I was recently honored at a gala dinner for Adventure Theater, a local children's theater based in Bethesda. The event helped me appreciate that while the theater isn't usually thought of as a traditional training ground for entrepreneurs, there are important traits young people develop in theater that can prepare them for life as entrepreneurs.
In the interest of full disclosure, I've written in the past about how wrestling, dyslexia, and even being a Red Sox fan can play a formative role in preparing for life as an entrepreneur. As I watched the kids in the theater program nearly bursting with joy as they performed a welcoming Broadway song, I realized I hadn't given my acting experience enough credit.
Ever since I was the Mikado in 6th grade, I participated in school musicals through high school and sophomore year in college (before academics and track took over). Like the kids at Adventure Theater, I found joy in performing, and I formed several lifelong friendships through the intensive rehearsal process. But in addition to those benefits, there were five ways my acting and theater experience helped me prepare to be an entrepreneur:
1. Willingness to Take Risks
By definition, a theater performance forces you to step into the spotlight and potentially fail. People don't go to the theater to see performers do everyday things, and investors only make bets on entrepreneurs taking extraordinary risks. Actors put themselves in unfamiliar situations, and do the best they can with what they have -- the ultimate definition of an entrepreneurship. And no matter how scripted and rehearsed a play might be, live theater always has an element of the unknown, like the time my I was doing a semi-split during the wedding dance in Fiddler on the Roof and my pants ripped right up the seam. Like any good entrepreneur, I kept on dancing. During Honest Tea's first five years things rarely went according to plan, so those dancing skills paid off.
Inevitably, things won't always work out, so theater also teaches:
Whether it's an audition or a less-than-perfect performance, every actor encounters failure at some point. And though tears may be shed, it's important for children to experience setbacks so they learn to rebound. It's ideal for children to encounter their early failures in a supportive environment so that by the time they are pitching investors, they will be able to bounce back from rejection. During Honest Tea's first few years, my success rate with stores was about 20 percent, which was twice as high as my success rate with investors, which in turn, was twice as high as my success rate with distributors. Which leads to the third skill:
Let's face it, being an entrepreneur is like going to tryouts every day. The first few years are filled with sales pitches/auditions with investors, customers, distributors, employees and of course consumers. During one store sampling event, we literally get the chance to pitch (and be rejected) hundreds of times. Twenty-one years into Honest Tea, I am still pitching. When I hear someone else give a sales pitch, it's not hard to spot someone who had theater training -- they confidently project their voice, they don't get rattled, and they are (usually) willing to laugh at themselves. Getting rejected in a sales call isn't nearly as humiliating as failing on a stage -- the audience is usually smaller and the lights aren't quite as bright. There should also be a bit of showmanship in a good sales pitch -- whether it's humor or emotion, or both, customers still love a story that resonates.
When done well, theater forces us to temporarily suspend our everyday assumptions, and transports us to another time and place. The practice of training ourselves to step away from our regular thought patterns and helps nourish fresh thinking, which can bring new ideas to life.
Our educational teaching seems to do a good job of draining creativity out of our kids. There's nothing wrong with STEM learning, but science and math without art and creativity is just equations. I still remember the day my dyslexic son was scolded for coloring his locomotive in rainbow colors because train engines are "supposed to be black." One of my favorite Honest Tea bottle cap messages is by Pablo Picasso: "Every child is born an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once we grow up." Theater and art have the potential to preserve some artistic instincts in kids, even as they learn to train their minds for the hard sciences.
A creative mindset was essential for Honest Tea. We needed it for our product development, whether it's flavor combinations, artwork, or label messages. It also carries into our marketing strategies, which focus on finding fun and unusual ways to create consumer awareness, such as our National Honesty Index, which tested people's honesty by allowing them to buy or steal a bottle. And at Beyond Meat, I watch with amazement as our scientists find creative applications from the plant kingdom to replicate the color, taste and texture of animal protein.
Finally, and importantly, theater teaches:
Acting forces you to put yourself in someone else's place, to try and assume their emotional state, their life experience and the lens through which they see the world. When we learn empathy, we are able to recognize the importance of every individual and treat everyone with respect, honoring the light that is in all of us. There are few more critical skills for being an effective leader than being able to understand the viewpoints and mindsets of your partners, your team, and your customer.
I occasionally find direct outlets for my theatrical experience, but for the most part, I get the chance to exercise these five disciplines every day.
In my remarks at the Adventure Theater gala, I congratulated the young actors for a fabulous performance. I told them I hoped they could always feel the kind of joy they felt on the stage. I predicted that while some of them may pursue successful theater careers, many of them would not. But that didn't mean they had to sacrifice what they felt on stage. My wish for them was that they could feel the joy of theater everyday, even as they star in the show that is their own lives.