Improv and the workplace may seem like archenemies. But inside every zany performance, there are some serious life lessons that will reframe how you think about thinking itself. In improv, there is no preparation allowed — everyone is keyed up to perform on the spot. And that mindset “makes you happy in a way that a lot of other things do not,” says Nishit Tewari, a teacher at San Francisco’s EndGames Improv. “It can’t completely transform your life. But it can show you a direction to get there.” We sat down with Tewari to learn ways you can apply that same flavor of improv-induced happiness in one of the places you least expect — the office.
Make fun a bigger part of your life
Improv does something special to both the audience and the performers: it creates a space where people feel free enough to turn on their truest selves. And that authenticity is what unblocks many barriers to happiness. “For me, doing improv comes from a place of having fun and experiencing that fun with other people,” Tewari says. When you spend more time on having fun, your world suddenly tilts. It gives you permission to do more of the things you love and less of the things you don’t. That permission “changes you forever,” Tewari says. “You just start treating everything as more important.”
Your first reaction should be “yes”
This three-lettered word is where acceptance lives. “We’re constantly improvising, constantly exploring things,” Tewari tells us. “And saying ‘yes’ means agreeing to that exploration.” Responding with an instant affirmative also shows that you acknowledge someone’s idea — and believe in them so much that you’re going to build on it. When you make openness a reflex, you have a higher likelihood of uncovering greatness. That mindset also helps you stay focused on the real purpose of things. For example, let’s say you’re going back and forth with someone about picking a place to meet up. Really, you just want to get together. Quickly saying “yes” allows you to remember what matters so you can move the scene forward. “‘Yes allows you to see where things can go,” Tewari says.
Make others look good
Improv is teamwork in its purest form. Success is never about the individual — it’s all about the team. “You have to coach people to take chances and support other people’s chances. And the more you support people, the more it will push you to take chances of your own.” That symbiotic relationship gets stronger the more you back your team. Perhaps you start performing and lose track of where you’re going. It’s the team’s responsibility to salvage the situation by either introducing a new scene or doing more with your idea. If there’s an interesting character or situation, your teammates can volley ideas back and take it somewhere new. “If someone made a choice, see if you can find agreement with it. Then, find the same excitement they had.”
Create a culture of acceptance
A great performance is born from acceptance. “If you have a group that’s comfortable with each other, you can do anything,” Tewari says. But to get there, you have to shed your fear of fear itself. Put yourself in situations that enable your group’s safety net to materialize. Tewari says that as a teacher, it’s his job to go out on a limb so his class can see that whatever they do, they’ll always be supported by the team. “If you’re not in that safe space, nothing great will happen.” Tewari says one way to ramp up the acceptance level on your team is to remember that everyone actually wants you to succeed. The real judgment is always within ourselves. Our natural inclination is to protect people when we’re fearful of the same thing. “Once people know that you’re taking a chance, they’re naturally on your side.”
Toss out the filter
To play your best ideas, you have to “play a version of yourself,” Tewari tells us. And throwing away your filter is how your best ideas are able to see the light of day. One tactic for getting out of editing mode is to put yourself in conversation mode. Wherever you are, try to have a normal conversation — whether you’re talking to an audience of zero or a thousand. When we’re in that flow, we’re just saying what we know and how we feel about things. “There’s no thinking involved.” That honesty allows us to commit to being truly present. If you have trouble flicking off the self-censoring switch, Tewari suggests exploring what the worst-case scenario would be. In improv, the worst thing that can happen is that the audience might not think you’re funny. It’s a temporary phase, and there’s always another chance to improve.
Thinking like an improviser lets you bask in possibility. The show is happening now. There’s no rehearsal, and you don’t need to be afraid. In the end, Tewari says, improv is about learning how to be comfortable with yourself so you can bring out that same ease in others. It comes down to two people saying to each other, “I can take a chance and support you, and together we can make sense of it all.”