What do you want? Two tips for making learning stick

Knowing what you want is fundamental to approaching anything in life. I say this because sometimes I’ve tried really hard to learn a new skill or attitude and it hasn’t really worked, and that can be very frustrating. What I have identified is that knowing what I am trying to get out of an experience helps me to learn a lot more.

I think I have a useful story to share, and what that means about learning.

I used to be (literally) paralyzingly shy, to the degree where I would freeze like a deer in the headlights in unusual social situations, be unable to talk to women or loud extroverts, and just generally be seconds away from clamming up and spending a night out in silence.

When I started doing standup I found that gave me a bit more confidence, but I still felt really out of place in conversations. I had also been doing public speaking with Toastmasters and performing improv so I gained loads of confidence being in front of people, but still I found large groups of people overwhelming.

To address this fear I worked for a ticket office in the west-end for a week, approaching people on their night out and persuading them to buy cheap tickets to certain night clubs. It was horrible. I thought that because it was the most intimidating thing I could think of doing that it would help me get out of my comfort zone and get me more confidence, but it didn’t at all. I just got more and more dispirited as the night went on, usually till 2 or 3 in the morning, till it got to a point where I could hardly go up to people. Then I got a night bus home. Still, I did it for a week just to make sure I was rubbish.

I didn’t get better at selling tickets and it really didn’t affect my social confidence. This is because I didn’t know what I wanted. I knew that I didn’t want to sell tickets to a nightclub. Looking back, what I really wanted was the ability to relax and be myself in any social situation. Having a goal to sell tickets does not support that. Having an agenda in the back of my head was what caused me to be nervous in the first place, thinking things like: “How can I get them to like me and know that I am cool, what can I say to show that I am an interesting person?”

What did help me feel more confident in social settings was learning how to listen and learning how to speak up for myself, because those two things are tied into being relaxed and being myself.  I also realised that confidence is not an attainable thing, like a fluid that you pour into yourself, it’s the outside appearance of an inner state. It wasn’t outside me, it was inside me and I just needed to connect to it.

In comparison, standup really helped me was because I was doing something I wanted to be doing, I don’t think it was getting up in front of people so much. I was doing something I had always wanted to do as a kid, and I was learning and audiences were laughing. Doing it in front of people definitely helped because it’s always more difficult to learn with people watching you.

Similarly with improv when I realised what I wanted I got a lot more from it. For 2 or 3 years it was very frustrating and I felt very lost, but when I sat down and thought about what I wanted from it, I realised all I wanted was to get better at it. And even beneath that I wanted to understand what getting better meant in terms of improvising. There is a lot of contradictory advice in improv, just like everything else in life, what some people say is interesting others say is boring. I didn’t know what to listen to.

But when I realised I just wanted to understand my whole attitude changed. I knew it would take years and that gave me more patience for myself. I didn’t have to prove anything in workshops or shows, I could just experiment and see what I learned.  Also boiling  that experimentation down to what I want has been useful. I want to develop my own creative voice.

Developing my own voice means I can do a show or workshop, take away what resonated for me and then go and work on that. Learning means changing. It means recognising what I avoid and then chasing after that in a show.

The Tips

So a couple of tips to identify what you want:

1:Ask yourself “Why am I doing this? What do I want?” -be specific & personal.

2:Ask yourself “What do I need to do, in order to get what I want ?” -turn it into action(s).


Identify what you want, in specific and personal terms. If you want to do long-form, ask yourself: Why? Because you want to tell stories, because you want to work in an ensemble of like-minded people, because you love the discovery of narrative? Because you think it’s harder and want to challenge yourself?

Then investigate that urge. If you want to tell stories, find the urges underneath that. Because you want to move an audience emotionally, because you love sharing stories with others? If you want to challenge yourself, what does that mean? Does it mean playing faster, playing more slowly, being more physical, learning how to be more verbally witty?

What is the internal state or skillset that you really want? For me getting better at improv means being able to play with anybody. I want to be exposed to different ways of improvising. Getting better also means being well-rounded, I want to stay competent at longform and shortform, and I want to feel comfortable playing slow intimate 2-person scenes and madcap farcical set-pieces that involve the entire cast.

Defining this is an ongoing process. You won’t have all the answers straight up, and you don’t need to worry if you don’t. Wanting to know what you want is actually one of the most powerful and useful questions you can ever ask yourself. You are giving yourself the respect and time to consider what really matters to you.


What are specific things you can do that will train those skills? For specific skills there are always workshops, improv or otherwise. Read poetry out loud and feel how the words work if you want to become more lyrical. If you don’t know what will help you then finding that workshop or book can be the action. Keep looking.

You can also choose to do things in shows to train those specific skills. I know that I tend to stay away from high-energy or loud characters, so if I feel slow in a show I run into the next scene and go over-the-top. I accept invitations to play in different groups so I am always getting a different style of improv.

When I realised I was more comfortable talking than moving around on stage I started doing physical workshops. Just the practice of productively working on what scares you makes you feel more confident, never mind the result. Plus I have found that learning sticks a bit more precisely because it is imposing at first. I’m sure I’ve picked up verbal tips that I just stored away casually because saying things doesn’t scare me, but I remember vividly all of my hard fought lessons in physicality and emotion.


I don’t care how many tickets I sold (or didn’t sell) over that week in the west-end. I do care about all the personal goals I cracked in shows and rehearsals, and it just makes me hungry for more. Every unsold ticket then was just frustrating and discouraging, every missed beat in a show now is an opportunity to learn and a self-revelation. Because I know what I want. I want to get better at improv by doing it for as long as it takes.

I think if you take time to identify and articulate your motives then you can take action that will support your most honest desires. That sounds pretty cool.


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