Aisha Tyler’s recipe for success: Fail, and fail hard

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Aisha Tyler (CNN Photo)

 

by Alicia W. Stewart

(CNN) — Aisha Tyler is not your typical comedian.

The 42-year-old is a 6 foot tall woman who snowboards, camps, raps about her lack of a rear end, and can’t dance.

“I will never be the lead in Step it Up 17: Old lady gets to Krumpin’,” she writes in her new book. “I have made my peace with this.”

While she might lack rhythm, the Dartmouth grad speaks fluent French, with some functionality in Russian and Swahili.

Tyler was the first Black recurring character on Friends, has filled in for the late movie critic Roger Ebert and taken on gamers who questioned her nerd status.

A few funny things happened on the way to the native San Franciscan finding success as Lana Kane in the edgy animated FX series “Archer,” and hosting “The Talk”, and the CW’s “Who’s Line is It Anyway?”. She (regrettably) wore two-toned hair and a see-through dress on the red carpet, survived throwing up on a guy during their first date, and bombed countless times on stage.

In “Self-Inflicted Wounds,” her second book, Tyler argues that the path to success is paved with epic failures. And she’s not afraid to share her own hard-luck stories for a laugh or to show that fear of striking out should never keep you from swinging for the fences.

CNN recently caught up with the host of the podcast “Girl on Guy,” which inspired the book, out now. The edited conversation is below.

CNN: How did an Ivy League grad, with a degree in political science and environmental studies, become interested in comedy?

Tyler: Well, I think I was always interested in comedy. I was always a very, kind of, fiction-obsessed kid, and a big reader, and just loved make-believe. And then in high school I started to do improv, and sketch comedy, and did that all the way through college. I was always interested in performing … I just came from a really academically driven family. I was really focused on school, so it just never seemed like a real job to me.

And so after I got my degree in government and environmental studies, I thought, “Well, now I have a degree and I can take a risk and see if it will pay off because I can always go back to a traditional job.”

CNN: Throughout the book, you share stories of your self-inflicted wounds. In some way it is an anti-self-help book, showing how failure can help in your success. Why write about the failures?

Tyler: I always tell people that success is not the absence of failure, success is persistence through failure. So it does show how failure can help. I mean I think there are a lot of people who are crippled by a failure. Crippled by something that goes wrong in their lives. And we’re crippled by a fear of failure.

And the people who say, who say, you know “I don’t want to try this. I would like to be a comedian, but I’m afraid I’m going to fail. I want to write a book, but I’m afraid I’m going to fail.” And well I say, “You are. You are going to fail. There’s no doubt about it that something’s going to go terribly wrong.”

An indivisible aspect of being alive, of being human, of being on this planet, and if you’re not failing, you’re not innovating. If you’re not failing, you’re not risking. So go for it, and then use the failure as a fuel, use it as a way to become mentally tough because it’s absolutely unavoidable.

CNN: What is it that you want people to most understand about you?

Tyler: That I’m not trying to live up to anybody else’s expectations of who I am. I’m going to, not that I’m striving consciously to be an iconoclast, but I’m definitely also not striving to meet some set parameters either as an actress, or a comedian, or an artist, or anything. I’m just trying to do what I find compelling.

CNN: What would you tell your younger self about who you are now?

Tyler: I would probably tell my younger self, “Don’t worry about it. You’re always going to be a weirdo, and at some point that’s going to be OK. That’s eventually going to be your calling card, or your badge of courage, that you’re going to be a weird kid.”

I mean even now, when I stand on stage, earlier in my career anyway, when people didn’t know I did stand-up, I would get up on stage and I would be a 6-foot-tall Black woman, people had very specific expectations about what was going to come out of my mouth. And I’ve never ever been able to satisfy those expectations, and I realized very early on that I wasn’t going to change who I was to fulfill a set of expectations that people had about me. And I just plowed ahead until my audience found me. So I never stopped being a weird kid. Just that I found weird people who liked what I did.

CNN: How has being different shaped your journey?

Tyler: I hated when I was a kid being told that, “Black people don’t do that.” And the white kids at school didn’t accept me because I was Black, and the Black kids in my neighborhood didn’t accept me because they thought I thought I was White. So that was fine. I was in a no-man’s land. And that meant I just got to do what I thought was interesting. And that’s just who I’ve been since then. And it’s guided all of my decisions, which is I have never stopped to think, “Oh, you know, does this fit?” I just do what I want to do.

CNN: What do you believe in?

Tyler: I believe in hard work. I think that everything flows out of that. It doesn’t mean that you’re going to be successful, or traditionally successful because sometimes the world is just unfair, and untalented people get promoted and talented people get left behind, but if you are doing something that you love and you put a lot of hard work into it, you will be rewarded, and that’s been the thing I’ve hewn to for my entire adult life.

CNN: Anything else?

Tyler: You can’t control where you were born, the family you were born into, what you look like, you can’t control any of those circumstances, the only thing you can control is how you react.

So for my entire life that’s been the rule that has governed my decisions. I can’t control what’s fair and unfair, I can’t control the nature of the business, or the nature of society, or the nature of the world, but what I can control is how I choose to see the world and what I choose to put back into it.

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