About 16 years ago my wife, Debbie, gave me the most transformative gift I have ever received. It changed the trajectory of my life (and hers) forever. This sounds like I am setting you up to write about the birth of one of my kids. I love my kids. They are awesome… and a “gift” in many ways. But I’m not actually trying to be that esoteric here. I am talking about a normal, regular old traditional Christmas gift that changed everything. She had no idea the portal she was opening.
What she knew was that I was depressed. My career wasn’t exactly going the way I had planned. I had secretly confessed to her a few times that I had the desire to perform comedy. I felt like I was too old to try something that off-the-wall, though. (I was 29 with two kids. We were building a new house. I was trying to accept being a grown up.)
On a date a few months before Christmas we attended The Second City comedy show at the Flamingo Hilton in Las Vegas. We lived in Vegas at the time and would occasionally check out a show on a Friday night. I loved the show that night. I fell in love with improv when I was in middle school and found the BBC version of Whose Line Is It Anyway? This was long before Drew Carey did his thing in America. There was also a short-lived Groundlings improv show on TV when I was a kid. It amazed me that these people could perform and be so funny with no script and no plan. Deep down as a kid I thought that maybe I would try that someday, but I had other seemingly more important ambitions that never gave me the chance… until my wife gave me the one gift that changed everything.
What was this big gift? She enrolled me in the Second City Training Center in Las Vegas. I remember thinking that she was crazy. I wasn’t sure I had the time to attend the “how to be funny” training, but I gave it a shot. A few weeks later I walked into a dance studio on Industrial Road just off the Vegas Strip. It doubled as a storage unit for showgirl costumes. I remember lots of feathers. There were about 12 other beginning students there. My first level instructor was named Michael, an understudy in the show we had just seen. He told us that we were going to have fun, play games and tell stories. He told us that if we didn’t try too hard we would enjoy ourselves. He told us to never try to be funny. To listen. To support each other. To always say, “yes, and.” He said that we were allowed to fail.
The three hours I spent every week in that dance studio were the best hours of my week. In some ways, they were among the best hours of my life. I remember walking out of that first class and thinking, “so this is where people like me end up.” I had found a community, a tribe, and though it would take me years to put words to it, I had found my life philosophy. I discovered that I am fundamentally an improviser.
Had Debbie known all that would come from that she may have had second thoughts about her gift. If she could have seen into the future, she might have been a little scared of the years of chaos those classes would spark. I think now — 16 years later — she would do it all over, but that gift was disruptive to say the least.
Within a year those classes gave way to a new career. I went from taking classes as a hobby to performing six nights weekly at an improv show in Las Vegas. That led to opportunities to do improv and act in Los Angeles. Within three years of that first class we had moved to L.A. Within four years I was working in TV. Within five years I was producing my first movie. In 2007, an opportunity arose in Cincinnati that I would have never been open to had those improv classes not taken us to L.A. I began producing more movies. That morphed into a creative agency called Rebel Pilgrim that launched seven years ago.
I’m prone to be overly dramatic at times, but that’s not what this is. This is just the truth. Most everything in my life right now doesn’t exist if Debbie hadn’t given me that one particular gift a decade and a half ago. If you’ve met me over the last 10 years, then that meeting never happens without that gift. None of those movies or books or teachings or business partnerships or (most significantly) personal relationships in my life would exist without that gift.
Sometimes the people who love you know what you need more than you do. I have this hunch that all of our lives can be traced back to one or two gifts that we received at just the right time from just the right person. In that regard, the right gift at the right time can change everything and lead to decades of meaning and joy for, not just the person receiving the gift, but for all those who will meet them in the future.