In comedy, as in life, success is all about “putting yourself out there”, says Simon Kay, a self-described jack of all trades who grew up in Ahuriri Napier and is a recent graduate of the Pinnacle Programme. Sometimes you’ll fall flat. Other times you’ll have the crowd eating out of the palm of your hand. But in either case, you’ll never know what you’re capable of unless you try.

When Simon filled out his application as a 16-year-old in 2014, he was into all kinds of sports: white water canoe slalom, adventure racing, canoe polo and surf lifesaving. He also studied hard and played the guitar. “I got a text from my mum during school assembly – I didn’t have my phone on silent, either – and she said Pinnacle had called and asked about going on the Spirit of New Zealand,” he remembers.

Simon knew he could push himself physically, but the 10-day boat trip and the Outward Bound experience proved demanding in other ways. “You go through it at the time and wonder why they make you do something, but at different times throughout your life you have moments of realisation. ‘Ah, that’s what that was about,’ or ‘That’s why someone behaved that way.’”

* Part one: Depth of focus
* Part two: Front of mind
* Part three: Advocating for climate justice

There were people from all walks of life on both trips, and they were there for a range of different reasons, whether it was to develop leadership skills, build self-confidence or find a new perspective. “I tried to use it as an opportunity to be more empathetic and help people who were struggling, rather than just have another day out on the water,” Simon says. “Someone in our group had a near-drowning experience when they were young, so I tried to find a way to let them enjoy it and get something out of it.” Learning how you perform under pressure is a big part of the Pinnacle Programme. Another benefit is the support network. “If you need advice on big life decisions, there are lots of options.”

“Sometimes you’ll fall flat. Other times you’ll have the crowd eating out of the palm of your hand. But in either case, you’ll never know what you’re capable of unless you try.” Photo: Stephen Wells

When Simon moved to Kirikiriroa Hamilton to do a Bachelor of Science majoring in mathematics and computer science, Bernice Mene (then the Pinnacle Programme manager) introduced him to comedian Jesse Griffin. “I got to sit down with him and have a conversation about the industry. I was about 18 at the time, so I was pretty young and naive and I thought, ‘I’m a funny guy, everyone will love me, I’ll be on TV in a year’.” Jesse got him a spot at a professional comedy gig, which Simon says was a life-changing experience.

“There I was, my second time doing stand-up, alongside some pretty big names.”

He now realises how unusual it was to be given that opportunity without going through the traditional comedy channels. But then he put his comedy dreams – and the final stage of the Pinnacle Programme – on hold to focus on his studies and gain more confidence before renewing his comedy quest in 2020. “Everyone takes their own path,” he reasons. And while he admits his has been a bit longer than most, his goals are now more firmly established around comedy. “I’m 25 now. Most others at this stage of the programme are 21. But in some ways, I think I can get more out of it now, when I’m older and hopefully wiser.”

Simon currently works as a coder with MetService, where he’s a delegate for the union. He also volunteers for Generation Zero and spends about 20 percent of his time on his comedy. He does one or two open mics a week and had a show at the Auckland Fringe Festival last year – “a cool milestone”, he says. Comedy is something he’d love to do full-time (or at least 50/50 alongside some environmental advocacy work). “I’d quite like to do the comedy festival. When I was teenager, I looked forward to that every year. And getting a spot on a TV show like 7 Days or Have You Been Paying Attention? would be pretty awesome,” he says. “I want to make this a long-term career, so I’m happy to be chipping away at my craft and getting better at it.”

Simon says, when he was young, he could never settle on what he wanted to do, which is why he did so much. Through the programme, he met people just like him who had been unsure of their direction. “They had gone on to do really cool stuff with their lives and it made me feel a bit better about myself. I learned it’s never too late to change,” he says. “I’m a bit of a floater; I grab opportunities as I move along, whereas some people want to know exactly what they’re doing and won’t stop until they get it. The programme has helped me develop some of those goal-setting skills, but it’s good to know when to be a bit of each.”

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