Twelve years ago, on a wintry Monday night, I did my first ever stand-up comedy gig, at Sydney’s Harold Park Hotel. I’d managed to fill my head with gags, fill the
audience with friends and family, and fill my time waiting to go on with sprinting off to the loo. My adrenaline levels were way into the red. It felt as if I was going to walk on stage and explode with nerves, leaving two little Blundstone boots with wisps of smoke coming out of them. In reality, I did quite well, but at the same time I realised that, if I couldn’t work out a different way to experience pre-gig nerves, I was never going to fulfil my dream and be a full-time comic.
Then, during a stay in Paris, I saw something that forever changed the way I approached being out of my comfort zone. It wasn’t a masterpiece in the Louvre or the majesty of the Arc de Triomphe. I was in my hotel room and Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back came on the telly, in French. It was eyeopening (and pretty hilarious) because all the characters were speaking ‘the language of love’. C-3PO and R2-D2 seemed like a bickering married couple, Yoda in French sounded like a sleazy little munchkin: “Snog you I can, mmmm yes.” When I saw how different this very familiar movie felt in a different language, the penny dropped: if I was going to change how I felt about my stage nerves I had to change the language I was using to describe it.
Back in Australia, I spoke about all this with an advertising mate, John O’Connor, and we came up with a better word than ‘scared’ or ‘nervous’ to describe that big adrenaline burst we all get from being out of our comfort zone. I’ve now used ‘newfeeling’ for years to help me embrace all the inevitable changes that come with life (and to calm me down before a whole lot of comedy and speaking gigs.) Then, last year, something happened that made me realise this idea was worth sharing.
I was taking my 5-year-old son Connor to the orientation day at his new school. We were walking along, I was carrying him on my shoulders, and he seemed happy enough, cuddling his little body into the back of my head. He chatted away, asking all those questions that are so important to a 5-year-old:
“Where do they keep the Playstation?”
“Do schools have Foxtel?”
Then we turned the corner and Connor froze in mid-sentence
In one glance he’d taken in the imposing school gates and the noisy groups of older children. I felt his little hands grasp my hair, and he became very quiet. He whispered in my ear, “Dad, it’s all funny in my tummy, and I feel a bit shy.”
I asked if he was afraid. “Nah!” he said, “I’m not scared, I’ve just got newfeeling.” I was over the moon: ‘newfeeling’, this made up word I’d started using years earlier and had talked about with Connor, had helped my boy cope with the biggest day of change in his young life.
No-one loves change. But I have swapped careers so many times (I reckon I’m brave, my mum says I have a short attention span) that I’ve learned, through trial and often painful error, that there are a two big rock solid, cast iron facts about change.
1. Life IS change.
It’s vital to notice that I’m not saying. “Life is full of change” or “Change is such a big part of life”. No. Life IS change. Change is the true nature of existence. The Buddhists call it impermanence, we in the west say, “Life never works out the way I plan.” It has to be said here that I’m no wise man or guru. I’ve only learned rule number one by repeatedly making the mistake covered in rule number two …
2. When you refuse to change you don’t hold onto the past, you lose the future.
You can’t embrace any new chapter in your life until you turn the page on the previous one. We won’t get a new partner until we stop hanging on to the old partner. I couldn’t throw myself into stand-up until I resigned from my advertising job. And there are much more famous case studies than mine:
• Irish rock group U2 – always evolving, always selling music.
• Eric Burdon and The Animals – forever stuck in the House of the Rising Sun.
• Bill Murray – started out doing movies like Caddyshack. Then he took some risks, shook things up a bit, and Lost in Translation got him an Oscar nomination.
• Chevy Chase – started out doing movies like Caddyshack. And he’s still doing movies like Caddyshack; he’s waiting for change to be free from ‘newfeeling’. I understand that using this word may seem like an incredibly small thing to do. Sometimes, when I use it aloud to an audience, it seems like a totally new-age, tree-hugging, hippy thing: “Hey dude, don’t call it fear, call it newfeeling.”
To be honest, that’s probably why it took me 10 years to tell people about the idea. But the trick is to recognise that ‘newfeeling’ is neither good nor bad. When you go outside on a hot day your body gets hot, when you go outside your comfort zone your body gets newfeeling. It’s totally up to you to decide whether ‘hot’and ‘newfeeling’ are good or bad.
To make myself feel incredibly smug and learned, I’ll sneak in a quote from the philosopher Wittgenstein. He said: “The limits of one’s language are the limits of one’s world.” The number of ways you can talk about something determines the number of ways you can think about something, and that determines how you feel about something.
So change the word, change the meaning, change the feeling, When you allow yourself to feel the adrenaline without attaching words like ‘fear’ or ‘nerves’ to it, you don’t beat yourself up so much. My little boy, Connor, told himself he didn’t feel ‘scared’ on his first day of school, he just had ‘newfeeling’ and, because we talk about it all the time at home, he knew this was a normal and natural thing to feel.
Every single time I prepare to go on stage I say to myself, “Marty, you don’t have knots in your stomach, you have newfeeling.” This doesn’t make the adrenaline go away, but it reframes it and lets me see it as normal. In fact, I choose to see that adrenaline as an exciting thing. After 35 years being the class idiot, I kinda like it.
Marty now speaks to corporations about the benefits of being fearless and he has also launched an annual ‘face your fears’ event, National Newfeeling Day. “The aim is to encourage everyone to take a leap outside their comfort zone,” he explains – by challenging themselves, then challenging friends to sponsor them, with all money raised being used to support children’s literacy. Like to know more? Visit www.newfeeling.org