Create The Good Life - Simple and Slow Living by Design

Flex Your Improv Muscle

When was the last time everything went exactly according to plan?

More and more we find ourselves grappling with the unexpected as life grows increasingly complex and we humans remain our very human selves. So, what to do when the plan goes off the rails and the present becomes unscripted? — Improvise!

street musicians playing in the square

As children we improvised all the time. We called it play. We spontaneously responded to the world, creating and sharing new realities along the way. Musicians, actors, and other creative types continue to tap into a form of improvised play. For the rest of us, our ability to playfully adapt can go dormant if we don't find ways to exercise it on a regular basis.

As counterintuitive as it may seem, we need to practice improvisation to maintain our creative chops. Ideally, we learn to switch between planning and improvising as the circumstances require. An improvised wedding? Probably not recommended. Planned jokes? Be careful! The projector goes out during your PowerPoint presentation? Time to improvise!

(We'd like to acknowledge Tina Fey's Bossy Pants and transformational story teller Carolyn Casey for the following list of improv principles.)

Beth wearing YES glasses

Saying "Yes"

When we say "yes" we accept what exists and what others have created. Once we embrace the current reality, we can move forward together. In real life, there may be times we want to say no (sometimes for good reason!), but we need to be aware of how that impedes forward flow and action. So in those situations where we want to move on, and do so with others, the most generative way is to find a yes on which we can all agree.

Example: The bus has been delayed for four hours. Who is more likely to improvise a creative response?

Eeyore: I knew we should have taken the train. Now we are stuck!
Snow White: It's been awhile since we've all had some time together. Let's party!

"Yes, and?"

Not only does yes set the stage for more positive forward movement, we then have both the opportunity and the responsibility to contribute. The groups and systems we are part of need our input and energy in order to move to the next level.

Example: Back at the bus station, who is being most helpful improvising with Snow White?

Snow White: Let's party!
Cicero: Sounds good.
Attila the Hun: Good idea. We'll need some food. I know some hordes ...

Make Statements and Take Action

Do you know people who speak only in questions? Even, when they make a statement their intonation goes up at the end like they aren't sure? Or they are asking permission? While that pattern is attributed most often to females, there is also a more gender–neutral behavioral issue of not committing to action. Stuff happens, we begin to improvise, there's agreement, some good ideas are on the table, and then nothing happens. In order to formulate a response or solution we need to be able to commit verbally and through our actions.

Example: At our bus station shindig, some folks are helping to improvise the party more than others:

Guinevere: Do you think it's all right if we invite Sir Lancelot?
Ringo Starr: I'll get my drums and some other musicians I know.
Eeyore: Has anyone seen my tail? I can't party without my tail.
Attila: I've commanded my hordes to bring the food!

And with the support and help of others, even what we may perceive as mistakes can become another person's inspiration, as in the case of our party:

Attila: Uh, oh, everybody brought salsa.
Snow White: We could have a salsa contest!
Ringo: Hey mates, who knows some Mexican tunes?

                          Snow White, Attila the Hun, Ringo Starr, and Eeyore

By consciously practicing these principles we can develop a more fluid and flexible response to the unexpected when it ... wait a minute ... the computer just ate our ...


Watching improv comedy and listening to improvised music are fun ways to experience these principles at work. If there aren't any live performances in your area, check out Whose Line Is It Anyway? on YouTube. Also, improv classes aren't just for actors and comedians. See if your local junior college and other places of learning offer improv workshops.


Look for opportunities in your daily life to add a little "Yes, and" to the conversation. See how it changes the dynamic for you and others. Likewise, try offering statements and committing to an action when a situation seems stuck. While not every improvised situation is fun, finding ways to creatively and spontaneously engage is usually more rewarding.

Spontaneously yours,

Beth and Eric

This monthly slow essay is from Beth Meredith & Eric Storm of Create The Good Life.

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