Getting Out Of Your Head

How improv can transform your creativity

I picked up the microphone and looked out at the crowd of business people, gathered in neat rows on the top floor of a Chicago skyscraper. They were here for a talk about IDEO and design thinking.

“Let’s start with a warm-up,” I said. “Take a pen and paper, turn to the person next to you, and draw a sketch of them.”

This was greeted with murmurs of embarrassed dismay, as if I’d instructed everyone to remove their pants. But I was ready for this, and raised my voice to demand that everyone sketch in silence. I let a minute of anxious scribbling go by and then instructed them to share their drawings with their subjects. The room erupted, and I had to shout.

“Every time we do this exercise with adults, there’s one word that we always hear when we ask people to share. And that word is ‘sorry.’”

There was relieved laughter and nods of recognition.

“We often do this exercise with kids,” I continued. “We never hear ‘sorry’ from them. Something strange happens when we become adults: we start to be concerned about the judgement of others and this affects our ability to be creative.”

Now the room was silent. Once again, the “Sketch Your Neighbor” exercise had worked. Now I could begin a talk about how everyone could rediscover the creative confidence they had apparently lost in their youth.

But as I looked around the meeting room, I had a disturbing realization. There was someone in the room who had been left cold, someone who hadn’t experienced a shift in mindset during this exercise. And that person was me.

I’d recently passed my tenth anniversary of joining IDEO, and I could talk about the company’s design-thinking methods as well as anyone on the planet. But maybe that familiarity was becoming a problem. It used to feel strange, almost illicit, to conduct a research observation in somebody’s home, asking them personal questions while rummaging through their cupboards. I used to experience a flutter of adrenalin in brainstorms, scared that my ideas wouldn’t be wild enough. Entering in a project space full of Foam-Core boards and Post-its used to seem like climbing aboard a innovation rocket that might explode on the launchpad or ascend to the stars.

I was still doing all the methods that I outlined in my talks, but following these had once jolted me into dramatic new mindsets. Now they felt as comfortable as an old armchair.

I took steps to address this midlife work crisis. I tried walking meetings, sketchnoting, and a standing desk. I tried meditation and mindfulness. And I read a lot of books about innovation and creativity. These made me realize how design thinking had become mainstream during the past decade. Then I came across a book that surprised me.

Its title was Yes, And. At first, I thought it was another design-thinking book. We often used the principle of “yes, and” during brainstorms: instead of saying “no” to someone’s idea, you should agree with it and then try to build something else on top of it. But then I saw the subtitle: How Improvisation Reverses “No, But” Thinking and Improves Creativity and Collaboration — Lessons from The Second City.

Second City was the home of improv comedy, a collection of Chicago theaters and classrooms that had produced hit shows and comedy superstars for more than 50 years. The shows I had seen were hilarious. But the most remarkable part was when the actors asked for suggestions from the audience and spontaneously came up with scenes. It seemed like creative magic: conjuring something out of nothing.

But now, here they were, sharing their creative process with the world, just like IDEO had done with design thinking. Reading the book, the parallels were striking, and not just through our shared use of the phrase “yes, and” (for the record, they came up with it first). Both organizations had a process that acted as scaffolding for creativity and they evangelized this process in the hope of enabling more creativity in the world. Second City was like IDEO’s cooler, funnier cousin. We had come up with the Apple Mouse and the squishy-handled toothbrush. They had come up with Tina Fey and Stephen Colbert.

Kelly Leonard, author of “Yes, And” and all-round improv dude

I sought out the author of the book and soon found myself chatting to Kelly Leonard. The son of a famous Chicago radio broadcaster, Kelly had joined Second City as a dishwasher back in the ‘80s and had risen up to produce countless shows with famous and soon-to-be-famous comedians. He had wavy salt and pepper hair and a Kris Kristofferson beard and said brilliant and funny things like, “Comedy is all about confronting your fear of death.”

Hanging out with Kelly was inspiring. However, even as I nodded along to his theories of improv, I carried within myself a profound terror of actually doing it. For all my pretensions of being laid-back and spontaneous, I was someone who liked to prepare thoughts ahead of time. The idea of standing on a stage and having to generate something creative and funny in the moment made my palms prickle with hot sweat.

And then I remembered that I was in my midlife work crisis and that I should be actively seeking out situations that made me uncomfortable. So before the fear could paralyze me, I signed myself up for improv classes.

I could hear the muffled sounds of another class in the room next door. It sounded like people were screaming…

Second City occupies a 1990s-era movie theater/mall on the corner of North Avenue and Wells Street. Other than a Starbucks, a Chipotle, and a GNC store at ground level, the whole structure is occupied by Second City’s five theaters, offices, training center, and classrooms. But the building feels far more “mall” than it does Second City.

My Improv A class was held in a brightly lit windowless room with walls that were paneled with pale wood up to waist height. It seemed like the kind of space the CIA would use for an enhanced interrogation.

The students were sitting on chairs trying not to stare at each other: a waitress, a college basketball player, an aspiring actor/Uber driver, a lawyer, a computer programmer… I felt like I was in a grown-up version of The Breakfast Club.

Into this self-conscious stew walked our teacher, Nicole. She was a petite 30-something with a page-boy haircut, but carried herself with a let’s-get-this-done air.

“OK, everybody up.”

We stood in a circle. I felt uncomfortably aware of my hands. I tried holding them behind my back, then in front of my groin. Both felt weird. I opted for letting them hang, ape-like, by my sides. Through the wall behind me, I could hear the muffled sounds of another class happening in the room next door. It sounded like people were screaming. I thought about running out of the room, down the corridor and stairs, and escaping into the cool Chicago night.

Nicole’s voice broke through my spiraling panic: “We’ll start with a warm-up. Let’s try ‘Red Ball.’”

She mimed passing a soccer-sized ball to the computer programmer. “Red ball,” she said. “Thank you,” he replied, and looked for someone else to pass it to. After the imaginary red ball had done a few rounds, Nicole shaped her hands to indicate a much smaller ball, locked eyes with me and tossed it my way. “Blue ball.”

“Thank you,” I dutifully replied, pretend-catching the invisible ball.

Soon a variety of sizes and weights of imaginary balls were being passed between us. Keeping track of them required concentration, so I thought less about myself. Also, I was making eye contact with the other students and they started to seem less scary.

Nicole ended the scene by raising her right fist and made us play it again. This time each ball had an emotion associated with it, as well as a size and a color. When you caught the ball, you had to express the emotion. After a few minutes of this, we were weeping, laughing, and bellowing like lunatics. Between balls, I snuck a look at my watch. We were 10 minutes in. The class was three-hours long.

With one exercise after another, Nicole chipped away at our collective self-consciousness. However, I was surprised by the amount of mime (or “object work” as it was called here). My mental model of improv was people saying spontaneous witty stuff to each other, which was intimidating enough. Having to do this while pretending to play golf or be a teapot raised the stakes even further.

The idea of standing on a stage and having to generate something creative and funny in the moment made my palms prickle with hot sweat.

In the gaps between the exercises, Nicole explained the principles of improv. In its basic form, it involved two people acting out a scene. As well as agreeing with whatever the other person said and building on it, the performers looked for opportunities to describe where they were, what they were doing, and who their characters were:

Person A: “I’m so happy we got tickets to see Justin Bieber!” [Saying where we are.]

Person B : “Yes, and it’s even better that I managed to get this gun past security…” [Agreeing to it and explaining what they’re about to do.]

Person A: “Dad, why do you try to kill everyone I love?” [Defining their relationship, setting up a nice dramatic conflict.]

I grabbed at these rules like a drowning man who’d been tossed some pool noodles. But no sooner had I learned them, than they started working against me.

I found myself in scenes with fellow students, furiously trying to work out ways in which I could cram a definition of our place, relationship, and activity into a single sentence. This would either emerge as an awkward exposition — “Sister, isn’t it great that we’re here in this restaurant planning a bank heist?” — or my brain would grind completely to a halt and I would would just stare at my scene partner while my mouth opened and closed like a catfish.

The author, pretending to be a cat with a machine gun.

Nicole came to my rescue.

“You’re getting in your head,” she explained. “Stop worrying about what the right thing to say is, and instead pay attention to how you feel… Let that guide you.”

My over-literal self had a problem with “getting in my head.” Wasn’t that where my brain lived? Didn’t every thought and action come out of there?

Luckily, Nicole had an exercise that would demonstrate what she meant. She had me act out a scene with Mary, the basketball player.

The scene had some very specific constraints. It had to start with me knocking on a door and when Mary opened it, I had to be miming an action. In addition, Nicole would coach from the side, telling me what kind of emotions I should be feeling.

Still feeling skeptical, I reached up and rapped my knuckles on an imaginary door. As Mary moved to open it, I pretended to cradle a baby. I was still feeling very self-conscious about object work and I figured that this action was about as unambiguous as mime could get.

Mary looked at my interlocked arms and raised an eyebrow.

“Why are you carrying my dog?”

Alarm bells went off in my head: “Cancel the clever things you were planning to say about the baby. The baby is now a dog!”

But, before my gears could begin turning, I heard Nicole’s voice: “Be apologetic!”

I looked down at my arms. Whatever was in there, it certainly wasn’t moving.

I looked back up at Mary’s open accepting face and shrugged.

“I killed it.”

Nicole: “Angry!”

Mary: “You fucking idiot.”

Me: “Well, if you and your mother looked after the dog sometimes rather than leaving it all to me, maybe this wouldn’t happen!”

Mary: “But how did he end up dead?!?”

I was so busy being indignant that the next words came out without thinking:

Me: “The microwave.”

Nicole: “Furious!”

Mary: “Why the hell did you put Fluffkins in the microwave?!?”

Me: “Because he was WET!”

Everyone laughed and Nicole called “scene.” OK, it wasn’t exactly Seinfeld, but from the inside, something different had happened. The words had felt like they’d risen up from inside my body rather than from my brain. Throughout my life, I’d done well by having clever things to say, but they’d been clever things I’d pre-crafted in my head: witty grenades that I would toss into a conversation. What I’d just experienced was a form of creativity in the moment, that arose out of the emotion. It genuinely felt like somebody else had come up with the lines.

It was a revelation. Maybe I could actually do this improv thing. All I needed was Nicole to be at my side for the rest of my life, shouting emotion cues into my ear.

Improv places you in a high-pressure situation where unconscious creativity is the only solution.

In recent years, improv has seeped into the broader world, but its impact has been pretty mild. In business meetings, you’ll now hear people politely say “yes, and…,” before lobbing their opinion into a conversation. And there’s a general recognition that it’s good to have a flexible mindset, rather than trying to keep your world as rigidly ordered as the Swiss railway system.

But the thing that I took away from improv was something more rooted in personal consciousness: I felt what’s it like to not be in my head. When my conscious self stopped thinking and analyzing, something else had bubbled up. And it came from somewhere other than that zone in my frontal cortex that I like to refer to as “me.” Was there really another creative entity working inside me?

Eleven miles north of the Second City theater, at Northwestern University, psychology professor Mark Beeman has been studying the neuroscience of creativity. One of his experiments involved measuring subjects’ brain activity with MRI and EEG while they performed remote association tasks. A typical remote association problem is: “Find the single word that can combine with fellow, spread, and room.” (The answer is “bed.”)

Beeman and his colleagues saw an increase in activity in the right hemisphere’s anterior superior temporal gyrus when the subject came up with the answer. However, the temporal gyrus brain activity happened around 0.3 seconds before the “aha” moment. We like to think that the feeling of insight is our conscious brain spotting the answer. The evidence suggests that another part of our brain has the idea, and then our conscious self becomes aware of this fact. Rather like Steve Jobs claiming to have invented the iPhone, our conscious self then takes all the credit.

Does unconscious creativity live here?

If you stop and think about it, unconscious creativity happens all the time: weird ideas pop into your head while you’re in the shower, or strange daydreams arise while walking the dog. Apparently random thoughts are constantly floating at the periphery of our consciousness. It’s like we have tiny lunatics living in the basements of our minds, shouting ideas up through the floorboards. The conscious brain has a lot of other stuff to do, like paying attention to the world, implementing plans, and checking Facebook, so, most of the time, it ignores the muffled shouting.

What’s fascinating about improv is that it places you in a high-pressure situation where unconscious creativity is the only solution. When operating in the moment, and having to react to others, there is simply no time for rational cognition. The basement lunatic has to be released. All those warm-up exercises are designed to lull the rational mind into a sense of security, so that the participant can make the leap to unconscious, intuitive creativity.

When I finished the course, I spoke to Kelly Leonard about my experiences. He nodded with the patience of a man who has heard many converts raving about the life-changing powers of improv.

“There’s a myth that improv training is just for people who want to be comedians,” he said. “It’s much more than that.”

Kelly has been looking at the way improv games help people build empathy and emotional intelligence. Or as he puts it: “Improv is yoga for your social skills.”

For me, however, improv has been acting like creativity CPR.

Over the following weeks, I continued my improv classes and they confirmed what I’d experienced during my Microwaved Dog moment: creative ideas can bubble up from heightened emotional states. I realized that if I want to think something up, it’s a good tactic to start by feeling something. This helped explain the emphasis on mime: if you’re acting out an emotion, it helps you access a feeling. (There’s a load of psychology research that confirms this mind-body backchannel: it’s not just that happiness causes smiles. The act of smiling can also cause happiness. Improv uses mime as a way to hack emotions.)

I’m now three courses into the Second City program and I continue to learn new things at every class. We’ve also begun an IDEO-Second City exchange program, so the two organizations can learn from each other. I still suck at performing scenes, but I am seeing new skills show up in my life. It has been particularly noticeable during public speaking, where I now regularly get urges to go off script and blurt out random monologues based on a sudden thought or emotion. Occasionally, there are moments when what I say taps into some unspoken feeling in the room and the audience reacts with an eruption of laughter. These are always the high points of the talk.

Of course, sometimes it falls flat. But I’ve come to value that, too. Because I don’t want to just put other people into uncomfortable situations, like when I make them sketch their neighbors. I’ve learned that I need to subject myself to discomfort, too. Because discomfort loosens the vice-like grip of my rational consciousness. Now that I know there is an invisible funny lunatic living inside me, I’ve decided that I want to hand over the reins to him from time to time. Because when I do, great things can happen. Being out of my head is a weird, unpredictable, and sometimes scary way to live. But for all of these reasons, I have come to love it.

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