An Improvised Well-being

June 22, 2017  • Kelly Leonard

Kelly Leonard is the executive director of insights and applied improvisation at Second City Works. He will be speaking at the Caregiving track at the Aspen Ideas Festival. Below, he describes how lessons he learned as he was training in improv at Second City can help one navigate life’s challenges. 

In mid-May, I found myself on stage at Memorial Sloan Kettering in New York City with my Second City colleague Kate James. We were delivering an interactive keynote on improvisational practice and the ability to strengthen your focus and listening; to better your collaboration and communication skills; and the overwhelming need to find healthy ways to incorporate inevitable failures into your personal and professional narrative.

Surely it is intolerable to make a mistake that impacts people’s lives.

This last point garnered a lot of conversation. Errors are an integral part of learning, but hospitals have always had a hard time with that notion. Surely it is intolerable to make a mistake that impacts people’s lives. But there is an overlooked statistic: 97 percent of the decisions made in health care organizations are not clinically related.

Perhaps unlike hospital settings, improvisation has what I’ll describe as a “healthy relationship with failure.” Like everyone, we aim for success—be it on stage, in the classroom, in the boardroom, at home or in moments of crisis and struggle. But we recognize that any path to success is going to be strewn with mistakes, misunderstandings, and inevitable failures—big and small. Improvisational pedagogy incorporates failures into the process.

Any path to success is going to be strewn with mistakes.

We learn to see all obstacles as gifts, to make mistakes work for us, and to create context for the inevitable failures so that they can be turned into truly teachable moments that foster our personal agility and resilience.

This view of obstacles, however, is not so easily come by. There is a crucial need for individuals to be given practical support in the art of empathetic communication. Together with Ai-Jen Poo of Caring Across Generations, Second City aims to bring the wellspring of improvisational practice into the hands, hearts, and minds of those who need it most. Ai-Jen’s passionate mission to equip caregivers with the tools they need to navigate a taxing, emotional, and ever-changing environment is a source of inspiration to all of us at Second City. If we can play even the smallest part in providing a pathway for these individuals to take advantage of our insights or practices to the betterment of themselves and those they care for, we will count that as one giant success.

Like improvisation, life itself is primarily unscripted.

We talk a lot in our field about being “others-focused.” For an improviser—unequipped with any sort of script—this is the only way you can build a scene with your partner. And like improvisation, life itself is primarily unscripted.

Over the close to sixty years that The Second City has been teaching this work, it’s our students who initially clued us into the transformative power of improvisation in their own lives—off the comedy stage and directly applicable to their roles as parent, spouse, colleague, and caregiver.

Last year, The Second City partnered with the Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine to conduct a study based on our program to use improvisational exercises to improve the quality of life of individuals with Parkinson’s disease. Twenty-two participants completed the entire study and according to the study, “all participants indicated that they would recommend the class to others with Parkinson’s. All but one (95 percent) of the participants enjoyed the class and all but one (95 percent) felt it was beneficial for their symptoms.”

There have been a few other academic forays into the role that improvisation can play in this area. Katie Watson is a trained improviser who has worked on the faculty of The Second City Training Center for years. Katie is also a professional medical educator who has developed a training program called Medical Improv. In a paper called Perspective: Serious Play: Teaching Medical Skills with Improvisational Theater Techniques,” she wrote, she noted, “Physicians and improvisers are driven by the same paradox: the need to prepare for unpredictability.”

As my friend and colleague Heather Caruso has said, “Improvisation is practice in being unpracticed.” Heather leads The Center for Decision Research at The University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business and we have built a partnership that looks at behavioral science through the lens of improvisation. It’s our firm belief that too many of us are chasing down one utopian behavioral transformation after another to fix what appears to be not working. Our proposition is that scientific insights supported by improvisational practice gives individuals the knowledge and mobility that they need to make a variety of small changes that will have a powerful effect on themselves and those they are interacting with.

Engagement, listening, reflection, and collaboration – even a 2 percent improvement in each of these areas will have an astounding impact.

One of my favorite improvisational phrases is “bring a brick, not a cathedral.” What that means is that we aren’t doing this alone; we recognize our responsibility to build together; we understand that all of us are better than one of us. If we do this, I think we can change the world.

The views and opinions of the author are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Aspen Institute.

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