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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.