Life is Improv

Over the past several months I’ve been trying to get out of the house more, and be more involved in the community. The college I live near, Kansas State University, has an improv club that hosts weekly shows during the semester, and I’ve been attending those. Last week the improv club held a workshop for the community, and I went, hoping to learn the mechanics of improv.

By pure chance another person in the community held a workshop of their own in the library, and I went to that as well.

Improv is fun. Each game, each scene, you become a different person in a random setting and you don’t know what’s going to happen until it does. I love doing things that let me be creative, and improv is all about creativity. It literally keeps me on my feet.

In addition to learning some of the big rules of improv (establishing the relationship between characters quickly and the rule of “yes and”), I also realized that it’s perfectly acceptable to just go with the flow and say whatever comes off the top of your head. And this is a lesson worth applying to all of life.

I don’t really like when things are unpredictable. In my ideal world everything is well-defined, structured, scheduled, and operating smoothly like an oiled machine. This may partially explain why I fit so well in the world of software development: computers (generally) act predictably. You write some code to do a certain thing, and the computer does exactly that, unless some setting counteracts that. And such settings are uncommon. I’m comfortable in the word of orderly things.

But despite my attempts to apply order to the real world, I find that quite often, it just doesn’t exist. As soon as you step outdoors, a thousand variables make it impossible to know with any certainty that your plans will go as expected. More often than not there’s a hiccup along the way, and you end up just sort of making things up as you go along. This is when you have to improvise – think fast on your feet, go with the flow, and trust yourself.

That last one – trust yourself – is one I always falter on. Readers who know my Christian beliefs might find this statement weird, but I’m not really one for taking things on faith. I prefer assurance that if I do something, the outcome will be a certain way. I work best with that predictability because it lets me plan and strategize how I spend my time and energy.

Improv forces me to trust myself. Trust that I’m not going to say something incredibly embarrassing, or offensive, or just so strange people shake their heads and walk away. The improv workshops I’ve gone to have been a safe space for me to act out this development of self-trust. And it shown me that even if I say something completely out of the blue, it’s fine, we’ll just roll with it. I remember a scene where suddenly I was training for a pogo stick jousting tournament (what?) and my scene partner went on with it as though it’d been a thing for thousands of years. Then as soon as the scene was over, there was a brief review of how we performed, then it was gone from memory forever. Until I wrote about it just now.

I often struggle with the spotlight effect, which is the belief that everyone has their eyes on me and, boy, I better not screw this up. I feel like my actions will be seen by others and I will be judged harshly if I stand out too much. But that’s not reality. The reality is, everyone is so busy with their own problems, that the actions of some random dude on the street simply don’t matter. If I say something goofy, there may be a few laughs but those in earshot will quickly return to their own to-do lists. So I have plenty of room to fail and screw up, because nobody’s going to remember my failures a day from now, much less a week. And if they do remember, they’ll care so little it’ll never amount to anything meaningful.

So lately I’ve been telling myself, “Just roll with it.” Something doesn’t go as expected? No point in freaking out or stalling. Just take the situation for what it is, and find the way to meet your goal. This is the right combination for me: clear goals, and a quick enough mind to get there when things go sideways. In jazz, the performer may improvise parts of a song, but there’s an underlying structure they follow. Life is like that, too. Making it up as you go along, but still having a goal to reach.