Lessons from improv: Be Average!

Be average!

Thoughts triggered while rereading Patricia Ryan Madson’s delightful, straightforward, and yet profound improv wisdom.

“The poet William Stafford used to rise every morning at four and write a poem. Somebody said to him, “But surely you can’t write a good poem every day, Bill. What happens then?” “Oh,” he said, “then I lower my standards.”
—from Radical Presence by Mary Rose O’Reilley

Patricia Madson’s fifth maxim is be average. Be average? Who wants to be average?! Hear me out.

Back in January I wrote Everyone Makes Mistakes about how many of us were taught while growing up that we had to do things perfectly in order to feel good about ourselves. Eventually I discovered this doesn’t work. The emotional stress incurred in attempting the impossible task of being perfect far outweighs any small increase in the perfection of work, and, most of the time, that same stress leads to a decrease in effectiveness. But there’s more to being average than letting go of perfectionism.

Because being average is a great approach to being creative. Here’s how.

When we’re working on being creative, there’s an assumption that we must try to come up with something that’s different, something that’s “outside the box”. Not necessarily, says Patricia Madson, and she quotes Marcel Proust: “The real voyage of discovery lies not in seeking new landscapes but in having new eyes.” In other words, she suggests that we look more carefully inside the box.

When I was an information technology consultant, clients would often expect a shiny new high-tech answer to their problems. Instead I usually came up with mundane but creative solutions that took best advantage of available resources. My clients were momentarily disappointed—until they heard how inexpensive my proposals would be. (Luckily for them, I just charged for my time rather than the amount of money I saved.)

Think about Magritte’s pipe that isn’t:

or Duchamp’s Fountain:

These artists expressed their creativity through household objects depicted in new ways.

One of the nice things about this kind of creativity is that we can all practice it using the gifts we already have. I find that dreaming up “way out” ideas is hard. It’s simpler for me to concentrate on seeing something familiar in a new way and be open to what pops into my consciousness.

There’s a delight in this kind of relaxed creativity. Be average and focus on the obvious. And, if nothing fantastic occurs to you right away, don’t worry.

Just lower your standards.

4 thoughts on “Lessons from improv: Be Average!

  1. Adrian,

    Thanks for focusing on one of the many improv tenets that I find very freeing. As an improviser, you often experience a painful death when you step into a scene with thoughts of performance grandeur. “Acting!” as Jon Lovitz, SNL’s resident Master Thespian would say, and trying to be funny, very often leads to a bad, uncomfortable scene that is NOT funny. But when you step into a scene with the goal of supporting your fellow players and adding to it, you have a much better chance of hitting gold.

    As a recovering perfectionist, I also found the following saying extremely helpful. “Anything worth doing is worth doing badly.” It made me realize that I have to be willing to allow myself to be bad at things in order to get good at them – and that the pain of being terrible at something is worth it, in the end.

    1. Jenise, thanks for adding your professional insight to my amateur experience of improv. (Which is improving—I did three rounds of freeze-tag improv yesterday at a training I’m staffing and had a ball!)

      I love the saying Anything worth doing is worth doing badly. It frees us to do anything we want to do without getting hung up by a desire for perfection or any lingering dread of making mistakes.

  2. Another great improv rule that applies to event profs is not to shut down creativity by saying “no”. If someone throws you a cue…go with it and play it out. You never know where it may take you!

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