Life lessons from improv

By Mike Strathdee

As Printed in the Marketplace – July/August 2018

Getting up in front of a room full of strangers and doing improv — a performance made up on the spot — is something that can challenge even people used to public speaking.God, Improv And The Art of Living By MaryAnn McKibben Dana (Wm. E Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2018, 230 pp, $21.99 US)

Speaking in public tops the list of many people’s greatest fears.

The skills of a good improv artist are things we can all benefit from learning, and are applicable to far more than stand-up comedy, MaryAnn McKibben Dana says.

The author, who is a pastor and student of improv, suggests that we are all improvisers. Recognizing this truth can help us in decision making and many life endeavours, at work, in church, or just around the people we interact with every day.

The book outlines three types of improvisers, all of whom are as useful in companies, congregations and other groups as they are in onstage situations: Pirates, robots and ninjas.

We need all these characters in our lives, in the proper ratios.

A pirate is fearless, unpredictable, zany and willing to go for broke. Helpful in small doses, pirates can be exhausting if unrestrained.

That sense of restraint is provided by robots, who point out the dangers of a proposed course. Robots are “the logical ones who keep bringing the scene back to reality.”

Ninjas are the people who rarely speak up at meetings. When they do speak, everyone listens to the perspectives they bring to situations. Their small, subtle ideas summarize and help to identify consensus.

Great improvisers can work with all these personas. Most of us gravitate to the persona that is most comfortable.

The author gives examples of Jesus’ disciples and the type they fit. Peter is a pirate. Hospitality-focused Martha is a robot, as is Matthew. She sees Thomas as being the classic ninja.

McKibben Dana is deeply attracted to the concept of sufficiency. Sufficiency is an orientation rather than an amount. It involves “not being constantly on the hunt for something better, but orienting ourselves toward the experience that’s right in front of us, with all of its gifts and limitations.”

She stresses the importance of saying yes, even when it is a “yes, and…” Yes, and conversations provide more opportunity for creativity than our natural inclinations to object with a “but.”

In different words, that means ignoring “can’t” and embracing “yet.”

Her preferred approach “gives space for ideas to grow” instead of choking off creativity.

She references the famous Serenity prayer “God give me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; courage to change the things I can; and wisdom to know the difference.…” as the improviser’s prayer.

To achieve that state, we need both hyper attention and deep attention. Multi-taskers are familiar with hyper-attention, the requirement to be aware of many small details.

Deep attention allows us to see the bigger picture. McKibben Dana gives examples from Jesus’ life to show best practices in pivoting between the two and the value of being attentive enough to be fully present.

Good news for readers who view this goal as a challenge is her perspective that attention is like a muscle and can be developed through practice.

In a world that is made up of maximizers and satisficers, she urges us to move to be a satisficer rather than a maximizing perfectionist. “Good enough is the gold standard for improvisers.”

That requires making peace with not enough. “Whatever life hands us, we can find the Yes and seek the And.”

Successful entrepreneurs have a willingness not just to change approach, but the destination as well, keeping their eyes “open to possibilities off the known path,” she says.


Post Author
  • MEDA is an international economic development organization that creates business solutions to poverty. We work in agri-food market systems, focusing primarily on women and youth in rural communities in the Global South. Our success is measured by income, improved processes, increased knowledge, and the creation of decent work.

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