BkNts: Improv Wisdom


Booknotes on “Improv Wisdom,” by Patricia Ryan Madson

I read this book as part of an improv class my senior year in college. It was the theoretical underpinning of an amazing class, and it was during those 10 weeks that I think I was most open to spontaneously helping people out (I’m trying to get back to that point). But more specifically, being aware and open enough to notice the opportunities to brighten people’s days. I think that’s pretty high praise for any book, so I’ll stop there.

Purpose and Action

A vital improv principle: all starting points are equally valid. They begin where they are, often in the middle. With a big task or confusing problem, when you don’t know where to start, begin with the most obvious thing, whatever is in front of you. Once a job is under way, you have a new and more realistic perspective.

Maxim; Start anywhere

“How do you feel?” is a commonly asked question. But maybe the better question is to find the “proper activity” or “the right thing to be doing.” This implies conscious intention. Answering this question implies direction. What is your purpose right now? Someone might ask “how do I feel about my spouse?” and become frustrated. But if they asked, “what is my purpose in being with this person?” there might be a better reaction. Use the litmus of purpose when overwhelmed with feelings or confused about a decision. Objectives come in many sizes and shapes, and there is meaning in everything we do. Wishing things were different (or that I was different) simply wastes time. Work with what is actually front of you.

Notice that reactions have two parts: how I feel and what I do. If I act on the feeling alone I may well speak to my spouse in an accusing manner. Instead, if I consider what needs to be done, I can approach the situation more constructively. While I cannot control my first reaction to an event, I can control what I do thereafter. Choose your behavior mindfully.

When you have the answer, act upon it. Good intentions, beliefs, resolutions, even promises don’t matter. Action does.

For many of us, moving forward comes only after reflection, comparison, and planning. We think we must decide on our course. Improvisers begin before there is a plan. What we do moves us forward and gives us more information about how to proceed.

We act because we have a purpose or question. Maybe curiosity and purpose actually cover most of our action set.

A Japanese psychiatrist, Dr. Shoma Morita (contemporary of Sigmund Freud) founded a mental-health movement - Morita Therapy - based on the healing power of action. He helped his patients to see that constructive action was already a cure, suggesting that instead of trying to overcome their neurotic thinking, they should focus on doing what they needed to do in their lives and doing it well.


Author has a paperweight on her desk: “what would you do if you knew you would not fail?” Improvisers discover that we don’t need this unrealistic guarantee to begin. The only real failure is not doing anything.

A life of meaning and value is achieved through purposeful action. Risk is involved.

Deeper Discovery

We practice improvisation not only to “express ourselves” but to connect with others in a more immediate way.

Only dead fish go with the flow. The invitation to improvise is not a prescription for a careless approach to life. True improvisation is always an act of responsibility; it implies a conscious morality.

Where do ideas come from? In the West we view the individual as the creator. Works of art represent the mind of the artist, who takes credit or blame for them. Artists are put on a pedestal. It is little wonder that most of us don’t see ourselves as gifted in this way and avoid expressing anything. However, Eastern notions of art characterize this relationship between the artist and the work quite differently. The artist is considered the servant of the muses, not their master. The artist shows up, practices carefully the strokes or steps, and then humbly takes his place as channel, as shepherd for the images to be brought forth. Ideas, songs, poems, paintings come through the individual but are not thought to be of him. On Bali everyone is considered an artist. Art is simply what one does, not who one is.

Improvisers know that if they have to wait for inspiration or a good idea, few scenes would ever begin. Players step onto the stage because that is where things are happening. There is something meaningful here, combined with the idea of discovering and not inventing ideas, about good ideas coming only when they are required.

When we give up the struggle to show off our talent, a natural wisdom can emerge; our muse can speak through us. Focusing attention on the present puts you in touch with a kind of natural wisdom.


Maxim: say yes - cultivate yes phrases (you bet, you are right, I’m with you, good idea…)

There are people who prefer to say “Yes,” and there are people who prefer to say “No.” Those who say “Yes” are rewarded by the adventures they have, and those who say “No” are rewarded by the safety they attain. There are far more “No” sayers around than “Yes” sayers, but you can train one type to behave like the other.

Try this: for one day say yes to everything. Set your own preferences aside. Notice the results.

Blocking comes in many forms; it is a way of trying to control the situation instead of accepting it. We block when we say no, when we have a better idea, when we change the subject, when we correct the speaker, when we fail to listen, or when we simply ignore the situation. Saying no is the most common way we attempt to control the future. Blocking is often cleverly disguised as the critical or academic perspective.

Creating that third thing

My lesson has been that Polonius’s advice, “to thine own self be true,” isn’t quite right. When I improvise it isn’t my truth that comes to light, so much as the truth that includes all of those with whom I share this life.

Improvisers need to enter the same reality in order to work together effortlessly.

The beauty of improv is that it isn’t the compromise or halfway point (averages are always boring - a la Rory Sutherland) between the performers. It is instead from a third place that isn’t necessarily like what either one of us would do individually.

Those who “drive” (always control or dominate the situation) and those who “wimp” (fail to contribute or accept responsibility) are making improv errors.

Safety lies in knowing your partner will go along with whatever idea you present.

Focus, Attention, Selflessness

A good improviser is someone who is awake, not entirely self-focused, and moved by a desire to do something useful and give something back and who acts upon this impulse.

“Always say yes if someone asks for help and you can give it,” vow the author made after a stranger offered to help.

Ask yourself three questions: what have I received from others in my life? What have I given back to them? What trouble or bother had I caused them? Divide your life into set time frames, and go through them methodically. The only proper response is a feeling of debt. When we see ourselves as rich, in the sense of having received much, it is natural to want to give back.

The author started the practice of paying for the car behind them at any toll bridge crossing.

So often, the message that we hear is “take care of yourself.” In The Age of Missing Information, author Bill McKibben wrote: “when I thought about all the TV that I watched, the residual idea, the central theme, is that each of us is the center of the universe - the most important thing on earth. We’re being told that we’re the heaviest object around and that everything needs to orbit around our ideas of convenience and comfort.”

Try this: consider others first. Devote a whole day to putting the convenience of others ahead of your own. Check this against your habitual response. Notice when this is hard for you. Discover how rich this can make you feel.

I have learned that confidence follows success. Trying to overcome fear is the wrong strategy. There isn’t any need to fix these feelings. Performance anxiety comes from excessive self-focus. Redirecting your attention from symptoms to something constructive is helpful - don’t fight the fear or attend to it. Performance anxiety can be understood simply as misplaced attention. Fear is not the problem - allowing your attention to be consumed by it is.

Maxim: pay attention

What we notice becomes our world (a la 12 Rules). Life is attention, and what we are attending to determines to a great extent how we experience the world. Make the decision to be a person who notices and remembers names, and then start learning them.

Just show up

Maxim: just show up.

Anecdote of someone who was nervous about what it would take to be a good mentor. But he soon found out that all he really needed to do was show up on time, and good things happened.

Try this: just show up. Make a list of five places that are your “hot spots,” places where the important things in life happen for you. Why not put the book down, pick one of the places on your list, and show up there?

Instead of packing, show up empty-handed but alert, cheerful, and ready to receive unexpected gifts. The habit of excessive planning impedes our ability to see what is actually in front of us. The mind that is occupied is missing the present.

Maxim: don’t prepare

Be average

Maxim: be average

Striving for an original idea takes us away from our everyday intelligence, and it can actually block access to the creative process. Maybe seeing “outside the box” is actually just seeing what is really obvious but, up until then, unseen. “The real voyage of discovery lies not in seeking new landscapes but in having new eyes” (Marcel Proust).

When I go to meetings, sometimes my best contributions happen when I just state what seems most readily apparent to me, and everyone goes, “why didn’t we think of that?” - which is a good sign that I’ve had a good idea (a la Obvious Adam.


Always deliver more than you promise.

How to give a better speech: instead of writing out your notes in precise language, try writing questions to yourself. Then, answer the question using natural speech patterns.

Having fun loosens the mind. A flexible mind works differently from a rigid mind. The pleasure that accompanies our mirth makes learning easier and creates a climate for social as well as intellectual discovery.

Dr. David Reynolds, anthropologist and international authority on Japanese psychology, developed a paradigm known as Constructive Living. (investigate further)

When you are meeting new people, it is helpful to volunteer information about yourself, your interests, hobbies, dreams. This can open a door to friendship.

When the human heart has something to say, saying it is always timely.

Rituals put you on course.

Audience members try throwing funny topics at improvisers. These suggestions arise from two assumptions. The first is that we’re all here to see comedy. The second is that pairing “unlikely” objects will produce the biggest challenge and result in the funniest scene. It’s a closed loop, though - the joke is already over once they’ve made the funny suggestion. Don’t make jokes. Make sense.

Dealing well with people we like is easy; the mark of a fine improviser is their ability to work skillfully, kindly, and respectfully with those with whom they have difficulty (a la Bible).

Stop trying to flee the wobble (between chaos and certainty, a la 12 Rules).