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How Leighann Lord made her career switch to stand-up comedy less risky

  • Khe Hy
By Khe Hy

Contributing Editor and Entrepreneur in Residence

Published This article is more than 2 years old.

When Leighann Lord isn’t performing standup comedy, she’s a regular attendee of Dragon Con. She’s co-hosted StarTalk with Neil de Grasse Tyson and has performed on HBO and Comedy Central. As a second-generation child of Caribbean immigrants, Lord felt compelled to abandon her college studies in journalism and creative writing in favor of making her parents proud with a stable job in corporate communications. And she hated it.

Lord felt the pull of stand-up comedy but she wasn’t about to ditch the stability of a paycheck to try her hand at performing. So she started taking classes after work and then practicing at clubs late into the night—recovering the next day by sneaking catnaps in the bathroom stalls at her day job. These practice gigs turned into paid ones and five years later, she realized it no longer made sense for her to use vacation days to take paid stand-up gigs. So she left to pursue comedy full time in New York City, a career she’s still pursuing 25 years later. In the fourth episode of the FWD: Thinking podcast, Lord and I discuss:

  • Why it’s good to have a job you hate
  • De-risking your next venture through classes and side projects
  • Whether “following your passion” is good advice

It’s good to have a job you hate

Graduating during a recession, Lord felt fortunate to land a job in corporate communications. But by the second day, she knew that she’d made a terrible mistake” by overlooking her passion in theatre and creative writing:

“I took the first job, the first corporate job that was offered to me because I thought that’s what I was supposed to do. So I kind of gave up on theatre, and thought, ‘Oh, I’ll take this regular job because that’s the expectation.’ And yeah, my heart said no. This is wrong.”

But having “a job you hate” can serve as a powerful catalyst to make a change. For Lord, this set forth a reevaluation of her skills and passions:

“I recommend having a job that you hate because it inspires you to find out what you really want to do. And I was miserable for quite some time, a couple years. And I’m embarrassed about this now [how long it took] for it to dawn on me that if I’m unhappy, I have to figure out what to do. No one’s gonna swoop in. No one’s gonna call. No one’s gonna rescue me. That’s my job.”

De-risking your next venture through classes and side projects

Lord began her career exploration by taking a 10-week stand-up class in the evenings at the Comic Strip Live Comedy Club in New York.

“I wasn’t crazy enough to go—I wanna do comedy. I should quit my job. I was not that insane.”

But the classes turned to shows often lasting late into the night. Lord “would work a full day” and then “change clothes in the office bathroom, grab something to eat, and then go to comedy clubs at night.” Lord couldn’t continue to “burn the candle at both ends” and first switched to part-time employment before ultimately raising her hand during a round of voluntary layoffs to pursue stand-up full time:

So I did the part-time thing for a while. But even then, it became difficult because then I got good enough that I was traveling. I was going on the road. And you can take but so many sick days and vacation days to do that. And that’s what I was cobbling together. And finally, it got to the point where I’m like, ‘I have to make a choice.’

Whether “following your passion” is good advice

Would Lord recommend her career path to other aspiring creatives? Here’s her take on following your passion:

“Don’t do it. Passion-smassion. Get a job. Get a job with benefits. Be able to pay rent. Make your parents proud. [But seriously,] I do try to be honest about the realities of what this is. This is hard. You will work harder than you will for someone else if you want to be successful. There’s a level of hustle that you’ve got to be willing to do. You’re about to work. And you need to be good with that.”

If you’re looking to reinvent your career, consider yourself warned!

Subscribe to FWD: Thinking on Apple Podcast, Google PodcastSpotify and Stitcher

FWD: Thinking is a new podcast about bold professionals who have challenged the status quo to recreate their careers. They’ve grown out of the cracks in the org chart, punched above their titles, and when all else failed, started their own companies. Hosted by Khe Hy and created by Quartz, this podcast traces the blueprints that lead to a more fulfilling work life. Subscribe on Apple Podcasts or wherever you get your podcasts.

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