Act As If — Just like improvisers don’t know how the show is going to go, entrepreneurs don’t know how business is going to develop. While the deeply human reaction to that uncertainty is fear, improv trains us to quiet that unhelpful fear and instead focus on collective forward momentum towards our goal. This little dance is a constant practice. People often ask how improvisers rehearse. One big part of the training is regularly practicing jumping into the unknown with trust and faith that it will all work out. Instead of improvising as if it’s all going to be a disaster — which often becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy! — we take the stage acting as if it’s going to be a swell show.
Being a founder, entrepreneur, or business owner can have many exciting and thrilling moments. But it is also punctuated with periods of doubt, slump, and anxiety. So how does one successfully and healthily ride the highs and lows of Entrepreneurship? In this series, called “How To Successfully Ride The Emotional Highs & Lows Of Being An Entrepreneur” we are talking to successful entrepreneurs who can share stories from their experience. I had the pleasure of interviewing Pam Victor.
Pam Victor is a professional improviser, author, corporate trainer, happiness coach, and the founder and president of Happier Valley Comedy, the first and only comedy theater and training program in Western Massachusetts. Pam also is a nice person and she likes you already.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive in, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
I started Happier Valley Comedy as a yearlong experiment to see if I could make a living doing what I love, which is improv comedy. (Spoiler: I can!) Working full-time in improv comedy while living in a small town in America seemed like a foolhardy impossibility. Fortunately, improv trains us to rejoice in foolish impossibilities.
What was the “Aha Moment” that led to the idea for your current company? Can you share that story with us?
After 10 years of being a full-time homeschooling parent, my child had the audacity to go off to college, leaving me virtually unemployed. As a trained elementary school teacher, I figured that I would go back to teaching in the classroom. However, a little voice inside me kept yammering away about improv comedy, which was my intense passion at that time. Wouldn’t it be cool if I could work in improv comedy? The small wrinkle was that there was no existing improv comedy company in Western Mass.
That darn little voice said, “So what if you make one?” (Aha!)
Though it seemed like a ridiculous proposition for about a wadzillion rational reasons, I gave myself one year to see if I could give it a shot. That “Aha!” Moment leads to “The Can I Make a Living Doing What I Love? Experiment” in which I gave myself exactly one year to make a set dollar amount exclusively through improv comedy. Long story short, I made my dollar goal in six months and by the end of the year, I founded Happier Valley Comedy.
After years of hard work and more foolhardy persistence, Happier Valley Comedy is a thriving nonprofit company with two full-time employees and a bunch of amazing teachers and paid performers in a physical theater space where we run classes, shows, and corporate training events. I still shake my head a bit when I go into our theater sometimes at the improbability of its existence.
In your opinion, were you a natural born entrepreneur or did you develop that aptitude later on? Can you explain what you mean?
Hang on. I’m laughing too much at this question to answer.
Uh, no. I never considered myself to be a natural born entrepreneur, nor did I ever have aspirations to be one. (I still don’t.) A natural leader? Yes. But a president of a company? Oh heck no. In fact, I pushed against that reality a lot in the early days. I didn’t like starting or running a company, and I didn’t think I was suited to the job. But I still kept doing it because it needed to be done because improv trains us to be of service to the moment.
Over the years, I’ve learned that I’m actually quite good at being an entrepreneur and running this company. I think my lack of formal business training and natural unconventional approach serves the company well since it allows me to have an open mind and think outside the box without restrictions of what “should” and “must” be done. My training as an improviser prepares me to think creatively, to problem-solve effectively, to take beneficial risks, to focus on being of service to the company community, and to collaborate with positivity. Turns out, those skills are vital to starting and running a business!
Was there somebody in your life who inspired or helped you to start your journey with your business? Can you share a story with us?
My husband has been an entrepreneur for many years. I’ve watched him start a myriad of companies, so I knew it was possible even when it seemed improbable. There were so many dinners that he announced, “Well, we only have enough money in the bank for two more weeks of payroll.” And then they somehow made it work over and over again. From his experiences, I’ve learned that ups and downs are not game-enders; they’re just part of the process of entrepreneurship.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
“Happy Valley” is the nickname of the region where I live. So I named the company “Happier Valley Comedy” because “we make the Happy Valley HAPPIER!” This is more than just a cute tagline for us. Kindness, acceptance, and positivity are built into our core values. When making a business decision of any kind we ask, “How can we facilitate more joy and ease? How can we make people happier?”
The cool thing is that when people walk into the theater for the first time, they frequently say that it has a happy vibe. I think it’s more than just the sunny decor. Facilitating happiness is at the forefront of our minds when we greet people at the door, take their tickets, teach a class, facilitate corporate training, and take the stage.
You are a successful business leader. Which three character traits do you think were most instrumental to your success? Can you please share a story or example for each?
Persistence: Because of an unusual childhood, I developed Weeble-like abilities. (For those of you who didn’t live through the ’70s, Weebles were an egg-shaped toy that “wobble but they don’t fall down.”) In improvisation, we learn that we keep performing until they cut the stage lights to signal the end of the show. I bring that same mindset to business. I’ll keep trying new ideas to make the business a success. There’s always another show — another opportunity to facilitate more happiness — ahead.
Reframing Failure: Onstage, it’s only a mistake if we indicate we’ve made a mistake. As long as you don’t indicate you’ve made a mistake, the audience just assumes it’s part of the show. And offstage, I believe it’s only a mistake if you don’t learn from it. Every “down” experience has lead to invaluable growth and learning for the company. Though we strive for promoting happiness, there will be times we fall short. And every time we have an unhappy student in class, for example, is another opportunity to make our class structures stronger.
It’s such a gift to work in a culture where failure is redefined and disempowered. This mindset is core to how we improvise together onstage and how we run our business. After all, we learn much more from our failures than from our successes…so are they really failures?
Improvisation: It must be so hard (not to mention less fun) to run a business without improv training! I define improvisation as, “acceptance of the reality of the moment and the agreement to move forward together with joy and ease.” We literally practice jumping into the unknown and catching each other every day, and that training has proven to be invaluable as an entrepreneur.
Like for so many, the pandemic decimated our bottom line. We lost about 75% of our streams of revenue. For a while, I was afraid that failure was imminent. But those fears were only feelings, not facts. The truth was, I didn’t know how the story of that year was going to end. Luckily, I’m trained to take the stage without knowing how the show will go. Improvisers regularly experience quieting fearful beliefs and reserving judgment because we never know when a moment is going to turn out to be the highlight of the show. We improvise the show one step at a time while trusting that it will all work out. So I took the same tact through the pandemic. I practiced accepting the reality of the moment and moving forward with positivity. If it had been a usual year, I would never have had the time to conceive of and develop an online wellness and wellbeing program, which is now a whole new revenue stream for the company.
Often leaders are asked to share the best advice they received. But let’s reverse the question. Can you share a story about advice you’ve received that you now wish you never followed?
In the very early days when I was still figuring out how to run a business and what kind of leader I wanted to be, there was a particularly challenging student who was extremely difficult to have in our community. I was the only person in the leadership committee who voted to keep her in class, and I went along with the majority opinion to ask her to leave. I wish I had been able to figure out a way to keep her in the community while also making others feel safe and valued.
Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them create a work culture in which employees thrive and do not “burn out” or get overwhelmed?
We have a “family first” edict. I trust people I work with to prioritize their families … and their personal health. So if they need to take time off for childcare or to be with an elderly parent or for some time to rest and rejuvenate, we don’t pass judgment and we trust they’ll figure out how to still get their work done. It all gets done eventually. But I don’t think there are any winners when leaders ask people to choose between their families or their personal health and their jobs.
What would you advise other business leaders to do in order to build trust, credibility, and Authority in their industry?
Be a vulnerable and human being. It’s hard to trust people who think they’re invulnerable and perfect because they’re living a lie. We are human beings. We are imperfect, that’s a guarantee. A leader who is open about their humanity and fallibility is someone I know I can trust and count on when the chips are down.
Can you help articulate why doing that is essential today?
Fear is at the core of many of the missteps we make as leaders and as improv comedians. Fear of failure, of the unknown, of losing control, of looking like a fool. When leaders insist on perfection — which I believe doesn’t exist anyway — they’re acting from a place of fear. And goodness knows, if they don’t know how to deal with their own mistakes, it sure isn’t going to be pretty when other people make mistakes! Often that type of fear-based culture leads to cover-ups, which is how problems fester and become systemic.
When failure is viewed as a valuable opportunity for learning (even though it may be painful,) leaders can establish a strong foundation of openness, trust, and collaboration.
What are the most common mistakes you have seen CEOs & founders make when they start a business? What can be done to avoid those errors?
A scarcity mindset when it comes to power feels counterproductive to me. And less happy-making too. In improvisation, we’re trained to be of service to our scene partners, to the show, to the moment. If I’m thinking about myself onstage, my head is in the wrong place. In business, this “be of service” translate to servant-leadership. As the president of the company, I think that everyone who walks through the door of the theater is my boss. My primary job is to be of service to facilitate their happiness. With an abundance mindset, everyone is empowered.
This is sort of embarrassing to admit — but hell, we’re all friends here, right? — but I took on the job of cleaning the bathrooms in the theater. Though I’m not a huge fan of scrubbing well-used toilets, I do find the job to be a weekly reminder that my primary job is to be of service to the community in whatever way is needed most.
Ok fantastic. Thank you for those excellent insights, Let’s now shift to the main focus of our interview about How to Successfully Ride The Emotional Highs & Lows Of Being An Entrepreneur. The journey of an entrepreneur is never easy, and is filled with challenges, failures, setbacks, as well as joys, thrills and celebrations. This might be intuitive, but I think it will be very useful to specifically articulate it. Can you describe to our readers why no matter how successful you are as an entrepreneur, you will always have fairly dramatic highs and lows? Particularly, can you help explain why this is different from someone with a “regular job”?
As an entrepreneur, I have trouble seeing much sunlight between my job and my identity. Especially in the beginning of the process, the company is me. I am the brand. So when things go well, Yay! I’m great! And when things aren’t going well, Ugh! Those lows can feel like a reflection on me as a person.
On the other hand, nobody can take my talent and work ethic away from me. Even when the pandemic threatened the existence of the company, I knew I could start something else if the company folded. I’m an improviser. At every rehearsal and show, I regularly practice how to work together to build something from nothing.
Do you feel comfortable sharing a story from your own experience about how you felt unusually high and excited as a result of your business? We would love to hear it.
As my business partner and I took the stage for the first show in the theater after it opened, the crowd went wild. The whole room erupted in total joy. We just looked at each other like, “Wow! We created this!” People were so happy and supportive. Our success was their success. In that instant, our community seemed to be born, and it was a beautiful thing.
Do you feel comfortable sharing a story from your own experience about how you felt unusually low, and vulnerable as a result of your business? We would love to hear it.
Aside from the scripted nature, the key difference between standup and improvisation is that typically improvisation is a team-based art form while standup is a solo show. I love working with other people to create something together. Connection is one of my personal core values, and improvisation is an act of deep connection in co-creation.
The pandemic was when all my fears of disconnection were realized. The theater was closed. Revenue dried up. And it was just me alone working to keep things afloat. My business partner’s son was born on March 13, 2020, so we decided that he’d go on furlough in order to spend time with his family (and save payroll expenses for the company.) That spring and summer was the lowest, most soul-bearing time because I got to experience my deepest fear of being left alone with a huge responsibility.
Based on your experience can you tell us what you did to bounce back?
I cried a lot at first. Being in the business of happiness doesn’t mean not feeling sad; it means being mindful of balancing the two emotions. We hold space for happiness. We also feel that making room for feelings of sadness, grief, and loss continues to be an important part of the process of running Happier Valley Comedy. Tears are welcome at our meetings.
As I said, I define improvisation as “acceptance of the reality of the moment and the agreement to move forward together with joy and ease.” So I gave myself time and space to get into acceptance around the reality of trying to run a theater when the physical space was closed. I didn’t like the situation, but it was happening. Only when I was able to come into acceptance could I productively figure out how to move forward one step at a time.
Ok super. Here is the main question of our interview. What are your “Five Things You Need To Successfully Ride The Emotional Highs & Lows Of Being An Entrepreneur”? Please share a story or an example for each.
1.The Maybe Farmer Mindset: There is a Daoist story that’s central to how I improvise a show, run the business, and navigate the ups and downs of life. The basic lesson is that we don’t know how the story of life is going to end, so labeling something as “good” or “bad” is unhelpful because the “good” stuff might lead to hardship and the “bad” usually leads to growth and learning. The “maybe” mindset reminds us that we don’t know what is good and what is bad while we’re in the middle of things. We try to quiet the internal messengers of unhelpful judgment and keep moving forward together.
For the longest time, I thought that trying to make a living in improv in a small town where there wasn’t an existing improv community was my very bad luck. But there have been so many gifts that came from the situation. First, I was free to create the improv community of my dreams. Also, as opposed to improv theaters in big cities, most of our students don’t come to the theater because they want to perform on the stage. They come because it’s fun, it’s a form of connection, it’s a chance to play. They say they keep taking classes because it’s cheaper than therapy. I never could have planned a stronger business model. About 75% of the students in the first class I taught during the year of “The Can I Make a Living Doing What I Love? Experiment” are still part of our community, either as continuing students, audience members, or performers. Often all three! Making a living in improv in a small town ended up being a great gift to the business. The Maybe Farmer mindset helps to not get so caught up in the stories related to the ups and downs of the journey. We can step back and take a big picture approach.
2. The Spirit of “Yes, and…” — If you only know a little about improvisation, you probably have heard of “Yes, and…” It’s how we improvise a show on the fly without a script. Let’s say we’re doing a scene that takes place in an English countryside. We’re having a very civilized picnic. Suddenly, a teammate enters the scene as an alien from another planet. We’re trained to say “yes” to that offer and to build on it. Yes, there’s now an extraterrestrial in our scene … and what happens next?
The most common misunderstanding of “Yes, and…” is that it requires us to literally say yes to any offer. To clarify that misconception, I instead call it The Spirit of “Yes, and…” to remind people that it’s a mindset rather than a directive. The “yes” is the acceptance of the reality of the moment. (There’s now a creature from another planet in our scene.) The “and” is the agreement to move forward together with joy and ease. (Given that reality, how can we continue the scene with joy and ease? Maybe we pour the alien a cup of tea and offer it a biscotti?)
As an entrepreneur, The Spirit of “Yes, and…” helps me accept each new reality as it comes along. Whether or not I like it, this is what’s happening right now. Given that reality, how can I move forward with joy and ease? For example, in January 2020, we had the world’s best board meeting. We were able to report to them about full-to-bursting classes. Sold out shows. Ample professional development clients. We were so secure financially, they gave us raises.
At the next board meeting — a remote one on March 13, 2020 — we closed the theater. For the duration of the pandemic, there would be no shows. No classes. No idea how to stay in business. The one gig that didn’t cancel that week was a keynote address for a tech conference. They asked me if I could do it online. I had no idea how to translate my deeply interactive presentation to Zoom. My human brain screamed, “No way!” My improviser mouth said, “Sure!” So I figured out how to do it, which expanded the way I thought about my professional development work. I learned a tremendous amount. As it turned out, the professional development side of the business ended up exceeding the financial goals we had set at the pre-pandemic board meeting in January 2020.
3. Act As If — Just like improvisers don’t know how the show is going to go, entrepreneurs don’t know how business is going to develop. While the deeply human reaction to that uncertainty is fear, improv trains us to quiet that unhelpful fear and instead focus on collective forward momentum towards our goal. This little dance is a constant practice. People often ask how improvisers rehearse. One big part of the training is regularly practicing jumping into the unknown with trust and faith that it will all work out. Instead of improvising as if it’s all going to be a disaster — which often becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy! — we take the stage acting as if it’s going to be a swell show.
To apply that to a recent work challenge, there were many moments when my fears of losing all we had worked so hard for felt very real during the pandemic. So I eventually instituted a practice to “act as if.” Meaning that even if I was afraid that we’d go out of business, I committed to acting as if it would all work out. That improv-based mindset made all the difference in the world. Not only did it dramatically reduce my stress level, but it also put a more positive energy into the work I did to get through that challenging time. And you know what? It did all work out just fine.
4. Smash It Up — Sorry to be crass, but when you invite an improviser to talk business, that’s a risk you run. This motto is something I implore my students to do every time they take the stage and central to how we do business at Happier Valley Comedy. In fact, during the early days of the pandemic, my business partner got me a mug with our logo on one side and “F*ck It Up!” on the other. It’s a shorthand for the reminder to bravely jump into the unknown and to disempower failure in order to have as much fun as possible.
In improv and in business, we practice not allowing our fear of failure to stop us from shooting for success. There is a boundless joy and energy to jumping into an endeavor with both feet, welcoming the growth that comes from the ups and downs of the journey. When I hired my partner Scott Braidman, on his first day of work he sat across the table from me and joyfully said, “Boy, we’re going to make soooo many mistakes together!” That’s improv-speak for, “We’re going to learn and grow sooooo much together.”
5. Follow the Joy and Ease — These are core guideposts at Happier Valley Comedy. Given the reality of the situation, we strive to follow the path of maximum joy and ease. And if there’s not even a molecule of joy to be had, we substitute the word “peace.” Given the reality of the situation, where is the peace and ease?
To go back to the earlier example, if an extraterrestrial enters the English countryside garden party scene, that’s the new reality. Certainly, that wasn’t the scene I was anticipating, and to be honest, it might not have been a welcome offer. But that’s the scene we’re now in. Now given that new reality, what is the pathway of maximum joy and ease? How can we make E.T. part of our playtime together?
At that remote board meeting in March 2020, a board member instructed me and my business partner to follow our joy and ease to get through the pandemic. (Yes, we have the best board in the world.) She was saying that even though something might seem at the time to be counterintuitive to our success if it brought us joy and ease, we should do it. For my business partner, that meant going on furlough so he could be with his newborn son. For me, it meant focusing on the creation of an online wellness and wellbeing program called The Happiness Experiment. (I’m a nerd. Working is my joy.) We could not change the impact the pandemic had on our business. But we did have some control over how we traversed the challenging road. Improv teaches us to set the intentions of following the joy and ease to guide us on that journey.
We are living during challenging times and resilience is critical during times like these. How would you define resilience? What do you believe are the characteristics or traits of resilient people?
I define resilience as the ability to bounce back after challenges. Like I mentioned before in relation to persistence, resilient people have Weeble-like qualities. We wobble. And let’s be real, there will be times we seem to fall down and need to weep in the dirt for a while. And when the tears are spent, resilient people stand up again and keep moving forward with faith and trust that it will all work out.
Did you have any experiences growing up that have contributed to building your resiliency? Would you mind sharing a story?
Because of my mother’s wanderlust, I went to different schools in different towns, sometimes states, and one time countries, every single year from 7th grade until college. Although that wasn’t an ideal childhood, it did teach me that there’s always another opportunity to begin again.
In your opinion, do you tend to keep a positive attitude during difficult situations? What helps you to do so?
My title is Head of Happiness, so I should hope so! In general, I’m an optimist, so that tends to be my default setting. Look, we only get one life. We can’t always control what comes along in life, but we do have some control over how we show up. I personally think it’s more fun to show up to life with positivity and playfulness.
Two of our core values are positivity-based: “Follow the joy and ease” and “Play more!” We take our core values really seriously. They are on posters in every room of the theater, including the bathrooms. When we’re in a place of challenge, we can pick them up and say, “What’s the path of joy and ease? How can we play more?”
It’s helpful that we practice positivity in improv class and rehearsals all the time. I say that improv is like going to the gym for the soul, so we get pretty regular “reps” in strengthening our positivity muscles. So when I get down, the other members of the leadership team frequently use “Follow the joy and ease” as a reminder to help me get back on the positive path.
Can you help articulate why a leader’s positive attitude can have a positive impact both on their clients and their team? Please share a story or example if you can.
As an entrepreneur, it’s helpful to the company to have the leadership commit to holding the light of hope and positivity. Not only does it make work more fun, but it tends to lead to preferred outcomes. (And even if it doesn’t, at least we had fun along the way.)
Ok. Super. We are nearly done. What is your favorite inspirational quote that motivates you to pursue greatness? Can you share a story about how it was relevant to you in your own life?
Chicago improviser Susan Messing once said to me, “Being brave means being scared as sh*t, but doing it anyway with the result of flying.” That advice has gotten me through many leaps into the unknown in my personal and professional life. As a human, I feel scared every time I take the stage or try something new or take an unconventional approach. As an improviser, I try not to let my fear stop me from moving forward. I feel afraid and do it anyway. Indeed, practicing bravery requires fear. If I’m not afraid, that’s cool, but it’s also not the practice of bravery.
For instance, the pandemic closed down the physical space of the theater for over a year. In order to keep the company afloat, we had to do a whole lot of improvising! Was it scary? Heck yeah. But I think it’s important to acknowledge and honor the reaction of fear because “What you resist, persists.” (Bonus inspirational quote!) Then the next step is to ask me if my fear is based on good judgment or is merely fear of the unknown, of change, of potential failure. If unfounded fear is the only reason I have for not trying something, I follow Susan’s motto and feel that fear and do it anyway. To throw in one more extra special inspirational quote from another great improviser:
“Jump. And then figure it out on the way down.”
– Tina Fey
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This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for the time you spent with this. We wish you continued success and good health!