I took my first ever improv class in the summer of 2016. As someone with a theatre degree working a menial public sector job, it felt right. At work there were so many rules, so many “nos”, and a culture of conformity, not individuality.
Quite notoriously, our organization decided to one day bring in an improviser as a keynote speaker for an event. Her first improv game was “Red Ball”. How the game works is everyone stands in a circle and passes around an imaginary red ball. The receiver says “Thank you” and passes the imaginary red ball to someone else. As the game goes on, more and more different coloured balls get added, resulting in some clumsy and fun mayhem. The purpose of the game is to teach the importance of communication (listening to team members, eye contact, clarity of voice) and letting go of the fear of failure.
Unenthusiastically, the members of my group got up (average age: 50) with looks of complete “Just let me hide at my desk”. The game began with relative ease – I mean, it’s one imaginary red ball, how hard could it be? As more balls got added people started making mistakes, like forgetting who had what colour ball. A colleague of mine then proudly proclaimed: “I know how to succeed at this game! Let’s devise a system. You always pass any ball to me first, and I’ll always pass it John, John will always pass it Cheryl,” etc. – you get the point.
So when it came to working with people with a penchant for strict rule making, I just needed an outlet. I wasn’t looking to be the next Mike Myers or Dan Akroyd (though I certainly wouldn’t mind). Sometimes, even adults just want to roll around on the floor for sh*ts and giggles.
Fast forward to 2018 and I’m just about complete The Second City Improv program out of Toronto. Along the way I’ve met many new friends, adapted how I interact with my colleagues at work to great success, and above all, learned some valuable lessons that apply to life itself.
Lesson #1: Yes, and…
The very basis of improv is rooted in the concept of “Yes, and…” In improv, if a performer opens a scene pretending to push a cart and says: “Don’t you love exploring this new grocery store?” and the other performer goes “We’re not in a grocery store, we’re in space!” it blocks the progress of the scene. Instead of advancing the story forward, both actors are caught trying to justify conflicting circumstances in front of a live audience.
The concept of “Yes, and” has taught me so many things – notably the power of positivity. So much more gets done when you say yes and people appreciate you for it. The concept of “Yes and” has opened up new experiences in my life and eliminated my self-doubt.
Most recently, I read a job description and doubtfully questioned my own self-worth at being qualified for it. By saying: “Yes, and I will apply”, I threw my name in the hat. 3 weeks later I got the job. First week on the job, even though I knew absolutely nothing, I said yes to everything thrown my way and in the process, I’m slowly being relied upon for key activities.
Yes and. It’s amazing. I even doubted if this post would be worth writing, but I went “yes and” and here it is.
Lesson #2: Embrace Uncertainty
Improv is built on uncertainty. The uncertainty and spontaneity is what makes audiences laugh. They don’t know that one performer is going to reveal that he transforms into a chicken at night or that one character will break down and cry in a humourous manner at some point.
Life is the same way. We don’t know what the stock market will do tomorrow. We don’t know if we will get sick or live in perfect health for the rest of our lives. We don’t know who we will meet in the future. There is so much uncertainty.
Sometimes we get caught up dreading the uncertainty. What if markets crash tomorrow? What if a nuclear war starts? What if my company announces layoffs? This dread cripples us. It holds us back by promoting self-doubt and the feeling of helplessness.
With improv, you learn to let that go, because you learn in improv you have absolutely no control on what your scene partner will say next. No control on what the audience member will say when you ask for a suggestion. No control on even if any of your lines will land a laugh.
Letting go of uncertainty is freeing. Instead of viewing uncertainty as a negative, improv has allowed me to view uncertainty as a fact of life. You could spend every day planning for every permutation of how tomorrow is going to play out or you can just let your fear go and embrace it. By rolling with the punches, I don’t worry about things I have no control over, like late public transit, nuclear war, job loss, recessionary periods, etc. I simply live my life by the long-term plans I have in place. If something creates a hiccup, so what? It’s not necessarily setback. Perhaps it’s a gift. Perhaps there’s a positive outcome that can come from it that we’re just not seeing yet.
Lesson #3: Conviction.
The magic of an amazing improv set is the fearlessness of the performers. They’ll say whatever comes to their mind first and say it with such conviction, you can’t help but laugh. Meryl Streep does the same thing with every script she gets. She’s never been an English politician, owned a newspaper, or been a singing witch living in a forest in real life. The script tells her she’s those things and she commits and wins awards because of it.
What we do in life operates by the same fundamental approach. If we commit to something and are convicted in our beliefs, we can get there. Whether that’s getting a new job, saving for early retirement, or paying down debt.
When we half-ass the approach, and only partially commit, we lapse and delay the achievement of our goals. Think about it: if your goal was to cut expenses to pay down debt and a big part of that was avoiding Starbucks lattes, you would be highly successful if you committed to avoiding Starbucks 100% of the time. If you lapse, even for a day, while the impact may not be severe, you are technically still delaying your goals.
Like good improv, life is about committing and faking it till you make it (for a great talk on this topic, see Amy Cuddy’s TED Talk). If you trust yourself enough and commit, you’ll achieve your goals, and become your best self. Someone with no fear, more positivity, and less worry.