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Careers, comedy and other funny business: Anish Shah

In the second of our new video series, corporate comedian and consultant Anish Shah discusses his career journey, the intersection of comedy and consulting, and more.

For those who prefer to read, below is a transcript of the video.

My name is Anish Shah. I am a former McKinsey consultant, I was there for about five years in the Chicago office.

Since McKinsey I have had an odd journey from McKinsey to standup comedy to, in the pandemic, I have been working on COVID vaccine distribution. So it's not at all the journey expected when I left McKinsey, but it has been a lot of fun.

This is my work from home space. I have this set up so that I have all the stuff that I care about here. So that's the globe in case I forget where places are, these are binoculars, so I can actually see the globe from here. And most of what I've done at McKinsey and since McKinsey has been pretty high stress. And so this is my stress box. I mainly use it to just scream into it when I'm very stressed.

Unexpected career transitions

You know, honestly, as I think most people's transformations are, they're sort of born out of difficult circumstances.

I think if you had asked me the day before I started doing stand-up comedy, would I ever be a comedian? The answer would have been no. But the day that I started, the next day, I had just seen an ad for an open mic and I was like, Oh, this would be a more healthy way to deal with all of the frustrations of my current life than what I had been doing the previous days, which was just a lot of sort of listening to Michael Bublé and crying about break ups.

And so I went and did this open mic and it just kind of clicked and I had a lot of fun doing it. And then that just kind of built over the course of the next few years, I went back almost every night to different open mics and started performing, did bigger shows, started doing a little bit of travel, did a business school tour called B-School Made Me Funny.

At that point, McKinsey heard about what I was doing, and so McKinsey called and said, Hey, can you come and do retreats for us and McKinsey events? And so that sort of launched a corporate comedy career for me. And so that really is, for eight years, I was kind of doing these college tours, corporate tours and all that sort of stuff. And then the pandemic hit and suddenly standup comedy wasn't a thing that you could really do anymore.

I'd always done a little bit of consulting here or there while I was doing comedy, just to stay fresh. And I was like, How can I, you know, still do something, provide for my family and contribute to this craziness that's going on in the world? And so I reached out to some independent consulting firms and got an opportunity to help with one of the large vaccine manufacturers to run their vaccine operations and distribution from manufacturing through to shipping.

Humor and lightheartedness in the workplace

I think the way that humor and lightheartedness can can help in the workplace is is maybe a little bit different than then I would have answer this question before I started in comedy. So I think before starting comedy, it was very, like, direct, like, how are you adding levity to a meeting or to a deck or very directly in your interactions with people? And I think since I've started comedy, it's become a little bit more about a mindset.

And I'll give you an example. If you think about late-night television shows and the host is doing a monologue and he has a joke that bombs. Well, even in that moment, you have to find the funny thing about it, right? And so he makes a joke about the bombing. And as a comedian, you have some shows occasionally where you do an entire show that bombs like I did a show in India, actually, at this beautiful hotel. I had been super excited for it.

A company had hired me to come out and perform at one of their retreats and they set it up outdoors and it was at this beautiful place, and this place was a hotel and bird sanctuary. And so I start doing the show and it was I thought, it's going to be amazing. And the birds would not shut up, like, the entire show I was getting heckled by birds. And in that moment, like, bombing that badly, it's really painful. But if you can find the humor, it really makes it a lot easier and it creates just a little bit of distance.

And then I started to look back at a lot of the stories I would tell at McKinsey events about my McKinsey experience. The funniest stories were always about the worst times, right? And I realized that, like, if I had been in those moments and been able to see in hindsight how funny this moment was, it wouldn't make that moment significantly less difficult, but a little bit, like, it would just create this touch of distance. And so I think that sort of mindset of, like, take it very seriously, but, like, just a little 1% of you being able to see the absurdity of it all, it just helps keep you a little bit sane.

The intersection of comedy and consulting

At the surface, people think that standup comedy and consulting is very different, but in reality, they're both: develop a perspective, hopefully a unique perspective that you can defend and be able to communicate well to people that are skeptical, right? And that's essentially what consulting is. It's what comedy is. In comedy you just have to add the part about being funny. But the fact that I could take complicated concepts and distill them down into key questions, key insights, and figure out what's the best way to get my thought across is a tremendously useful skill for comedy that was honed significantly at McKinsey.

I think the other thing is if you spend enough time at McKinsey, you sort of figure out when you're not sure how you can add value, you figure out what's the best question that you can ask that that wouldn't add value, or how do you bring more information out so that you can get to some insight that is useful. That's really useful, right?

And that skill of being able to go in sort of unprepared but with a lot of knowledge and planning in your back pocket is a hugely valuable, not just career skill, life skill, and you get very, very good at that at McKinsey. And it has made comedy easier for me when things go a little bit off plan. It's made consulting easier for me after I've left McKinsey. It's made marriage easier for me when, you know, some conversation is not going. Is it just being able to be in that moment and abandon your plan and still be an effective person to be communicating with is a really useful skill that I got from McKinsey.

Mentorship at McKinsey

I had one mentor, Devin McGranahan, who I did 12 projects with over the course of five years at the company, which is just, like, I did something like 18 projects so he was like two thirds of my projects and you know, he just I sort of saw what it meant to build followership through him to be able to handle stress and pressure of the difficult jobs through him.

And then the other big mentor I would mention is Celia Huber, who is still at McKinsey. And we didn't work together as much, but she is someone who you could just see right away cared quite a bit about people. And she's someone that, you know, I know was willing to go to bat for me, was willing to tell me the difficult truths when I was not doing something well. And, honestly, after I left McKinsey and got into comedy, it was Celia that sort of followed what was happening and reached out and said, you know, do you want to come back and do an event for McKinsey?

And at the time that she asked me that things were actually pretty thin comedy wise. I had finished a tour. I didn't have another tour on deck. I was debating, like, Can I keep up this lifestyle? I had met a girl, I wanted to get married, and so when she asked me to come and do this, I did it. And that sort of spawned this whole series of events that I started doing, not just for McKinsey, but for corporations around the world. And a big part of that was Celia at first and then other partners at McKinsey, other non-partners, McKinsey people that left and went to other companies It's like everyone just cared about making this this journey work almost as much as I did.

And so there was just a lot of, like, during a lot of lean periods, there was McKinsey people who were magically showing up with something that I could do to bridge the gap. And that was really useful and I can, it wouldn't be an exaggeration to say that without McKinsey, without the mentors that I got from McKinsey, you know, I was almost exclusively, without any consulting, a full-time comic for eight years, and I wouldn't have been.

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