From listening to commitment, these are principles that can be applied daily no matter who you are.
I’ve been studying and performing improv for almost two years (as of this writing). Not only did I fall in love with the craft, but it has changed my life. The principles of improv — from listening and agreeing to commitment and playing — have proven applicable at work, at home, hanging out with friends, networking, and beyond.
Now I’m sure I’m the 1,087th person to write this article, but that’s ok. Because no one has written it like this before, and no one will write it like this after. It lives as its own entity, just like every time you go to an improv show.
1. Learning to live in the moment
There are countless books, articles, life coaches, speeches, etc. that talk about being present. Why? Because it’s important, but extraordinarily difficult.
You will never feel more present than when you stand on a stage in front of an audience with no idea what is about to happen. For some, that’s exciting. For others, it sounds like somewhere between the sixth and seventh circles of hell. Either way, the result is a very present state of consciousness.
“[Being present] is the most important thing there ever is… Your entire life consists of the present moment. There never has been anything else.”
— Eckhart Tolle
In the age of smartphones and social media and streaming and self-indulgent blogs about improv, when was the last time you thought about just being?
People rarely really listen. Think about it. Most people, if they’re not distracted by something else entirely, are really just waiting for their turn to speak. Listening is such a simple thing at which people have gotten exponentially worse — no doubt caused by the aforementioned bombardment of stimuli on a moment-to-moment basis.
Keegan-Michael Key has a great quote during his interview on Off Camera with Sam Jones: When talking about improv, Key says, “People always go, ‘I can’t think that fast.’” His response: “No, no, no no no… Just listen to the last thing [your scene partner] said.” That’s it.
This harkens back to living in the moment. It also tends to be monumentally beneficial with regards to…
3. Teamwork and making others look good
Before a show, it’s customary for every player to look at each other square in the eye and say, “I’ve got your back.”
This is why improv is frequently taught in corporate settings. The moment someone tries to take all the glory — or worse, tries to make someone else look bad for their own gratification — everyone looks bad.
Just as they say philanthropy leads to prosperity, making those around you look good makes you look good — usually better than you could otherwise.
One could look at it from a karmic perspective (“If I make them look good, at some point they’ll make me look good.”) or even a selfish perspective (“Making them look good makes me feel good about myself.”) Either way, everybody wins. Try taking the focus off yourself every once in a while and see what happens.
4. Mistakes are “gifts”
Think of every mistake you make as a learning opportunity. Easier said than done, but simple nonetheless. While it may be true that failure “is success in progress” and “an opportunity to begin again” and all those things you see on motivational posters, it still sucks to fail. In improv… there’s no such thing!
If something crazy happens, everyone goes with it. If someone says something ridiculous, that’s the new reality.
This alone has allowed me to relieve a lot of social anxiety. After all, like improv, life doesn’t have a script. Instead of taking life too seriously, treat life like an experiment. Which is to say…
5. Say “yes”
While this is number five on this list, it’s the first rule you learn as an improviser. I consider myself an opportunist (read: Actor, Consultant, Designer, Writer, former Artist Manager and On-Air Host). I believe saying “yes” to opportunities ultimately leads to a more fulfilled life.
But, as anyone moderately familiar with improv will know, the official rule in improv is actually “Yes, and…”
Don’t just agree to opportunities, add to them.
If you say “yes” to a blind date, offer to go on a fun date you’ve never been on before. If you say “yes” to a promotion, try pitching a new idea you’ve been pondering for a while. Or if someone comes at you with an idea, listen, and then work together to improve upon it.
As of this writing, I’m enrolled in a musical improv class. Musical improv takes the regular rules of improv and jacks them up on steroids. As someone with, shall we say, limited musical ability, I have to rely on commitment to bring a song home. What I’ve found is this: if you’re committed, so is the audience.
The simple takeaway: It doesn’t matter if you need work at something. Commit to doing it. Commit to learning. Commit to making mistakes (gifts). Basically, if you do something, do it 100%.
Another takeaway: Fake it til you make it. Walk into rooms like you run the company. Laugh when you’re sad. (Seriously, it can help.) Say “Yes, and…” to things that might scare you.
Worst case, if you fail (gift), everyone will say, “At least he was committed!”
BONUS: Don’t take yourself too seriously
People aren’t paying as close attention to you as you think they are. They are mostly concerned about themselves.
Lighten up. Be vulnerable. Be yourself. And for the love of Del Close, have fun! As we grow older we tend to forget that we have an amazing imagination. Even if you never step foot on an improv stage, remember how fantastical your imagination is. Use it.