What Improv Taught Me About Risk Taking

August 18, 2015

A few years ago I had lost a bet with a friend and, against my wishes, was accompanying her to an improv workshop as payment. I say against my wishes because to me, improv is the ultimate in anxiety-producing situations. You’re performing before an audience with no preparation, trying to get a laugh. And you’re most certainly about to make a fool of yourself.

On stage that night, all my fears were realized. As the scene turned to me, I panicked and went blank. I felt my face flush. I didn’t know what to do next. Out of desperation, I blurted out some nonsense about wanting to play baseball. The comment was utterly ridiculous, because at that point we were supposedly on a flight from New York to Miami.

In true improv fashion, another actor chimed in without missing a beat, “That’s a great suggestion, Doug. Anyone can play baseball outside. But it takes real skill to play it on an airplane between the passengers and the seats. Thankfully, I have a bag of bats, balls, and gloves in the overhead bin!”

For the next two minutes, we played a full inning of imaginary baseball 35,000 feet above the Atlantic. It was very funny.

As I reflected on the experience later, I saw that my initial anxiety was born from a fear that I would somehow screw up. And yet there I was, screwing up, wanting to play baseball on an airplane, and yet the scene worked. Doing the “right” thing in that moment was much less important than merely doing something. My inane comment gave us all we needed—motion.

I’m still in touch with my teacher from that workshop, Scotty Watson, a comedian and an alum of the renowned Second City comedy troupe. In addition to his work on stage, Watson also runs corporate improv workshops designed to enhance creativity and leadership effectiveness. A big part of the hurdle he helps leaders and teams overcome is starting before they know where to start.

“Starting is everything,” Watson believes. “If you don’t start, nothing happens. You can apply that to anything in life. Without starting, nothing happens in your scene, nothing happens in your business, nothing happens in your relationships—the list goes on. Even starting in the wrong direction is better than not starting at all because at least something is happening. I always tell my students and clients, ‘Do something. Do anything. Just start!’”

Watson believes that starting in the wrong direction not only is a good alternative to doing nothing, but can often be the best way to start something because it wakes people up, creates tension, and causes reactions, much like my baseball comment. As Watson describes it, “No one falls asleep when someone’s screwing up.”

One of the funniest scenes he can remember involved an industry veteran, Adrian Truss, mistakenly breaking the number-one rule of improv by saying “no” to another actor’s suggestion—usually a kiss of death because it kills a scene’s flow.

“Watching Truss screw up and then dig himself out of that hole was surprising, interesting, and hilarious, but most of all, it was memorable,” recalls Watson. “The proof is the fact that I’m telling you about it right now. If everything had gone according to plan, I would have forgotten about that scene years ago.”

Bad starts with a good recovery have sticking power and story value.

Watson adds that you don’t have to do anything wild or off the wall to start something. He draws an important distinction between “big C” creativity and “little c” creativity. “Big C” creativity is a game-changing new idea. “Little c” creativity is a small step that changes something right under your nose.

“In improv and in business, 99.9 percent of all creativity is “little c’ creativity,” Watson explained. “That’s where true innovation comes from. It’s small changes on top of small changes. It’s continuous little risks. And even ‘big C’ creativity is usually just a lot of ‘little c’ creativity added up. No one just drops an idea for the next iPad in a suggestion box. It takes a lot of little starts.”

To help clients and students get over the fear of starting, Watson reminds them of three cardinal principles developed by improv great Elaine May. He feels they apply to risk taking on stage, in business, or anywhere in life:

  1. Make active and positive choices. When you do things in good faith and to the best of your abilities, no matter what happens, good will come from it.
  2. Support the reality around you. When you start where you are, accepting the world around you just as it is, you gain power.
  3. Don’t worry about making mistakes, just fix them. When you make a mistake, take responsibility for it, fix it, and keep moving. Often this leads to the most interesting outcomes.

In parting, Watson shared one of the best insights of our conversation. It’s a line he tells himself all the time. “You have everything you need in order to be successful in the present moment. The only time you get into trouble is when you doubt that fact. Start where you are, with what you have, and everything works itself out.”

That’s a great thought to keep in mind when you’re jumping into the unknown.


Excerpted and adapted from Taking Smart Risks