I’m six years old, first grade, PE. We’re trying softball for the first time and I want to swing that bat so badly I can barely stand it. I’m obsessed, like some mouth-breathing drunk across the room who can’t stop staring. But I’ve never swung a bat, and even at six, I don’t want to look like I don’t know how, so I quietly blend into the background. I don’t even try.
Why would admitting you don’t know how to do something feel like failure? To a six year old? It’s not like you’re born knowing how to swing a bat.
This is something I end up doing, over and over, for most of my life. I don’t want to admit I don’t know how to do something because I can’t stand the thought of making myself that vulnerable. And for most of my life I let that get in the way of doing some of the things I want to do most.
Maybe it’s the family of artists who raised you to believe that you’re either born with it or you’re not – although they’re talking about talent. And they never do clue you in as to whether you were, in fact, born with it.
Maybe it’s the hyper-competitive schools where admitting you don’t know how to do something is a ticket to eye rolls and ostracization.
“You don’t know how to do that? What are you, a baby?” You might as well be the kid who wet yourself in home room.
Or, maybe it’s your first work environment where if you don’t know how to do something some other intern gunning for a salary is willing to lie and say they do.
“Me? I know how to do everything. I was born that way.”
I was not born that way, but I’m only just willing to admit that now. And this is between us, so keep it to yourself.
Although, lately I’ve had to admit not knowing how to do things because I need help from my friends who do. And I’m sure you’re thinking, if you can’t be vulnerable with your friends, who can you be?
No one. I can be vulnerable with no one. Unless I’m on stage, and that’s an entirely different thing, and the subject of this story [LINK].
So what’s bringing on this sudden and masochistic thirst for knowledge?
Getting your first show ready for Edinburgh Fringe has that effect. You encounter a litany of things you don’t know how to do, at least if you’re me. You’re on very real deadlines to produce very good work or you have the potential to fail in a very big way. It’s unsettling in a way that encourages you to try new things.
Like real world vulnerability.
So you don’t ask yourself, how could I have reached middle age and not know how to do these things? You already know the answer to that question.
But just as an example, when I’m 20 years old, I’m in a play in New York City. I’ve made my way in with the cool crowd, which is both awesome and high maintenance. You know them: the hot theater girl with legs from floor to ceiling, the super-talented, triple-threat guy, the cool, British, my-dad-is-a-West-End-producer guy.
Then there’s the other crowd, who is really just one person: the enthusiastic, wants-to-learn-everything-about-theater geeky guy.
Geeky guy says, “I can’t wait to graduate and go to a really good acting school.”
Triple-threat guy and hot theater girl whisper in unison – and out of earshot of geeky guy – ”Ugh, acting school. You’re either born with it or you’re not.”
Twenty-year-old Dean quietly makes note to self: “Acting school = not born with it.”
And 23-year-old Dean gives up on acting because he has no idea how to make something like that work in the real world, but he isn’t going to admit that out loud. So he doesn’t go to class and he doesn’t learn those things that would probably be extremely valuable when getting a show ready for Edinburgh.
That much-younger Dean has a luxury that I do not. Time. So I get over myself and ask my friends for help. Help with writing. Help with acting. Help with promotion. Help with all of it because I basically know nothing.
This week I ask a friend to help me understand why I’m doing this. Why this show? Why now? Why Edinburgh?
I aim high because I think that will push me that much harder. This friend is a reporter who has interviewed some of the most prominent artists of the past 100 years. Household names, assuming yours is a house with an interest in art. She’s reluctant because she knows what this means, how hard she’ll have to be on me. She’s one of the toughest people I know, so I won’t get away with any bullshit.
As someone who never wanted to admit not knowing how to do something, bullshit became my greatest skill. And I am very good at it. As someone who reads my work, you might already know this about me.
But no one is good enough to bullshit an old school, tough-as-balls reporter with no patience for it like my friend. That’s apparent from the moment we sit down.
“That’s bullshit,” is the very first thing she says. “You’re telling me the same tired thing that everyone says. I hear that and I’m moving on to the next person because there’s nothing to see here. What makes you worth my time?”
Up to this point of my life, I haven’t been able or willing to answer tough questions about who I am or what I want. It’s too vulnerable, and I’ve been too afraid to discover once and for all whether I was born with it.
Going there hurts, but I’m realizing that hurt is a growing pain. And while I didn’t expect growing pains in middle age, the urgency of time passing me by makes them a lot more tolerable.
I’m also realizing that when you admit you don’t know something, people who do become surprisingly generous with their knowledge. To think of all the things I could have learned in all those years. But this piece isn’t about regrets. It’s about avoiding them.
Why this show? Why now? Why Edinburgh?
Because if I don’t do this now, then I never will. Because I created this show to take to Edinburgh. Because, this show isn’t an end, it’s the start of what I wanted but gave up at 23. Because Edinburgh is the greatest performing arts festival in the world and I need to prove myself there.
And because I couldn’t tell this story when it happened. I would have been humiliated and ostracized. But telling it now isn’t embarrassing for me. I’m over it. Although it might just be embarrassing for the US Department of Justice.
So I’m coming out of the closet as someone who doesn’t know how to do this. And I’m learning that’s how you get it done.
Dean Temple’s comedy solo show Voice of Authority, a true story
about getting sued by the US Dept of Justice for $19 million and saved
by the choreographer of the Metropolitan Opera, will be at 59E59 Theaters in NYC Jul 17–21, and at Surgeon’s Hall at Edinburgh Fringe Aug 2–24. Follow him on Twitter @deantemple, Instagram @thatdeantemple, and follow the show on facebook.com/deantemplevoa