Doing Something: Life Lessons From a Month of Improv

This past month, I taught over 150 hours of improv to over 100 students. Between summer camp with teens that want to be actors, to adults working on presentation skills, communication and confidence, to museum professionals looking to better reach visitors, I've watched people grow, cry, quit, succeed and fail, all in the course of a month. While each group had different goals and ranged in ages from 10 to 70 years old, I found that there were six main takeaways that consistently applied to my observations of each group, and ultimately, to everyday life.

We can all be funny, so laugh more.

A lot of people come to improv class to be funnier. It's something I've learned teaching professionals -- even if they didn't want to be actors, at least one student per class wants to be funnier, or thinks they are funny, and wants to learn how to harness it. Humor is a weirdly powerful thing.

Every single person I've taught in the last five weeks had a moment where the group has laughed out loud. The catch: It's generally not when they were trying to hard, and it's definitely not when they made a scripted joke. As many of the improv greats have said, comedy happens when people are honest and truthful. But being honest is hard and being you is even harder. Being crazy and weird might seem like it would be funny, but rarely is "zany" done well by beginners.

Robin Williams, Kristen Wiig, Maya Rudolph we are not.

Those deep, true laughs? 99 percent of them were from raw, honest scenes with people being vulnerable and true to the situation they've been thrown into. Real life is funny. Those mistakes and awkward situations are hilarious -- after the fact. So don't try too hard, it rarely works, and don't be afraid to laugh at yourself.

We can all be better listeners.

I've been saying this since I started The Engaging Educator: improv hones your listening skills. In improv, you have to listen and if you don't, your work doesn't work.

Say two people are doing a scene. "Mark" establishes that "Sarah" is his sister by mentioning their mom. The scene progresses, and Sarah says: "I don't even know who you are" to Mark. The scene is ground to a halt, and confusion ensues while they spend the next few minutes calling out the other's mistake.

In improv, if you don't listen, you miss important information. You are working with another person to establish a reality that doesn't exist. Every bit matters -- if someone makes a choice and you miss it, you might negate reality and cause confusion in front of a room of people that are watching you. They support you and are also scared -- but now they are aware that you aren't the best listener... and now they are afraid they aren't either -- and they aren't.

In life, we go to autopilot a lot. We enter conversations and are agenda driven, thinking of our desired end result. A lot of time, we say things without even listening to the other person. Hearing is passive, listening is active -- and improv acts as an intensive in listening skills.

Everyone is insecure.

Everyone. It doesn't matter if you are a teen, a corporate executive, a professor or a curator. We are all scared.

You walk into a room and you look around. Maybe you know these people, and maybe you don't. Maybe it's work, school, a meeting or an improv class you decided to do because you wanted to be a better speaker. Everyone in that room is nervous about being liked, good/smart/funny enough. Your bosses, your teachers, your CEO, your professor and your peers have been scared too, and might be scared now. The sooner we all admit and own this fear together, the sooner we can move on.

...and it manifests in all different ways. Be kind.

Don't believe the last point? During summer camp, I watched a group of kids go from scared, to bonding, to scared again before their show. We were sitting and eating pizza after a bit of a disastrous run through and two of the kids said they wrote a "roast" last night, of everyone, and wanted to read it.

Against my better judgment, I let them "roast." A roast is a smart, sassy, cohesive bit of genius. You do it because you love the person you are roasting, not because you want it to be ok to make fun of other insecure people. What these kids did was the worst parts of high school, magnified. I watched kids go from being scared together to near tears and defensive -- even if they were pretending it was funny. Their reason for the roast? The kids said it was because they loved everyone, but as the educator, I saw it as a manifestation of their own insecurities.

Maybe you are reading this and thinking, teenagers are MEAN. I have had public classes where people make fun of others for their weight, outfit, and accent. I have had workshops where people are over the top and dismissive towards me. I have had institutional workshops where the "mean girl" clique sits and whispers about how this is stupid. Did I mention all of the above examples involve adults?

Insecurity takes all different forms. The sooner you remember everyone is just as scared as you and start being kind to people, the easier it will be for everyone. Improv is one of those beautiful shared moments of vulnerability. This close bond that develops has confused students -- I've been asked "Why do I feel like these people I've known for three weeks are my family?" It's why so many team-building companies are really just mass improv games. If you share a moment of vulnerability with another person, you are closer because of it. So be nice to each other. We are all in this together -- and isn't it easier than being alone?

Growing up is hard and people will let you down. Others will raise you up.

Say you go into a meeting and have this incredible idea. Everyone in the room thinks it's great, but "just won't work." Even your "work friend," who told you at lunch it was a great idea, says "it just doesn't seem possible."

Now imagine yourself as a teenager and that sort of denial happens on a stage in front of people you met earlier that week. You already are worrying about fitting in, and now this crazy idea that you thought someone would elevate was shot down in front of 20 other teenagers.

Forward through time again, when you finally have this incredible premise in your improv for professional development class, and you get up there, initiate, and your partner who is just as scared, denies your idea.

In the last month I've seen these and variations of all three. Worse than a flat out no, the improv principle of acceptance and elevation, the "Yes, And," gets turned to a "Yes, But." Yes, we heard you, but your idea isn't going to work. A soft "No."

It's disappointing when people let us down. Unfortunately, it's a huge part of growing up that never stops. The trick to success is how to handle it. Some people choose to let small disappointments through life feed their insecurity. They shift, and suddenly, everyone is a threat. Ideas and emotions are played close to the chest, trust is nonexistent, and they start negating everything that isn't their idea. But others take those little disappointments and grow. They continue to initiate, to grow and collaborate. They suggest ideas at meetings, and elevate others.

Those kids that "roasted?" After it ended, I told them how irresponsible it was to do that prior to a show and how disappointed I was -- and told them to fix it.

Instead of a group of angry teenagers that could have been turned off by my after school special speech, two other teens got up to organize an anti-roast. The two that led the initial roast stopped them and took responsibility for their actions. They spent the next 20 minutes complimenting everyone in the room. They fixed it and the show that afternoon was incredible.

Risk is scary. But fear is motivating.

I had a student in my adult class come up to me and ask about risk-taking. She was "improv high" as I like to say, experiencing the rush of taking a risk and being supported. It's the connection between strangers that occurs post class that can only be explained by shared vulnerable moments in a safe space.

She asked me how she could get more comfortable taking risks in life. I laughed, and told her I'm still scared when I take a risk. I'm in the midst of a huge one, and when I initially choose to do it, I was terrified. But I took it.

Taking a risk is scary. You could fail. Failure has this unfortunate negative connotation. Failure is good; we learn from it and grow. If you always succeeded, how would you learn?

Aside from failure, lack of control, change and uncertainty are all associated with risk. The safe is comfortable, the stagnant generally easy. But when has success just dropped in anyone's lap?

Fear of risk can be handled in two major ways. The first way further contributes to stagnancy: doing nothing. This ties you to the safe choices that aren't working and probably aren't making you happy. Maybe you are "fine." The second? Make a change.

Risk on stage almost always causes something to happen. The reason people make a big choice is usually because they can feel the scene stalling and people losing interest. I'm known for saying 'drop a bomb!' to my students. Make a big choice, reveal something, discover something. Do something.

Risk in life almost always causes something to happen. It might be good and it might be bad. But if you feel your life stalling and you are losing interest, DO SOMETHING.

Improv is a funny thing. In it's truest sense, it's responding to your environment -- that just sounds like life, doesn't it?

So go do something.