My Nan used to roll out the saying ‘you can’t teach an old dog new tricks’ when I would ask her to do something new with me or help me with my homework. As a kid, I thought there was something she wasn’t telling me about our family ancestry. Aside from being born in the year of the dog, I could see no resemblance to the canine species.
As I hit my teens, I realised she meant older people (she was in her 50s when she spout this pearler) are set in their ways and incapable of learning new things. Granted, I do see many of my peers unable to set up Netflix or transfer their data to their new phone but my generation – Gen X – is giving a big middle finger to the saying. Also known as the sandwich generation, we are caught between Baby Boomers and Gen Z children, gone from black and white tellies, to being attached at the fingertips to our phones as we wiz our way through online banking, dating and networking. We are the quintessential rebuff to this dogged refrain.
Now I’m the same age as my Nan when she would blame her age for not learning anything new. I am pleased to report my generational peers are all over learning new things. Forced by the events of the past few years, the rapid advances in technology, growth in entrepreneurial ventures, and the ever increasing divorce rate, us Gen Xers are constantly learning new ways to do things, every single day.
This is why when an ad came up in my Facebook feed for a comedy course with the incredibly funny Fiona McGary, I signed up without thinking. Just forked out my few hundred dollars and jumped in. ‘Why not,’ I thought. ‘How hard can it be to make people laugh? I do it all the time.’
I found it is not as easy as being the class clown or flicking off snappy, witty, sarcastic one liners.
You may ask what would drive a middle aged (and at the time, obese) woman to get up on stage to share her innermost thoughts on the world, with the intention to make people laugh? Good question! I sometimes still ask myself that as my hands and legs shake like a wobbly tummy on a vibration machine and my stomach churns like an ocean belted by a massive storm.
I did it because I didn’t want to get too comfortable in my middle years. I had achieved a modicum of success in business, having built a bespoke PR agency and started a company with my partner in shine, Lauren Clemett. While we are not rich (hard to be rich in a country that doesn’t see raising children as worthy of acknowledgment or payment of super – good thing I had weight loss surgery; I won’t need to eat much when I retire), we are comfortable. We can afford to go on holidays, eat out and jump around at concerts like we are still 18. The point is life was good. After a childhood of chaos and pain, I had finally reached a place in my life where things were getting easier.
There is a great book by Dr Carol Dweck Mindset: Changing The Way You Think To Fulfill Your Potential. It delves into the difference between people who have a fixed mindset (they are your old dogs who can’t learn new tricks) and a growth mindset (moi). Dr Dweck says it’s not just our abilities and talent that bring us success but the mindset in which we approach life. She describes the underlying beliefs people have about learning and intelligence. What it really comes down to is not getting caught in being a stodgy old person who thinks they have to stay the way they are. We know so much more about the brain than in my Nan’s day. I am sure if she knew her brain was plastic and toast crusts; mixing up her preferred medium for her art work.
Our brains are plastic, people. This means we, at any given moment in time, can change. We can take what we know and build on it, learning, growing, adapting. It gives us the freedom to do new things, to step out of our comfort zones and be more than we were yesterday.
This is how I approached comedy. Even though it scared the literal shit out of me (I did spend some time in the loo before the course started, especially after Fiona told us we had to do a graduation show), I still did it. Because I wanted to grow and to keep my brain active.
Now, I know I am funny. In certain situations I am fucking hilarious. Just ask me. I have a quick mind. I see the world through a darkly facetious lens. I am quick with a witty comment. I drop snappy one-liners like my kids pop up TikTok videos. I was always being told I am funny. By doing Fiona’s course, I wanted to learn how to be deliberately funny. I wanted to learn how to take life’s normal, everyday happenings and shine the light on the ridiculousness and topics people do not normally joke about.
It has been over four years since I did Fiona’s course and I can say hand on heart, it was one of the best things I did for my confidence and self view, (and the incontinence industry). After I hopped off the stage for my graduation performance, buzzing from the adrenaline (even though two hours earlier I was plotting a range of reasons not to show up – how many times can your mum die?)I was signing up for open mic spots. These spots are highly coveted and my heart would thump every week when I called to see if I could secure a gig. I would travel hours to do one five minute spot but I relished the experience and the ongoing drive to continue to learn more, be better and master this craft that doesn’t pay but costs me money every time in petrol, beer and burgers.
It is a cut throat industry where feedback from more experienced comedians is sparse. It is an industry still dominated by men – I will often be the only woman at an open mic. And gigs are hotly contested. Whilst COVID got in the way of me honing my new skill, I have jumped back into it in 2022. At the ripe old age of 52, I am only getting started. Even though I still nervously wee prior to every gig. I still mentally conjure weird and wonderful reasons to not go. Once I hit that stage, I love it. I am not the best comedian out there; I am still finding my style but I am glad this old dog is not on her way to pound. I embrace learning new tricks. I revel in being uncomfortable. It means I am alive and looking to the future.
Do something that scares you. Not only will it get your heart pounding and give you a good clear out, it will prove to yourself you are capable and talented, and life can still surprise you.