Have you ever had the feeling like you just don’t belong? You are just not in the right place or around the right people? Your thoughts are on survival, not thriving. You don’t look forward to going there. Maybe like me you thought, “What’s wrong with me? I’m just not like everyone else.” Can you relate?
I can’t exactly remember the year, date or place, but I remember the feeling. I also know it was the mid-90s, and I was working at Bose Corporation. I was pursing my dream of making people laugh for a living. I spent almost every night after work in the back of a comedy club watching, studying, and learning.
Due to my business failure, living at home with my mom and dad was challenging on both sides. Though they loved me and tried to be supportive, they just didn’t get it. It is so much easier for me to see that now. They struggled helping me get through business school to get a business degree while watching me also pursue my crazy dream. I had an entry-level job and a B.S. in two majors from Bryant College, but to them I’m sure it appeared I was throwing all that away. Sometimes, even at home, I didn’t feel at home.
At Bose Corporation I was a telemarketer. My day job allowed me the flexibility to pursue my stand-up comedy dream. There I was with the same degree as my boss’s boss, and working in the cubicle next to me and doing the same job was a young man who had barely finished high school. It was a professional atmosphere, but there too I felt out of place. It was the company newsletter that introduced me to Toastmasters as a place to get stage time. I instantly saw the value and ended up joining four Toastmasters’ clubs.
When I first visited the Early Risers Club in Worcester, MA I really took note of how positive people were. Most people were polar opposites from those at the comedy clubs. When I met my friend Valla, I actually thought that she was on drugs. I thought, “No one could be that happy.” Keep in mind that I had spent almost every night for years in sarcasm-filled comedy clubs. While going to a show can be fun for a night, on a regular basis the environment can feel very negative. I enjoyed the positivity and encouragement at Toastmasters. It started to change me, but I still felt like an outsider.
In 1994 I was introduced to the National Speakers Association. New England Chapter members were working the product table at a Zig Ziglar and Brian Tracy event. Rosemary Verri, a humorist, introduced me to professional speaking. I had no idea there was such a thing as a speaking profession. When she explained it to me, my reaction was, “Let me get this straight: you don’t have to be as funny, you perform in better settings, stay at nice hotels, and they wwould pay me ten times as much? Where do I sign up?”
When I went to my first chapter meeting, I remember feeling a bit awkward, but the people there were nice and encouraging. I heard about the upcoming National convention in Washington, DC. The conference theme was “The Privilege of the Platform.” I was told I must go. There was no way I could afford it, but I leveraged my credit card and had to share my room with someone to make it possible.
There were close to 1,500 speakers in attendance. I remember the opening speaker was Capt. Gerald Coffee. He was a prisoner of war for seven years and told his inspiring story. I can still hear him tapping his message as he had done to communicate with his fellow POWs. I don’t remember everything he said, but I do remember for the first time feeling like, “This is where I belong.” That night I knew that somehow I would be involved in some aspect of speaking for the rest of my life.
As the emotions welled up inside me, I took a pad of paper and walked out to the pool. As I wrote a letter to my mom, tears dripped on paper, and I actually cried out loud at times. The seven-page letter told her how, for the first time since my childhood, I felt like I found home. These were my people. If you are a Rudolf fan, you know about the “Island of Misfit Toys.” In Rudolf the Red-Nosed Reindeer, Charlie in the Box is an imperfect character because kids want a Jack in the Box, not a Charlie. It was the best metaphor to describe who I was and what I felt like. For me, finding the National Speakers Association was like discovering the “Island of Misfit Toys.”
Though I was a working comedian, deep down I know that I was, in fact, a speaker. I love and respect my comedian friends. I now realize even more that they truly are artists and have one of the toughest and more rewarding jobs in the world. It’s just not who I was. The nightclub environment was just not the place where I would thrive. It’s not who I was or ever would be. I did not feel alone anymore.
Let me be perfectly clear. Speakers are a bit messed up. They are just messed up in a different way than comedians. It’s what makes us do what we do. Many people could not see themselves on a stage in front of a large convention. Very few people could ever see themselves on stage at a comedy club. Think about it this way. The population of New England is about 15 million people. I’m guessing that on the comedy circuit in New England back in the 1990s there were fewer than 100 comics. It’s a rare breed.
In a place with other misfit toys, Charlie-In-The-Box felt like he belonged. I felt like I was home when I found NSA. Some of those folks who wanted to speak for a living were a little weird, some a bit wacky, but they lived to inspire others, just like me. “Mom, I found my place,” I finally felt that I belonged. I was validated.
I decided this was my new path and committed to work harder than ever. I realized I was meant to be speaker, not a comedian. I’m thankful for the journey of comedy and the marketing education I had from Bryant College. Having a speaking business was the perfect combination of those two backgrounds. I’m so glad I pursued my dream of comedy, even though it didn’t really make sense, because along the way I discovered a bigger, better dream. There was some truth to what those naysayers in my life had been saying to me. They were dead wrong, however, in saying that I would never make people laugh. Author and comedian, Judy Carter, one of my personal heroes, was a magician, and one night her truck of props didn’t arrive for her show. Being forced to perform without props, Judy found her new path, stand-up comedy. She was a headliner magician, but she also thrived as a comedian and went on to train some of the best movie stars, comedians, and SNL cast members.
Many, many times I sat at my desk at Bose and questioned whether I should give up and work a regular job utilizing my marketing degree. That’s what my parents wanted. They dreamed I would get a good job and work for a good company the rest of my life. I’m so glad I kept going. Not just for me, but also for them. They now get to see me in full joy doing what I love. I would never have been fully myself working for someone else at a corporation.
Maybe inside I knew I really had no choice. Around speakers I feel most alive. I’m thankful each day that I get to help people and do what I love for a living. If I died tomorrow, it would be OK. I’m thankful I finally found home.
It’s too bad some people will never find that feeling of home. The only thing worse than not finding home is to stop searching or to give up. Don’t allow others to impede your journey. Your actions and “not listening to them” might just be the inspiration they need to pursue their own dream.
I thrive when I’m speaking to Toastmaster Districts and a NSA Chapters around the world. It is my homeanywhere in the world. Sometimes I get little jealous thoughts when I hear about other speakers talking to huge audiences, getting twice my fee, or being booked solid. I have to remind myself that that’s their journey, their audience. I’m not right for all audiences. I just have to appreciate the next “privilege of the platform” that I get. Thank you, Capt. Gerald Coffee, for telling your story. I feel like God put me in front of you that night. When you spoke in 1994 at the NSA Convention, you inspired me and helped me find my way home. Please keep telling it.
If you feel like a Charlie-in-the-Box, maybe you, just like I was, are finding your way home. Keep going. You can find your “Island of Misfit Toys,” that place where people think, act, or dream like you do. Wherever that is, there is probably an association for it. Please find it.
If you have found your home, keep appreciating it. If you don’t, it will stop feeling like home and start feeling like work. One of my favorite lines from the movie The Rookie is when the main character, a baseball player trying to make it to the big leagues, is ready to give up and go back home. The competition, life, and the business of baseball had become too much. He wandered toward a little league baseball game and saw kids playing because they loved the game. He came back to the locker room the next morning with a whole new attitude and said to one of the other players,
“Brooks, today we get to play baseball!” It can’t feel like home if you are wishing you were somewhere else.
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