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The Surprising Life Lessons of Improv

Three techniques that will help you work toward your goals

by Austin O’Connor

Well-Being
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In the new movie Don’t Think Twice, about a Brooklyn improv troupe whose members start to realize their act can’t go on forever, one of the characters describes improvisation as a high-wire act gone intentionally awry: “Fall, and then figure out what to do on the way down.”

Anyone who has pondered a major life change or is in transition to something new—in other words, just about everyone—will probably receive that line with a rueful smile. The possibility of falling without a net is the very definition of risk. But what improv artists know is that the hard part about doing something new isn’t the “doing something new” part at all. It’s making the choice to do it in the first place. Likewise, when making a change, whether it’s in your work or personal life, that first decision is the most difficult part. That’s the fall. And, like the players on an improv stage, how you land after that fall is up to you.

See also: 4 Ways Reimagination Is Like Improv

A famous playwright once wrote that life is a stage, a metaphor that turns every one of us into a kind an improv artist, working toward our goals without the benefit of a script. Don’t Think Twice opens with a brief history of the art form and a list of three guiding principles for its practitioners. It turns out those three rules are also great advice on how to live an interesting and fulfilling life.

1. Say yes.

A simple two-word phrase forms the foundation of improv: Yes, and. It functions as both affirmation and invitation. Whatever your fellow performer has just presented to you, your job is to accept it and then take it someplace all your own.

“To me, ‘listening’ and ‘yes, and’ are interchangeable. They’re the same thing,” says Christopher Ulrich, a long-time improv teacher at D.C. Improv in Washington. “Underlying the ‘yes, and’ and the listening is a moment of connection. That’s where discovery lives.”

It’s a disarmingly simple concept, and a powerful one, especially when you consider another word commonly attached to the word yes: but. Think about it. “Yes, but” halts a conversation or an idea, however briefly; “yes, and” continues it.

The lesson is to allow yourself to respond to new concepts in life with an immediate yes, even if it’s just to consider them more fully.

“It’s a mentality that’s really important,” says Kerry Sheehan, the president of the training centers and educational programs at The Second City in Chicago. “We all very, very easily can hop to the no when someone asks us something. And that reaction gets more common the older we get. But there really is something to just saying yes first. If your first response is yes, you have an opportunity to grow.”

“There really is something to just saying yes first. If your first response is yes, you have an opportunity to grow.”

Kerry Sheehan, president of the training centers and educational programs at The Second City in Chicago

2. Find—or create—your own improv support group.

Using improv techniques off the performance stage isn’t a new concept: An entire division of the famous Second City comedy club and school of improvisation—famous alumni include Dan Akroyd, Stephen Colbert, Tina Fey, Bill Murray and Gilda Radner—is devoted to corporate classes that teach co-workers how to function more smoothly in teams by listening and cooperating with each other. Improv troupes in just about every city in the country have similar offerings.

But more people are trying improv on their own, too. For more than a decade, Ulrich has been teaching classes at the D.C. Improv in the nation’s capital for neophyte players. Most of these students have no dreams of an improv career but are doing it just for kicks or to cross an item off their bucket lists. Ulrich says his classes now attract a wider mix of people than ever, with ages ranging from early 20s to late 70s. More and more people over 45 are signing up to take his course, he says, but regardless of age, what unifies his students is that they’re seeking something new in their lives.

“For some it’s just fun—it’s on their list of things they want to do,” adds Ulrich. “But for some people, they need a change and this is their spark.”

The Second City, which operates improv training centers in Chicago, Toronto and Los Angeles, has grown from 1,500 students to 5,500 in just the past decade. The Chicago center recently underwent a massive expansion to keep up with the demand from those seeking to expand their horizons through improv. “The idea is that everyone benefits from each other,” says Sheehan. “You all bring different perspectives and different life experiences.”

Working as a group with people of all ages and from different backgrounds is a useful exercise no matter your stage of life, but Sheehan says it can be particularly important for the program’s older students.

“Improv is very outward facing. Your goal is to make the other person look better,” she says. “It’s not about you. It can’t be about you. And I think that sometimes as people get older, you become much more self-focused. There are all sorts of challenges you face. But these classes make you turn it into the other direction. That can be a weight off people’s backs.”

Having a solid support group is vital to someone mulling a life change too, says Ulrich. You need to choose wisely, he says, when it comes to counsel from friends. Think of your personal support network as an everyday improv group with whom you can toss out ideas and run with them. “Who are the ‘yes, and’ people in your life?” he asks. “If you don’t have any of those people in your world, you gotta get some.”

3. Don’t think your way into doing nothing.

“Don’t think” doesn’t mean check your brain at the door. It means don’t overthink. There’s simply no time for it. In improv, you’re forced to act quickly; pausing to ponder all your possibilities isn’t an option. Likewise, when considering a change in your life, thinking too hard about it can be paralyzing. Change can be scary, and Ulrich likens embracing it to the moment during his class when a particularly shy, initially reticent student finally makes the leap and jumps in with an out-there idea.

“The victory is in the action,” he says. “The victory is winning that mental war between the inner critic that says ‘don’t do it, you’ll be laughed at.’ And then they do it. And now that inner critic is a voice at the table, but not running the show. To me that’s what it’s about, for all of us: How do we quiet that inner critic and allow the creative force in all of us to speak and help us create the person we are meant to be?”

See also: What Improv Comedy Can Teach You About Workplace Success

Most often, what scares people the most about change is the possibility of failure, the chance that whatever they try won’t be successful. Improv has an answer for that too: Get comfortable with failure. “Once you do that, you learn resiliency,” says Ulrich. “And you can come back and try again.”

His main piece of advice for those daunted by the prospect of failure? “Fail harder,” he says, before showing off his improv skills by adding his own yes, and. “Fail harder—and learn faster!”