Can an INTJ do Improv? (Part 2 of My First Improv Experience)

Can you see this guy doing improv?
(Perhaps, but the first scene would likely be the ensemble’s last)

Hopefully I have very few things in common with Hannibal Lecter from Silence of the Lambs. But, apparently, we are both INTJs as characterized by the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI). You can learn more about the MBTI, INTJs and the other 15 personality types here (and many other places on the internet):

I recently completed an amazing three-day improv immersion course at The Second City in Chicago and I wrote about it here: Friends and colleagues have either expressed surprise when hearing about this, laughed out loud, or generally acknowledged that I was clearly getting out of my comfort zone. So, I thought I might reflect a bit on my personality traits and this experience.

While conducting some research for this article, I came across an interesting 2015 piece by Heidi Priebe, who writes extensively on personality types, particularly the MBTI. In “What Exhausts Each Myers-Briggs Personality Type”, she reveals what exhausts the INTJs like myself…wait for it…IMPROVISATION! Here is an excerpt from her work:

“INTJs are the ultimate planners — they ruthlessly map out how they’re going to behave in future situations and glean energy from determining the best of all possible approaches. Though they are capable of improvising when need be, the INTJ will rapidly lose energy if they must act without deliberating for a significant period of time. They are big-picture thinkers, and they need to put everything into perspective before they feel completely comfortable taking action.”

So how in the heck did I get through those three days? Why am I actually energized by improv? Should I retake the MBTI test? Do I have multiple personalities? Do I need some counseling to figure out who I am?

I must admit that I was quite tired at the end of each day, which weren’t even full days as our sessions went from 10:00–4:00. I do wonder how a more intensive, longer training course would wear on me as an introvert who needs to re-energize after a lot of extroverted activity.

It’s quite entertaining to jump into Google and find fictional characters who are perceived to be INTJs. It’s also a bit scary: In addition to the aforementioned sociopathic cannibal Dr. Lecter, Severus Snape (yes, fellow Harry Potter fans, I know he turns out good in the end), Senator Palpatine (the evil Emperor in Star Wars who trains Darth Vader), and Loki (Marvel Comics and Norse mythology).

Thankfully there are some good guys and gals: Batman, Katniss Everdeen (from the Hunger Games), Ripley (from the Alien movies), Gandalf and Lord Elrond (The Lord of the Rings). But it’s kind of hard to picture any of them playing the Bunny Bunny game. (View if you would like to see Bunny Bunny in action.)

The Architect

Daniel McCullough on Unsplash

The INTJ personality type represents “The Architect”. Some sources refer to it as “The Mastermind.” As an INTJ, I was delighted to learn that it is among the rarest of the 16 MBTI types, representing approximately 2% of the population. That makes me special! I also realize that it might put sort of a ceiling on who might actually be interested in reading this article. (Though if my addressable market is the world, I could still shoot for 152 million people). The diagram below is a nice summary of INTJ traits and tendencies:


I’m drawn to the following statement on the website:

“A paradox to most observers, INTJs are able to live by glaring contradictions that nonetheless make perfect sense — at least from a purely rational perspective.”

So, as a big-picture thinker who needs to put everything into perspective, I guess it makes perfect sense that I would feel compelled to write an article to rationalize why in the world I’m interested in improv!

There are some strengths that outlines that are mostly, but not fully congruent with improv:

· Quick, Imaginative and Strategic Mind– INTJs are “insatiably curious” and “use their creativity and imagination not so much for artistry, but for planning contingencies and courses of action for all possible scenarios.” At The Second City, our teacher, Julia, talked to our class about how being current and taking in a lot of information is beneficial to improv (i.e. watching a lot of documentaries on obscure subjects). You never know what topic might emerge during an exercise or scene, so having a broad base to draw on is helpful.

On the other hand, having a strategic mind can be a barrier to improv. You generally don’t have time to plan, and when you do, it can get you into trouble. Planning requires being in your own head, working things out. In improv, your focus needs to be more external, and the twists and turns of a scene can unravel your plan quickly. I will need much more practice to reduce my tendency to try to mastermind a scene. I learned quickly that this doesn’t work!

· High Self-Confidence — Having the confidence to jump into an exercise or run with a scene is great for improv. However, the INTJ land mines for improv would include always being convinced you are right (because you won’t be) and having the innate desire to correct the views or activities of others (which kills an exercise or scene).

· Independent and Decisive — In my limited experience, decisiveness makes for a good improviser. I can often make up my mind quickly, but during the two exercises that gave me more difficulty than others (Freeze and Hot Spot), I was tentative about jumping in. I couldn’t decide about the right moment or the right idea. As such, I wasn’t as engaged and felt like I wasn’t holding up my end for the group. Fortunately, on other occasions I feel like decisiveness served me well.

Independence is not a good improviser trait. In the weeks leading up to my class, some of my colleagues would say things like “Can’t wait to hear your stand-up routine when you get back.” That’s an honest misunderstanding of improv, which is a consummate team (or better yet, as Kelly Leonard and Tom Yorton explain in “Yes, And,“ an ensemble) sport. I can see how independence and decisiveness is great for the individual stand-up comedian, but improv is all about interdependence and working as part of an ensemble, which is not an INTJ’s natural tendency.

· Open-minded– The website describes INTJs as being “very intellectually receptive”, which is highly congruent with improv, but also notes that this is typically the case when “supported by logic”. The INTJ must often suspend the requirement for logic and rationality for improv, which may be aided by their “aversion to rules and traditions.” While there are certainly some basic rules in improv, such as “Yes, And,” you have a lot of latitude around where you take an idea or a character. INTJs: Just lose that need for logic!

In our course, I loved the mirror exercise during which we co-created words, sounds, and gestures with a partner. However, some of these INTJ strengths — strategic thinking, independence, self-confidence — took work to overcome. I would get an idea in my mind and want to steer it. I had to fight myself to stay in the moment, lock eyes with my partner and just go with her. When it works, it’s really rewarding. (You were awesome Priscilla!)

This doesn’t sound too bad does it? A number of INTJ strengths line up nicely with what might make a good improviser. Until we get to some of the weaknesses we INTJs must overcome. Sigh.

· Judgmental– As “INTJs tend to have complete confidence in their thought process”, the necessity to yield, sometimes fully, to the scene or character direction of your improv partners could be painful to an INTJ. From the most basic “Yes, And” exercises to more complex exercises and scenes, you mustaccept your partners’ offers and build upon them.

· Overly analytical — The INTJ has a “sometimes neurotic level of perfectionism.” While I hope that it doesn’t reach the neurotic level, I clearly recognize my tendency for perfectionism, which can result in being very hard on myself. I wondered going in how I might react when the absence of time to plan and prepare would result in flawed performances in games and scenes. The use of silly and fun games helped a great deal. While none of us wanted to let the group down, the occasional flubs came and went, often with laughter. It helped that our teacher, Julia, created a very safe environment.

· Loathe highly structured environments –In one sense, the world of improv is loosely structured, which on the surface would appeal to an INTJ. There are some rules, but by definition, it’s not fully scripted and predetermined. The catch is that INTJs love an unstructured situation that they can then shape according to theirown vision. (The Mastermind!) In improv, the structure may be provided by the whole ensemble, other members of the ensemble — or even the audience.

I freely admit to struggling with all of these tendencies over the three days. However, going back to the notion of INTJs being a paradox, I am reminded of and encouraged by my classmates’ feedback in our “Circle of Love” class recap. One said I had this serious kind of face, but then I’d be surprisingly silly. Others commented that I was clearly “all in,” totally committed. All in all, I was able to keep the challenging INTJ traits in check. Maybe there is hope!

I’m a huge fan of Adam Grant, the increasingly more famous and disturbingly young organizational psychologist and Wharton business professor. Ironically, one week before I went to Second City, he closed his WorkLife podcast entitled “Your Hidden Personality” with the following statement:

“Your personality matters, but your ability to adapt matters more. Who you become is not about the traits you have but what you decide to do with them.”

(You should listen to Adam’s podcast — it’s terrific!)

His final reflection encourages me. I have a long way to go to be either an improv performer or perhaps an improve teacher in the corporate setting (perhaps a teaser for Part 3???), but I plan to continue the journey. I can become something more than what the test says. Alas, I think Hannibal might be a bit of a work-in-progress.

(A special thank you to my brilliant Innovation Engine colleague Ann Somers Hogg for her spot-on memory of Adam’s insight)

I would love to hear from more experienced improvisers on my assessment, as my sample size of 18 hours is fairly small. Are any of you INTJs as well? Or am I on a fool’s errand? How do you overcome natural tendencies that work against good improv?

An internet search pegs Tina Fey as an INTP — that’s close to INTJ! I’d be happy with even a teeny-weeny percentage of her talent!

Did You Get Something Out of This?

If so, that is truly gratifying to me. Thank you for reading! It would be even more gratifying if you would clap so that others on Medium might find it as well. And it would be really awesome if you clapped a lot! It really doesn’t take that much time to get to 25 or 50…

If you have some thoughts or experiences to share, I’d love to hear them below. And I’m on Twitter, if you are so inclined: @JayGerhart