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In praise of Susan Messing... subtitle: when you're the asshole

Updated: Dec 28, 2020

In Chicago, there are (were) a myriad of places to practice theatrical improvisation. For improvisers, each place represent(ed) a certain path to certain types of improvisation based on each place's flavor. Of course, there's some cross-pollination. In my experience, the Interchangeable Top 5 were:

  • the Second City Conservatory for "the Process" (pronounced: proh-sess) of using improvisation to develop sketch show material

  • iO for the Harold and--although nobody would admit--sit-com structure

  • Annoyance Theater for subversive, alternative, sometimes even grotesque versions of everything created everywhere else

  • ComedySportz for short-form games

  • Any backroom of any bar that let you play for the freedom that only comes from learning nobody cares

Which leads me to my improv crush for this entry: Susan Messing.


Aside: TAKE HER WORKSHOP! No matter who you are or what your goals are, you will have fun. Do it.


For the purposes here, one of the most incredibly impressive things about Susan Messing is that she performed and taught at Second City and iO and Annoyance.


An "improv triathlete," you may be thinking? The analogy works though it might be a bit tortuous to directly lay Second City/iO/Annoyance onto Swim/Bike/Run. Not impossible though. Maybe another blog entry.


Like my other improv hero Viola Spolin, Susan Messing had an impressive education and preparation (not to mention performances), which led to some eye-popping insights, and ultimately to some really great turns-of-phrase. My personal favorite Susan-ism, was, is, and always will be:

IF YOU'RE NOT HAVING FUN, YOU'RE THE ASSHOLE.

In the context of theatrical improvisation, there are many facets and interpretations to this phrase though I would never presume to speak for another artist. As I said before, if you can take her workshop, do it. Learn from the best. (FYI, I don't gain anything for suggesting her workshops, except maybe sharing in some great fun. In candor, I doubt Susan Messing even knows who I am.)


However, in the context of triathlon, this phrase is the counter-measure to one of the toughest problems to torpedo many triathletes. Overthinking. (I believe avoiding overthinking is part of what Susan is talking about, but back to my point.) Whether training with others or alone, do not let the important hard work get in the way of enjoying what is happening in the moment. In other words, be fully present, right now...


...not thinking about how fast your heart is beating.


...not wondering if you are working hard enough.


...not trying to catch the person that just passed you.


...not planning ahead... wondering about the next mile, next workout, next meal, next day, next anything.


There is another phrase that describes the ability to be fully present in the moment. However, until you have experienced it, it's very hard to accurately explain. Professional athletes (and people who study them) call this being IN THE FLOW.


Flow is the ultimate goal for any process, regardless of the product. A paradoxical, irrational condition of being simultaneously fully relaxed and fully engaged... of unconscious competence and conscious connection. Relaxed yet active. Fully aware that what's happening is both mechanical AND magical. You are the best version of yourself. Yin and Yang. One and zero.


See? Hard to describe.


Matrix fan? It's when Neo blocks Agent Smith's attacks without looking, with one hand, seeing and unseeing everything. Star Wars fan? When Yoda moves the X-Wing from the swamp to dry land. Or maybe it's the force itself. Zen describes it as being zen, the effortless effort of knowing and doing.


Taking the phrase even deeper into the triathlon training context, it also speaks to the idea of being appreciative, taking the joy of the action in and of itself. Knowing that no matter what else is happening personally, professionally, socially, politically, anatomically, mentally, emotionally, spiritually, either directly or indirectly, that physically expressing fitness is amazing. It is not about expressing fitness relative to others--out-performing somebody else or "winning." It's intrinsic joy, not extrinsic. Within yourself, not relative to anybody else. In short, being GRATEFUL.


If you're not having fun, you're the asshole.


Grateful flow.


Same idea, fewer words. Just like improvisation and triathlon, shorter isn't always better. Just different.

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