100 Things I Learned at the d.school: Life is a big improv show (#3)
My time at the d.school taught me that the most valuable education I ever received was the one I pursued on stage.
I faced many challenges and uncertainties in college, but I was always certain about what I should major in. After the first week of college, I announced proudly to my parents that I would pursue a degree in theatre studies. (Yes, Wellesley spells theatre with the classic “re” rather than the more common “er”.) I was thrilled that, for the first time in my life, I was certain of the path I wanted to take. There’s comfort in identifying a passion.
There was a snag, however. My immigrant parents were having none of it. Theatre studies was the infamous “basket weaving” degree they dreaded. I needed to do something more rigorous — something “real”. What about economics or political science? They reminded me that Hillary (yes, that Hillary) majored in political science. Theatre studies would put me on a path to poverty, they said, clearly panic-stricken. Given they were paying my tuition, I compromised. So, I chose to study international relations as well as theatre. My rationale consisted of one input: Model UN had been fun in high school.
I was thrilled that, for the first time in my life, I was certain of the path I wanted to take. There’s comfort in identifying a passion.
Have it all, but pay a price.
Now, let me put this into some context. Both theatre studies and international relations were, at the time, interdisciplinary majors. The only way I could complete both majors was to have made the decision when I did — during the second week of college. Had I delayed any longer, I likely would have been unable to pursue both degrees successfully. The requirements spanned just about every department. There was language, economics (101 and 102), political science, history, cultural studies, performing arts courses, independent studies, my undergraduate thesis (which I opted into) and study abroad (which I opted for as well). My GPA wasn’t the best in the world, but including my core liberal arts requirements, I had touched nearly every quarter of the Wellesley College campus by the time I finished both degree programs.
Oh, I also worked two campus jobs on top of it all. Needless to say, I worked hard in college, and I enjoyed it thoroughly. My father likes to say I am like a camel; I just need to get my nose into the tent…
Later, I was told that Wellesley students were no longer allowed to do two interdisciplinary majors because the requirements were so numerous that they allowed for too little flexibility. Pursuing both majors also prevented me from really focusing in on any one thing, but I would do the same if I had it to do over again.
A small (but important) detour
If I could hit ‘rewind’, I would not take computer science or engineering. While one of the reigning catchphrases in education is that we must “teach every kid to code”, rote/classroom learning of coding is a) not for everyone or b) a good way to learn the material. The more important aspects of an education are in teaching every kid to think critically, to cultivate curiosity, to communicate across lines of difference and to learn from failure.
Given this, I’d pursue project-based learning that required an understanding of computer science and engineering, working on more projects that pushed me to learn about coding and product creation in context. I was already building websites in the early 90’s, and if anything killed my love of coding it was the classes I took early on. So, I would not dedicate my degree courses to them.
The more important aspects of an education are in teaching every kid to think critically, to cultivate curiosity, to communicate across lines of difference and to learn from failure.
Saying ‘goodbye’ to the stage and dreams of the big screen
Shortly before graduation, I chose to say ‘goodbye’ to the stage and dreams of the big screen. The reasons run through the fraught history of western performance and production and the very real limitations placed on black actors and women in mainstream entertainment. Recent breakthroughs in the entertainment world have left me feeling both nostalgic and hopeful however. Let’s start with ‘Hamilton’ and work our way to ‘Hidden Figures’, ‘Moonlight’, ‘Scandal’, ‘How to Get Away With Murder’ and then on to the show runner to end all show runners, Shonda Rhimes, the incredible performances (and acceptance speeches) of Viola Davis and another Academy Award winner I have been impressed with for years, Mahershala Ali. The list, of course, goes on, and may it continue to do so. I, for one, am happy to cheer in the cheap seats (for now) and hopefully the front row as I mature in my own work and career.
Recent progress aside, I realized quickly in the early ’00's that, all things being equal, few paths to success led through the stage and the screen for a woman and a minority. I also enjoyed the intricacies of politics and policy, and I didn’t want to leave those worlds behind entirely. My parents were right about one thing: I am not easily satisfied by one thing. I also discovered journalism my senior year, which struck me as the best combination of my many points of interest.
Eventually, my odd-ball combination of interests and passions led me to d.school, where I was surprised to see that students who were diligently pursuing the “hard skills” were hungry for and, in some cases, had a hard time with the “soft skills” I loved so much. These students were learning the classic improv tool of “yes and” and being called on to be aware of how their bodies moved, their breathing and their mindset. They were being asked to communicate across difference, set their ego aside and adopt different personas and roles. They were asked to play pretend, and set aside judgment.
…When I got to the d.school, I was surprised to see that students who were diligently pursuing the “hard skills” were hungry for and, in some cases, had a hard time with the “soft skills” I loved so much.
These were all skills I learned on the stage at Wellesley and at The National Theater Institute in Connecticut. My theatre classes became the most useful aspect of my education yet again. Prior to the d.school, they got me through live coverage work at The Washington Post, video production work at FactCheck.org and helped me self-regulate during live-to-tape sessions of Washington Week. The d.school was proof that the most valuable skills I had learned were not in economics or political science. They were the skills required to preform — to work with people in ever-changing environments, with hard deadlines and demanding audiences and through moments of daunting ambiguity.
Now, was I always the model performing arts student at the d.school? Absolutely not. Even with a theatre and production background, I had volumes to learn, especially around teaching and being patient with people who were not, like me, passionate about the performing arts.
The diversity of contexts in which I had learned and worked all played a role at one point or another in my work at the d.school, including building digital publishing prototypes. But one of the most important things I learned at the d.school was that the ability to perform, be comfortable with less-than-perfect and present ideas clearly on the fly are critical. Life is a big improv show.
All the offices are a stage…
More often than not, success in the workaday world requires setting aside our fear of embarrassment (think stage fright), our ego and our desire for perfection. It requires that we take what we get from someone (sometimes it’s a lemon) and build on it (squeeze it out, add a little sugar and water) to make something new (lemonade).
…One of the most important things I learned at the d.school was that the ability to perform, be comfortable with less-than-perfect and present ideas clearly on the fly are critical. Life is a big improv show.
So, if you’re keen on strengthening your design thinking muscle, take an acting class. Oh, and if your kid calls up and says they want to get a degree in theatre, don’t shut them down. Set aside your own ego and say, “Yes, and…”.
I run a consultancy at the crossroads of human-centered design, media, policy and professional development. I recently gave a TEDx talk on the need for a marriage of design and unconscious bias in professional development and media training.