Beginners should be suspicious of validation.
Yesterday I listened to Ilana Glazer and Abbi Jacobson tell Marc Maron the story of creating Broad City, the funniest show on TV right now. They were students at the Upright Citizen’s Brigade theatre in New York, but found that they couldn’t get on any of the improv teams that performed shows in the evening. So, they collected their ideas for sketches, borrowed a camera from the school, and began filming five-minute episodes that became their web series. After two years of making these, they connected with Amy Poehler, who helped get them pilot meetings with Comedy Central.
Put simply, they created something completely new because they were rejected from organizations that existed at the time.
Coincidentally, the Upright Citizen’s Brigade itself began back in the 90s as a subversion and rejection of the stodgy sketch and standup comedy world of the 80s. As an institution, it lasted long enough to create its own validation mechanisms, which in turn rejected Abbi and Ilana.
The question is whether Broad City would have existed if they had been accepted onto an improv team back in 2009.
My guess is that the show wouldn’t exist, at least not yet, and perhaps never at the scale of success it has earned.
Established institutions have a normalizing effect. To be accepted into the in-group, we have to conform to whatever standards that group has implicitly or explicitly set. And once we’re there, we tend to revert to the mean.
There’s nothing wrong with being accepted into a peer group that we respect, whether that means going to to a particular university or performing comedy in a particular scene, or being hired into our dream profession. It’s both a thrill and a comfort to get that type of validation. But being exceptional necessarily means being different than what is currently valued, accepted, and understood.
One of the most dangerous threats to exceptional beginners is early validation from the existing establishment. The allure of rounding ones edges, of shying away from original ideas and untested assumptions in order to fit in is too strong.
To be exceptional, we should be pissing people off, or confusing them, or disappointing them roughly as often as we are pleasing them.