A few months ago I got a chance to try improv comedy. I had invited a group to our Toastmasters club that specialized in comedy, so for one meeting, the public speaking was replaced with improv. For those of you who are unfamiliar, improv comedy is a form of theater where several actors try to be funny without a script.
This was my second time working with the comedy group, and I had a blast. I’m used to giving rehearsed speeches, where I can practice every detail. But with improv, you need to be completely spontaneous, which can be both amazing–and terrifying!
Spontaneity Takes Work!
Whoever said being spontaneous was easy, obviously hasn’t tried improv comedy. It’s easy to get so caught up in plans and schedules, that when the structure is removed, you fall on your feet. There are so many elements of life that can’t be captured in a to-do list, so it pays to know how to improvise.
Here are a few reasons why mastering your off-stage spontaneity is important:
- Relationships Can’t Be Scripted. Meeting people and having great conversations follow the rules of improv, not plans.
- Fun is Adventure, Not Binges. Real fun, is found in spontaneous adventures, not just staring at the TV or getting hammered. Unfortunately it is a lot easier to get drunk than to have a genuinely fun time.
- Life Doesn’t Follow Your 10-Year Plan. I’m not doing what I anticipated I’d be doing three years ago. Three years from now I expect most of my life to have changed so much I’ll barely recognize it, let alone plan for it. Learning the skill of spontaneity is essential for growth.
How to Be More Spontaneous
Spontaneity is not the opposite of planning. This was my key breakthrough in order to make sure my life was both fun and productive. Improvising has many of the same prerequisites that you use in your scheduled life, just with a twist.
The opposite of spontaneity is cowardice. Fear, not planning, is the real barrier to improvisation. It isn’t your day planner that keeps you from saying hi to a stranger, it’s your fears. Where productivity requires discipline and organization, spontaneity requires courage and openness.
Here are some of the lessons I’ve picked up from my brief attempt at improv comedy and trying to live a more spontaneous life:
- Don’t Reject an Offer. One of the rules of improv comedy (if such a craft can really have “rules”) is to never reject an offer made by a fellow actor. An offer is any action that helps set the direction of the performance. If, during a sketch, I said to a friend, “I heard you went golfing last weekend,” this would be an offer. If another actor said, “No I didn’t,” he would be rejecting my offer. Instead he could play along (“Why yes, I did!”) and see where the performance could go.
- Be Disciplined. Recognize the difference between an opportunity to try something new and an opportunity to be lazy. “Spontaneously” deciding to watch reruns instead of finishing your to-do list shows a lack of discipline. Have the discipline to ignore familiar temptations and the courage to pursue the unknown.
- Are You Lateral or Vertical Today? I see life as a cycle of vertical and lateral growth. Vertical growth requires more focus and planning. Lateral growth requires spontaneity. Knowing which phase of the cycle you’re in can make it easier to choose between focusing on work or pursuing new opportunities.
- Seed Your Future. Most opportunities for spontaneity don’t start out big. It could be as simple as saying “Hello” or signing up for a class you know nothing about. Improvising requires planting many seeds, even if only a few decide to sprout.
- Eliminate the Unfun. Get rid of boring activities that don’t add value to your life. TV isn’t just eating away at your productivity, its draining away the motivation to do something fun. Clearing out the boring activities from your life creates the urge to explore. I joined Toastmasters after going for a several month period without watching any television. Would I have had the courage to get up and speak if I could have just channel surfed instead?
- Don’t Crowd the Stage. Another lesson I learned when doing improv was not to step on the laughs of another member. Everyone wants to deliver the punch line, but part of improvising means helping out the other actor if they are onto something funny. Spontaneity requires cooperation.
- Motivation Conquers Fear. If you can get yourself incredibly curious about an idea, that can be enough to break out of your comfort zone. Ignore the voices of doubt when you first get an idea. New ideas take time to mature, so if you kill them immediately with the first objection, they can never be realized. When I tried a Latin dancing class last year, I could have pointed to the millions of objections for why it wouldn’t be good (I’m a geek, I’m uncoordinated, I’m too busy) but instead I learned something new and had a fun time.