What I Learned at Improv Night

Matt Havens Personal Development Speaker Article

You’d think with a title like that I might be telling you about my first time performing improv. I’d share my escapades trying to find a joke to connect the word “elephant” with what was transpiring on stage. The crowd – half drunk and excited to be out in public with other adults instead of carpooling kids to practice – would be laughing hysterically and later asking me for my autograph. SNL would later call and ask me to join the cast next season as a writer. I’d soon work my way up to Weekend Update anchor and eventually spin-off my own show or Netflix special. Life…would…be….amazing!

Well if that’s what you had in mind, you’d be extremely wrong. Because until last week, I had never even watched live improv comedy before. But last week I had the chance to watch my first live improv show in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. I was in town to speak at the Iowa Medical Group Management Association (IMGMA) conference and the group got together the night before at the Theatre Cedar Rapids across the street. The improv show was set up as a battle between two groups and the audience had a blast – myself included!

I was really impressed watching it unfold live. Both groups looked like they were having so much fun performing, it actually made me wonder if I could ever do it myself. At that moment, I immediately stopped drinking my beer and snapped back to reality – because improv is extremely difficult to get right. However, in my desire to learn a little more about it, I started to wonder what I could LEARN from improv. What is it about the artform which might translate elsewhere?

So without further ado, here are the 3 things I learned from improv last week:

You have to practice every single thing you’re good at.

While the performers made it look fairly easy, improv takes practice. But then what doesn’t take practice? I talk all the time about millennials and how they have to recognize advancement is a process, not a right. You shouldn’t expect to be given anything you made no effort to earn. And I think the same can be said here as it relates to getting good at stuff – leadership, new skills, etc. You have to practice literally everything you’re good at in life, so don’t expect to be a pro on the first day.

Sometimes you need to roll with the cards you’re dealt.

One of the rules of improv is to never contradict something another cast member has said or done. You just have to roll with where the storyline might take you. In business, however, we don’t always roll with it. We spend hours debating ideas or strategies in meetings or through countless emails. What if, instead, we started to roll with the punches a little more than we do now? New HR policy you don’t like? Try giving it a shot first before dismissing its value. What if you don’t agree with the direction one of your direct reports wants to take a project? Sometimes rolling with it (within reason) might allow them to self-discover or find some alternative solutions to a problem. Now there are clearly sometimes we shouldn’t just “roll with it,” but maybe we should all take a chance every once in a while. You might be surprised what happens when you relinquish a little control.

Keep the main thing the main thing.

We’ve all heard the phrase before, but how often do we practice it? I was impressed with the performers’ ability to always keep the main thing at the forefront. The show started by asking the audience for a word. Our group chose “pogo stick.” After some word association, the groups began acting out a story, taking the audience through a ridiculous storyline complete with college dormitories, Olympic pogo-sticking events, and the subsequent legal proceedings (think Nancy Kerrigan….). Throughout it all, they never lost focus on the main thing: pogo sticks. It’s important to remember that in life and in business. You’ll always get distracted by the “other” things going on around you. Keep the main thing the main thing and you’ll find a way to steer the ship through all the noise.

Those are three pretty simple concepts which we can all apply in various areas of life. As for me, I’m headed to Indianapolis, New York, and Dallas the next couple of weeks. If I’m ever going to get the Netflix special, I better get started on my improv game. One of those cities has to have a class or something…..

Until next time!

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