When I was in my early twenties, I had a vague notion I could be a comedy writer. At the time I worked as a newspaper reporter in suburban Phoenix covering health care — things like hospital expansions and flu shot shortages. Granted, I once covered a surgery for correcting incontinence and had the honor of witnessing a fully naked 82-year-old woman being relieved of her reliance on adult diapers. But the resulting article was far from humorous.
In fact, I’d never written a joke in my life.
That didn’t stop me when I walked into the local comedy club and saw headliner Kevin Nealon — fresh from his Saturday Night Live stint — nursing a rum and Coke at the bar. I bellied up to him, and brightly said, “Hi, I’m Emma, and I want to be a comedy writer. Have any advice?”
“Well,” he said. “You should perform your material. Have you ever done standup?”
“No,” I said. “I don’t even have any material. I’ve never written a joke.”
Despite the fact that he was clearly dealing with an idiot — who, for the record, happened to be standing next to her then-boyfriend and sporting an unfortunate blonde dye job — he couldn’t have been nicer. Kevin Nealon, celebrity comedian, gave me his AOL email address and invited me to send him some jokes. A few days later when I did, he promptly went through each of the 30 or so one-liners, broke them down, offered some tips and was overall encouraging and entirely professional.
That was hardly the first or the last time I asked for advice from someone way — wayyyyyy — out of my league. Someone much more successful, more powerful than me. I suggest you make a habit of doing the same. Here’s why.
1. It forces you to dig deep. When you ask for help from someone who scares you, you have to figure out what you need. It’s not a big commitment to ask your husband for advice or your sister for help. These people know you. They love you, for crying out loud. It’s their job to lend you a hand. But when you gear up to ask for time and favors from someone whose time and favors you recognize as extremely valuable, you dig deep to make sure you ask for the right thing.
2. Risk is critical for success. Seeking out people you hold on a pedestal is scary. They might be mean. Tell you to buzz off. Make you feel like a fool. It’s a risk. But risk gets your adrenaline going, makes you feel alive, pushes your boundaries. Risk is critical for professional success. It is also critical for personal success.
3. They might say yes. Risk is critical because you win no matter what. If the scary person ignores you or belittles you, you can learn something. But guess what — sometimes, even often, I’ve found — that elusive being is nice and helpful. They offer the help you seek. When I was a journalism student at the University of Illinois Champaign-Urbana, a CNN executive came to speak to our class. I had zero TV experience, not even coursework. That didn’t stop me from walking right up to this guy and asking for an internship. He arranged the gig based merely on my ask.
4. You think bigger. When someone you perceive as more powerful than you sees your potential, you start to see your potential, too.
When I was at that newspaper job, “60 Minutes” came to town to shoot a segment. It was so exciting that a New York City network TV crew was in the neighborhood, and a few of us reporters snuck out of the office to peek at the production. While I joined my colleagues in a huddle, pointing at the celebrity correspondent, I drew a deep breath, moseyed over to Mike Wallace and said, “I work at that newspaper over there (pointing to the nearby low-rise cinder-block building), and I’m moving to New York in a few months. Can you help me get a job?” Mike smiled (he was remarkably handsome, even way up close under the desert sun). “I will help you any way I can,” he said in a kind, if rehearsed way. “Take my producer’s card and email me.”
I did email Mike Wallace and eventually landed a series of interviews for a “60 Minutes” job I was scarcely qualified for. Now, I was not ultimately offered that job. But getting in the door, into the CBS headquarters and into the illustrious towers of my profession changed how I thought about myself. I started to think bigger. Better. There were fewer reasons why I shouldn’t be aiming really, really high. That paradigm shift has played out in countless ways that I will never fully quantify, but always be grateful for.
I lost touch with Kevin Nealon. Needless to say, he didn’t arrange for me to be the first female lead writer for SNL (Tina Fey, you stole my thunder!). In fact, it was more than 10 years ago that he generously critiqued my virgin attempts at writing funny. I spent most of the intervening years writing a whole lot of not funny. But recently I started blogging, and my posts can be pretty witty. At least that’s what some people seem to think — people like my readers, and editors, and people who book me to speak at conferences and gave me my own radio show. I’m doing the best writing of my life.
I believe that some years ago at that tiny bar in the anterior of that Phoenix comedy club Kevin Nealon’s confidence in me planted a seed of confidence in my ability to write things that could make people laugh. But deep down I already had that confidence — and I chose to seek out the glorious validation of a (kinda, but not really) scary person to help me believe in what was already there.