It is 3 a.m. on a cool August night in Chicago. I am sitting on a 10-foot-high lifeguard chair that overlooks Lake Michigan. As far as I can see, I am the only human being on this huge beach.
My apartment is four blocks west from here. I had awakened in the middle of the night and, instead of lying in bed thinking, I came to the lakefront to write.
I survey the seemingly infinite lake and feel as if I am perched on the edge of the world. I am looking out into the vast unknown. And the vast unknown is dark, dangerous, and terrifying.
* * * * *
One of the most well-known mathematical models in finance is the Capital Asset Pricing Model. It is commonly referred to as “CAPM” (pronounced as two syllables: the word “cap,” then the letter “M”). CAPM is used to calculate the expected rate of return on a security or portfolio.
Ten years ago I was pursuing a Ph.D. in accounting at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Chapel Hill is one of my favorite places in the world. The sky is “Carolina blue” more than 300 days of the year. The landscape is all hills and trees and grass. Every morning I would leave my apartment, look at the sky and the surrounding landscape, and think, I cannot believe I live here.
For eight years I had been studying and working in accounting. I had a newly minted Ivy League M.B.A. on my résumé. I was one of the four or five most highly recruited accounting Ph.D. applicants in the country. I had turned down offers from the doctoral programs at Columbia, Chicago, and Northwestern in order to study at North Carolina. I was poised for a successful future.
But I did not enjoy accounting anymore.
After much prayer and thought, I decided to leave the Ph.D. program and the accounting profession. I had no realistic Plan B, no idea of what I would do to replace my career in accounting. I had a vague notion that I wanted to pursue comedy, but that seemed more a fantasy than a legitimate career goal. I told my professors and classmates of my decision to leave, but stayed to complete the first year.
A few weeks before the end of the school year, I performed an accounting-themed stand-up comedy night for my classmates. I created the “Leaving a Ph.D. Program Model” (“LAPPM,” pronounced “lap-M,” for short). I presented LAPPM as if I were actually presenting a new mathematical model to a roomful of academics. I even took questions at the end of my presentation, and improvised answers using the academic jargon of finance and accounting.
My classmates loved it—I don’t think they had ever seen anything quite like it before.
Though I made light of my decision to leave, the truth is that I was terrified. As I abandoned my well-lit career path to leap into an unknown future, I felt as alone as I do now on this deserted beach at 3 in the morning.
* * * * *
I feel an urge to immerse myself in the dark waters. I scan the beach in all directions to make sure that I am alone. I climb down to the sand, strip down to my underwear, and step into Lake Michigan. It is shockingly cold.
* * * * *
When I first began pursuing comedy, I always felt awkward when people asked, “What do you do?”
I would reply, “I’m an aspiring comedian.”
To most people, the word “aspiring” is a synonym for “unsuccessful.”
Sometimes they would push further: “How do you support yourself?”
I would tell them how I was earning my money at the time. “I teach GMAT classes.” Or, “I teach preschool.” Or, “I work as a package handler at the airport.”
* * * * *
I am a terrible swimmer.
I once asked a friend who is an accomplished swimmer to observe me at the lap pool. Afterwards, he spoke with the candor of a trusted friend: “That may be the worst form I’ve ever seen.”
In the years since my friend’s observation, I have done nothing to become a better swimmer. I’ve “always wanted to swim” the same way many people have “always wanted to write.”
In an act of kindness, the dark lake conceals my aquatic incompetence tonight.
* * * * *
My preschool students knew of my aspirations. One day one of them asked me, “Mr. Ranjit, are you really a comedian?”
“Yes, Jimmy,” I answered.
He responded with the candor of a 4-year-old: “Then how come you’re not funny?”
In the years since Jimmy’s question, I’ve written hundreds of thousands of words. Fortunately some of them have been funnier than I am.
Today I teach comedy writing classes at The Second City Training Center in Chicago. I tell my students this: The secret to becoming a writer is a pen and a notebook.
* * * * *
I emerge from Lake Michigan. Shivering, I use my shirt to dry off. I throw on my clothes and hurry back toward my apartment. I look forward to a hot shower and a warm bed.
And perhaps, some cool dreams.
Ranjit Souri (firstname.lastname@example.org) manages a theater school and teaches comedy writing classes in Chicago.