When in doubt, improvise
With presence of mind, you can notice more, let go and use everything at any moment and in any context.
We imagine that many of you, like us, are fans of improvisational comedy. We can’t help but be amazed when Wayne Brady, one of the stars of “Whose Line Is It Anyway?” fabricates complete song lyrics in real time using a musical genre, melody and theme that’s given to him only moments before he goes onstage. Also like us, you are probably quick to say something like, “I could never do that.”
But wait a minute. When you really think about it, our daily lives are frequently filled with unexpected twists, unplanned changes of direction and circumstances beyond our control that force us to improvise. When the dog that was recovering so well from surgery suddenly takes a turn for the worse or your in-laws arrive unannounced on your doorstep for a “short visit,” you’re forced, like Brady, to do a little improvisation.
The verb “improvise” means “to fabricate out of what is conveniently on hand.” This is exactly what we’re called to do pretty much every day of our lives. As much as we might like to have a script, improvisation is what life does and we have to get comfortable coping without a plan that we can confidently control. In today’s unpredictable world, the simple principles of improv might just be your ticket to a greater ability to rebound from setbacks, cope with stress and disappointment, and thrive in times of disruption.
The offer here, as an improviser would say, is to learn to understand, trust and develop our ability to improvise. And to become more willing and more adept at flexing, adapting and adjusting to what we have, rather than wishing we had something else.
In his book “Do Improvise,” author Robert Poynton points out that this approach represents quite a shift in attitude. Instead of trying to bend events and people to your will, you focus on discovering a way to work with whatever you find. This can be liberating and can make you far more creative. You realize that you don’t have to know everything and you don’t always have to be on top of things. This attitude is founded on humility and acceptance, which helps you become more compassionate, especially to yourself. It is a lighter way of being.
This improvisational discipline assumes that events around you, and the people who provoke most of those events, are beyond your control. As a result, it discourages you from wasting time or energy, in vain, to control them. Instead, it focuses on how to use whatever they give you, even if it is a challenge or an objection, and trains you to see these as opportunities. It pays attention to what you can control, which is your own attitude and response to whatever happens.
Principles of Improv
The three principles of improvisation are simple and can be summed up in six words:
- Notice more.
- Let go.
- Use everything.
With presence of mind, you can apply these ideas at any moment and in any context.
“The aim of life is to live, and to live means to be aware, joyously, drunkenly, serenely, divinely aware.” — Henry Miller
We can choose what we pay attention to. This is about deepening your capacity to be present in the world and to the people around you. If left to its own devices, our mind habitually wanders away from the present moment. When we’re not in the here and now, we dwell in the past, grasping and replaying it, or we project into the future, trying to anticipate the unknown. By getting caught up in this kind of self-referential thinking, we get in our own way.
Effective approaches to notice more include:
- Get out of your head and lean into your senses (e.g., seeing, hearing). The goal here is to consciously let more in vs. filtering stuff out.
- Tap into your intuition and notice more about your own body (e.g., what are you experiencing at a heart level or at a gut level?). As an example, we usually experience emotions more vividly in the body than in the mind. Bringing attention to the body enables a high-resolution perception of our emotions. The better we can perceive our emotions, the better we can manage them.
- In any moment, become intentionally aware of whether you are adopting an attitude that is open, curious and committed to learning, or one that is closed, defensive and committed to being right.
Noticing more helps you cultivate greater awareness, find new possibilities and see opportunities you never expected.
“Life is about not knowing, having to change, taking the moment and making the best of it without knowing what’s going to happen next. Delicious ambiguity.” — Gilda Radner
We need to let go of baggage from the past and extrapolations into the future because they stop us from paying proper attention to the present. The present is where we live.
How might you and other people around you benefit if you were to:
- Let go of judgment and leaping to conclusions? Instantly evaluating what is happening through the lens of the past gives you no chance of adapting creatively.
- Let go of the stories you tell yourself and the assumptions you’re making about people and situations? Projecting incorrect assumptions and stories into the future prevents us from paying attention to what is actually happening.
- Let go of your attachment to specific outcomes and in seeking security in plans and accomplishments?
Many of us operate from a conscious or subconscious belief that we need to be in control. We think we could never do improv because there is no script. The reality is that we likely get ourselves in more trouble when we try to script or control things than when we let go.
It’s possible that we try to control things because at some level we’re afraid. Afraid of being wrong. Afraid of what other people will think. Afraid of failure. These fearful reactions are not helpful. We need to embrace this whole endeavor as a process of improving, learning and not knowing it all. The goal is simply to be present.
Letting go means giving up the need to control outcomes and going where the journey takes you. Not having a script can actually be quite liberating, and we all have the potential to be naturally good at it. To what degree is fear keeping you from letting go?
“Be where you are; otherwise you will miss your life.” — Buddha
Everything is an offer. Whatever you face, regardless of how inviting or irksome it may seem, is usable in some way. This denies you any excuses and forces you to look harder for what’s useful.
To apply this principle, consider that:
- You learn fast if you view your mistakes as offers. You can see a mistake as a “mis-take,” like an actor’s flub on a film set, and look at it as another attempt in an iterative process where you are striving to get better. If mistakes are opportunities, you don’t need to make apologies, look for scapegoats or find excuses. You just get on with working out how to use them.
- Other people are constant sources of offers. They always bring interpretations, experience and perspectives that you don’t have. If someone sees things differently from you, instead of thinking they are wrong, see it as an offer. Ask yourself how their point of view can enrich yours.
- You can make it your goal to learn to live with the unrelenting constant of change, realizing that even good things won’t last forever and accepting that change is just the way it is.
Putting It All Together
If you want to use what you have, an obvious and easy place to start is simply to ask yourself, like MacGyver, “What have I got?” You might be surprised at how much you have overlooked.
Unforeseen consequences, accidents and delays can be used to your advantage if you are prepared to consider them as offers. Thinking in terms of using everything reminds you to let go of judgment and be grateful for what you have.
The late improv teacher Martin de Maat noted, “In order to improvise in front of an audience, you have to be accepting, involved in the moment and courageous.” Doesn’t this also clearly speak to what’s needed to be successful as a human being?
If every day of your life is indeed a piece of improv on the stage of life, by applying the three simple, interconnected principles — notice more, let go, use everything — you can be adaptable and resilient without the need to be in control, which is an unrealistic expectation anyway. And you also will experience more authentic happiness, be more compassionate toward yourself and others, and be able to make the greatest possible contribution in your work by reaching your full potential.
Go With the Flow co-columnist Dr. Jeff Thoren is president of VetPartners and founder of Gifted Leaders, a Phoenix company offering leadership and coaching services. Co-columnist Trey Cutler is a San Luis Obispo, California, attorney specializing in veterinary business matters.