More Spontaneity School: Another 10 Improv Games to Enliven the Classroom or Workplace!

This fall will mark the first Labor Day in twelve years that I’m not gearing up to teach in a high school classroom, but that doesn’t mean I’m not feeling the excitement of a new school year. New books, new students, new lessons—all possibilities remain in play. In that spirit, I offer a fresh collection of improvisation exercises that can lighten spirits, develop courage, open spontaneity, and forge connection in classrooms of all sorts. The first installment of Spontaneity School has proven my most popular blog post. Here’s hoping this one resonates for as many readers!

  1. Sound Ball (further variations)
You might send the sound of vuvuzelas across a Sound Ball circle... (Image courtesy of Wikipedia.)

You might send the sound of vuvuzelas across a Sound Ball circle…
(Image courtesy of Wikipedia.)

In that original Spontaneity School post, I outlined a basic explanation for Sound Ball, one of the most fundamental and helpful improv games around. To review, with the larger group in a circle, one person ‘throws’ a random sound to another person in the group. That second person ‘receives’ the sound with the motion of catching a potato or small beanbag and—importantly—repeats as precisely as possible the sound sent to them. Right away, that receiver tosses a new sound with a new gesture to another person in the circle. The zippier the movement of sounds around the circle, the better. As always, encourage active physical gestures to send and receive and remind folks to resist planning ahead for ‘clever’ or ‘creative’ sounds. What comes, comes.

...or that of waves crashing on shore. (Image courtesy of Wikipedia.)

…or that of waves crashing on shore.
(Image courtesy of Wikipedia.)

Try these added variations to enliven the game even further:

  • Once you’ve gotten a few rounds of Sound Ball under your belt, have the group form pairs around the room. Each pair can then send their own sound ball back and forth in rapid-fire succession. To up the stakes, encourage a different physical gesture with each sound sent out. After a while in that mode, invite a new facial gesture with each sound. This variation gets good laughs, expands emotional and imaginative range, and builds the ability to pass the ball more quickly. Then, when you get the group back together, the game continues with far greater zip.
  • See if participants can keep their attention focused on the sound ball as it moves around the circle, even if they’re not directly involved in the transfer. Move with the ball’s pattern as if you were surfing or serving its “energy.”
  • Try a round of ‘Gesture Ball,’ where each person passes a random word illustrated by a hand or body movement. The gesture could demonstrate the word literally—like slapping hands together with the word ‘Clap!’—or it could offer the meaning more metaphorically, like throwing the hands out to the side with fingers flared and stepping forward with a bright smile to say ‘Jazz!’ In every case the person receiving the gesture ball should repeat the sound and the movement before sending a new combo along to the next person.
  1. Ball
Ah, the ideal "Ball" ball.

Ah, the ideal “Ball” ball.

Whereas sound ball relies on an imaginary sphere, this game uses an actual, real-life ball (thus the name of the game!). The rules of Ball resemble those of volleyball—minus a court, a net, and any sense of opposing teams. In this case, the group works as one unit to keep the ball up in the air, counting aloud each time the ball gets hit. As in volleyball, no player can hit the ball twice in a row. If that happens or if the ball hits the floor, the count starts back at one.

Every so often, take time to harvest whatever insights the group can generate about what’s working to keep the ball alive. You’ll likely hear “Hit the ball up!” or “Be bold about moving into the center!” Try giving the cue to “Pass the ball to someone else rather than just hitting it!”—that will transform the quality of the game-playing.

For sure, the joy of a good round of Ball lasts far longer than the time you play. Tim Orr, a superlative improvisor and one of my favorite long-form teachers, suggests that an improv workshop that contained nothing but the game of Ball would still teach those attending most of what they need to know about the art.

Insider tips:

  • Make sure to keep everyone counting aloud. It’s a great vocal warm-up that way and it builds a cohesion that’s valuable for whatever learning activity comes next.
  • Switch people’s positions in the circle every now and then—new spot, new neighbors—to generate different permutations and possibilities.
  • The ideal size for the ball is somewhere between a volleyball and a soccer ball. You want one that’s light enough not to damage your room or your players but light enough to travel without much effort. A Gertie ball works well. Even better for the fully dedicated, find a fabric Boingo ball and pull its bladder out. Then, put a Gertie ball inside it, stitch the whole thing back up, and reinflate. The ball’s just the right weight—and you’ve got the pride of having made your own!
  1. Three Things

This energy-builder works in any setting where you’ve got a few minutes between activities. The whole group forms a circle and chants in unison “Three things!” while bouncing their fists as if pounding a table. One leader then starts the game off by turning to an immediate neighbor and asking that person to name three things that fit a particular category. “Three brands of cars!” “Three things you’d find at the back of your closet!” or “Three terrible excuses for showing up late!” could all work. As quickly as possible, the receiver generates three responses and declares them with authority. When that person has finished, the group again chants “Three things!” and the person who just responder gives a category to the next person.

Maybe the answers will end up fitting the category “appropriately;” maybe they won’t. Or maybe the same answer will come out twice in one round. It’s all good. The crucial key: generate and celebrate the quick response. You’re trying to access a type of wisdom that comes before cognitive planning.

Three things you might purchase on a streetcorner: Franks!

Three things you might purchase on a streetcorner: Franks!

Flowers!

Flowers!

Fortunes! (Photos courtesy of Wikimedia.)

Fortunes!
(Photos courtesy of Wikimedia.)

Insider tips:

  • Some folks will lessen the tension of the challenge by adding in a little preamble before each response. Maybe they repeat the category or toss another time-staller in: “For military vehicles, I would choose a tank. I would choose a jeep. And I’d go with a Navy Destroyer.” Much better—and more rewarding to just say “Tank! Jeep! Destroyer!”
  • Responders can build their own confidence by counting with authority on their fingers. Other players can help out by nodding or adding in small, affirmative sounds: “Mm-hmm; yes; right, of course,” though they don’t want to get so loud as to draw attention from the person on the spot.
  • While you don’t want to get stuck on “accuracy”—it doesn’t really matter if a response fits the category—players should at least try to have the responses fit. Throwing out completely random words misses the point here.
  • More abstract categories can stimulate a little more creativity—and a lot more laughs. “Three vegetables you’d find at the grocery store!” will work fine. “Three unpublished Harry Potter titles” might generate even more.
  • Unlike most of the other spontaneity exercises where we’re trying to keep our mind’s fresh, this one’s actually a game where it can be OK to plan ahead in forming categories.
  1. Jumpin’ Jehosephat

This playful but difficult game encourages dramatic commitment and generates good laughs by calling out the unexpected. Have two participants up at the front of the room sitting on chairs as if they were sitting on the porch of an old Country Store. One starts by slapping his or her knee and declaring “Well Jumpin’ Jehosephat and call me Christmas!” and then comes up with something surprising that character might have just learned: “Ole Mrs. Haverford’s getting ready to have another baby!”

"Well, Jiminy Christmas and string me up a vineyard!" (Image courtesy of Wikipedia.)

“Well, Jiminy Christmas and string me up a vineyard!”
(Image courtesy of Wikipedia.)

The second character responds by slapping his or her own knee and coming up with another two-part exclamation of surprise: “Well, kiss my gizzard and grab me an onion!” The amazement then shoots back and forth , continuing the two-part expressions of shock without hesitation by diving into even more absurd declarations: “Well, take out the trash and kick what’s on the curb!” “Well, I’ve got Fridays and nobody’s watching!” Well, spread me some peanut butter and get me back to Georgia!” The game can go back and forth for a certain amount of time or could become a competition of sorts: first one to flinch leaves the porch and a new player comes on.

Insider tips:

  • Encourage folks to start with the word “Well.” That way, they get a little momentum going into the declaration.
  • The declarations don’t have to be completely non-sensical, just spontaneous and enthusiastic: “Well, tip the table over and call the dog to clean it!” still works even though it could be, um, logical.
  • Alliteration can make for good laughs, as in “Well, sing along with Elvis and bring me back a biscuit!” Requiring such detail can make the game more challenging for those who master it quickly.
  • As in sound ball, see if players can leave a pre-planned “good” idea and just take the next one that arrives when their turn comes along.
  1. Shout the Wrong Name

This game builds the spontaneity muscle in an eat-your-spinach kind of way: it’s tough and can prove exhausting but builds a capacity for spontaneity in its purest form.

Start by having participants mill comfortably around whatever space they have. Then, for a first round, have them point to random objects around the room, shouting the name of whatever the thing is that they’re pointing to: “Desk! Doorknob! Trash can! Table lamp! Carpet! World map! Laptop!,” and so on.

Then, loosen them up with a second round where they say the name of the previous thing they’ve just pointed to. So if I were to start by pointing to the desk, I would then yell “Desk!” when pointing to the doorknob and “Trash can!” when pointing to the doorknob. See if they can get a good rhythm going there.

Lastly—and this represents the real challenge—have them point to objects and shout the name of anything else but that object’s real name. In this case, you could begin by pointing at the desk and yelling “Watermelon!” Or pointing to the doorknob and shouting “Cartwheel!” Offer a little demonstration and toss in a few abstract nouns as well, just to introduce the possibility of a wider vocabulary range. “Poverty!” when pointing at a coffee mug or “Alertness!” when pointing to a windbreaker on the wall.

"Watermelon!" (Image courtesy of pixabay.com)

“Watermelon!”
(Image courtesy of pixabay.com)

 

Insider Tips:

  • In the ideal, this game taps into a streaming flow of non-linear utterances. To that end, encourage speed. Use the physical movement of the point to propel the word out of the mouth. Better to shout a fast and declarative non-sensical sound than to wait several beats for a “good” word.
  • Along those lines, try to limit any sense of judgment on words that come out, as in which are “better” or “worse.” Allow and observe repeats—always a good opportunity to see how the mind works! Odds are, any “Hey I’m doing well!” thought will snap folks right out of the flow anyway.
  • Discourage participants from pointing at people, especially for the last round. You want to avoid the accident (or the intention) of something unpleasant or hurtful coming out—yelling “Idiot!” when pointing at a classmate, for example—even if it technically qualifies as “the wrong name.”
  • Ask if anyone’s ‘strategizing’ to get themselves through. For example, I find this game much easier if I find my non-related words by moving through the alphabet: “Apple! Baseball! Carrot! Denver! Egg! Fahrenheit!” and so on. This can be a helpful aid for those who are struggling or a limiting crutch for those who could stand to push themselves further. Use such strategy as you see fit.
  1. Convergence

Though this game starts with simple rules, it regularly provides rewarding payoffs. One person bring a word, any word, to mind and declares, “One!” Another person brings their own word to mind and announces, “Two!” Those two players then face each other, make eye contact, and count “One, two, three…” before simultaneously saying their word aloud. Maybe that first round generates “snowshoe” and “Mercedes Benz.”

Having heard those two words, all players then silently seek a third word that combines, bridges, or encompasses those two. (I find it helpful to imagine locating a word midway between the two, as if they were on a spectrum.) The first to come up with one possibility shouts “One!,” the next shouts “Two!” and those two use the same count-out-loud ritual to see if their words match. Probably they won’t—maybe you get “Germany” and “snowtire” in our example—and you keep going. Eventually, the group converges on the same word, usually to great delight, and one round is done. Almost inevitably, folks want to keep playing.

One tricky feature to keep in mind: once a word has been mentioned in a given game, you’re no longer eligible to use it.

Narrowing in.... (Image courtesy of Wikimedia)

Narrowing in….
(Image courtesy of Wikimedia)

Insider tips:

  • Remember that you’re only trying to split the difference between the last two words mentioned, not making an ‘echo’ reference to something that came before.
  • Players who have just offered words remain fully eligible to get in on the next round. Follow whoever’s got an immediate hit and good energy.
  • It can be fun to watch how a given round weaves in and out of that feeling of convergence. The group can seem right on the edge of getting it and then drift back out to a wider gap before narrowing back down.
  • Want a challenge? Include three people in each round and try to converge three words at a time.
  1. Go! (Plus)

Here’s a great head-spinner to get folks moving and peripheral senses sharpening. Standing with the group in a circle, one person (A) starts by saying another person’s (B’s) name. Without moving, B responds to A, saying “Go.” A then slowly moves across the circle to fill in B’s spot. While A is moving B says another person’s (C’s) name. B stays in place until C gives ‘permission’ to move by saying “Go.” On that permission, B moves to C’s spot and the game continues in sequence. For the first round or two, it’s best to make sure everyone gets a chance to say “Go” and then move. You’re building up the game’s rhythm for the more challenging rounds to come. After a few rounds of “Go,” pause everyone and let them know you’re getting to the “Plus” stages of the game.

This time, create a pattern that moves from you to another person in the circle, from them to another, and then to another until it returns home to you. Initiate the sequence by choosing a category (“types of shoes,” for example) and then pointing to that first person on saying something that fits in that category (like “saddleshoes”). Unlike in Sound Ball, the recipient need not repeat what you sent, they only need to pass the pattern on to someone else, naming a different item in that category (like “pumps”). Eventually, the pattern returns home to you. Try that pattern a few times to make sure it’s well-established: each time sending the same item (shoe type, in our example) to the same person you sent to in the original go-round.

Then, clear those decks and establish another pattern with a different category (perhaps “international city,” or some such). Again, make sure everyone’s in the sequence and that the pattern comes back to you at the end. Once you feel confident folks have that pattern down, re-introduce the original pattern you created, executing both at the same time.

Go!  (Courtesy of Wikimedia)

Go!
(Courtesy of Wikimedia)

Lastly, when you’ve got both of those down, weave the “Go!” element back in. Now, you’ve got two patterns moving around the circle while people are also changing places and saying names and “Go!,” all at once. If the full-blown game sounds chaotic, that’s an appropriate read. When it works though, with kids and sounds breathing in and out of the circle, the game becomes a thing of beauty.

Insider tips:

  • When establishing the patterns for the “Plus” part of the game, have those who have been included in the pattern put a hand on their head so those choosing where to go next who’s still available.
  • Make sure that everyone establishes the patterns by sending to different people for each of the “Plus” rounds or it will get really confusing really quickly.
  • If the group is strong, try introducing multiple versions of each pattern at the same time. You might have one “Go” going, two “shoes” patterns and two “international cities,” for example.
  1. Three-Word-at-a-Time Poems

If you need a quiet experience to explore a given theme or want to help your learners understand the delights and challenges of shared control, this game may do the trick. Have folks arrange their desks or sit on the floor in a circle, each with a piece of paper and pen or pencil in front of them. Each person gets to start a poem, using only three words on the page. They should start with the title. If the title’s only one word long, they start the first two words of the poem. If the title’s incomplete after three words, they just write the first three words.

Then, once each person has written their three-word start, pass the poems to the next person, all poems moving in one direction. This second person then adds another three words before passing the poem again. Lines need not rhyme or contain any certain number of words—free verse usually works best. Depending on numbers, you can go around the circle however many times you need, though it provides a neat conclusion to have the same person who started the poem finish it.

Once the poems are complete, have each person read them aloud with great authority and distinction, as if they had written the whole thing themselves. If folks have played along sincerely throughout the exercise, you—and they—will likely be surprised with the quality and coherence of their work.

Insider tips:

  • Encourage students to build on—“Yes, and”—what’s been written before them rather than trying to generate laughs by canceling another’s offer or going off in some random direction.
  • Time the transfers so that everyone passes at the same time so you avoid getting multiple poems backed up at one spot and everyone’s got something to work on.
  • It may help to give the ‘poets’ a heads-up that the end approaches before actually getting there: “Know that we’ll be ending the poems in just three more rounds so start to find a conclusion,” for example.
  1. Shared Memory

This energizing game in pairs also comes from the shared-control/“Yes, And” family lineage. Divide your group into dyads and then set the stage for the following rules. Each pair needs to “reminisce” about an (imaginary) shared memory. “A vacation to Mexico” makes for a decent start, as would “The time we got lost in San Francisco.” Keep the topic light and somewhat breezy—you want your players to discovery joy in the shared memory.

 

"Remember that time we vacationed in Mexico?" Image courtesy of Wikipedia.

“Remember that time we vacationed in Mexico?”
Image courtesy of Wikipedia.

One person starts by saying “You remember when we…” and continues on, making up some completely imaginary experience. At some point, the second person takes over, interrupting with an enthusiastic “Yeah, yeah, yeah…” or some such line, and then adding in another aspect to the ‘memory.’ Once each person has shared some part of the memory, send the lead back and forth so the memory keeps building.

In the ideal, the game gets going quickly with one player eager to jump in and add on what the other has offered. For variety’s sake, suggest that players experiment with pausing every now and then to leave some pregnant space between memories (as would often be the case with friends remembering a shared experience). Then, after soaking in the silence for a few seconds, they can listen for the next inspiration that comes and get the game moving again.

Insider tips:

  • Keep a watchful eye for folks slipping into a blocking mode where they deny, dismiss, or belittle the ‘memory’ that the other person generates.
  • Also make sure you don’t have two friends in a pair working on an actual The exercise is about discovering memories rather than actually recalling them.
  • As is true for almost all improv exercises, “memories” in this game need not prove clever, funny, or original. Sometimes the most delightful shared memories are the ones that seem obvious.
  • Offering a one-minute demonstration can help give folks an idea of what the game entails. It can also make for a fun little performance if you want to use it that way.

10. Diamond Dancing

This crowd-pleaser builds on groundwork laid in the game of Mirror (or Mirror Dancing), as described in the earlier Spontaneity School post. In this version, four players at a time take the stage to form a diamond shape with maybe 8 feet between each corner of the diamond. One person makes the front point of the diamond at the front of the stage, two stand at 45-degree angles behind that front person, and the last stands at 45-degree angles from behind those two, directly in line behind the front person.

Set up some lively, rhythmic music. Once it starts playing the student in front starts dancing in lead position—all other dancers follow the lead’s moves as closely as possible. After a good while in front, that dancer should turn to the right, bringing other dancers along and signaling that the dancer at the front of that direction of the diamond has now become the lead. Others follow that second person’s ‘choreography’ for a similar amount of time until he or she turns to pass the lead to the back point of the diamond. That third dancer directs the action before turning and passing to the fourth; the fourth assumes the lead before passing back to the front. Once all four have had their individual times to direct the diamond, dancers can lead and pass as they feel moved to. Whichever “DJ” runs the music can keep an active eye for when the piece looks finished and fade the music out before the next group cues up.

Do you suppose Beyonce's single ladies were Diamond Dancing behind her? Image courtesy of Wikipedia.

Do you suppose Beyonce’s single ladies were Diamond Dancing behind her?
Image courtesy of Wikipedia.

Insider tips:

  • As with Mirror Dancing, lead dancers make it easier for their followers by moving more slowly. Or, as an alternative, by moving in quick-to-learn repetitive gestures. Dancers can also incorporate and reincorporate elements–movements, sequence, phrases—that other dancers first introduced. That helps make sense of the dance’s storyline, as it were.
  • Dancers should look forward into the audience, trusting peripheral vision for new cues rather than looking directly toward each other.
  • The dance gets tough if the transitions get sloppy. Encourage folks to be clear from head-to-toe when they’re turning that they’re handing over control. If the lead turns her hips in a new direction but leaves her shoulders facing the original way, how can the next player know what she means.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Improv Musings, Vol. 3: Make Bold Offers!

This post marks the third in a series of three-person explorations into the life wisdom found through improvisational theatre. You can find the first two here: Let Yourself Be Changed and Make Emotional Noises.
 
As has been mentioned earlier, three experienced teachers–Patricia Ryan Madson, founder of the Stanford Improvisors (SImps) and author of Improv Wisdom: Don’t Prepare, Just Show UpLisa Rowland, improvisor extraordinaire and San Francisco 2012 Actor of the Year; and Ted DesMaisons, learning consultant and curator of this blog–have agreed to riff on a few improv maxims, sharing and building on each other’s thoughts to explore each principle in more detail.  Rowland and DesMaisons both studied with Madson and continue her work through their “Improv Wisdom for a Meaningful Life” retreats.
 
We agreed that each individual contribution would hold loosely to a three paragraph limit.  Each essay would then get passed to another teacher for comment or development until all three had offered a reflection.  As you can see, this topic inspired each of us to extend past that boundary. We’d love to hear any reflections you’d like to add in!    
 

Hilary Price cartoon

Make Bold Offers!

Patricia Ryan Madson: 

This delightful cartoon was created by Hilary B. Price, and it accompanies an essay titled “The Omnivore’s Dilemma” which serves as the End Note for the July/August, 2013 edition of Stanford Magazine, the university’s alumni publication. Hilary studied improv with me at Stanford and was a member of the Stanford Improvisers; she graduated in 1993. This cartoon embodies the cardinal sin in improv: “to wimp.”   When we wimp, we fail to define something or offer a choice. Since improvisers are trained to be agreeable, it’s not that hard to fall into the “whatever you want” syndrome. And, we all know that as pleasing as an agreeable attitude can be, in order to get things going we need an idea . . . a noun, actually. This cartoon reminds us of what happens to our fellow players when we cross our arms and defer. (Even when we do it with a smile on our faces.) Perhaps you find yourself doing this . . . wimping, that is.   Deciding takes effort and courage.

Today’s maxim: “Make bold offers” reminds me of the joys and responsibility of making choices and of leading. There may be something in the word bold that is a little intimidating. It could lead us to imagine that we need to bound onstage and proclaim “I’m divorcing you, Marge!” or “Look out, that meteor is about to strike us!”

While each of these offers will get us going onstage I don’t think that bold needs to mean dramatic, horrific, or zany. What bold says to me is to make concrete, specific suggestions or endowments. The invitation: “Would you like to go out this weekend?” misses the punch of “I’m going for a long walk in Golden Gate Park and then grabbing dinner at the Fort Mason food bazaar before the BATS show on Saturday. Would you like to join me?” Specificity is a blessing when we are improvising. And, I think life is like that, too. In Japan one never asks a guest “What would you like to do (eat/see)?” It is considered the highest rudeness to throw the onerous burden of choice onto the guest. Instead the host (who often worries a lot) makes all of the decisions and executes them so that the guest can simply receive and enjoy. It’s quite different in the West where we may consider our right to choose as the ultimate good.

"I'd love to go out for dinner to get a sushi assortment plate" would be much more polite than, "I don't know, whatever."  Can't you just taste the specificity? Image courtesy of Wikipedia.

“I’d love to go out for dinner to get a sushi assortment plate” would be much more polite than, “I don’t know, whatever.”
Can’t you just taste the specificity?
Image courtesy of Wikipedia.

Our modern world needs all of us to be proactive. Increasingly workers who want to stay employed during this rapid paced new economy are going to need to do more than just keep up with their current field of expertise. Thomas Friedman, a leading economist, warns that in this century we all need to learn how to become entrepreneurs. Doing one’s job effectively won’t be enough. Each of us within our own sphere needs to be on the lookout for ways to improve things and to innovate. We need to make bold offers in life within those spheres where each of us has control. How are you doing this?

Ted DesMaisons

Another close cousin of wimping is waffling—hovering between two or more possibilities without committing to either. Yes, holding the paradox of an uncertainty can help ensure we consider all sides of a big decision: Do we keep the ornery but skilled employee or cut her loose and take the risk of a new hire? Have a child and step into a different kind of purpose or remain child-free and preserve open space for life’s other work? In such cases, we sometimes force a solution before it’s had time to emerge.

Would you like some waffle to go with your wimp? Image courtesy of Wikipedia.

Would you like some waffle to go with your wimp?
Image courtesy of Wikipedia.

Just as often, though, we waste time vacillating, avoiding a decision because we fear what we’ll lose. As you’ve said, Patricia, a bold offer is an active choice. Stepping onto one clear path indeed means giving up on an infinite range of other possibilities—and there’s a grief in that—but the move forward leads to greater action, depth, and adventure. It leads to other, more flavorful outcomes. Go with Door #1 and you forego Door #2, but at least you get out of the lobby.

Again and again, improv puts us in this place of creative tension. Any beginner class will introduce the practice of “Accept all offers.” go with the world our partner has created in the moment just passed, constantly letting go of—or at least refreshing—our own take on things.

In that light, a “Whatever you want” response to a dinner invite could be a kindness, right? Well, yes. And…we then have to measure our enthusiasm. If we simply acquiesce to dull offers, we get dull scenes. When we engage with commitment, making strong offers and letting them go if needed, we volley back and forth with our stage partners like skilled tennis players in a top-level competition.

"I see your bold offer and--unhh!!!--send one right back atcha!" Image courtesy of Wikipedia.

“I see your bold offer and–unhh!!!–send one right back atcha!”
Image courtesy of Wikipedia.

Maybe the analogy’s not quite right: we’re not working for winning zingers, but we are participating in an athletic and poetic dance where each player calls out the other’s best. Bold offer meets audacious return meets courageous response—and the scene takes off. Our investment lifts our partners. Our specificity lets the next line or next action unfold almost automatically.

Patricia’s right: boldness can be intimidating. That’s part of why improv (or life for that matter) ain’t for the faint of heart. But healthy chutzpah makes for the best collaboration. Everyone’s strong and everyone’s flexible. It’s not a rigid bravado or necessarily a loud one. It’s a daring kind of commitment and communication. We offer our biggest, brightest, and most bodacious selves. And our partners do as well. Every player goes full sail. All inspire each other to keep upping their games.

Lisa Rowland:  

I connect with what Patricia and Ted have written because I used to be a pretty polite improvisor. I was fantastic at enthusiastically “yes”sing my partner. I’d take them in any direction they pointed the scene. I was like a little improv springboard, giving helpful boosts to folks who already knew where they wanted to go. But I wasn’t big on setting the direction myself. That felt a bit too scary.

"I insist: you go first." Photo courtesy of www.us.ayushveda.com.

“I insist: you go first.”
Photo courtesy of http://www.us.ayushveda.com.

Part of my reluctance to make bold offers was politeness. As if to say, ‘I bet you know just where you want to go, so I won’t get in the way with any of my own offers that might distract from that. Go ahead! I’ll be right behind you!” I was very pleasant to play with! But I also knew that the improvisor I wanted to be should know how to make strong calls, so I tip-toed out onto limbs when I could screw up the courage.

At this point, I’ve worked on this area a lot–making my own narrative calls and big bold offers­­–and I’m better at it now. I’m more willing to make big story-changing confessions and play characters with unreasonable opinions and strong beliefs. I find it scary and exhilarating. But when I slip back into my old, more timid behavior, the particular cat that I find holding my tongue is not politeness, but rather fear of getting it wrong. A completely irrational sense that everyone else on stage knows where this story is going. They just see it. It’s obvious to them. But for some reason, the grand blue print of the scene has been withheld from me, so I probably shouldn’t make many big steps, because they’ll likely not fall on the right path. It seems ridiculous when I state it out loud like this, but that’s the fear!

I got wonderful advice from Barbara Scott once while working with True Fiction, an inspiring group doing a particularly difficult format. She said, “Any time you’re feeling tentative, just remember, no one else has any idea what’s going on either.” I try to remember that all the time. In improv and in life. We’re all just winging it here, right? No one has more information than you. You have everything you need to make a call.

You might feel like you're nuts, but get out there on that limb. Image courtesy of Wikipedia.

You might feel like you’re nuts, but get out there on that limb.
Image courtesy of Wikipedia.

Now, boldness takes guts. Big fat courage. You’re walking out on a limb, and you’re bringing a grand piano with you. And it also takes work. Because the price of admission to boldness is paying very close attention. You can get by not really listening if you never plan on contributing a whole lot. But if you’re throwing your two cents in, you’ve got to know everything that’s already in the pot. So sure, there’s a price. You have skin in the game. But the payoff of boldness is so worth it. Like so many other things, you get out what you put in. The bolder the choices, the grander the ride.

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5 Easy Ways to Introduce Mindfulness into Your Classroom

You may have heard that mindfulness practice—learning to pay curious and kind attention to the present moment—brings a wide-ranging host of benefits to the classroom or workplace setting. Greater focus, improved self-awareness and collaboration, reduced anxiety and hostility: the evidence-based, scientifically-demonstrated list goes on.

Mindfulness can bring ripples of benefit to any classroom or workplace setting.  Image courtesy of Pixabay.

Mindfulness can bring ripples of benefit to any classroom or workplace setting.
Image courtesy of Pixabay.

Thankfully, you need not polish your pedagogy or meditate in a monastery for months on end in order to start reaping such benefits. These five easy-to-introduce mindfulness practices will have immediate effect and will plant valuable seeds for further exploration.

 
  1. Minute of silence and stillness. Almost everyone’s in some bit of swirl when they begin a class or arrive at a meeting. Taking a minute of quiet stillness allows folks to catch their breath and settle their minds before diving into a new experience.

Many students will ask “What should I do during that time?” One helpful answer: “You don’t have to do anything. For this minute, you can just be.” Suggest that folks bring attention to their own experience during that time. What can they notice about their breath, their body, or the sounds coming to their ears? What’s happening now?

Insider tips

  • Invite students to close their eyes or find a neutral spot of focus on the floor or desk in front of them. Some groups need time to work out their nervous giggles and desire to distract—most have little experience with shared silence—but eventually students come to cherish the quiet respite.[1]
  • A simple chime or tone can help to bring a focus for learning. Image courtesy of Wikipedia.

    A simple chime or tone can help to bring a focus for learning.
    Image courtesy of Wikipedia.

    Some participants may ask, “Am I supposed to pray?” My response: it’s a time to bring yourself to the present moment, to let go of—or at least note—whatever tensions or concerns you’re bringing into the room so you can concentrate on what we’re doing here. If a silent prayer helps with that, go ahead and pray.[2] It’s an option, but most definitely not a requirement.

  • Using a chime or other peaceful sound to enter into and exit the silence helps to punctuate the transition as well. Letting the kids or other participants ring the chime gives them further ownership over the practice.
  1. Deep listening. When most of us listen, we’re rarely paying full attention—we’re preparing a critique or a response instead. Deep listening develops a more generous, focused presence that leads to real connection.

Group your students or colleagues into pairs with each partner facing the other. If you can, give enough space so that pairs won’t distract each other. One person starts as the speaker, responding for a set time to a basic prompt; the other simply listens. No questions, no feedback, no clarification, no striving to remember or respond. Just listening. If the speaker feels she has finished before the minute concludes, the two can sit in silence until more thoughts come—and often the best sharings emerge from that quiet—or until time’s up.

This dog knows how to make the phonograph feel heard. Good deep listening, pooch. Image courtesy of Wikipedia.

This dog knows how to make the phonograph feel heard. Good deep listening, pooch.
Image courtesy of Wikipedia.

Then, switch roles so the second speaker shares his own reflection to that same prompt. After each participant has had the chance to speak, the pair gets a third minute to dialogue like in normal conversational. Is there anything your partner mentioned that you appreciated or wanted to connect with? Did their comments raise any questions? And so on.

Doing this exercise early in a semester or project can generate a sense of community that pays dividends for the rest of the group’s time together, especially if you go through several rounds with new partners for each subsequent question.

Insider tips:

  • After a first session of deep listening, engage a group discussion to explore what it was like to speak and listen this way. Most likely you’ll hear a range: “It was weird.” “I didn’t know how to respond.” “I felt safe.” “I got time to hear my own voice.” “Knowing I wasn’t going to respond meant I could pay better attention.” “I felt like I wasn’t being kind.” Whatever, the responses, welcome them and acknowledge that skillful deep listening takes practice and, eventually, bears good fruit.
  • Early on, good prompts will ask non-threatening, open-ended questions that invite participants to share something authentic without getting too vulnerable. “What’s something you enjoy doing over the summer?” would work well. “What’s one of your deepest fears?” would prove unfair, if not irresponsible. Once a group has established greater familiarity, of course, deep listening offers a good structure for more intimate sharing. Be cautious and patient with testing such boundaries.
  • Forming “wheel-within-a-wheel” circles can help transition from partner to partner. Have one partner from each group help form a circle in the center with their chairs facing out. The other partners then form a second, wider circle by facing their chairs toward the center. Each pair forms a “spoke” radiating outward. After the first question, have the folks in the inner circle stand and move one partner to their right (clockwise). After the second question, have the folks in the outer circle stand and move one partner to their right (counter-clockwise). Everyone gets to move. Everyone meets new people.
  1. Where is your attention now? Like a spotlight, our attention always shines somewhere. With practice, we can learn to choose where that awareness falls, rather than lurching to and fro without intention. Every so often—including in the middle of other exercises or projects—ask your students “Where is your attention now?” and then give them a moment or two to stop and notice. Is their attention where they want it to be? Great. Has it gone elsewhere? That’s fine too. Either way, they’re developing an awareness about their awareness—and that they have some choice in the matter.
It's SO easy for the mind to wander.  Image courtesy of Wikipedia.

It’s SO easy for the mind to wander.
Image courtesy of Wikipedia.

Insider tip:

  • Take care with your vocal tone when delivering the question. Avoid judgment or reprimand as in “Get your attention back here now!” Rather, invite curiosity and kindness in exploration, as in “Hmm. Check that out. My mind has wandered off entirely. What do I want to do about that.”

 

4. Breathing ratio. This simple breathing exercise takes just a moment and can help restore calm in a time of stress or chaos—without anyone else needing to know. Invite students to silently count as they inhale and start counting again as they exhale. There’s no need to adjust posture or shift breathing pace; again, they’re simply noticing what is. What number do they find on the in breath and on the out breath? Are they different? Do they change?

Simply counting the breath can help us find calm in a time of stress.  Photo courtesy of Pixabay.

Simply counting the breath can help us find calm in a time of stress.
Photo courtesy of Pixabay.

Insider tip:

  • Ask students to take stock of how they’re feeling in mind and body before they start the exercise and then again after they’ve finished. Almost universally, students experience greater groundedness—and an excitement to learn that they can create this sense of calm whenever they need it.
  1. Recognize transitions. Skillful mindfulness teachers will find others ways to mark transitions between lessons, activities, or learning modes. Maybe students take shoes off or drop cell phones into a box on their way into the classroom. Perhaps a quick pick-me-up game sloughs off the stress following a test. Or a slow, silent walk around the desks introduces a different kind of focus.

    Leaving shoes at the door can signal a transition. Photo courtesy of flickr.

    Leaving shoes at the door can signal a transition.
    Photo courtesy of flickr.

One of my favorites signals the end of class rather than having kids just trickle away without intention. Students put one hand toward the center of the room, as if forming spokes in one large wheel. Together, we’ll count to three and then lift our arms out, chanting “Spokes out!” The simple practice takes about 5 seconds but gathers the group’s energy one last time. We honor what we’ve shared and honor where we’re going.

Insider tip:

  • Infinite possibilities abound for this one. Find your own creative ways to mark transitions or, better yet, invite the students to generate their own.

Whatever approach you choose, remember that the more your kids practice some form of mindfulness, the more they (and you) will see its mind-shifting benefits. As is so often true, the oxygen principle holds: best to get your own mindfulness practice going before bringing your students to it. If you want to teach swimming, it helps to have survived a few swimming situations of your own.

A few words of caution to conclude. Sloppy or unskillful introductions to mindfulness may generate hesitation or even defiance—and such resistance can surface with surprising intensity. For one, mindfulness instruction can trigger sensitive religious concerns. Wise teachers and leaders learn to anticipate how even avowedly secular practices might threaten some faith traditions—or privilege others. In addition, deeper exercises—extended meditations, body scans, or movement practices—often bring up difficult emotions or memories. Any teacher who hasn’t explored his or her own inner landscape will have little to offer a student or colleague facing the challenge of theirs. Again, healthy humility, steady patience and a commitment to one’s own daily mindfulness practice all make good sense here.

[1] You know things are going well when your students remind you that you forgot the opening minute.

[2] Lord knows, I’ve often asked for guidance or good words before a challenging class!

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Improv Wisdom Musings, Vol. 2: Make Emotional Noises

This post marks the second in a series of three-person explorations into the life wisdom found through improvisational theatre. 
 
Three experienced teachers–Patricia Ryan Madson, founder of the Stanford Improvisors (SImps) and author of Improv Wisdom: Don’t Prepare, Just Show UpLisa Rowland, improvisor extraordinaire and San Francisco 2012 Actor of the Year; and Ted DesMaisons, learning consultant and curator of this blog–have agreed to riff on a few improv maxims, sharing and building on each other’s thoughts to explore each principle in more detail.  Rowland and DesMaisons both studied with Madson and continue her work through their “Improv Wisdom for a Meaningful Life” retreats–including one coming up later this month.
 
We agreed that each individual contribution would hold loosely to a three paragraph limit.  Each essay would then get passed to another teacher for comment or development until all three had offered a reflection.   Here’s hoping you enjoy!    

Make Emotional Noises

Open emotion like this changes things. Photo courtesy of Flickr.

Open emotion like this changes things.
Photo courtesy of Flickr.

Ted DesMaisons: 

We spend so much of our lives knotting up our emotions rather than letting them flow. We’re afraid—heck, I’m afraid—to be seen, really seen, by those around us. Why so, I’m not sure. Maybe it would mean we’re more vulnerable to emotional injury because others have sensitive information about us. Maybe it’s because we’d have to admit we’re permeable beings, affected by the world and other creatures—and we’d rather believe we’re self-sustaining individuals. We also block our feelings because we’re afraid of them ourselves. If I really open to this emotion, I might be consumed by it. Notice how much pain I feel for what’s happening to the planet? I’ll never get out of despair. Notice the depth of my gratitude for the love others show to me? I might explode in joy. We let others block our emotions and we block them ourselves.

Of course, as with most of the natural world, emotions are meant to flow through us. They come as visitors and just want our notice. Like in Rumi’s “The Guest House,” we can welcome them in—even though they may be dangerous—and we can invite their wisdom. Usually, once acknowledged, they’ll move on of their own accord. New ones will surely fill in the gap behind them. Reevaluation Counseling taught me this lesson beautifully: emotions might bring tears which can get messy, but it’s all good. The wet and snot carry toxins out of the body and allow for powerful healing. If we stifle the sob and sniffle the gunk back in—if we work to contain the emotion—we keep the toxins within us, more poison for another day.

The improv principle “Make emotional noises” serves as a wonderful antidote for such stern control. As in so many other improvisational ways of being, we’re asked to come back to a natural embodiment. So many beginner scenes get locked in talking heads: words, words, words. While that can seem entertaining for an audience if the improvisors have enough verbal dexterity, it ultimately proves unsatisfying, like empty white flour carbs in a meal. Emotions on stage, especially ones sounded without words, immediately offer a different kind of sustenance. The players drop into an authenticity that resonates throughout the theater. As improvisors, we not only let ourselves make emotional noises as they might emerge on their own, but we also learn to invite those sounds as a way of accessing that humanity. The feelings rise and fall. The healing’s wise for all.

 

Great vocalists invite emotion into every sound they make.  Image courtesy of Wikipedia.

Great vocalists invite emotion into every sound they make.
Image courtesy of Wikipedia.

Lisa Rowland

Make Emotional Noises. What a great reminder.

I’m interested in backing up and then also skipping forward from Ted’s starting point with Making Emotional Noises.

The backing up part is about awareness. As a performer, I connect with this piece of advice as not only reminding me to let my emotions be known, but to simply have emotions in the first place! If my character is going to make an emotional noise, I better have some feelings about things! So often we approach the stage just with information. With naming things and people and places, with stating facts about our backgrounds, but it’s easy to forget that a full-bodied character will have feelings about the different people in her story. Sometimes, improvisors get to have the feelings before they even know why they’re having them. I find myself saying to students “Have a big emotional reaction! Figure out why later!” or “Let us see you cry! You don’t need to know why you’re crying!” It’s exciting! Funnily enough, this is sometimes how I experience emotions in real life. An emotion overtakes me, and I need to take a moment and figure out just where it came from and what brought it on. How delightful it would be to see a character inexplicably emotional.

Sometimes joy cannot be contained in silence. And those feelings change relationships.  Photo courtesy of fotopedia.

Sometimes joy cannot be contained in silence. And those feelings change relationships.
Photo courtesy of fotopedia.

The other important part of having emotions, from my perspective, is what it does, not just to a character, but to a relationship. A scene will go from a collection of things happening to a story when characters start being affected by one another. And that is what an audience comes to see. Bringing that into daily life, I’m reminded of the power of the sometimes clichéd “I” statements. “I feel sad.” “I feel lonely.” Simply stating how an action or situation makes you FEEL can be very powerful. In some ways, I think our world has discounted emotions as unproductive or invaluable. They don’t accomplish anything. They’re not to be weighted too heavily. Or, we find safety in being just fine all the time, so we don’t let our emotions out. But they still drive so much of how we move through life! We go toward good feelings, we go away from negative ones. In relationships, reminding each other of how we feel is sometimes all it takes to create a positive change. Make emotional noises. Feel things, let them out, and make them known to the people around you.

Patricia Ryan Madson:  

What a useful topic!   I remember the first time I heard Keith give this instruction and the result. A lifeless scene became intensely interesting. Emotional sounds are sweet and powerful and playful. And, you don’t have to know what they mean. The sound itself creates the feeling. Like “jump and justify.”

So what is an emotional noise? Try some right now: Sigh. Sigh deeply. Sigh sadly. Sigh happily, sigh in frustration. Take the sigh into a laugh.   Using the breath . . .let some sound go up into your nasal chamber. Now play with the breath alone. See how many kinds of sounds/expressions happen when you invite your nonverbal sounding mechanism to simply play. Our breath tells so much. I can always know when my husband Ron is tense and then relaxes. He lets out an enormous sighing breath, while putting his feet up. You can feel his relief. There are all kinds of amazing feelings that manifest when we allow our closed lips the “mmmmmmmmmm” sound. Try it.

Try it out! Choose an emotion, make a noise.

Try it out! Choose an emotion, make a noise.

Or start with the emotion . . . try on grief, for example. Think of a very sad circumstance and don’t verbalize, but simply vocalize what grief might sound like. The sounds of grief will likely lead to tears. Emotional sounds often end in laughing and crying. How wonderful. How rich. An excellent reminder, Ted and Lisa. It’s healthy for improvisers and for ordinary life. Make emotional noises. I just thought of a great game. It’s the emotional noises “open a letter” game.   Open a letter and read it silently . . . but react by making emotional noises. Experiment! Woo hoo! I love making emotional sounds.

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Improv Wisdom Musings, Vol. 1: Let Yourself Be Changed

This post marks the first in a series of three-person explorations into the life wisdom found through improvisational theatre.  Three experienced teachers–Patricia Ryan Madson, founder of the Stanford Improvisors (SImps) and author of Improv Wisdom: Don’t Prepare, Just Show UpLisa Rowland, improvisor extraordinaire and San Francisco 2012 Actor of the Year; and Ted DesMaisons, learning consultant and curator of this blog–have agreed to riff on a few improv maxims, sharing and building on each other’s thoughts to explore each principle in more detail.  Rowland and DesMaisons both studied with Madson and continue her work through their “Improv Wisdom for a Meaningful Life” retreats–including one coming up this August.
 
We agreed that each individual contribution would hold loosely to a three paragraph limit.  Each essay would then get passed to another teacher for comment or development until all three had offered a reflection.   The same maxim may eventually elicit more than one round.  Here’s our first . . .   

Let Yourself Be Changed

Lisa Rowland: We, as a civilization, seem to have developed an identity trajectory that moves us from a place of openness and malleability to a “grown-up” and “mature” station where we hang on tightly to what we’ve got and avoid situations that might threaten all that we’ve achieved.  As children, the whole world changes us.  It’s new and wonderful and we are encouraged to try new things and learn all the way up through college.  But once we’re out on our own, the message seems to change.  Figure out what you’re going to do and do it. Once we’re settled in that place, there’s so much of our identity wrapped up in having arrived there that it’s terrifying to consider changing it! A mix of external messaging that tells us we’ve gotten what we came for and internal fear that we might lose what we have if we open ourselves up to change keeps us right where we are.

We can get frozen in our identities, unable to flow with the larger tides that guide us.  Image courtesy of Wikipedia.

As adults, we often get frozen in our identities, unable to flow with the larger tides that guide us.
Image courtesy of Wikipedia.

Improvisors, on the other hand, study the art of being changed.  A wise teacher told me once that rather than looking for ways to change my partner, I ought to enter a scene looking for opportunities to change.  Stories revolve around characters affecting one another; around people being thrown off balance and coming to rest in a different place than they started.  That’s how we know a story has been told.  Something’s different.  Someone’s been changed.  On an improv stage, we welcome in that momentary imbalance necessitated in change in order to see what happens next.  This might mean going along with someone’s idea, showing our vulnerability,  giving up our status, or asking for help.

If more people approached life with an aim to look for what might change them, there’d be no limit to the depths of happiness that people might experience.  They’d take that class they’d always been interested in, without the paralyzing fear of failure.  They’d accept others’ ideas, and creative collaborations would flow like water!  They’d listen deeply, empathize generously, and approach life with curiosity rather than suspicion.  They’d welcome in uncertainty with the understanding that if they’re to discover anything new, they’ll inevitably travel through a zone of unfamiliarity.  Hang in there!  Let it change you.  Find a new part of yourself, and allow yourself to be redefined, if that’s where the change takes you.

Patricia Ryan MadsonChanging or being changed . . . hmmmm.  There is a world of difference between these two.  In real life I notice what it is I want to change in myself and sometimes activate that choice.  Most self-help books give us keys to this process. For example I need to get a handle on how I waste time in distractions on my IPhone.  There’s a change I need to make.  Perhaps I put a time window on when I’m allowed to have open the phone, other than when it rings.  But the improv concept that we are studying here is about something fundamentally different.  At the heart the issue is control . . . whose control.  While I may be willing and even ready to change on my own most of us don’t like someone else making that decision for us.  I would balk at having my husband hold my IPhone hostage in an attempt to change that habit for me.

Even a hardened villain can change--and we love that story. Image courtesy of Wikipedia.

Even a hardened villain can change–and we love that story.
Image courtesy of Wikipedia.

So improv gives us opportunities to try on this way of working.  Perhaps I’m playing a character who is a bullheaded kind of woman.  She’s a CEO of a big corporation and is used to having things her way.  In the course of the scene she meets a little boy who has been damaged by the product she manufactures.  As she comes to know his story her veneer of arrogance melts and she offers to adopt the boy.  We love seeing a “badass” turn soft and kind.

It’s easy to hang on to whatever you are doing/thinking.  It takes little effort to stay right where you are.  Change requires openness and action.  Change brings adventure and surprises and new levels of living.  And, improv allows us to experience what it feels like to be influenced and moved by others.

Ted DesMaisons:  You both have reminded me how—again—improv teachings parallel those of Buddhism. Within that tradition, the Buddha taught, we generate so much of our suffering by resisting inevitable transition—or, at the other end of the spectrum, by trying to force it. Change represents one of the “seals” that holds life together. Fighting it means fighting reality. When we make peace with that truth, even embrace it, our mood relaxes and we exhale into noticing the beauty of the present moment.

Improv creates that learning lab where we can experience and enjoy the cauldron of change with little to no risk. When the “badass” opens her heart, the other players and the audience melt along with her. When the lowly servant finds a different dignity in the face of his overlord’s abuse, the whole house celebrates the status reversal. We embrace the change and come to see that it has results. As you mentioned, Lisa, the choice to let ourselves be affected makes a better story.

So what it is that makes us cling to the familiar, whether in life or on stage? Part of it, like you suggest, Patricia, is that change asks us to do something, to take responsibility for helping create a new world. We have to take more responsibility for the outcome of our story or our circumstance. Of course, we might also fail in the new effort. We might look clumsy or stupid. People might judge us or reject us. And then, we fear, we’ll be left alone.

Every caterpillar takes a faithful leap before becoming a butterfly. Image courtesy of Flickr Sharing.

Every caterpillar takes a faithful leap before becoming a butterfly.
Image courtesy of Flickr Sharing.

Ultimately, this question of letting ourselves be changed becomes a question of faith. Do we trust an unfolding scene—or life itself—to take care of us in the end? Do we trust ourselves to marshal the internal resources to grow into the change? Can we allow our stagemates and partners in crime to support us through whatever transitions happen? A caterpillar wraps itself in a cocoon that spells a certain kind of death, or at least a passing. But it’s that exact willingness that allows the butterfly to emerge. Letting ourselves be changed embraces that same, compelling life force. We dive into that dying, of sorts, and come out renewed.

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Walking at Omega, 2014

Image courtesy of MisterGuy11.

“Fireflies” Image courtesy of MisterGuy11.

Simple summer moments can prove so sweet.

I just recently returned from a wonderful retreat at the Omega Institute with Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) luminaries Jon Kabat-Zinn and Saki Santorelli. We spent most of our time in the first few days engaged in mindfulness practice, cycling through sitting, walking, lying down and yoga meditations. Six AM to 9 PM, almost non-stop makes an endurance challenge, for sure, but it also brings a steadier mind and more open awareness. On one of our extended walking meditations, with 100 or so of us spread across one of Omega’s great lawns as the day’s light faded, the heart of the following poem came to me.

Here’s hoping the moment speaks to you as well.

.   .   .   .   .

Walking at Omega, 2014

We move over this open field like
early evening fireflies,
flickering lamps of awareness
in measured motion,
dancing with
the oncoming dark.

Each floats and pauses
under her own power;
Each honors his own track.
Still, we sense each other
in the soft periphery,
conjoined in pulsing multitude.

Surely, we are not alone.

Like any lights,
we, too, will someday extinguish,
falling into
that great darkness
which births
and swallows
all things.

For now, though
—in this moment—
let our hearts rest
in quiet reassurance,
this field of quiet fires
ever available
for those
who choose to see.

Moving alone, yet together. Image courtesy of the Center for Mindfulness at the UMass Medical Center.

Moving alone, yet together. Image courtesy of the Center for Mindfulness at the UMass Medical Center.

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9 Reasons Why Every Conference Needs More Introverted Experiences

Two years ago, I attended the Applied Improvisation Network (AIN) world conference in San Francisco. I had a blast: great games, provocative insights, big ideas, and loads of interaction with amazing yes-sayers from around the world. I also had trouble catching my breath. The conference designers that year had packed each day full with amazing workshop after amazing workshop, with little time for integration or even travel from space to space. Most sessions were loud with laughter too. Those of you who also count yourself among the introvert tribe won’t be surprised that all that heady excitement came with an exhaustion price tag. As I’m ramping up to head to this year’s AIN conference in Austin, Texas this November, I’m hoping the session planners will make more space for introverts by including more silence, more breaks, more opportunities for self-reflection and longer transition times.

Here are nine reasons why.

1)    Participants get the chance for greater processing and integration of what they learn. As my partner Melissa’s yoga mentor, Patty Townsend, asserts: all learning, growth and evolution happens in cycles of work and rest. The mug of learning can only take so much tea before new information spills over the edges. Continuous inhalation only makes us dizzy. Real meaning and real learning comes when we enjoy the tea before adding more. Real integration happens when we allow an exhale as well. And, importantly, this is true for introverts and extroverts alike.

Cup_of_green_tea_and_tea_pot_on_table

Will you enjoy the cup of tea before pouring more into the mug? Image courtesy of wikimedia.org.

2)    More reflection allows for greater depth. When we skim straight from one full-throttle experience to another, we rarely get the chance to dig in. In order to keep up, we have to stay in motion. With all that action, the muddied waters never settle to clarity. If we stay still for a bit, however, we eventually see further into the bottom of our explorations, finding new, different—and often more creative—insights than we found on the surface.

3)    Multiple learning modes activate different parts of the brain. If teachers only engage students through the written word, for example, they let all sorts of intelligence lie dormant or, worse, atrophy. In contrast, when group leaders offer the opportunity to “study” through movement and music or through silence and contemplation, they open the door for a much wider range of potential neural pathways. We get more versatile in our thinking, more flexible in our creativity. We need more than extroverted experiences for the same reason.

4)    Introverts will feel more welcome. For an introvert, having to “work” a crowd in a loud room can feel like having to scratch a blackboard while getting a vaccination shot. Make that a crowd of mostly exuberant and charming improvisors and the process only gets more intimidating. Building in quiet time or opportunities for introspection tells those introverts “We value you too. We’re glad you’re here as well.” And that welcome builds more courage for fuller participation.

5)    You draw out insightful voices you might otherwise miss out on. Introverts and shy folks (two overlapping, but not identical sets) make as many great connections as do those who speak more freely and forcefully. Without a conscious effort to make space for—or to invite—those voices, however, other conference participants never hear that deeper wisdom. The introverts may scribble journal notes for future consideration or have select conversations over a quiet dinner, but most session-goers never get access to those valuable musings.

Susan Cain, author of Quiet:The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking , articulates why it makes sense to encourage participation from introverts.

 

6)    You lose out on selling opportunities. Many decision-makers in all sorts of organizations are introverts. Like any other professional group selling their services, applied improvisors need to make connections with such decision-makers in order to earn business. Giving those extroversion-tending consultants and trainers greater fluency in the quieter tones introvert-sensitive language will help them earn more business.

7)    You help international folks draw more from their conference experience. If you’ve travelled to a country where you’re new to the language, you know how exhausting that can be. You also know just how much of a difference it makes when the natives speak…slowly. Here’s where periods of silence again can make  a big difference. Whether it’s a more spacious 10 minutes between conference sessions to integrate what just happened or a brief pause at the end of a sentence to catch up with one’s internal translator, little gaps help the internationals take in all that’s going down as well.

8)    Greater spaciousness allows for more open hearts. If you want to spot the beauty of a rare bird or the grace of a wild animal, you can’t go crashing through the woods. The same is true for the tenderness of our more authentic—and more vulnerable—selves. Sometimes the soul shows up through animated play or vibrant music. Other times, it needs wider stretches of patient silence. Connecting with our deepest selves and with the same in others makes for truly memorable learning experiences. When we really know and are known, we grow.

Sometimes, one only makes contact with the power and beauty of wild insights by waiting more quietly.

Sometimes, one only makes contact with the power and beauty of wild insights by waiting more quietly. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

9)    What comes last matters just as much as what comes first. At a well-paced conference, I have as much attention to offer the final session as I did the first. In fact, each experience builds on the previous ones to a triumphant whole. At a more breathless conference, in contrast, I find myself glazing over or checking out during late-afternoon gatherings. My mind stumbles and lurches, zombie-like, to what I’ll have for dinner or to the oddly-soothing drone of my e-mail box—really, to anything other than the new information I’m trying to take in. I always feel badly for those late-session presenters, knowing that everyone needs a break. Thankfully, when I am that presenter, I can draw on a few reliable tools that restore some psychic balance before trying to pass along any additional lesson.

Don’t get me wrong: a rich buffet of delicious offerings can make any conference a delight. When you’ve only got a few hours or a few days with all these great people, you want to squeeze what you can out of each opportunity. That said, there’s a wisdom in finding a balance. Draw on the energy of the extroverts and ask for the depth of the introverts. That’s when the conference becomes most unforgettable. That’s where you get true transformation.

This summer’s Improv Wisdom for a Meaningful Life workshop that I’ll lead in northern California with my dear friend and colleague Lisa Rowland will make ample space for introverts and extroverts alike. Click on the link at the beginning of this paragraph or see the previous post for more information. We’d love to have you join the fun!

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This year’s Improv Wisdom workshop!!

IMPROV WISDOM for a MEANINGFUL LIFE

A Playful Path to Courage, Creativity, and Connection 

Black Mountain Retreat Center, Cazadero, CA * Fri-Mon, Aug 22nd-25th, 2014

Enrollment limited to approx. 14 participants

Black Mountain  In the long history of humankind (and animal kind) those who learned to collaborate and improvise most effectively have prevailed.   –Charles Darwin

Growing numbers know that improvisation offers far more than comedy. Improv cultivates a different presence, the kind that forges courage, fosters connection, and frees creativity.  In short: improv enriches the human experience. Creating in the moment, artists and athletes build resilience in the face of setbacks. Business leaders learn to innovate with nimble acuity. Educators find powerful paths for true development. And seekers of all sorts discover previously hidden layers of insight. This active and contemplative workshop explores such wisdom from the inside out. Together, we’ll create a safe, playful, and experiential learning lab that sharpens self-awareness and revitalizes relationship with the wider world. More specifically, we’ll help you:

  • Find and express greater spontaneity
  • Transform your approach to failure
  • Increase your sensory acuity and in-the-moment awareness
  • Trust your creative leanings
  • Improve your communication: better listening, clearer speaking, deeper understanding
  • Reach new levels of generosity
  • Collaborate with greater ease
  • Get resourceful in the face of chaos
  • Tell better stories

Steeping myself in these principles for peaceful, playful living has been a true gift. Thank you.                                                                      –Kathy R. Ted and Lisa are awesome teachers! Patient, kind, and fun; they brought out a sparkle in all of us.                                                                      –Jen C. This workshop was everything I hoped for and much more. You created a safe environment for us to play and did so many things to foster our creativity.                                                                                                                  –Eric H.

Prerequisites This workshop is designed for those with little or no prior experience with improvisational theater. Those with more substantial improv chops who are just beginning to tap its deeper levels may also find the workshop fruitful. No particular religious or spiritual path is required, but those with an inquiring heart and open mind will gain the most from and contribute the most to the experience. About the Instructors Ted picture for webSince completing his graduate work at Stanford (MBA) and Harvard (Masters of Theology), Ted DesMaisons has taught religious studies and philosophy at Northfield Mount Hermon school in western Massachusetts. He has studied improvisation with Patricia Ryan Madson, Bay Area Theater Sports (BATS) and Loose Moose, and has trained extensively with the Center for Courage and Renewal. Combining humor with gravitas and intention with inspiration, Ted helps create safe spaces for exploring what really matters. He writes regularly about improv, contemplation, and positive reinforcement on his TED WORDS blog (www.tedwordsblog.com). lisashot10One of the most recognizable and most beloved teachers of improvisation in the world, Lisa Rowland has performed, coached, and conducted corporate trainings with San Francisco’s BATS mainstage company for more than seven years. Students from Palo Alto and the Presidio to Amsterdam and Arabia rave about the way she combines power and generosity in the service of their learning. A graduate of Stanford University and an uncannily astute observer of what’s needed next, Lisa was recently named the 2012 San Francisco Actor of the Year. Location and Accommodations

Black Mountain Retreat Center from the air.

Black Mountain Retreat Center from the air.

This retreat takes place at the Black Mountain Retreat Center in the glorious redwoods of Sonoma County, two hours north of San Francisco or Berkeley.  The Center’s rolling coastal hills and meditative spaces will make an idyllic setting for our time together.  The Sonoma Coast waits just a half hour away.  We will share three delicious vegetarian meals each day and guests will stay two to a room in simple, clean accommodations.  For more information about the setting, please visit the Center’s web site: http://www.blackmountaincenter.com.

Accommodations at the Tara House.

Accommodations at the Tara House.

Cost $700 per person. Includes all program fees, three nights lodging, and three meals per day. Full payment due upon registration, though other arrangements can be negotiated as needed. Payment refundable (minus $25 processing charge) if the workshop is full and you or we are able to find a replacement.  $50 discount for any referral who attends the workshop.

Registration/Contact Us If you would like to register, please fill out this form online (Click on the words “this form” to go to the form). If you have any questions about the workshop, please contact either facilitator. We’d be delighted to talk with you!

Ted DesMaisons: teddyd@stanfordalumni.org           Lisa Rowland: lcrowland@gmail.com

The Sonoma Coast, 30 minutes from the retreat center.

The Sonoma Coast ,30 minutes from the retreat center.

Who am I here in this moment?       What choice is needed now?

How can I help those around me?

How does this story connect me to something larger or deeper?

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A Visionary Victory for Pete Carroll and the Seattle Seahawks: How a New Way of Thinking Bonded a Team and Brought Home a Championship

Coach Pete Carroll brought a new approach to the Super Bowl champion Seattle Seahawks.  Photo courtesy of Wikipedia.

Coach Pete Carroll brought a new approach to the Super Bowl champion Seattle Seahawks.
Photo courtesy of Wikipedia.

Pete Carroll had heard it for years and right up until Super Bowl game time. The ridicule. The doubt. The derision. Pete Carroll’s too much of a  players’ coach. That rah-rah style might work at USC, but it won’t work with grown men in the pros. Seattle’s too lax to win a championship. Now, after having shellacked the Denver Broncos’ supposedly juggernaut offense in Super Bowl XLVIII, Carroll and his Seahawks have sent those critics scurrying into the shadows. Turns out his careful approach to coaching—a potent blend of growth mindset, mindfulness techniques, and positive reinforcement—actually does gain traction on the field. Turns out you don’t have to scowl first to laugh last.

Back at the beginning of the season, Carroll detailed for ESPN the Magazine how he had chosen a different path. He knew that many thought him a pushover and that his detractors could point to a questionable track record. He’d been fired by the Jets in 1994. The Patriots had dismissed him after three seasons of seeming overmatched. And, though he’d had success at USC where he won two national championships, he left there under a cloudstorm of controversy too. Still, in the face of that criticism, he stayed strong and built a program that matched his mode.  In a world of aggressive hits and hard-ass reprimand, he opted for systematic kindness: “I wanted to find out if we went to the NFL and really took care of guys, really cared about each and every individual, what would happen?”[1]

Growth Mindset

That generous slant shows up for the Seahawks in several ways, including Carroll’s commitment to a growth mindset. He focuses squarely on improvement rather than on native talent, exhorting his players, coaches, and staff to “Do your job better than it has ever been done before.”[2] He and his GM John Schneider cleared out employees who planted their feet in a fixed mindset mud and instead brought in guys willing to grow. That included Russell Wilson, the 5’11” quarterback who’d heard a few nay-sayers of his own and now-All-Pro cornerback Richard Sherman who had come into the league as a lightly-regarded 5th-round pick. It also included Tom Cable, an assistant head coach earlier known for his testy demeanor who now feels he’s found a better way to work with players:

If I go ballistic on a guy because he dropped his outside hand or missed an underneath stunt, who is wrong? I am. I’m attacking his self-confidence and he’s learning that if he screws up, he’s going to get yelled at. If you make a mistake here, it’s going to get fixed.[3]

For everyone throughout the organization, the approach stays the same. Set goals. Reach goals. Learn from mistakes.

The principle even applies for significant errors in judgment. When second-year defensive stopper Bruce Irvin received a four-game suspension for a positive test for banned substances last May, Carroll coached Irvin to take responsibility for his actions and apologize to his teammates and to the league. “The fact that that happened to Bruce is a gift for the next guy,” Carroll reported. “He made a poor choice and got hammered by it so the next guy won’t have to go through with that.”[4]

When Sherman ignited a firestorm with an on-air rant following the NFC Championship, he found his coach taking a similar approach:

I haven’t exactly earned straight A’s in the [avoiding controversy] department lately, but [Coach Carroll] sees it as a learning experience, just like the games. He finds the positives when we lose, in addition to the things we can improve on.[5]

Mindfulness

Early on in his tenure with the Seahawks, Carroll got his athletes practicing yoga as a way to build flexibility and core strength. He also knew it would help them develop focus and concentration. What started as an experimental program became a mandated requirement, with players like Wilson leading the charge for even more mental preparation: “We talk about being in the moment and increasing chaos throughout practice, so when I go into the game, everything is relaxed.”[6]

Quarterback Russell Wilson touts the benefits of mindfulness practice.  Photo courtesy of Wikipedia.

Quarterback Russell Wilson touts the benefits of mindfulness practice.
Photo courtesy of Wikipedia.

The Seahawks now have a full-time sports psychologist on staff and a more thorough investment in mindfulness that’s taken root across the squad. Offensive tackle Russell Okung has also jumped fully on board:

Meditation is as important as lifting weights and being out here on the field for practice. It’s about quieting your mind and getting into certain states where everything outside of you doesn’t matter in that moment. There are so many things telling you that you can’t do something, but you take those thoughts captive, take power over them and change them.[7]

The mindfulness helps the athletes let go of regrets from the past and anxieties for the future so they can stay fully focused on the intense demands of the present.

Positive Reinforcement

Carroll and his coaches amplify the team’s growth mindset and commitment to mental preparation by employing the foundational principle of positive reinforcement: reward movement toward the behavior you want and ignore the rest. That means more than offering empty praise. It means giving timely feedback to focus players on doing the right thing now rather than having done the wrong thing in the past. “We don’t feel like we benefit from [harping on errors],” Carroll says. “We want to tell them the best thing we can tell them as quickly as we can. It isn’t necessary to scream at them or yell at them. There are other ways to do it.”[8]

"Here's what you're doing right, Russell."

“Here’s what you’re doing right, Russell.”
Photo: http-//cbssports.com/images/blogs/carroll-wilson-happy.jpg.png

Though the league sees Carroll as a “players’ coach”—and his team members sing his praises—he’s no undisciplined pushover. There’s a backbone of intention behind the positivity. Linebacker and team captain Heath Farwell makes the argument: “[Coach] Carroll is respected by his players because of his clear teaching methods and his positive-reinforcement approach.”[9] ESPN NFL Analyst Eric Allen echoes the point: “Players’ coaches give you tools that you can use to be successful—so that no matter where you are, you’re able to understand the game—you grow as a player—you grow as a person. They prepare you and give you an opportunity to be a better player and then hold you accountable.”[10]

Multiple Fibers, Strong Rope

Pete Carroll’s not the first coach to preach the benefits of positivity, but he is the first to succeed on such a grand scale. And that success derives directly from his belief in his multi-strand vision. “[Carroll isn’t] coaching in the Super Bowl because he’s a nice guy,” wrote Sherman. “He’s here because he’s pulling off the most unique philosophy in football…Even when he finished 7-9 two seasons in a row in 2010 and 2011, coach Carroll stayed true to himself and the things he believed in, because it was finally his chance to do things his way.”[11]

Nice guys get trophies too. Photo courtesy of Wikipedia.

Nice guys get trophies too.
Photo courtesy of Wikipedia.

Start with the life-changing shift to a growth mindset and clear out the deadbeats. Develop the discipline of mindfulness meditation. And teach with the targeted technique of positive reinforcement. Braid those fibers into a single rope and you’ve got the strength to reach the highest summits, no matter how loud the nay-sayers grow. Quarterback Wilson wisely acknowledges that “Other teams aren’t like this. We do stuff different here.”[12] For this year’s Super Bowl champion Seattle Seahawks, that difference—Pete Carroll’s systematic commitment to positivity and kindness—made all the difference.

Congratulations, Coach, and thanks for the inspiration.

 

Thanks to the following articles for their insights and quotations:

A Love Letter to Coach Carroll” by Richard Sherman

Lotus Pose on Two,” by Alyssa Roenigk, ESPN The Magazine

Pete Carroll voted most popular,” by Terry Blount, ESPN.com

Pete Carroll’s Coaching Playbook: 5 Takeaways for Leaders and Managers” by Victoria Alzapiedi

Seattle Seahawks Changing Future of Football with Yoga and Meditation,” by YD


[1]Lotus Pose on Two,” by Alyssa Roenigk, ESPN The Magazine

[2] Roenigk, ESPN The Magazine

[3] Roenigk, ESPN The Magazine

[4] Roenigk, ESPN The Magazine

[5]A Love Letter to Coach Carroll” by Richard Sherman, for CNNSI.com

[6] Roenigk, ESPN The Magazine

[7] Roenigk, ESPN The Magazine

[8]Pete Carroll voted most popular,” by Terry Blount, ESPN.com

[9] Blount, ESPN.com

[11] Richard Sherman, for CNNSI.com

[12] Roenigk, ESPN The Magazine

Posted in + Reinforcement, coaching, Contemplation, Mindset | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Under Pressure (The Wisdom of Mistakes Follow-Up Interview)

Shortly after the previous post, The Wisdom of Mistakes, appeared in the Northfield Mount Hermon School alumni magazine, a trio of students in the Video as Visual Art class asked if they could interview me for further reflections. I gladly obliged and felt even more thankful after hearing the sophistication of their questions—them boys made me think. Of course, they’re living and learning in the pressure-cooker world of a private prep school, but I think their queries will resonate with others in many settings. Here’s a refined version of the conversation we had.

No buffer means even small stresses can put us over the edge. *     *     * Photo courtesy of freedigitalphotos.net

No buffer means even small stresses can put us over the edge.
* * *
Photo courtesy of freedigitalphotos.net

How do you feel pressure contributes to negative feelings of failure?

We have to ask what kind of pressure we’re talking about. Certain kinds become particularly poisonous to learning because they amplify negative feelings. In part, that can happen when we jam our schedules too tight. We pack in more and more demands—you guys know this well—and miss out on the open time and space needed for integration and consolidation. In the process, these ongoing high-adrenaline demands blow our buffers out. Then, when challenge comes, we lack any cushion. It’s like metal scraping metal or bone pushing into bone. In that mode, even a small failure can prove exceedingly painful, making it hard to learn from mistakes.

It can also get tough when pressure gets linked to judgment of the person involved—if you don’t reach this level, you’re a nobody. That’s especially deadly. You may not hear such threats exactly, but the same message can be coded into other language, both verbal and non-verbal. A roll of the eyes or a shrug of the shoulders that expresses disapproval: those, too, can cut deep and interrupt the learning flow.

This is where mindset matters so much. If you and your teachers have a fixed mindset—thinking that your abilities and talents are given at birth—then you spend your days trying to prove yourself. If you’ve got a growth mindset, you know your abilities continue to develop through your dedication and hard work. In that mode, the pressure—as long as it leaves that time and space for integration—becomes a force for advancement.

Note that  community makes a big difference too. If you’re trying to learn in a growth mindset but everyone around you lives and breathes in a fixed mindset haze, you’re going to have a hard time bucking that current. In contrast, the tide of a growth mindset lifts all boats.[1]

In the learning or advancing process, do you think we should relieve the pressure we put on young people? Or do you think pressure pushes people to succeed?

As we just mentioned, mindset matters. Young people with a fixed mindset might fold under minimal pressure. Those with a growth mindset might thrive under great stress.

Even without that model, though, we can acknowledge that pressure does push some people to change. One of my close friends became an outstanding athlete and winning coach because he so hates to lose. Any mistakes he make drive him to improve. And I know he’s not alone. We all depend on some stress in order to grow. The pearl needs the sand in the oyster. The sword needs the heat of a forge. At the same time, as we’ve also mentioned, too much pressure can collapse the house of cards. The trick is finding the right balance.

Every pearl needed some sand. *     *     * Photo courtesy of freedigitalphotos.net

Every pearl needed some sand.
* * *
Photo courtesy of freedigitalphotos.net

Your question reminds me of a story about the Buddha. He grows up in the lap of luxury, his lordly father sheltering him from any troubles. Ornate palaces, delicious foods, gorgeous attendants, and able-bodied friends: Siddhartha seemingly has it all. Later, after he escapes the palace confines and catches a glimpse of suffering, he retreats to a life of asceticism for seven years, surviving without pleasure or sustenance.

It’s only after having lived both those extremes that he overhears a passing musician on a boat instructing a student: If the string is too tight, it will snap. If it is too loose, it will not play. In that moment, Siddhartha realizes he’s been searching in the wrong places and commits to finding a Middle Way. He builds his body back to full strength and goes to sit under the Bodhi tree until he eventually reaches enlightenment. Too little pressure leaves us slack. Too much makes us snap.

Just the right tension keeps the string in tune. *     *     * Photo courtesy of freedigitalphotos.net

Just the right tension keeps the string in tune.
* * *
Photo courtesy of freedigitalphotos.net

Of course, the ideal tension is different for each learner and that’s what makes effective instruction so difficult. As a teacher, you have to pay super close attention to how your students respond—and to your own preferences and predilections as well. As a learner, you sometimes have to tune out or translate your teacher’s voice so you can honor what works best for you.

Personally, I still lean towards the premise of positive reinforcement. That model suggests that, yes, you can get short term behavioral adjustment through force or jacked-up pressure but that change motivated by the learner’s own curiosity ultimately becomes deeper, more joyful, and longer-lasting. When criticized, I might work hard to prove you wrong or earn your praise. I might well learn, but I’m also consuming valuable time and energy on an emotional component that muddies the lesson. If I can focus all my faculties—emotional and intellectual—on the task at hand, that’s a better platform for learning.

Is there a point where failure is no longer effective as a learning tool and one should accept a challenge as impossible?

Absolutely, there are times where it’s best to just move on. That might be in the big picture, as in, yep, this just ain’t gonna work out. (I’m remembering one crush, in particular, where I realized that absolutely nothing I did was ever going to gain her favor.) Or it might be in a given moment, where our frustration levels have peaked and we’re simply not capable of making progress. So we step aside, let the annoyance subside, and then come back at a later date. High level animal trainers know this well: back off, ask for a few well-developed behaviors you know will generate success, and wait for the next training session.

No information's getting through once the defenses get kicked up. *     *     * Photo courtesy of freedigitalphotos.net

No information’s getting through once the defenses get kicked up.
* * *
Photo courtesy of freedigitalphotos.net

Again, this is where the judgment of too much stress comes in. If I feel pressure as attack, I’m likely to get reactive and defensive. My amygdala—the part of the brain that signals fight, flight, freeze or faint—fires up and hijacks any higher-level learning. A simple “No!” can trigger that kind of reaction, whether it’s an outside voice or our own self-judgment. Too many “failures” in a row can lead to the same outcome. In that brain space, you can forget about abstract reasoning, skill development, or high-level synthesis. Information will not pass through and settle in. The soil’s simply not receptive to the seed.

When we can move out of reaction mode into a more fluid and flexible response mode, then we can begin to learn again. Then the pathways reopen. Again, teachers and students need to monitor that line for themselves. When do I get reactive? What triggers me into that space? How do I bring myself back out of that defensiveness? Not surprisingly, developing the skills of mindfulness can prove incredibly helpful here. You can learn to catch the reaction just as it’s happening and pause with a moment of awareness. What other options are available to me?

Can you talk about the distinction between accepting failure as a step on the road to success and being constructively motivated to erase that failure?

The more I’ve been learning about failure, the more I think we have to grow in our relationship to it. Most of us are conditioned—or have conditioned ourselves—into what my friend Matt Smith calls the “cringe mode” in response to failure. We tense up, close off, and launch into a litany of self-judgments. We think that reaction protects us from further injury: if I communicate that I’m upset with my mistake, maybe you’ll back off from piling on. But it also shuts us down.

So maybe the first phase is to learn to take failure as motivation. My friend who’s the athlete and coach would applaud this step. Feel the frustration of that moment and use it as fuel. Work hard to make sure the mistake doesn’t happen again.

The master of the prototype: failure on the way to success. *     *     * Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

The master of the prototype: failure on the way to success.
* * *
Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

A second phase would be to view the error as one step on the road to success. It’s not just a foil, it’s a source of information. This echoes the growth mindset model, gathering more and more information from each iteration. Like Thomas Edison going through trial and error on his way to breakthrough innovation, we test our prototype behaviors, knowing we’ll fail along the way. Heck, we need to fail along the way. That’s how we learn.

A third phase makes even more space, admitting that we might be labeling our “failures” too soon. Maybe the mistake opens a door or leads to a path that had previously remained invisible. My grandmother used to say “Everything happens for a reason.” I don’t know if I believe that, but I do know that I can choose to use whatever happens, good or bad, for my betterment. In retrospect, it will look like that failure happened for a reason—and we won’t be able to imagine our lives without that so-called mistake.

Good improvisors live in a fourth phase that I find the most compelling, embracing failures as gifts. Audiences love to watch improv actors walk the crazy edge of failure—who knows where this scene is headed? The most delightful moments come not when a scene unfolds in perfect fashion, as if rehearsed, but rather when someone stumbles and then recovers with artful joy. Usually, that happens with the help of stagemates as well. The merry band justifies the failure, using it as exactly what needed to happen. The skillful response turns the mistake into a jewel. Admittedly, that’s a rarefied place to get to, truly welcoming failure for the gift it represents. It’s a radical level of self- (and other-) acceptance that may seem impossible. But there’s no reason we can’t aim for it.


[1]This is one of the great benefits of The Failure Bow. In that theater exercise, we step to the front of a stage, admit a mistake out loud and proudly declare I took a risk! I failed! I’m still here! WOO HOO! Rather than flinch, the “audience”—our team—roars in approval. In that moment, the improvisor gets to experience viscerally a more healing approach to failure. Yes, the community says. We saw the misstep. AND, we celebrate your effort, your transparency, and the courage it takes to get back on your horse for the risk of another creative response. How would hearing that kind of response to failure open up new channels of innovation and learning?

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