Creativity, Agility, Improv-ability: Managing The Pace Of Change In Our Accelerated World
Change is like rain. Without it nothing can grow, but too much at once is a flood. And with the rapid acceleration of almost everything in today’s world, we are living through a kind of experiment in how human beings respond to change at an unprecedented pace. Mental agility, adaptability, and intuition are essential for capitalizing on the opportunities of this brave new world, and these are strengths that anyone can cultivate, although the self-protective, defensive thinking easily triggered by uncertainty and change can be difficult to overcome. “Technology is evolving at roughly 10 million times the speed of natural evolution,” wrote economist Brian Arthur in the pre-internet-dominated days of 1997. “For all its glitz and swagger, technology and the whole interactive, revved-up economy that goes with it is merely an outer casing for inner selves. And these inner selves, these primate souls of ours with their ancient social ways, change slowly. Or not at all.” Habits of mind are not upgraded as easily as an Iphone or any of the other devices we increasingly rely upon, but an improvisational mindset provides an uptick in thinking and relationship skills for managing the speed of change.
Even change that we choose or aspire to can feel threatening and emotionally-charged, because with the new and exciting comes uncertainty and risk. There is a social impact to it as well. A shift in one area of life ripples out to so many others and this also raise the stakes. But there are beliefs about change that can help us embrace and engage with these tensions, and are explored in the process of learning to improvise:
Change is a creative process and learning to improvise strengthens the capacity to create under pressure. We tend to think — and conventional thinking leads us to believe — that creativity is the special province of gifted and talented people, or that creativity is about the arts. Creativity is the part of every human being that allows us to see situations from a new perspective, to solve a problem when the old ways are not working — like figuring out a way to get the baby to take their medicine, or how to talk to your mom when her memory is failing. In The Courage To Create, psychologist and researcher Rollo May described creativity as “the process of bringing something new into being. It brings to our awareness what was previously hidden and points to new life.” If we believe we are creative we are more likely to cultivate creative thinking, which develops organically through creative experiences. Improvisation training combines positive social-emotional experiences with a creative, imaginative process, a potent combination for transformation of self-limiting beliefs.
In a study published in the journal Psychological Science, research subjects who stated they believe in the existence of luck and were primed to believe they were being given the “lucky putter” in a golf-related task performed better than individuals in the control groups who did not believe in luck or were not primed to think they had the upper hand going into the task. The researchers based this study on previous work showing that “people’s belief in their capabilities to succeed in a particular situation may play a central role in turning seemingly irrational superstitious thoughts into directly observable performance benefits.”
Other studies show that belief is related to the sense of self-empowerment, optimism, hope and confidence. “The more people believe in good luck,” for example, “the more optimistic, hopeful, and confident they tend to be. On the performance side, it is well established that next to existing abilities and skills, one of the most important and consistent predictors of people’s performance is their perceived self-efficacy. The more confidence people have in their abilities to master a given task, the better they perform.”
Believing we are creative and can continue to expand this ability as far as our dreams can take us is like believing we are lucky. It boosts performance. It lifts the limits of what we see as possible. We need that kind of personal agency now more than ever.
Creativity is the energy of change. Creativity is like the “push” within a seed that propels it to grow, the unseen current within all life that turns acorns into oaks. And in our own lives and inner selves, that “push” is the creative energy that human beings can direct toward realizing dreams, growing into more evolved versions of ourselves and flowing with the changes we cannot control. The relationship between change and the creative force is, perhaps, best understood by looking at nature because everything about it speaks to the unstoppable creative process.
In nature, change is continuous, like the current of a river. The most adaptable approach is to flow with an acceptance of change as an unstoppable constant. Think about the life cycle of a single cell — a microscopic organism teeming with life force. For a cell, it is either change or die. A naturally-occuring enzyme within the cell facilitates the series of stages that result in transformation, but process itself liberates energy at specific points, which is then available for use in other pathways.
The same is true for human beings. Creativity is a kind of spiritual “enzyme” that drives the ongoing change process. The “push” from within is the natural tendency toward growth and expansion, and our conscious choices determine the direction that change will take. Just as in nature, the process itself frees energy along the way. In this way, creativity can unleash new possibilities over the entire course of life.
Discomfort is a valuable feeling. A psychological shift can and will occur when we can tolerate the discomfort of going against what is ingrained in our mental and emotional patterning long enough for the new to gain traction. The old ways put up a fight, but even the most entrenched, automatic and change-resistant habits of mind can be redirected with self-awareness and practice. When practicing new thinking and relationship habits through Applied Improvisation, the experience itself is built on a foundation of fun and support, providing psychological and emotional rewards all along the way.
To keep up in our technology-driven, networked world is especially stressful for adults living through many dramatic changes to the way things work over the last 30 years. To keep up with the pace of change in the world right now often requires what can be a difficult, and emotional, kind of surrender to conditions and rules that feel unsafe because they are so unlike the old ones. Structure and predictability produce mental patterns that streamline our thinking process and save us from having to relearn the same things over and over. Disruption to these patterns can be tough, even painful depending on the cause, because they are protected by an arsenal of defenses that can trigger intense emotional reactions when challenged. Discomfort can be an important signal that we have pushed past a boundary and are truly entering the unfamiliar, which means we are on the pathway to important change.
Improvisation training emphasizes a positive social-emotional connection among all players, and this foundation for the creative experience helps a great deal with tolerating the discomfort of what can seem like a steep learning curve. “As new challenges occur, an adult learner is forced to sharpen and renew their skills,” write education researchers Shuck, Albornoz and Winberg in their article “Emotions and Their Effect On Adult Learning: A Constructivist Perspective.” “Leaving old knowledge behind implies not only cognitive transformation, but also an emotional transformation to accept changes, differences, and most fearful, uncertainty.”
Each of our lives is a work in progress. Learning and growth rise out of the same creative space that an artist taps into when creating a new piece. From this space, uncertainty is part of the process, of experimentation. New choices bring about new experiences. A “work in progress” approach takes off the pressure, redirecting it to focused effort toward the new habit, project or change we want to realize, followed by reflection on what does and does not work to advance it. We make discoveries and apply what is learned. We follow the process where it leads. This approach takes on the discomfort of change by fully engaging with it, and replaces self-judgment with self-awareness.
Improvisation is a creative process in which the empty stage is like the blank canvas and the players interactions produce a work of art. It is all happening in a spontaneous, moment-to-moment way that is risky and unpredictable with an intangible outcome, a shared experience. Just as an artist developing a vision or idea gains new skills and knowledge through exploration, and starts that process using what skills he/she has, the immediacy and real-time exploration of new roles, behaviors and mental habits makes Applied Improvisation an ideal learning experience for these times.
Effort and persistence have greater value than raw talent or intelligence. Keep going. The psychological “muscle” we need to grow and expand develops through repetition over time in the same way that a musician or dancer gains “muscle memory” that translates into the fluid movement through which artistic expression can flow. The repeated practice of new thinking, behaviors, or roles long enough for them to gain traction forms the basis of a new mindset that gives rise to a greater sense of self. It helps to build in small rewards for staying the course.
Applied Improvisation cultivates an attitude of self-encouragement and radical encouragement of others. It helps to write down even tiny successes so they are more consciously integrated into our sense of self. The momentum of the old is very strong, but since mindsets are merely an amalgam of learned beliefs they must give way to the new if we stick with it. This makes us agents of hope in our own lives and thus in the lives of others.
We can practice replace overthinking with saying “yes” to the present moment. Buddhist writer Shunryu Suzuki, author of Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind put it this way: “the secret is just to say ‘Yes!’ and jump off from here. Then there is no problem. It means to be yourself in the present moment, always yourself, without sticking to an old self. You forget all about yourself and are refreshed. You are a new self, and before that self becomes an old self, you say ‘Yes! and you walk to the kitchen for breakfast. So the point of each moment is to forget the point and extend your practice.”
With communication at the speed of light and change playing out at ever-increasing tempos, the improviser’s mindset is a foundation that expresses as the ability to learn, to adapt as circumstances shift, and to choose how we will experience and respond to events. We may not know exactly where things are headed, but we can be transformed into more evolved versions of ourselves by adopting the beliefs that form a creative mindset. And with that, strengthen the psychological “muscle” to shape our lives in the direction of our dreams.
Jude Treder-Wolff, LCSW, CGP, CPAI is President of Lifestage, Inc. She is a Certified Practitioner of Applied Improvisation and creative arts therapist who speaks and trains about the role of creativity in 21st century life. She was chair of the Applied Improvisation Network 2019 World Conference which took place at Stony Brook University in partnership with the Alan Alda Center For Communicating Science. Follow her on twitter: