In life, improvisation is inevitable. Whether it be driving a car, meeting a new person, or ordering food at a new restaurant, we are constantly making small improvisations throughout our days. This skill of being able to effectively act on the spot regardless of your situation is invaluable. Improv allows you to live life exactly where it is happening: in the present moment. But, we surely cannot be improvising all the time. Sometimes we need to schedule appointments or set up financial plans that can’t just be improvised. So, when do we know when it’s best to freestyle vs. methodically design our approaches to life and how does this free-styling even work? After reading Improv Wisdom by Patricia Ryan Madson, I’ve developed my own answer to this question that I think could be helpful for you.
In a past article, I talked about the philosophy of Act Now — this idea that our mindset must lean toward doing over thinking. Again, thinking is important and will provide clarity on many of life’s problems and situations that may arise, but we are wired to take this too far. As evolutionary beings, we are programmed to survive, meaning that our minds will instinctually find the comfortable and safe alternatives even though these might not be the most beneficial for our growth. And the interesting part of this philosophy is that this “mind” that is telling us what alternative to choose is not necessarily who “we” are. This is just our instincts speaking. So, the way we can overcome this urge to think ourselves to safety is to just do; to tend to take action instead of letting our minds take over and plan our route to comfort.
And this plays a lot into my stance on when to improvise vs. plan. If the structure of our entire lives were created on the fly, I don’t think we would be able to be happy or successful. The opposite certainly holds true as well: if we plan every minute detail of our lives and leave no opportunity for spontaneity, there is no way we would be able to enjoy ourselves or experience life to the fullest. I think the balanced approach involves establishing structures and systems that allow for us to improvise within. These structures might include activities you do every day, such as working out or a mindfulness practice, or they could be basic schedules or calendars for how you plan to spend your time and what your priorities are. Moreover, I believe that long-term visions, focuses, and goals can be really helpful when applied correctly. While these definitely involve a layer of planning, as long as you give yourself leeway in terms of how you want to get there, having a general direction is not a bad thing.
I think that the main reason people usually over-plan is that they feel that it’s the most effective way to reduce risk and ensure the result we are seeking. We are under the impression that more planning leads to more security and thus a higher probability of success. We are afraid that if we leave any details to be improvised, disaster will ensue; that we won’t be able to come up with the answers or the right next step. Madson creates an analogy for this idea of trying to “come up” with ideas:
Imagine a box, beautifully wrapped , sitting in front of you. Take a moment to “see” the box. What color is the paper and ribbon? Touch the package. Now pick up the box and check the weight. Shake it, if you like. Now carefully open the package, setting aside the wrapping. Open the lid and look inside. What’s the first thing that you see? Take out the gift and examine it. Notice a detail about the object. Thank the giver.
She notes that many of us will try to think up what’s inside this box, attempting to plan and figure out a good idea. Doing so may result in you taking time and potentially “coming up” with nothing. Her point is that in reality there is nothing for you to do. The gift is already there. Your role is just to discover it. The take-home point is that there will always be something in the box.
When you can accept that there is a need for improvisation in your life and it’s not something that only the ‘masters’ are able to use, all you need to do is to commit to a few mindsets in order to develop this skill. Like any other skill, with intentional practice and repetition, you will be able to improve and make improvising a habit. Here are the three areas that I think focusing on will allow you to see the most progress:
- Attention — In order to master this ability to improvise, we must become very aware of our surroundings by relying on attention. We miss so much in our lives, especially when our focus is directed inwards. Instead of trying to plan your way out of nerve-inducing situations, focus in closely to exactly what is happening in the present moment. Rather than planning for what could happen, train yourself to attend to what is happening. Notice the objective details about where you are, what everyone around you is doing, what is being said. Realize that you are not the most important person in any ‘scene’ in life. Shifting from how can I not mess up to how I can I make everyone else look good will take any nerves off of you and allow you to properly read a situation to make the right choice. Then the key is to just start. Remember that there is always something in the box; you are just there to discover it.
- Mistakes — Besides from having the faith that there will always be an idea or course of action, an improv mindset also involves a willingness to take failure lightly. When we are constantly taking action and improvising, we will sometimes fall flat or make silly mistakes. However, with the right approach, I think you will be able to not only recover well but also be just as willing to get back up and continue to take risks. The first part of this is the commitment to act. If we embrace a Nothing to Lose, Everything to Gain philosophy and truly believe the importance of taking action for our personal growth, being willing to act time and time again will not be so scary. Next is that when you do inevitably mess up, you need to respond appropriately: Matt Smith, a Seattle Improv teacher teaches a concept called the “Circus Bow,” which is designed to help people react to personal screw ups. When clowns mess up in the circus, rather than expressing anger at themselves, they turn to the crowd, bow to the entire crowd and say “Ta-dah.” Instead of shrinking and getting down on ourselves, we need to wake up when we fail and bring our attention back into what is happening around us and what our next step is. This mindset will help us move forward when we mess up and allow our improvisations to be more successful.
- Be average — The final part of this is to just be average. Sometimes we struggle to be perfect — to wait for the perfect introduction, write the perfect essay or tell the perfect joke — and in doing so hesitate to take action and either miss the moment or run out of time. However, when we remove the pressure that everything has to be perfect, we are able to approach seemingly daunting problems. When we just start anywhere and remove the immense expectations of what the outcomes will be, we will be more willing to take that first step of action on a regular basis and figure out the details as we go along. Madson writes, “Don’t fall for the idea that something needs to be ‘way out’ or whimsical to be creative.” Instead, focus on the obvious and just get started.
If you would like to read more about “Improv Wisdom” and how improvisation applies to everyday life, check out the book.
If you would like to read some of my other articles on personal development, feel free to check out any of the following articles on taking action, stepping out of your comfort zone, applying systems to our lives, and more.
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