Former UNI student finds success from ‘second place’

 This September, UNI alumnus Ian Goldsmith, ‘12, performed an original one-man comedy show to two sold-out audiences at The Second City's de Maat Studio Theater in Chicago—by most measures, a successful venture. But Goldsmith doesn’t always feel like a success.

“I am not a pessimist, but I continue to feel like I am not good enough,” he said. “I have so much to be thankful for, yet I focus on the little parts of myself that are wrong. It’s a weird combination of perfectionism, pessimism, optimism and idealism—it's easy to assume that I must be doing something wrong when life doesn’t turn out exactly as I had envisioned.”

Those conflicting feelings served as the inspiration for his one-man show, “The Salutatorian,” which had an exclusive two-night run at The Second City (the iconic comedy theatre and improvisational comedy school that’s produced stars like Steve Carell, Tina Fey and Mike Myers),  in September.

University of Northern Iowa alumnus Ian Goldsmith performs his one-man show "The Salutatorian" at Chicago's Second City.Based on Goldsmith’s experience as salutatorian of his high school, the show explores the idea of being “second best”—“good, but not the best,” in Goldsmith’s own words—as well as the concept of imposter syndrome (described by the Merriam Webster blog as “a false and sometimes crippling belief that one's successes are the product of luck or fraud rather than skill”), anxiety and the definition of “success.”

“This show is in many was a reflection to my past 10 years—recognizing my success and questioning why I don’t feel like I am successful,” Goldsmith said.

The show was the result of years of hard work, beginning way back in high school, when Goldsmith discovered a love of theatre. “At the risk of sounding cliche, I really do feel like my life almost had a ‘before and after’ moment, with the turning point being getting cast in my high school’s play as a freshman,” he said. “This ignited a sort of ‘spark’ in me. This spark has fueled so much of who I am, driving many of the decisions I’ve made since then.”

In addition to a passion for performing, this “spark” also led Goldsmith to develop a love of leadership. In high school, he served as student body president, played the lead in several school theater productions, was a leader in band and choir, and was actively involved in sports. But in addition to providing motivation, Goldsmith’s high school experience also gave him his first experiences with imposter syndrome when his previously perfect academic transcript was tainted when he earned an A- in his first semester of high school.

“I was so spiteful and prideful by my academic perfection being ‘ruined’ that I made a vow to never earn lower than an A for the remainder of high school,” he said.

When he graduated from high school as salutatorian of his class (the second-highest academic rank), it was a bittersweet moment, serving simultaneously as a testament to his hard work and a reminder of his failure to achieve perfection—a dynamic he still struggles to negotiate today.

“That frustration I felt my first semester of high school with that one A- is felt in so many areas of my life,” he said. “This desire for perfection … has lead to some very positive outcomes, but also has some negative aspects I am now reconciling years later.”

On the positive side, he never lost his passion for leadership. When he came to UNI, he quickly got involved with extracurricular activities—taking on roles with organizations like Student Admissions Ambassadors, UNI Orientation Staff, Panther Prep Crew and UNI Varsity Men’s Glee Club, to name a few. He also planned and hosted large substance-free dance parties each semester, created and starred in original web content for UNI, helped create the viral dance craze known as “The Interlude” and served as student body vice-president (the "second place" position in student government).

“The flame that sparked in high school grew into a bonfire in college. I wanted desperately to take advantage of every possible opportunity within my grasp,” he said. “UNI was like an all-you-can-eat buffet that allowed my compulsion for living to the fullest to be taken to extreme levels.”

That fire carried Goldsmith through four years of studies at UNI, and two years working for the City of Cedar Falls’ “Arts Overlook” TV program. But eventually, that flame needed to be rekindled—and memories of a summer trip to Chicago during college, where he took a week-long course in comedy at The Second City, helped give him some direction.  

“It made me feel so invigorated; so alive. My spark was fueled,” he said of the trip to Chicago. “I always wanted to get back to that feeling, so Chicago had been calling my name for a long time.”

So in 2014, Goldsmith made the bold decision to move to Chicago and pursue a career in comedy. He began participating in training programs at The Second City and iO (another major comedy theatre and training center in Chicago), while performing and writing on the side. It was an exciting time in Goldsmith’s life—but it was also when some of the negative aspects of his perfectionism started to show.

While he enjoyed being able to finally dive into his passion, he struggled to feel like he measured up to his peers. “I went from feeling like a big fish in a little pond to suddenly swimming in a vast ocean filled with hundreds of talented fish swimming around me and past me,” he said. “I had to constantly fight my imposter syndrome: convincing myself that I did belong, and I was worthy of learning and growing with these insanely talented individuals.”

Despite his initial struggles, he was able to find a supportive community of other comedians who helped him find his voice—and focus on what really matters. “I found hilarious people who not only pushed me as a creative, but were also genuine and caring and kind,” Goldsmith said. “I focused on doing good work with these friends, rather than focusing on where I fell within the ranks of the Chicago comedy scene.”

Through his experiences and the connections he made, he gained the confidence to take on even more ambitious projects. For two years, he started developing an idea for a one-man show, writing intensely and testing out new material. Finally, on Sept. 2 of 2018, the show opened to a sold-out crowd.

Performing a sold-out show at one of the premiere comedy venues in the country would be a dream come true for any aspiring comedian, but Goldsmith is no longer chasing those specific markers of success. For him, the success of his show is more symbolic and personal.

“I am not particularly concerned with the ‘prestige,’ the way it might look impressive to some people,” Goldsmith said. “Having made something that I’ve dreamt of making for so long is what feels the most special to me. To follow through and turn a big idea into reality is what feels most significant.”

This attitude reflects the message of his show—that success isn’t defined by specific material measures and that traditional ideas of “success” aren’t that important, anyway. That’s a lesson that Goldsmith learned during his time at UNI. “Even though I had a rich experience of involvement, college taught me that the importance of relationships will always outweigh the importance of accomplishments,” he said.

It’s a lesson that has new relevance to Goldsmith’s life. He recently made another big move from Chicago to Atlanta and the importance of relationships played a part in his decision to take this leap—his girlfriend is from Atlanta and they’d maintained a long-distance relationship for the past three years, but Goldsmith is finally ready to “bridge the gap.” Of course, this move meant leaving behind Chicago’s legendary comedy scene. But for Goldsmith, the choice was easy.

“When you know the person is the right person, no matter where you move to, you know it is worth it,” he said. “As I get older, I realize that I must continually prioritize elements of my life. This move is a response to my life’s priorities.”

But make no mistake—Goldsmith isn’t hanging up his comedy hat just yet. Atlanta actually has a thriving comedy scene and is also the fastest-growing film and television destination. Goldsmith is excited to dive into a such an exciting new creative environment. But this time, he’ll carry the lessons he learned, at UNI and in Chicago, to guide the choices he makes and the goals he strives for.

“I’d be lying if I said I’ve never had the ‘want to see my name in lights’ dream. In many ways I still do,” he said. “But it is not what drives me.”

That’s quite the change from the attitude he had as an overachieving high school student, striving for all A’s and dreaming of big-city stardom. In “The Salutatorian,” this transformation is illustrated by a fictionalized version of the speech he gave as a high school student—which was “full of cliche ‘follow your dreams’ type language”—and is contrasted with a letter written from Goldsmith today to his past self that more accurately reflects his current thoughts on success.

“By the end of the show, I explain that the true problem is not about being in second place, but rather my perception of second place,” he said. “I believe students of any field need to give themselves high goals, believe they can reach those goals, but be happy in the pursuit, rather than the outcome.”

And that pleasure in the pursuit is what shapes Goldsmith’s idea of success today. “You will be very unhappy if you only focus on where you want to be, and how far away you are from achieving it,” he said. “If I can continue to create things that excite me and I find worthy of value, without having to sacrifice my relationships; loving what I do while being with people I love—if I can do that, my outcomes won’t matter.”