My practice of improv and the book Improv Wisdom

I procrastinated from Friday night until the very early morning of Sunday before I committed myself to write about my book of the week, Improv Wisdom – Don’t Prepare, Just Show Up, by Patricia Ryan Madson.

Writing this summary has not escaped my mind, whether I was deadheading roses, or making flower arrangements, or planning for a strictly gluten-free dinner for friends with celiac disease. After hosting the dinner party Saturday night, naturally I should be very tired but I had a number of dreams about improv practices and writing this summary. I only recall fragments of them now. These are not atypical, both the dream part and not remembering much part. Before an important discussion that I will chair or a presentation I will deliver, I dream about the process of doing it for a couple nights leading to the actual activity after investing a lot effort on it. These dreams and their fragmented recollection help me feel grounded. They often also help me organise my thoughts of the underlying topics better.

I am an extreme believer of being prepared with work and somewhat less so with life. Colleagues of mine who I have worked closely with could vouch for me. It was not incidental that I know the core subjects and the topics remotely-related to those that we would cover in a meeting. It is also definitely not magic that I appeared to know the basics of domains that seem to be so far away from what my own work requires. For technical meetings, how much value you can derive from the conversations for all parties depends on how well prepared you are. If I were going to spend all the time asking you, what terminology X means and what do you mean by that acronym. By the end of the scheduled meeting, we would only be able to establish a shared vocabulary and scratch the surface. That said, I strongly recommend people not to overuse acronyms and convey thoughts in a precise manner during a discussion. This is the baseline version of me.

Patricia’s book Improv Wisdom is the “textbook” for the improv course that I am taking this term. Recall that I just established the baseline version of me in previous paragraph, am I crazy to do an improv course? No! Very much the contrary! It is true that I had no clue what to expect in an improv class prior to attending one. But I knew this is something that would stretch me out of my comfort zone, worse, scare me terribly and I might find that I dread it miserably. The more challenging it is, the more effective it would be for me. The classes have turned out to be indeed very different. We are on our feet all the time. Most of us have not taken down any notes during the lectures. I tried to mentally reconstruct the activities of each class on my way driving home. Now you ask: what is it about? I do not know about the future sessions yet, but so far there were gales of laughters. It is about being present without being intensive or stressed, performing on your feet and acting without deep thinking involved, sharing controls with others instead of hogging it, being very attentive to what surrounds you. It also help us to drop the barriers that each of us builds around ourselves over the years, forget about that we might be judged by others and what that judgement would be. It may sound a cliche, but there is a lot of emphasis on bringing out the natural talent of yourself, what is distinctively your own. These are my reflections from the games we played rather than what the lectures focus on discussing about. Only through doing group activities rather than theoretical discussions, we break the molds that govern our thoughts and actions, become more spontaneous and more creative in the process.  

Does practising improv contradict my baseline of being prepared? No. In my opinion, they enhance the benefit of each other. Have you ever prepared thoroughly for a discussion and only find you were tongue-tied during the actual session such that did not air your thoughts and contribute to the conversation much at all? Have you wished you would be more brave and participatory in events that happened in the past when you replay them in your mind? Have you felt lost and anxious while meeting a group of new people in a social networking event, even though you have looked up a few attendees ahead of time? (No, I have not. Being thrown into a new social environment actually excites me. But I know plenty of friends who feel this way though.) I think Rumi’s poem (cited in Patricia’s book) on two kinds of intelligence quoted below expressing this very well. Each of us has two kinds of intelligence: one related to preparation, one to improv. It would be utterly wasteful if we only exercise one kind living through our life.

Two Kinds of Intelligence

(From the translations of Rumi by Coleman Barks)
There are two kinds of intelligence: one acquired,
as a child in school memorizes facts and concepts
from books and from what the teacher says,
collecting information from the traditional sciences
as well as from the new sciences.

With such intelligence you rise in the world.
You get ranked ahead or behind others
in regard to your competence in retaining
information. You stroll with this intelligence
in and out of fields of knowledge, getting always more
marks on your preserving tablets.

There is another kind of tablet, one
already completed and preserved inside you.
A spring overflowing its springbox. A freshness
in the center of the chest. This other intelligence
does not turn yellow or stagnate. It’s fluid,
and it doesn’t move from outside to inside
through conduits of plumbing-learning.

This second knowing is a fountainhead
from within you, moving out.

To quote Patricia, improv is about discovering and exercising your second kind of intelligence. Patricia summarises her decades of experience of teaching improv into thirteen maxims. She also recommends many activities to practice them. To say that I completed reading her book this week is truthful, but also meaningless if I were not to practice them in the days to come. I hope Patricia does not mind me sharing her thirteen maxims with you here. Acquiring improv skills is a little similar to getting CPR training. The more people practising it, the better we as a collective group. We can influence and teach each other through doing it, although I wish everyone great health and no CPR ever needed.

Thirteen Maxims:

  1. Say Yes
    Just say yes.
    Become a “can-do” person.
    Look for the positive spin, for what is right.
    Agree with those around you.
    Cultivate yes phrases: “You bet”; “You are right”; “I’m with you”; “Good idea”; “Of course”; “Sure”; etc.
    Substitute “Yes and” for “Yes but.” Add something to build the conversation.
    Exercise the yes muscle. This builds optimism and hope.
  2. Don’t prepare
    Give up planning. Drop the habit of thinking ahead.
    Attend carefully to what is happening right now.
    Allow yourself to be surprised.
    Stockpiling ideas for future use is unnecessary.
    Trust your imagination. There is always something in the box.
    Welcome whatever floats into your mind.
    Fear is a matter of misplaced attention. Focus on redirecting it.
  3. Just show up
    Walk, run, bike, skip to the places that you need to be.
    Motivation is not a prerequisite for showing up.
    Start your day with what is important.
    Use rituals to get things going.
    Showing up to help others is already service.
    Change your vantage point and refresh your mind.
    Location, location, location – in real estate and in life.
    Be on time for the sake of others.
    Show up on time for yourself. Lost time is never found.
  4. Start anyway
    All starting points are equally valid.
    Begin with what seems obvious.
    Once it is under way any task seems smaller.
    When speaking in public don’t use a script. Write down questions and answer them.
    Talk to your audience. Don’t give a lecture.
    Trust your mind.
    Edit and develop ideas as you speak.
  5. Be average
    Close enough is perfect.
    Dare to be dull.
    Think “inside” the box.
    Celebrate the obvious.
    What is ordinary to you is often a revelation to others.
    Remember “classics” or “favorites” can be fresh ideas, too.
    Don’t make jokes. Make sense.
  6. Pay attention
    If I have made any valuable discoveries, it has been owing more to patient attention than to any other talent. – Sir Isaac Newton.
    Life is attention.
    Notice everything, particularly the details.
    Become a detective.
    Shift your attention from yourself to others.
    Make an effort to remember names and faces.
    Keep on waking up.
    This moment happens only once. Treasure it.
    Avoid multitasking. Attend to one thing at a time.
  7. Face the facts
    Don’t fight reality.
    Accept other people as they are.
    Work with what you have been given.
    What are the facts? You are probably not noticing all of them.
    Embrace the wobble.
    Insecurity is normal. Count on it.
  8. Stay on course
    Every improvisation has a point.
    Don’t let feelings alone run your show.
    There is meaning in everything we do, even small tasks.
    Keep an eye on where you are going.
    If you miss the target, adjust your aim.
    Ask often: “what is my purpose?”
    What would not get done if you were not here?
  9. Wake up to the gifts
    Notice that the glass is half full.
    Treasure the details.
    Who or what is helping you right now?
    Make a point of thanking those with thankless jobs.
    What are you doing to give back?
    Keep the gift moving forward.
    Our smallest actions count. Everything we do has the potential to help others.
    Make “thank you” your mantra.
  10. Make mistakes, please
    If you are not making mistakes, you are not improvising.
    Be like a turtle: stick out your neck to make progress.
    When you screw up, say “Ta-dah!” and take a bow.
    Mistakes? Focus on what comes next.
    Let go of outcomes. Cultivate a flexible mind.
    Mistakes may actually be blessings.
    Become a confident mistake-maker. Lighten up.
    Try bricolage – use what is there artfully.
    Admitting a mistake shows character.
  11. Act now
    The essence of improvising is action.
    Act in order to discover what comes next.
    You don’t need to feel like doing something to do it.
    Schedule a difficult task and stick to your timetable.
    Invite a buddy to join you in doing what you need to do.
    Do the hard thing first.
    To find a new perspective, try doing something a different way.
    Sometimes not doing is what is needed.
    If you can’t get out of it, get into it.
  12. Take care of each other
    Be someone’s guardian angel. Make your partner look good.
    Rescue or join someone struggling.
    Share control; don’t hog it.
    Kindness is essential during chaos or a crisis.
    Try giving yourself away.
    Always put positive thoughts into words and action.
    Do “random acts of kindness.”
    Put other people’s convenience ahead of your own.
    Listen as if your life depended on it.
    Deliver more than you promise.
  13. Enjoy the ride
    Find joy in whatever you are doing, including ordinary tasks.
    Look for ways to play. Play is essential to human growth.
    Learning is enhanced when we lighten up.
    Laughter is good medicine.
    If something is not to your liking, change your liking.
    Give away smiles every day.
    Do something just for the fun of it.