He knows enough about the industry and the audience to make a reasonably accurate guess at how the audience will react. This doesn’t mean he’s correct every time. In fact, whether or not the audience laughs is a moot point in the long-run. What’s important is the motivation he feels to continue writing because of the feedback he’s giving himself. If he’s wrong, and the audience doesn’t go along with his new material, he simply learns from the experience. He makes a few changes to his beliefs about what leads to success in comedy and then uses the new, more accurate belief to provide feedback to himself the next time he’s writing. Either way, he wins. All else being equal, veteran comedians have an advantage over new comedians simply because they’ve been around the industry long enough to learn what works and what doesn’t. They don’t have to pause every 30 seconds and think “Is this funny?” because they already have a deep understanding of what works and what doesn’t. They can let their intuition guide them throughout the writing process.

When a comedian understands what leads to successful performances and uses this knowledge to provide himself feedback, there’s less ambiguity during the writing process. That means better concentration and fewer interruptions. He can continually build on ideas in a state of flow because he doesn’t have to stop and question each line as he writes it. Comedians that can “internalize” feedback are able to stay in a state of flow much longer because they are able to sense the quality of their material as they write it and make small adjustments. For new comedians, this means you must learn enough to give yourself adequate feedback. Since new comedians don’t have much experience to rely on, they should make it a priority to develop a deep understanding of stand-up comedy. The more a new comedian understands about what makes a great joke so great, the greater his ability to provide himself with immediate feedback while writing. There are two ways of developing this deep understanding of the industry: you can learn from outside resources (such as books, comedy courses, or self-study) or learn from experience (going on stage and learning from the response you get). Ideally, you should have a mixture of both. It’s important that ever comedian develops this understanding. Without it, you’re unable to give yourself effective feedback.

Balancing Challenge and Skill Level The third factor important to achieving flow is finding an ideal balance between the immediate challenge you are facing and your current set of skills. There are only 3 possibilities. Relative to your current skill-set, the challenge can either be too high, too low, or balanced. Flow can only be entered when you find a proper balance between your skill-set and current challenge. When the challenge is too high for our skills we tend to feel anxious or frustrated. This creates a lack of motivation to be creative. Why write material if you feel you couldn’t possibly write anything good? More often than not, having too high of a challenge will result in either procrastination or forcing yourself to write without being passionate about it. Because the challenge is clearly too high for your skills, you’re self-efficacy (a factor of motivation) drops through the floor. When the challenge is too low for our skills we quickly get bored. Once again, there is no passion behind the work. Neither creativity nor flow can exist in such a state. Creativity requires new ways of thinking, breaking through boundaries, and exploring the unknown. Without a significant challenge, there is no need for significant thought. Flow parishes as well because the brain has no reason to put 100% of its focus on such an easy activity. When there is a proper balance between challenge and skill-level, an amazing thing happens: The brain becomes completely absorbed with the activity. Because the challenge requires all of your skill and focus, your brain shuts down unnecessary activity (i.e. self-consciousness thinking, fear of failure, etc.) and diverts the extra capacity to achieving the immediate goal. As worry fades away and you become completely engaged in the activity, only positive feelings, such as excitement, curiosity, passion, or the feeling of complete control remain. These positive feelings are often so intense that it is not uncommon for creative people in a deep flow state to forget to eat. Passion, curiosity, and selfefficacy (the belief that you are able to succeed at an action) build on top of one another, becoming far more than the sum of its parts. Like the first two factors, this balance always takes place in the here-and-now. Having a significant goal in the far future almost always implies that you’ll need to grow along the way, acquire new skills, and push yourself. The balance between your current skill-set and the skill-set that you’d need to have in order to achieve your long-term goals don’t have to be the same (in fact, they should never be the same). What’s important, with respect to flow, is the balance struck between your current skills and the current/immediate challenge. For new comedians, the challenge of writing their first stand-up comedy performance from scratch can seem daunting. The challenges they face far exceed their current ability because they have no experience to rely on. Take heart, this is where all new comedians begin their career. Your skills will grow as you learn how to write and perform comedy. Eventually, you’ll find a balance and become comfortable throughout the writing and performing process. Skills often exceed the challenges as well. If you’ve been around the stand-up comedy industry for a while, you’ve probably seen some comedians performing the same old material at the same open

mics over and over. Their performance rarely changes. These comedians simply aren’t pushing themselves. They’ve become more skilled at writing but never “up the challenge.” You must stay on guard to make sure this doesn’t happen to you. If it does, you risk having your career stagnate.

How To Restore Balance Most comedians that fall into either of these categories do it accidentally. Once a comedian realizes the importance of keeping their skills and challenges balanced, it’s fairly easy to restore balance. One of the best methods is using self-reflection. Make it a habit to ask yourself if you are getting too comfortable and becoming bored with writing. Also, identify when you feel anxious. Anxiousness is almost always a result of feeling overwhelmed by a challenge. Anxiety is not always a bad emotion to have. Sometimes it signals that you are pushing yourself to achieve more. However, it may suggest that you are pushing yourself too hard. You don’t want to be experiencing much of either emotion (boredom or anxiety). If you do, you need to change either your skill level or your immediate challenge.

Achieving the Ultimate Focus By “ultimate focus,” I mean that we reach a point where we become so focused on our work that the outside world ceases to exist. Nothing is left except what we are doing at that moment. This is easy to see in professional athletes. When an athlete performs, he is in the present moment. His awareness of himself and the outside world disappears, only the awareness of the game remains. There are no unrelated thoughts. He’s 100% aware of the actions he’s taking and nothing else. When you give your brain immediate goals, effective feedback, and a balance between the skills you have and the challenge your facing, you’ll find yourself so engaged in your work that you will literally lose awareness of the outside world. This extra brain power is what gives you the feeling of being “in the zone.” Because your brain is diverting extra energy to your work, the quality of your work and your ability to solve problems drastically increases. Earlier, you learned that the brain shuts down or minimizes unnecessary functions so that it can divert the extra energy to your challenge. When the brain does this, one of the first functions to go is unnecessary awareness. As long as you are in a physically safe environment, your brain considers outside awareness a luxury. When your awareness is spread too thin, it becomes nearly impossible to enter a creative flow. Focus drifts from one place to another. Each shift in focus requires your brain to change gears. Your brain is forced to stop its current train of thought and think about a new topic. All momentum is lost and forward progress becomes unnecessarily difficult. From here, the creative process quickly unravels until it comes to a stand-still. Look back to a time when you experienced flow while writing comedy. You’ll see that the feeling of intense joy you undoubtedly felt came only after you were totally immersed in your writing, when your outside awareness disappeared.

Eliminating Distractions Knowing the importance of being completely focused on your work, it’s important that you take steps to head-off any disruptions. When there are distractions around you, it becomes extremely difficult to get into or remain in a creative flow. Here’s why: The unconscious brain is always monitoring and analyzing the environment, even when we are completely focused on our work. In short, the unconscious brain senses a stimulus (i.e. a sound), analyzes it to determine if that sound was important (i.e. represents a danger), then weighs its importance relative to what the conscious brain is currently doing (“Ok… it’s a little important, but is it as important as what I’m doing now?”). If the stimulus is deemed important enough, it enters our conscious awareness and we become aware of it. If not, it is edited out before or very soon after we become consciously aware of it. Importantly, when we are in flow, almost every stimulus is edited out. The conscious brain is maxing out its brain-power on meeting our challenge and cannot spare energy on anything deemed unimportant. Creative momentum is allowed to grow stronger and stronger, leading to more (and better) creative ideas as well as a more enjoyable writing experience.

two ways to avoid distractions You can avoid distractions in two ways. First, you can consciously place yourself in an environment devoid of distractions, such as a quiet room. Second, when you become aware of a distraction, you can consciously decide “not to feed the monster.” The less attention you give the distraction the better, especially early on. If you dismiss the distraction within a second or two and refocus yourself on your work, your curiosity doesn’t have time to develop into a giant. The brain quickly picks up where it left off and awareness merges back into the creative activity. The brain sinks back into a flow-state with only minimal damage to your creative momentum. Don’t discount this method. It’s been so effective that psychiatrists have successfully used it to treat OCD patients. Kill distracting thoughts quickly and save yourself a lot of frustration.

Eliminating the Worry of Failure The worry of failure is one of the most common ways creators sabotage themselves. Once I let go of the idea of failing, my career took off. The transformation was both amazing and instantaneous. I didn’t know it at the time, but the worry of failure was destroying many different areas of my career. If you’re a perfectionist, you’ve probably struggled with this fear of failure on far too many occasions. Most people think that fear of failure only applies to stage fright, but this isn’t the case. Fear affects your writing, performing, and marketing efforts. Worry results in several negative outcomes: Worry displaces mental focus away from your work. Instead of working ON the material, you are thinking ABOUT the material. One of the most dangerous aspects of worrying is that, often, it appears to be productive when it often isn’t. A comedian tells himself that he must make sure his idea is perfect before he can put it on stage. Instead of testing out the material and learning from it, he’ll often get caught up trying to make sure his first shot is perfect. Worry destroys momentum. Constant worrying is like trying to run a marathon and turning around after every step to see if you’re still going the right direction. When a comedian writes new material, he often feels the need to analyze what he has just written (i.e. “Is it any good?”). It becomes almost impossible to get into flow because the mind is occupied on protecting itself, not on the creative activity. Worrying is deeply emotional. The more emotional an idea is, the more difficulty the brain has in letting it go. This is a vicious circle. The more you worry about a problem, the more you teach your brain that what you’re worrying about is important, and the more important your brain thinks a problem is, the more it’ll want to focus on it. The cycle builds on itself and usually results in “paralysis of analysis.” Worry destroys self-efficacy. Self-efficacy is what allows you to take action when you aren’t 100% sure of what the outcome will be. Since creativity, by definition, is the creation of something new, no creative person can ever be 100% certain of what will result from his creative work. To be successful, you must learn how to take action in spite of uncertainty. You can do your best to minimize uncertainty, but you can never completely destroy it.

Perhaps the most startling aspect of worry is how quickly you improve when it is eliminated. In the absence of worry, the brain has no reason to fear or second-guess what you’re doing. Powerful emotions like curiosity and playfulness can drive your writing. Think back to our video game analogy. When fear is gone, actions are taken immediately and forcefully. There is no procrastination, secondguessing, or worry. Writing becomes far more fun because you’re making actual progress instead of spinning your wheels. Your writing also improves because making quicker decisions allow you to generate and explore more ideas. Those ideas can then build on top of one another, leading your material in new directions.

Eliminating Self-Consciousness Self-consciousness leads people to continually monitor how they might appear to other people. We do this throughout the day. It’s a necessary part of living in a society. Because we need it to survive, it has been ingrained in us from day one. The problem is that we often take this selfconsciousness into our creative work. By now, you likely agree with me that being in a creative flow requires a singular focus on your work. Just like distractions, self-consciousness takes away from that focus. In fact, it wouldn’t be too far off to say that self-consciousness is an “internal distraction.” Instead of having a distraction come from outside of yourself, you create it from within. A break in a flow-state is often the re-appearance of self-consciousness. The comedian either consciously or unconsciously steps back and wonders what others might think of his material. Once again, focus is taken away from the actual creative work, harming your creative momentum. Oftentimes, the self-conscious thought results in an increasing worry of failure, leading you even further away from flow. The trick here is to strike a balance. A comedian must certainly think about how an audience will receive his material. Without that thought, his ideas may not be rooted in reality (i.e. leaving the audience thinking “that was just plain weird.”). However, too much self-consciousness, or selfconsciousness at the wrong times, destroys creative flow. This is where developing a deep understanding of the comedy industry is so important. If you understand what leads to successful performances, you can give yourself effective feedback while writing. Self-consciousness is minimized, but your material will still be high-quality because you were guided by your deep understanding while writing it. You get the best of both worlds.

How to eliminate self-consciousness There are two ways to eliminate self-consciousness. The first way is to “compartmentalize” your writing. Instead of continually bouncing back and forth from being creative to worrying, allow yourself to simply be creative for a period of time, then switch and start evaluating everything you’ve written. This allows you to stay in a state of creative flow while also giving you time to evaluate your work. When you sit down to write, give yourself a certain amount of time to write “free of judgment.” How much time you want to give yourself will change depending on the material your working on, so find a time that works for you. The second way to destroy self-consciousness is to become so involved in your writing or performance that you stop caring what other people think. All these flow factors are interconnected. When you change one, you change the others. One way of destroying self-consciousness is by acting

on the first three factors of flow: goals, feedback, and balance between your skills and challenge. When you do this, your brain can’t afford to be overly self-conscious. Often, this happens by accident when a comedian hits on a great premise for material. Once he finds a great idea for material, he instantly gives himself clear goals and effective feedback, all while having a balance between his skills and challenge. By pure luck, he’s fallen into a deep flow. But you don’t have to wait for luck. When you know what needs to be done to get into a creative flow, you can always set yourself up to win. When you feel overly self-conscious, simply revisit the first 3 flow factors. Often, this will indirectly eliminate worry and self-consciousness.

Bending Time Another factor of creative flow is that time becomes distorted. When you’re in a creative flow, hours can seem like minutes or minutes can seem like hours. This happens because your brain is so occupied with your work that it cannot monitor external time. Oddly enough, when comedians experience flow, time seems to both slow down and speed up at the same time. Time feels slow because you are so involved in your writing that there’s a feeling of ultimate control. You know exactly what you’re doing and what needs to be done. The extreme mental focus makes each moment feel longer than it really is. However, time feels like it speeds up as well. When in flow, you will get so involved in your work that you lose track of time. Even though you might feel each moment is passing slowly, you’ll often check your clock and realize that much more time has gone by than you thought. This distortion of time is what allows highly creative people to generate extremely unique and valuable ideas. When time is distorted, a comedian can remain in flow for hours, allowing his brain enough time to fully grasp the creative problem and generate high-quality solutions. A comedian that only spends a small amount of time on his material could never hope to match this level of focus and time investment.

What to do when time drags on Whenever you feel like time is dragging on don’t attempt to “push through it.” It almost always does more harm than good. Pushing yourself to write sucks up mental energy far faster than when you’re passionate (or even lukewarm) about writing. Attempting to push through until you strike comedy gold is an honorable goal to have, but it almost never actually pays off. More often then not, you end up stressed and mentally drained. What’s worse, you’re likely to drag negative emotions into your next writing session. Instead, stop writing for a moment and ask yourself “Where is my focus?” There are three main areas you’re likely focusing on that is making getting into flow difficult. First, you might be placing too much focus on yourself. This happens when personal problems or self-defeating thoughts make focusing elsewhere difficult. Fortunately, comedy is one of the best outlets for this kind of problem. Try using the problem to fuel your writing. Second, you might be placing too much focus on how other people might view you. Here, a fear of failure is often the driving force. Try to figure out exactly what it is that you’re fearing and (most importantly) if that fear is actually rational. Also, check to see if you’re putting too much focus on the negatives in your material. Third, your mind might be spending too much time in the past or the future. In either case, your not giving enough focus to the present moment. If you’re caught up in thoughts of the past or future, try incorporating those thoughts into your writing. Each of these 3 areas can destroy your creative flow. They allow a fear of failure and selfconsciousness to creep into your writing time. They also tend to be very emotional thoughts, which is why your brain won’t let it go. You must either deal with the problem head-on or find a way to merge the negative thoughts into your writing.

Enjoying Every Moment of “Work” Writing and performing should be fun for its own sake. It shouldn’t be used solely as a means of getting something. It is its own reward. When in flow, a comedian’s focus and passion bring him intense feelings of joy. It isn’t simply that he’s “doing creative things,” it’s that he feels he’s actualizing his creative potential. He’s being the person that he knows he was meant to be. It impacts us at the deepest possible level, our identity. We’re more positive about ourselves, our place in the world, and our future. When our sole purpose is to “get something for our work” then we are motivated to move through our work as quickly as possible to reach our destination. This destroys flow because we continually feel the need to monitor how far away we are from our goal. When that goal is far away, we’re usually met with negative emotions like frustration, worry, disappointment, inadequacy, or even anger. When the goal is near, we’re motivated to quickly push the idea through or perhaps even cut corners to reach the finish line. None of these emotions serve to guide our focus toward the creative activity. However, when we’re creating just for the joy of being creative, positive emotions continually guide us forward. The feeling of joy helps us get into flow quickly or remain in flow longer. Instead of “pushing ourselves to work,” we feel pulled forwards. In the short-term, this is the end of procrastination: the pleasure of doing an unproductive activity is overshadowed by the pure joy we experience during the creative process. In the long-term, this is the beginning of a dominant career. When we consistently find joy in writing and performing, we are powerfully driven to maximize our potential. Without approaching our work as a source of pleasure, we can never reach the very top of our industry. The desire for external rewards can never outmatch the powerful emotions that arise from within when we feel we are doing what we were always meant to do.

Tapping Your Comedy Muse How to Maximize Creative Flow to Revolutionize Your Writing

By Jared Volle

Copyright © 2015 by Jared Volle All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, distributed, or transmitted in any form or by any means, including photocopying, recording, or other electronic or mechanical methods, without the prior written permission of the publisher, except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical reviews and certain other noncommercial uses permitted by copyright law.