Cally Beaton: Ch-ch-ch-ch-changes: turn and face the strange
In 1971 David Bowie wrote ‘Changes’, its lyrics a wry nod to impostor syndrome. Decades earlier Albert Einstein had famously said “the measure of intelligence is the ability to change”, in which case I’m a genius. I traded in a well-remunerated day job to make a living out of talking to rooms full of people, shortly before a global pandemic rendered those rooms empty. Genius.
Like it or loathe it, there’s plenty of change about – Brexit, a new President in the White House next January and some virus or other.
It was in the ‘90s that I first came hard up against change when I applied for a job working at MTV. Then in my 20s and living in Amsterdam, I made the candidate short-list and after a final interview in New York, I stood in Time Square outside the MTV Studios and looked up at the electronic billboards towering above me. Beavis & Butthead sparkled down from the Manhattan skies and I prayed to the gods, first of Butthead then of Beavis, that I would get that job. And, dumb*ss, I did.
The first video played on MTV when it launched in 1981 was ‘Video Killed the Radio Star’. Then something happened to kill the music video: Napster, MySpace, YouTube. Almost overnight, music videos – the entire inventory upon which MTV’s business was built – were available for free, anywhere, anyhow. MTV had to reinvent, quickly, radically and before the eyes of its viewers. It switched out music for long-form content, it changed to the point where ‘music’ was no longer part of the MTV logo. They took the music out of Music Television and it survived.
Soon after starting the best job ever, I discovered a souvenir I hadn’t planned on bringing back from Amsterdam; seven months later a bouncing half-Dutch baby was born. It became clear during my son’s early years that he was processing the world a little differently from his peers. As time went by those changes became more pronounced, until as a teenager he was diagnosed with autism.
There’s a joke I do on stage about my mum giving him a fiver for doing his homework; I tell her not to spoil him and she tells me it’s fine because when he was diagnosed we were told not to expect him to handle change. But even those of us who are neurotypical are not programmed to love change. It goes again our most primal urges; if there’s something unknown on the horizon, get the F away from it as fast as your Flintstone legs will carry you.
Spoiler alert: the human condition is terminal. On the basis that life is for living, rather than running away from, here are some things that might help you square up to ch-ch-ch-ch-changing:
- Think big: There are many benefits to ‘downsizing’ but don’t rule out ‘upsizing’. I transferred my skills (mainly talking a good game and not being found out) honed over decades as a TV executive to a career as a speaker and comedian. Last year after turning 50, an age where women have traditionally been expected to fade into the shadows, I took my show ‘Invisible’ to the Edinburgh Fringe. Never have I been more visible.
- Start small: Apple, Google, Amazon all started in little more than wooden shacks (from little garden sheds mighty capitalists grow). To quote Bill Gates: “Most people overestimate what they can do in one year and underestimate what they can do in ten.”
- Long live the side hustle: When I started doing stand-up comedy in my 40s, I gigged on the open mic circuit by night, and was a Senior Vice President at Viacom by day. One day it was time for the side hustle to become the main event.
- Fail better: Something what unites us is the fact that life will inevitably feature some form of failure for everyone, so maybe it’s time to redefine success. The time in my career that is the most successful on paper is the same time that I became a single parent to two small children; the two things were undoubtedly linked. In the words of Samuel Beckett: “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”
- Don’t bullsh*t yourself: There’s a difference between inner and outer change, between seeming and being different. You can con the world about the difference between the two – that’s what social media is for - but it’s best not to con yourself. Reinvention is about turning up the volume on yourself, not imitating someone else.
Oh, and one more thing: stop faffing and get on with it. (I could have just said that but Speaker’s Corner asked me to write 850 words.)
Michelangelo said: “The greatest danger for most of us is not that our aim is too high and we miss it, but that it is too low and we reach it.” It’s amazing, isn’t it, that those words came from a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle. [Mic drop]
Don’t worry, I won’t give up the day job. Oops…
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