Fast-thinking. Creativity. Bravery… and Improv.
Guest Blog by Oliver Shawyer
I recently returned from holidays, and in doing so, set myself an aggressive task of getting out and about to try new things. Things that both confronted me and reminded me of how much there is on offer when you actually put yourself out there. There’s nothing like a holiday for some perspective, and in having some time to reflect, I’d realized that in all the hustle and bustle of life, I’d fallen into a pretty mundane routine — wake, gym if I can get up, pick up coffee, 10 hours in the office, home for some dinner in front of the TV, pretend to read for a few minutes, sleep. I realized that that same ‘repeat’ model is a trap so many before me have fallen into, and so many of us continue to fall into. It however, only really seems to present itself so profoundly when it’s too late for us to do anything about it.
So last week, with thanks to one of my colleagues, I was introduced to the idea of Improv. On Thursday night I went along to the theatre to support him in his performance. To paint the picture, with a few dozen other spectators, I was watching a group of ‘amateurs’ who had committed themselves to an 8 week course, perform for a ‘gold-coin-donating’ audience. At the end of the night, all audience members had the opportunity to get up on stage for 10 minutes and have a go. I ‘ummmmed’ and ‘ahhhhhed’ it and only with a push from the person next to me did I actually get involved. I actually didn’t stop shaking the entire time I was up there. It sounds pretty simple but it proved to be one of the more rewarding nights of my recent life, both personally and professionally.
And it’s because of this I want to cover what I took from the whole experience. I feel it, Improv, has incredible learnings for life, so I figured I would share some of those with you, mostly around fast-thinking, but also touching on creativity and bravery.
For those of you that know me well, fast-thinking is an incredibly important personal area of fascination. Behavioral science and the fathers of it (such as Dan Kahneman) talk endlessly about our systems of thinking and decision making — i.e. System 1 (reactive, automatic) Vs System 2 (contemplative, deliberate), and it couldn’t be more exposed than in a session of Improv.
Over time, we all develop short-cuts to how we think and make decisions, and let’s be honest with ourselves, we don’t even realise we’re doing it. For instance, think of the first time you drove a manual car. You probably spent huge amounts of energy concentrating and thinking about which pedal to push, which slot was 2nd gear, when to release the handbrake. There was so much to consider. Whereas this morning, you probably don’t even remember driving to work. You more or less just left home and turned up at your desk and you would struggle to recall thinking about it at all.
In a nutshell (and relatively unscientifically), the entire experience has moved from your contemplative thinking system to your auto-pilot system, and the ability for our brains to do this is obviously incredible, but vital for our long term survival and our capacity to make all the decisions we do each day. We couldn’t possibly weigh up every decision we had to make consciously — we’d never get out the front door. But our ability to do so, on so many more every day experiences is also incredibly dangerous. Why? Because, by creating mental short-cuts that allow us to make decisions sub-consciously, we inevitably end up making huge and costly errors that we’re not even aware we’re doing.
Improv is all about re-engaging your reactive thinking processes (System 1) and learning strategies and tactics to retrain your initial, auto-pilot responses. Potentially bringing some flexibility and discipline back into it. If you approached every Improv performance via your default, automatic response, you’d have very limited scope and flexibility in your responses. You’d quickly run out of steam on stage… in front of all those people… in a situation that is already so confronting. Damn that’s scary.
Fast-thinking when taking in loads of information is vital to our survival, but we’ve got to become better at understanding when doing so may in fact be more damaging than good. We all could do with getting better at it.
We all want to be creative. In some form or another and whether we do or don’t work in a creative industry. There’s an element of escapism in being, or even trying to be creative. A sense of release in being in an environment that asks that of us, and even in some, demands that from us. As a long standing sufferer of depression, there’s is nothing more healing and calming than expressing creativity.
Improv is an incredible opportunity to both learn and build on your creativity — and a non-negotiable arena to do so. In line with our ability to think fast, we’re confronted with the need to stretch our imaginations and explore how far we can take them. Those that performed from the advanced classes were poster-childs in the ability to do so. The journey would launch off one word (nominated by a member of the audience), and the rest was history. Amongst themselves, they continued to take the story in directions you could never anticipate, but all at the same time, ensuring it made sense to the audience.
It was a wonderful spectacle of how creative we can all be when we just let go and relinquish all concern for judgement, expectation, ability. Pressures that have such a profound affect on both our happiness and behaviour, day in and day out. It reminds me of the many papers and discussion pieces I’ve come across in my time in advertising that specifically talk about how so much more creative kids are than we are as adults because they lack no fear and have no real consideration or care for what others think. It takes you to some incredible places and I think everyone of us would benefit from rediscovering our innocence.
Both in our personal and professional lives, there are many times we have to be incredibly brave. But it’s getting easier and easier to hide from the need to do so. Behind social media, behind emails, behind our senior colleagues, behind excuses. And in doing so, we’re losing that raw confidence and intent to get out there and confront the things that matter to us, that matter to the world. It gets easier to accept the things we don’t like, agree with, or need because we’re losing our edge to stand up and stand for what’s important to us, to our friends and families. Whilst it’s a huge, limitless theme, it was so clearly evident in those individuals standing on stage. They were all united by their bravery.
The confidence (not arrogance) of getting up in front of a crowd of strangers and delivering a story with no preconceived script, agenda or destination are the challenges we as individuals should be striving to take on every day. It’s how we grow, learn, adapt. The old saying that you don’t grow when you stay in your comfort zone couldn’t be truer in our world today. It’s so easy to become complacent. It’s so easy to just settle and revert to doing what we’ve always done. We as humans are loss-adverse, we hate the feeling of losing something almost twice as much as the feeling of an equivalent gain. So we’re very reluctant to take risks — which means that in reality, we miss out on so much the world has to offer. We could all benefit from being a little braver.
Obviously Improv, and other experiences, are different for everyone — so if it had of been you there on Thursday night, maybe you wouldn’t have thought the same, or read so deeply into it all. But, at the very least, if you haven’t considered it, you should look into doing Improv. Regardless of your line of work, it could be of huge benefit to some every day tasks you face in your role. Presenting to people, brainstorming, putting your hand up in a meeting to make a suggestion, biting your tongue when you want to spit out the first thing that comes to mind. The avenues and learnings are endless.
For those who are Australia based, check out Laugh Masters Academy — they have a range of different options to explore.
For those that did perform, thank you! Thank you for opening my eyes to it all.