I signed up for a comedy improv class hoping it would make me a stronger designer, hoping it would better help me present my ideas and further my career. I had no idea it would transform my life.
WEEK ONE: FEAR, SICKNESS, AND FAILURE
My improv class was at the Hideout Theatre in Austin, Texas. The class was six weeks long—one three-hour class per week. Before each class, I recorded voice memos into my phone about how I was feeling and what I was expecting and thinking about. After each class, I recorded my thoughts and feelings on the drive home. I made sure to document not just what happened in class but also what I was learning, how this strange new activity was affecting me, and (most importantly) whether or not it was helping me solve my presentation problem.
A couple of weeks before the first class I felt great. I wasn’t nervous at all. I was actually excited about making new friends, laughing with people, goofing off. I was curious about what improv classes would be like. That all changed pretty quick.
I was battling the flu over the weekend and still felt ill the morning the first class. Was I sick enough to stay home? Maybe. But I decided not to let myself off the hook. For one, I needed to start breaking old habits. Plus I knew missing the first class would make the second class even more awkward because I’d be a week behind and everyone would have already introduced themselves. I took some ibuprofen and brought a box of tissues and went to improv class dripping snot and with a pounding head.
You know the phrase: thrown into the deep end? That was my first improv class. I didn’t even have time to be nervous. We started with introductions—16 people standing in a circle in a tiny 2nd-floor room of a community theatre saying their names… and then saying other people’s names… and then saying your own name with an adjective… and then saying other people’s names with their adjective… and then saying your name with an adjective and a gesture… and then saying other people’s names with a gesture over and over until everyone had memorized everyone else’s name, adjective, and gesture.
It was hectic and confusing and silly and it took maybe 20 minutes. I was improvising words and movement before I even realized. It was incredible. The rest of the class was a blur of yelling, frantic gestures, spastic movement around the tiny room and lots and lots of laughing.
IMPROV PRINCIPLE #82: THERE ARE NO MISTAKES
By the end of class, I was buzzing. My nose was still running but my anxiety was completely gone. I felt like the brightest lighthouse shining for the world to see. On the way home, as I was recording a voice memo of my thoughts, the night replayed in my head but I felt new and different and surprised at myself. Had I really just done all that? Had I made those loud, ridiculous noises: Bluuuurp, beewwwp, hrreeank, ahrraww!
The thing that stuck with me the most from that first class was the Failure Bow—an extravagant bow and booming statement (“I FAILED!”) made whenever you feel like you have failed, when you think you’ve done something wrong, when that feeling in your gut tells you that you’re a failure, a loser, that you suck. In these moments, we were urged to own it, step forward, and take a bow. And as you would bow, everyone else clapped and enthusiastically cheered your failure. I was the first person in the class to do a failure bow, but in that moment I didn’t feel like a failure. I didn’t feel frustrated or defeated. I felt… something different. It was my first of many Failure Bows and the first step in an important new direction.
WEEK TWO: BUILDING CONFIDENCE
The unknown can be a scary place for timid folk. Starting something new can be intimidating when you don’t know what to expect. I felt far more nervous in the days leading up to my second class, mainly because of what I already knew: I knew the people, I knew the rules, I knew the teachers, and I knew the format. I started to set unreasonable expectations for myself and it was nerve-wracking.
I felt like I had to live up to some unknown standard—like I had to perform well—and I got lost in the same web of unhelpful hypotheticals that used to trip me up at work: “What if I’m not good enough?” “What if I do something stupid?” “What if they start talking about me?” When the only stories you know are stories of failure, it can be hard to start a new chapter.
I realized afterward that I was overthinking the situation. The second class was just as engaging and fun and stress-free as the first. I also found out that many of my classmates were feeling the same things that I was. As we talked and worked through exercises, I learned that they had been setting unreasonable expectations for themselves as well.
IMPROV PRINCIPLE #53C: ACTION BEATS INACTION
Given that we all seemed to be in a similar place, I decided to I open up and divulge all of my feelings of insecurity during our mid-class break. If I wanted to change I needed to start somewhere.
To my surprise, my classmates revealed (rather enthusiastically) that they had the same feelings and struggled with the same issues. On one level, we were learning about improv, having fun and supporting each other through the activities. But on another level, that conversation started to bring everyone together. We started learning about one another and we started supporting each other as people.
When the second half of class started, we cheered each other on more than before. We shared more about our feelings and reactions—how someone’s behavior or gesture was beautiful or inspiring. When our time was up, people started to make plans outside of class. It was incredible to see a group of strangers get so comfortable with one another so quickly.
I still wasn’t sure that improv was going to help my career. On the drive home, I admitted to myself that I wasn’t seeing any direct results yet, but I was having a lot of fun.
WEEK THREE: LAVA NIPPLE TASSELS
By week three, I had started to develop a routine. I worked downtown most of the day, grabbed dinner before class, and showed up at the theatre a little early. I felt like I knew the format of the class, I knew my classmates, and even though I didn’t feel totally confident in my improv abilities, I better understood what to expect of myself.
My thoughts and reflections about the third class focused a lot on what became one of my favourite improv games. One-by-one, everyone took turns randomly making a mechanical noise and a robotic movement in the center of the room. You just stand (or sit or squat or kneel) there and repeat it over and over. The next person would come into the center and make a different noise and a different gesture that “fit” with the first one.
Playing these confident, strong characters over and over made me realize that in order to be happy, and to feel confident, I would need to face my fears.
I started by making a soft whirring sound and moving my arms forward and backward parallel to the floor. The second person stood right next to me and made a loud pounding thud and stomped their foot over and over. This kept going adding more and more people until the entire class was a weird jumble of flailing limbs and absurd sounds making one big cohesive machine. Each time, our instructor would ask us what our machine was doing and we’d take turns shouting ridiculous answers like: “Producing inflatable burger pancakes!” or “Making lava nipple tassels!”
After the machine activity, the class learned about one of the most important lessons of improv: Yes, and… This principle urges you to agree with and accept whatever your classmate or improv partner gives you (e.g., a premise, a phrase, a gesture) while also adding something to it. If my improv partner John says: “I just farted.” I’d nod (or wince) and say: “Yes and it smells like a rainbow.” I like Yes, and… because it encourages you to build upon whatever is already going on—it helps the scene or game progress. You never have to defend or explain your weird dialogue or awkward movement because the other improvisers are always already using it to create what’s next.
IMPROV PRINCIPLE #44.8: YES, AND…
Was I having fun? Yes, and during all that fun I happened to let my guard down. And in doing so, uncovered a painful realization.
One of the other main principles of improv is natural behavior—improvisers are encouraged to stay in the moment and to avoid premeditated actions or dialogue. My classmates and I were supposed to listen, let go of the need to control where the scene was going, and try to act without thinking.
But, in spite of my best efforts, I felt vulnerable. I struggled with the “letting go” because I worried that my classmates would see things they didn’t like in my unfiltered, true self. What if, without thinking, I said something stupid or controversial or inappropriate or offensive? They would know it was coming from me—the real me. What if people didn’t like what they heard? What if my classmates wouldn’t like the real me? At that point, it only took a few seconds to go from I don’t want others to see who I really am to the truth: I don’t like what they might find.
In other words, improv helped me realize that I don’t like myself. By participating in improv and documenting everything along the way I was dislodging past memories that bubbled to the surface and looking at them from a new perspective. I’d had a deep, insightful breakthrough, but not at all the one I was hoping for.
WEEK FOUR: PRESENCE
Anybody who knows me will likely tell you that I’m a funny, personable, empathetic, kind guy. And it’s unlikely those same people would guess that I had such deep-seated insecurity or feelings of self-loathing—I sure didn’t. I had a lot of time to think between the third and fourth classes and I realized that years of making decisions based on fear had made me deeply unhappy. By retreating from my anxiety and refusing to face my fears, even in the smallest ways, I had slowly and subconsciously morphed into a miserable person living a stagnant life.
Most of the activities during the fourth class focused on being present. But given my mental state, that was rather difficult. We did a lot of activities without words, with intense eye contact. Presence is another important improv principle—you need to pay attention and embrace what’s going on around you if you want a scene to be great. You need to look and listen carefully to specific details in dialogues and scenes so you can build upon them.
We played a game called One Voice where you pair up with two or three other people and stand close together in preparation for a scene. When you hear the scenario (let’s pretend the scene is two people waiting for lab results after an STD test), the first two actors stand arm-in-arm or close together as the third participant calmly “enters the room” and starts the scene with some dialogue—something like: “Well, James, I’ve got your lab results here.” The first two actors look at each other and try as best they can to respond by saying the same thing at the same time. The result is something that sounds like drawn out gibberish spattered with notes of semi-coherent words: “Oooookaaaaayyyy docteeerrr Mmjjjarrrbbsobb. Wwwhh llllet’s hhhheeee aaaave it.” It’s incredibly difficult and it requires a lot of presence.
IMPROV PRINCIPLE #105: TRUST
One Voice is a blast and it made for an enjoyable class. But I spent the whole drive home reflecting on how improv still hadn’t solved my professional problems. Instead, it unearthed a whole new layer of discontent. I was having fun but I still felt like the whole endeavor wasn’t working for me. When was I going to have my breakthrough? When was I going to become an amazing speaker? When was I going to feel confident? When was it going to fix my problems?
The classes were entertaining but were little more than a clever distraction—if anything my situation seemed to have gotten worse, not better. I still felt all of the vulnerability, the anxiety, the fear, the doubt. I had two classes left and committed to seeing it through. I trusted that my mentor knew what he was talking about and that I would get some meaning out of this experience by the end. And then week five happened.
WEEK FIVE: THE TURNING POINT
The fifth class introduced us to a new improv concept that separated all of the kinds of different human personalities into two distinct buckets: high-status and low-status personalities. Our instructor asked us to think back to different characters we adopted over the first four classes. Each of these could be defined in one of two ways.
High-status personalities exude confidence: they talk boldly, they stand straight, they shake hands with conviction, they walk upright with a strong posture. Low-status personalities, as you might have guessed, behave the opposite way: they fidget, they’re quiet, their sentences trail off, their shoulders and backs are hunched, their heads are down, they cross their arms. They are the embodiment of insecurity.
This description sounded painfully familiar. And as a designer, I knew that understanding the problem is the first step toward solving it. Class four revealed the truth that was underneath the problems I wanted to fix—that my struggles at work were bound with my struggles as a person. Class five helped me understand and describe that truth and gave me the tools to change.
IMPROV PRINCIPLE #22A: SHUT UP AND LISTEN
In class five we all took turns acting out each status with one another. One person had to be a high-status character, the other a low-status character. One person would be a queen, the other a servant—a king and a jester, a sales manager and a prospective hire, a big brother and a little brother.
Trying to act as a high-status personality was incredibly uncomfortable and awkward for me. But it was also revelatory. I had found something to work toward. It was easy to become a low-status character in the scenes—a servant, a child, a jester—because I had been living my life as a low-status personality type. I had been living in fear and anxiety and making decisions to avoid those feelings at all costs. I retreated from difficult conversations with my wife. I backed down from being assertive at work. I took alternate routes in my car to avoid the claustrophobic stress of traffic jams.
This class forced me to shut up the worrying voices in my head and try on a different personality. I had to learn how to listen to my classmates and adjust my responses and reactions to fit characters that were very different from myself. Playing these confident, strong characters over and over made me realize that in order to be happy, and to feel confident, I would need to face my fears. I would need to try new ways of dealing with things and I would need to become okay with failure.
There was a noticeable shift in my tone when recording my summary on the way home that night. I had renewed clarity. My voice was animated and hopeful whereas previous recordings had been confused, shy explorations of my thoughts as I struggled to articulate my thoughts and express how I felt. I felt lighter and stronger at the same time.
The next day I walked with an ease and confidence that I hadn’t felt in a long time. On my way to work I realized that improv would help me with my professional problems—not because it would fix my presentation skills and make me a better speaker, but because it would help me address the discontent, fear, and anxiety that had plagued me for so long.
Improv had given me a platform—a safe environment—in which to practice facing my fears over and over again. It exposed me to the emotions that accompany failure time after time dulling their sharp edges. Failure became tolerable and then celebrated. Improv challenged me to let go of the character that was timid, shy, and insecure. I realized that these classes and games and activities were having a cumulative effect on me—I was learning techniques and tools that I could use forever—whenever I needed. I was facing fears and building resilience and it would be the catalyst for countless positive changes in my life.
WEEK SIX: FRIENDS IN LOW PLACES
My recordings after each class were usually 20 to 30 minutes long. They started with a short recap before morphing into rambling thoughts, trying to figure things out and make sense of what happened. The recording after the final class was only two minutes long. I didn’t have a lot to say because my mind wasn’t racing and my mouth couldn’t keep up.
The class was, and still is, a blur. It was a fun class. We revisited the principles and activities from earlier sessions and I left feeling good. I was still reeling from the fallout of session five, but I felt good. At the end of the sessions, my classmates decided to celebrate our “graduation” by going to a karaoke bar downtown.
It was a Tuesday night and hardly anybody was out. The bar was dead, save for a few die-hard karaoke fans scattered around the room on wobbly stools. We walked in and sat down near the front and started poring through the song lists to plan our requests. As I searched for something familiar (and bearable) to sing, I overheard the person on stage and realized that there were no backup vocals whatsoever. I was going to be singing without assistance for everyone to hear.
IMPROV PRINCIPLE #71: TEAMWORK
I had second thoughts. But I looked around at my smiling, laughing classmates and remembered everything I had been through over the past six weeks. Eventually, I found a song that I thought everyone (all 10 people in the bar) might enjoy: Friends in Low Places by Garth Brooks. Our instructor taught us that a scene succeeds, or not, based on our ability to work together. So I asked a classmate to join me on stage and sing with me and he obliged. I made the request to the DJ and only a few minutes later our song was up.
As individuals, we learn to focus on getting results. As a group, we learn to focus on solutions. We stepped into the spotlight and surveyed the sparse crowd. I wasn’t nearly as nervous as I would have been six weeks earlier. I knew we didn’t need to be perfect (or even good). We just needed to trust each other and be willing to see it through.
As we butchered the song, a couple in the back of the bar danced to it, meandering around the empty floor. They even thanked us for our song choice when we got off stage. They must have been drunk. They didn’t care that we were terrible. I didn’t care that we were terrible. It was fun and I’m glad I got up there. I’d faced a huge fear and come out unscathed. I was excited about what the future would hold.
PRINCIPLES TO LIVE BY
It turns out that my struggles with presenting and public speaking were a symptom of a bigger, more insidious problem. Improv had uprooted a clump of thoughts and emotions and excuses and behaviours that had been holding me back. And it wasn’t just that fifth class. Every class was uncomfortable. Each day—each game and activity—triggered and dislodged insecurity, fear, and doubt. It bubbled all these feelings to the surface, which was terrifying, but also necessary. It forced me to face them and grapple with them but gave me a safe, supportive space to do so. All the activities were opportunities to practice facing my fears (over and over and over) and over time I became better prepared to face them whenever or wherever they might pop up.
I had no idea improv would—or could—be such a great method for personal healing. I gained a whole new level of self-awareness that empowered me to cut through the fog of anxiety I had been living in. Uncovering those truths turned out to be the crucial first step in my personal and professional growth. I never thought it would improve my relationship with my wife, with my son, my friends, and my colleagues. I had wondered if it might help me speak in front of audiences, but I never thought it would fundamentally change me the way it did. Improv helped make me the person I am today—a person which was there all along but one I was unwilling, or unready, to play.
COMFORTABLE WITH DISCOMFORT
Am I an amazing speaker traveling all over the world inspiring millions? No. Am I the most confident human being on the planet? Not quite. But I do feel like a different man. I take more risks, I’m more comfortable around strangers, I stand up for myself, I say “yes” to different opportunities, I drive in rush-hour traffic (which used to terrify me), I took a business trip alone, I’ve taken on more challenges at work. And yes, I have also improved my presentation skills.
My low-status traits aren’t gone. I still linger on past memories and hear whispers of negative thoughts, but I have a new perspective and new tools to help me cope. My low-status traits aren’t gone. But now, instead of being laws that govern my life, they’re simply parts of my personality—things I can choose to ignore or laugh off rather than things that define who I am.
In improv, you’re encouraged to think less and listen more. You’re taught to let go—to accept the present moment by saying yes. You’re encouraged to be comfortable with discomfort. You’re challenged to let go of the past. You’re encouraged to be okay with failure. You’re inspired to experiment, to play, to be carefree, and have fun.
Improv helped me become comfortable with my emotions. It helped me let go of the need to control things, to trust myself, and to be okay with not having all the answers. I became better acquainted with failure and more willing to take risks. It offered new ways of being and presenting myself in the world. I learned to embrace change, to go with the flow, and how to say Yes, and… so much more.