Improv Wisdom

collective decision making
he way we act, and are seen to act, in this life is a function of two things: What we choose to do, and How we choose to do it. We can do the wrong things with style, or, as has been my wont, we can accidentally, fortuitously end up doing all the right things, badly at first, but getting better with practice.There are a small group of people I have known in my life who I would say have presence. They bring a certain charm and grace to everything they do, and they generally do it well, even if its accomplishment, in the grand scheme of things, is not very important. I greatly admire such people, and recently I have started to study them, to learn from them.In my recent post on what I learned from Patti Digh’s book Life is a Verb I described both the things that I now do, intentionally:

playing learning loving
conversing giving (ideas,
knowledge, competencies)
being present writing reflecting

and (somewhat less intentionally and much less elegantly and consistently) how I do those things, my approach to action:

Sense: Observe, listen, pay attention, focus, open up your senses, perceive everything that has a bearing on the issue at hand. Connect.
Self-control: Don’t prejudge or jump to conclusions. Don’t lose your cool. Focus.
Understand: Make sure you have the facts and appreciate the context. Things are the way they are for a reason. Know what that reason is. Sympathize.
Question: Ask, don’t tell. Challenge. Think critically.
Imagine: Picture, hear, feel what could be. Be visionary. Every problem is an opportunity. Anything is possible.
Offer: Consider. Give something away. Create options, new avenues to explore. Suggest possibilities. Lend a hand. Help.
Collaborate: Create something together. Solve a problem with a collective answer better than any set of individual answers. Learn to yield, to build on, to bridge, to adapt your thinking.

Intentionally, I have increased the number of hours per day I spend doing the nine things I do (above) from 5.5 hours per day to 8.5 hours per day, with an eventual target of 11.5 hours per day. And I try to do them, whenever I am self-aware, using the 7-step ‘personal presencing’ process listed above. This is very much a passion-to-action ‘U’ process: sensing, learning, asking, opening, letting go and letting come, and then realizing, with others.

I am, alas, not self-aware often enough, although I have taken to wearing a bracelet as a constant reminder not to get sidetracked from the nine things I am meant to do, to do the less fruitful and ultimately unimportant things that we are so relentlessly expected to do; as a constant reminder to follow my 7-step approach to action; and as a constant reminder to practice whatever specific exercises I have committed to do to improve my capacities.

As I apply the above, I reflect with some awe on the fact that my intentional behaviour is now guided substantially from what I have learned from people in my gravitational community: The three charts above are my personal adaptations of models developed by Chris Corrigan, Patti Digh and Cyndy Roy respectively — three people I have never met in person.

So it was with great anticipation that I read the highly-recommended (by four people in my gravitational community) book Improv Wisdom, by Patricia Ryan Madson. I hoped that, through practicing improvisation, I could refine and make easier my 7-step process.

Madson’s book is delightful slim (148 small pages) and readable. It has some wonderful insights in it. It is based around a set of ‘maxims’ which, paraphrased, combined and oversimplified a bit, are as follows:

  1. Say “Yes, and…”: Adapt yourself. Accept instead of trying to control the situation. Don’t presuppose that you have a better idea, don’t change or steer the subject, don’t correct others, don’t disengage. Listen and go with the conversation. Pay attention and go with the situation.
  2. Be resilient instead of preparing: Don’t anticipate or lock yourself in. Learn to be ready for whatever may happen. Breathe and be present in the moment. Learn to hold balance, to yield, to open and hold open.
  3. Just begin: Show up. Start with what’s important or what’s obvious. Step onto the stage. Be on time and value your time. Move. Act to discover what comes next.
  4. Make sense: Be clear, even obvious, rather than trying to be clever. Clarify. Explain. Articulate.
  5. Pay attention to details: Stand still and look until you really see, listen until you really hear. Use all your senses. Learn to remember people’s names and other details. (This is especially hard for me because I find a lot of what I pay attention to uninteresting, which is a terrible reflection on my inability to concentrate.)
  6. Be utterly truthful: Face the facts, and understand them and why they are so. Stop wishing that things (or you) were different. See procrastination, blaming, self-criticism and self-sabotage for what they really are, and then do something about them.
  7. Be aware of your purpose: As you achieve it find your next purpose. Ask what would not be achieved if you were not here. Do things intentionally.
  8. Share your gifts: Be a steward not a master. Know and share your gifts and discover new ones. Appreciate others’ gifts. Mention what you appreciate. Be supportive and accept support. Share control. Make others look good. Be kind.
  9. Make mistakes: Mistakes are how we learn, growth, stretch (the word intention means ‘stretching towards’, and intending is a risky and error-prone practice). It’s also how life evolves, makes quantum leaps, gets better.
  10. Play: Have fun. Be boisterous. Smile.

bastish swans

Madson notes that there are some activities that do not lend themselves to improvisation, that need to be done in a planned, precise, intentional way, but these activities are rare, and most of what we do is better done without a script. Improvisation takes some courage, self-confidence, and faith in others, which are also qualities best learned through practice. Madson asks us to ask ourselves: What would you do if you knew you would not fail?

These ten qualities of excellent improvisation are imbued with generosity, humility and grace. To some extent you need to bring them to the practice of improvisation, and to some extent they are what you acquire and learn through improvisation, in a virtuous cycle.

I’ve tried to figure out how these ten qualities of improvisation fit with my seven step approach to action. I’ve concluded, I think, that they are guidelines and hints on how to be better at sensing, self-control, understanding, questioning, imagining, offering, and collaborating. Andhow to cope when you run into trouble with any of the seven steps.

I’m still learning. Once I’ve practiced a bit more I’ll let you know.

Swan photo from Kevin at Bastish.

Category: Let-Self-Change
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3 Responses to Improv Wisdom

  1. Guy Cross says:

    Great blog.Reading about things that need to be done in a precise way, following set procedure. I have realised why I am in the wrong job. Reacting to situations is what I do best. Sadly as an adminstrator following procedures is what I need to be good at!

  2. I am THRILLED that you have found so much utility in Improv Wisdom and that it is helping you to refine and follow your own important purposes. I see we are joint cheerleaders for the amazing Patti Digh. I am honored to share the back cover with you on her amazing new book. Thank you, thank you, thank you for fhelping to spread the word on my book. Your careful reading means alot to me.Warm regards,Patricia Ryan Madson

  3. Thank you for suggesting this book in your blog, after that I said “yes, I will read it”. The day I was reading the first maxim, I was asked by my daughter (21 years) to take her to the university by car… usually I would have said “no, take your bus and don’t bother me, please” but instead I said “ok, I will do” and she was really happy for this unexpected answer!! “just show up” was a reason to go to a meeting with people I didn’t know and it was very nice. I have to practioe very much.. To me “improv” is also not having any clues about what to do, and most of these times I had to improv in dramatical and sad situations, as no one taught me how to act in these moments… so it is important to remember, and Patricia said also this, that you can ask for help, as you are not alone- our time is so short that we couldn’t waste it :-) and meaningless acts of kindness make our lives better. Thank you Patricia.

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