Opening Night


I read a good story in this book about Wolfgang Puck instructing his staff to treat every customer interaction as if it was the first and only chance they had to make a good impression. The concept was: “Every night is opening night.”

Every night, in other words, let’s act like this is our one big chance where everyone is watching and everything must be performed at a high standard. Let’s pretend it’s a concert or a play, and this is our only time to shine.

I liked the analogy. But I also thought … how do you do that? What does Opening Night look like, and how do you keep it from getting old?

Part I: What Opening Night Looks Like

Opening Night usually involves a fair amount of nervousness and hand-wringing. The stakes are high and performance is untested, so you’re worried—which is a good thing. On Opening Night, you want to be respectfully nervous. Not scared to death, not paralyzed into inaction, but just jittery enough that you pay close attention to each detail.

Opening Night doesn’t require perfection, because small things often go wrong no matter how much you’ve prepared. Instead, it requires full engagement. When I went on book tour, the talk I gave on the real Opening Night in New York wasn’t my best talk. I got better as I went along, changing the order of things (and learning to say less) according to how different audiences responded. Yet I tried to maintain a sense of each gig being Opening Night everywhere I went, even if it was the tenth stop in ten days or a small town that I wasn’t otherwise excited about.

I think I got it mostly right about 50 times out of 63. On a few of the off nights, something went wrong that wasn’t my fault—a bad room setup, technical difficulties, not many people showed up, etc. But there were also a few times, mercifully few, where I felt like I lost the magic due to no one’s fault but mine. I went away kicking myself those nights, not just for screwing up the gig, but also for failing to be fully engaged.

Part II: How to Keep Opening Night from Getting Old

The big problem with trying to live with a continuous Opening Night policy is that we often get bored. Once we know what to expect from any given activity or performance, the magic + challenge gradually wears off.

This classic commencement address from Steve Jobs offers a remedy:

When I was 17 I read a quote that went something like “If you live each day as if it was your last, someday you’ll most certainly be right.” It made an impression on me, and since then, for the past 33 years, I have looked in the mirror every morning and asked myself, “If today were the last day of my life, would I want to do what I am about to do today?” And whenever the answer has been “no” for too many days in a row, I know I need to change something.

Remembering that I’ll be dead soon is the most important thing I’ve ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life, because almost everything—all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure—these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important. Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart.

Thinking about these questions also helps with the long-term problem: what do you do when you’re tired of the life you’re living. When—as Steve Jobs put it —you look in the mirror too many days in a row and say “No, I wouldn’t want to do this if it’s my last day.”

At that point, I think the only option is to make some changes. You might be able to suck it up when you don’t feel like it and manufacture Opening Night once in a while, but I don’t think you can do it every night. Besides, why would you want to? As Jobs said in the same address, “Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life.”

No, this is why you have to place yourself in front of something you’re excited and thrilled about, while also being a little scared of something going wrong. You might drop the plates (crash!). You might break a string or lose the timing with the drummer. But you must maintain the nervous energy that comes from full engagement, and if you don’t have it, something needs to change.

Is it Opening Night over there?


Image: GraySkull

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  • Jim Ordway says:

    Really enjoyed this post. This is so important in a service business, keeping it fresh and being engaged. I always try to remember that even though I might be doing very similar activities every day, for my customer’s it could be their first experience – and I need to make sure it is memorable in a positive way…and if it’s not I still need to be consistent. It’s showtime!

  • Neil J Lloyd says:

    I’ve certainly dropped a few plates in my time, even smashing them Greek-style with purpose.

    You’re right, it’s the energy that counts. People forgive a few blunders but not despondency or disengagement.

  • Sarah Russell says:

    I wrote a little bit about a related topic this weekend – getting over the “honeymoon phase” of any new project and recapturing that initial excitment to drive continued growth.

    For me (and I think for a lot of internet business owners), it’s easy to get fired up about a new project, but then that nervous energy fades – whether it’s after a week, a month or more. When I start to feel that lagging motivation, I know I need to take a break, set some quiet time to reevaluate what my priorities are and spend a little time working on a new project that I’m equally as passionate about.

    Of course, everyone’s going to have their own unique steps to take to recapture that motivation and excitement, but it’s definitely worth spending some time thinking through.

  • Fiona says:

    Points well made. Think this can be applied to so many things. I home school my daughter and know that it’s all going off the rails when I’m bored and can’t get excited about it. She learns so much more when we’re doing something that excites us both, even if it doesn’t fit into a nice ‘education standards’ box.

  • Kristen Sloan says:

    I think an important point to remember is that if you aren’t a little bit scared, then you aren’t challenging yourself. You are probably taking the safe route and that isn’t good enough for “opening night.”

  • Tea Silvestre says:

    This particular topic has been on my mind a lot lately. I even started a blog earlier this year to capture and share my pursuit of living full out (or, “whole hog”) with others who were similarly minded…and things got a little routine and I found I had nothing to post about. Thanks for the reminder and tips on staying present and fully engaged. We all need to keep reminding each other about this!

  • Elissa says:

    Opening night as a standalone event is exciting.
    But I do think it can get stale – as can ‘what would I do if it were my last day.’

    What doesn’t get stale is knowing what you want your life to have been about, doing it in some small way, and then knowing that today you’ve done it. Mission fullfilled, at least for today.

    That way, no matter how much time you have, you’ve made it count.

  • Linda says:

    Well, I’ve never thrown up backstage, so I guess my anxiety isn’t over-the-top:).

    I agree with Fiona. The importance of engagement and a little nervous energy can be applied to so many things in life. I’ve spent years supervising Master of Social Work interns for their field placement, and I always worry if they show up for that first psychological intake with a parent, and they’re not somewhat nervous.

    As you stated, the key is to balance the anxiety, so that it doesn’t manage you.

    I joke that I love anxious people b/c we get the job done!

  • Patricia GW says:

    I’m going to start asking myself this question in the mirror every morning, too. I know the answer is “no” because I still have to get through university. My graduation is my opening night, the first of many to come.

  • Brian storey says:

    I find it curious when a company is having an anniversary and are expecting guests, that they clean up the place for the occasion. Perhaps every day should be “grand opening”. I never tire of the thought that “you only get one chance to make a good first impression”.
    This is somewhat off the subject at hand, but it is related and fun to think about making every day your grand opening.

  • Eric Walton says:

    I wanted to thank you for the post and the inspiration. I found your book, “The Art of Non Conformity” through another blog I read regularly and devoured the book. It came into my life at the perfect time. I’ve been holding down a day job for nearly two decades while keeping my true passion, writing, on the “back burner” all that time because I’ve felt as though I couldn’t make a living at it. I’m just a few chapters from finishing my first novel, “Alarm Clock Dawn” and the goal is to get it finished before my 40th birthday in Mid June. Count me as a member of your “small army”. Take care!

  • romina puno says:

    for me, opening night everyday would entail being able to help another, whether it be a big or small kind of helping like opening a door to an elderly or volunteering my time. : )

  • Roy says:

    Great point. We are at our best when we are in “opening night” zone.

  • Ann Becker-Schutte says:

    I love this post. As a psychologist, I get to have “Opening Day” each time I meet a new client. It keeps me focused and engaged–and I can carry that energy into each of my sessions. I often feel like I have the best job on the planet, and that sense of fresh challenge is a huge piece of that feeling.

  • Dean Williams says:

    As an actor, I totally related to this post. Some “butterflys” just prior to curtain is always a good thing. It shows you are getting in the zone. And if the seam in your pants should split open in the rear, experience taught me to just face forward and keep going!

  • amanda says:

    I completely agree with the importance of living in this way, and not just in terms of work or performance. It’s something I’ve been trying to do for many years, and I think I’ve been relatively successful. I say things that need to be said, I do things I know I need or want to do. The problem comes when other people are unwilling to do the same. Not everyone wants to be spoken to as if it’s the last day on earth, no matter what the movies say.

  • Sherri says:

    Just what I needed to hear (again) from you. Whenever I start researching a big move or future lifestyle change I still get butterflies with excitement over all the possibilities out there. I hope I can finally pull it together to quit the big money job for the life of fear and fulfillment one of these days.

    It is also sound advice for falling in love – don’t hold back and enjoy the excitement even if you get your heart broken. It is better than the safety and boredom of being along!

  • Chris says:

    Golden reminder. Appreciate you.

  • Drew says:

    Just taped a big sign to the ceiling over my bed.


  • AE Thanh says:

    “Every night is opening night” – that’s a good mindset to have for any service business. It goes back to the idea of “you only have one time to make a good first impression” and that transcends any area. Whether that is your blog design, content or meeting a girl for the first time.

  • Laurie says:

    Chris, thanks so much for keeping me rolling! My last day at my job of 13 years will be May 27, and I’m nervous but so excited…can’t wait to look in the mirror on May 28 and know my days will be up to me 🙂

  • No Compression says:

    Let’s also remember that once the curtain goes down and the audience has said goodnight it’s time to enjoy the fruits of our labor. If we’ve been fully engaged for Opening Night we’re now not only exhilarated but exhausted as well.

    Take time to enjoy it all, rest a little, and prepare for the next performance.

  • Robbie Mackay says:

    I often really enjoy my job. But lately I’m just finding there a too many days where I wake up and think “This really isn’t what I want to do today”. And I’m not so clear on the answer to “How does this make the world better? or How does this forward my mission?”
    Definitely time to start work on an evil plan 🙂

  • Alex Humphrey says:

    This leaves me asking the question, “Would I be doing what I’m doing today if I was going to die so?”

    In about 90% of my life the answer is yes.

    The other 10% is what I’m here thinking about. Specifically my job. I am working on leaving that job to pursue self employment (thanks mainly to you and Dan Miller). There is a lot of pressure at work for me to stay. I’m going to do some sort of hybrid of the two beginning in June.

    I think this transition is a wise decision, it will give me some income as I start a new marriage and aggressively build a new business. But then again, when I look in the mirror and ask myself if I would do this if I knew I would die today…I can’t help but realize the answer is no.

    I have a lot to think about. Thank you Chris, this really helps me.

  • Ruksana says:

    Every time I do something relate to my business its how I feel – like opening night, nervous but excited. I wouldnt exchange that feeling. Its what makes you overcome your challenges and accomplish what you need to for success.

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