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My Journey With Improv

2017 was a rough social year for me. I had just come out a phase of my life entirely focused on my career and I felt like I had lost all my social skills. I was having a hard time making new friends and connecting with people I had met. I felt like I was the most boring person and people just didn't want to interact with me.

I felt trapped in this vicious cycle of my subpar social skills creating unfulfilling interactions, which would then reinforce my self-image that I was bad at interacting with people and further pushing me into my head.

I didn't feel like I made much progress in 2017 despite trying to increase my social exposure. Lamenting my problem to some friends, they recommended that I should try improv. I emotionally flinched at the idea, and came up with an excuse not to sign up for a class.

When I had more time to think about the suggestion, I had recognized the fear of attending improv class was the same fear I had when I thought talking to strangers -- the uncertainty, the potential for shunning and rejection, the fear of acting dumb or silly.

But I was also extremely starved for social connections and desperate to change the trajectory of my social life. I recognized that improv class could be a more systematic and regular way to overcome my fears, not dissimilar to going to the gym.

So I signed up for an improv class I found through Yelp. That decision was one of the best decisions I've made in 2018. I want to share my early improv as well as catalogue some of the valuable life and social lessons I've from improv along the way.

Early days of Improv

My first improv class was exhausting. I had absolutely no theatre experience growing up and my only notion of improv growing up was watching "Who's Line is it Anyways?" with Drew Carey and watching Ryan Stiles and Wayne Brady sing whacky songs. As I checked in with the instructor and headed down the basement stairs of the SF Chronicle building, I don't know what hellscape I was expecting.

I entered what was effectively cleared out conference room, with chairs lined up in a circle. It reminded me of the type of social support/therapy group meetups you would see in movies, but better lit. There were already some people sitting there, and besides a cursory hi, I mostly kept to myself.

When the clock hit 7pm, a middle-aged white lady with golden curls and a broad smile greeted us. She introduced herself and had the aura of a loving relative.

She asked us to close our and guided us through a short meditation exercise. I was mostly distracted by my aversion towards what's coming down the road that I basically whiffed whatever we were supposed to do.

My first truly uncomfortable experience in improv happened when the meditation exercise ended. "Now I'm going to turn on the lights, and when you're ready, look around the room and gently make eye contact with each other." I tried the first person and then realized I was extremely uncomfortable with the idea of making eye contact with other people. The moment my eyes locked in with someone, I would flinch and my eyes would dart away. I would try a few more times, but each time with a similar result.

After the meditation exercise, we did introductions. Who you were and why you wanted to do improv. It truly felt like a support group as we took turns listening to each other's short stories that led everyone in the same room. I felt a lot better hearing similar stories from other classmates and felt like we were all here to support each other.

After these introductions and talk, we moved our chairs to the side of the room and "played", which must have felt like a new medieval torture device for socially anxious folks like me. We made weird sounds, we pranced around the room in the most embarrasing of ways, we did public speaking in front of everyone. It truly was terrifying and exhausting, but somehow I made it to the end of my first class without socially collapsing.

I thought maybe it was because of the peer pressure and the commitment device of improv, like already paying $200 to getting strapped to bungee jump and then being asked to jump.

But then we kept following the same class structure week after week. I kept coming home at 11pm utterly exhausted but also elated that I've once again put myself out there and left myself relatively unscathed.

By the 3-6 month mark when I reflected on the transformation I had experienced, I finally appreciated what was so unique about this improv class that made it the solution to my social anxiety. Every week I show up to class with social anxiety. "What if I do something stupid?" "What if I ran out of things to say?" "What if people judge me?". I've struggled with these thoughts and emotions for years without a satisfactory solution.

The magic of the class is that the theatre makes it a priority to create a safe and positive environment for everyone. The theatre truly runs classes like a therapy group, with weekly check-ins, exercises, check-ins during exercises, clapping for every. single. thing. the teacher has such an enouraging attitude towards her students where it feels like the parental figure you never had.

What happened when I inhabited such an environment feels like realizing the tiger you've been living with all your life was actually a holograph. You've never stopped panicking to slow down and look at the tiger, but when you do, you realize it's just a projection or your fears rather than something real.

When I feel scared or anxious, I genuinely feel there's a real threat to my psychology and social well-being. People can judge you, shun, or reject you.

But Leela has made such a convincing, positive environment that fully strips of these threats that when I noticed my social anxiety has arisen again and my mind scans the room for perceived threats, there are none. This is the moment that I recognize that my social anxiety is just a feeling, independent of reality.

Recognizing the absurdity of my social anxiety didn't magically make them go away, but it did create a space that allowed me to be less controlled by it. Spending time in this space made accessing this mind state easier in the future, and allowed me to not be ruled by my fear. I became intimate with my social anxiety, and with slow buildup of positive social interactions from my improv class, I was able to slowly dissolve my fear towards interacting with people.

Personal Growth Lessons From Improv

List of snippets of things I've learned from my time doing improv

A loosened ego/self-concept

In improv you play characters that you normally don't inhabit. People tend to feel comfortable playing characters that similar to their every day personalities. For example, I could probably play a decent software engineer, a rationalist, or an asian male without putting too much effort. I could just be myself.

But if someone tells me to play a sexy rockstar or a devout churchboy, I'm going to feel uncomfortable. This raises an important emotional question -- Why do I feel uncomfortable?

At first I thought it was because I didn't know how to play a sexy rockstar and therefore would make a fool of myself. But upon further reflection, it is not an entirely true statement either. It's not like I know nothing about rockstars. I've seen enough examples from Get Him to The Greek and Bohemian Rhapsody to know something about how rockstars behave and what their values and beliefs may be. When I get to the emotional core, it's really because it feels uncomfortable not being me, James. The further the distance a character is from my self-concept, the harder it is for me to play because it feels "not me."

You know what else feels "not me"? Laughing loudly, being romantically forward, and going with the flow. It's the same feeling of adopting a new attribute, personality, or identity you haven't had before and automatically rejecting that option without realizing it.

However, in improv I don't really get that choice. When someone tells me "you're a sexy rockstar", I'm not going to say "No, I'm a aerospace engineer". I'm going to have to get over that self-conceptual hump and find the tiny fragments of Paul McCartney, Jimi Hendrix, and Gene Simmons I know and figure out how to embody that character. Even if it's not complete, even if it's not good, I got over out of my ego and became something else, even if it was for 2 minutes.

When I practiced doing this a few hours a week, I start noticing that the things that I thought I was was not necessarily my core self. For example, when I shed my day-job engineer James to play a relaxed californian surfer and start to embody that character, I didn't feel like engineer James in a surfer body suit. I felt like the "core" me being a surfer. I felt like I was surfer James. It's moments like these that make me understand that being an engineer isn't as strongly tied to my sense of self as I thought it was, and experiencing that can feel freeing.

Going through this experience multiple times, I feel more free to decide who I am and want to be. I don't always have to be a stoic person, I can decide to be someone else, to pick up personalities, identities, and mannerisms I liked and let go of ones that stopped being useful. And when I do this more, I become less attached to any single attribute because attributes do not make up who I am.

Seek to emotionally affect each other

One thing that separates a "good conversation" from a "good interaction" is having emotions. It's one thing to meet a Pulitzer Prize author and learn about the publishing industry. It's another thing to relate around the struggles of the writing process and feelings of failure. If you seek to emotionally affect others and be emotionally affected by other people, you'll more likely foster that feeling of connection.

I never thought I could be a better listener until I was repeatedly coached in my improv scenes to care about my scene partner. Often times the instructor would pause me in a middle of a scene and say, "James, what they just said. That matters to you." But they just said something trivial like "This pond has a nice blue". If I had paid more attention and turned up my sensitivity, I could start reading between the lines and find the emotional core behind the statement. I could choose to be emotionally affected by how nice it is that my best friend and I are spending time together. I could share my scene partner's excitement for colors and take their subtle emotional statement and turn the intensity up to a 10. "SAPPHIRE BLUE? WOW WHAT A RARE FIND INDEED!" Choosing to be emotionally affected by your partner is a gift you give them. I'm told to treat people's words like tiny little daggers that shoot straight to your heart. Let the dagger land, assess how you feel, and express that feeling openly.

A common pattern I encounter in my interactions is when people share positive news in their lives, but are shy to be emotionally opened about it. Maybe they don't want to come off as arrogant, or maybe they've been blown off enough times in the past to know better to feel positive, but for whatever reason their reactions aren't proportional to the magnitude of the news. A find sympathetic joy in situations like this to be a welcomed guest.

Me: "How have you been?" Friend: "Oh I've been good. I got a promotion this week." Me: "Wow! That's fantastic news! You were waiting for this to happen for a while, I'm so glad you were able to get it!" Friend: "Yeah! I'm really excited for the project that I'm on."

When I choose to be emotionally affected by my friend's good tidings and express that, I'm both showing that their happiness is my happiness and create a safe space to be more emotionally open.

Emotional range

In improv I often practiced to exaggerate my emotions. This feels somewhat uncomfortable but it creates a lot of space to increase my emotional range.

I liken this emotional range practice similar to stretching and using muscles -- the same way your range of motion is expanded by stretching and using your full range, emotional expressiveness similarly benefits from being stretched by practicing the full range of emotions available to me. If I haven't done improv in a while, my emotional range can feel stiff and limited, and that in turn makes it harder to feel emotionally affected and emotionally affect each other.

Having a large emotional range is useful for feeling my emotionals and expressing them.

Social interactions are what you make of it

When I experienced a wide variety of interactions, it expanded my understanding of the types of interactions I could have with other human beings. I wasn't confined to talking about what tv shows people were watching lately, what was trending on twitter, or which of our mutual friends had just gotten married or a new job.

When I was attending house parties and meeting new people, I felt a lack of connection.

People don't interact between each other as human beings, they interact with each other as floating heads in jars. Many conversations stay extremely conceptual, devoid of emotional resonance. Conversations tend to drift off towards more abstract, more distant, and less relatable to the participants in the room.

For example:

A: "I'm currently in med school"
B: "Oh nice, Do you think med school programs are efficient?"
A: "What do you mean by 'efficient'?"
B: "Well, do you think having weeder classes and overworking med school students in residency programs produce capable doctors?"
A: "Mm... I certainly think the med school system could be a lot better. For example, I don't think doctors remember much from microbiology, but I think

Notice how the conversation quickly drifts away from being about person A and towards the background person A inhabits. Person B asked for an opinion on a the medical residency system but Person A doesn't exhibit an emotional relationship to that topic.

If it helps to identify this pattern, it helps to encourage people to make statements that they own versus ones they don't and therefore have to defend.

Statements I own:

  • "I feel ..."
  • (personal stories)

Statements you have to defend:

  • Assertions
  • Statements
  • Opinions on things

This is not to say intellectual conversations are not helpful for relationship building, but I find cerebral folks reach for intellectual depth as a familiar tool to replace emotional depth.

Here are some signs that people are drifting away from emotional relatability:

  • People are not making eye contact
  • Fewer "I, you, we" statements.

Improv has been consistent "travel-like" experience that breaks this illusion and expands my sense of the infinite potential of human interactions. Within a 3 hour class, I could experience lifting heavy rocks as a caveman, making a bed as real estate agents, or arm wrestling for a girl at a meat market.

Seek to not self-censure

I remember feeling like I didn't have anything to talk about. Improv helped me trust myself in expressing what comes out of my mind and recognizing when I don't.

We do this by doing seemingly random word association exercises where people verbalize the first word association that comes up to their mind after hear a word from someone else. When I get stuck, I recognize it's often not because I couldn't think of a word, but rather because I came up with a word and then another part of my mind just censors it.

I hear "cat" and I want to say "bat", but my mind jumps in and says "that's not original enough, pick a new one", but I have yet to drop "bat" yet, so I'm stuck at a loss for words.

Working with this part of your brain that seems to censor and protect helped me be able to loose its grip on self expression and be more confident in expressing myself.

Social Lessons From Improv

Not all Questions are Created Equal

Although in many conversational skill books recommend asking questions as a way to show interest in other people, in improv starting a scene with a question puts the burden of setting up a scene on your partner. “What are you doing?” doesn't contribute as much to the scene as “Tim I see you're playing with your legos again.” A good initiator plants an improv seed and invites the other players to build on the scene.

Not all questions are created equal. From my profession I am trained to ask specific questions to get specific answers, but when I carry that conversational style to my personal interactions, I find that asking those questions strongly backfires. I have had people tell me that talking to me felt like being in an interview. Asking specific questions only gives your partner a small set of responses to choose from, sometimes only one. For example, if I ask, “what do you do for a living?” There is only one answer my conversation partner can say. These answers are usually so automatic and devoid of individual expression that sometimes this will trigger people to shut off their brains and hearts in an interaction.

The only good outcomes in these questions are when they say the an answer you like. For example, if you do finance, and they do finance too, then you guys can continue your conversations nerding out about credit default swaps. But if they don't work in finance, then you're out of luck and have to talk about something else. That's why sometimes these questions are called “qualifier questions.” Your connection with this person depends on the answer he/she gives, and people don't like having the burden of having to impress or interest you.

Being a person of varied interest helps only to the extent of expanding your preferred answer set, but even a “me too” itself is not sufficient to move the rapport-needle forward. It's a false assumption that rapport-building has to come from common interest.

A good conversation avoids canned messages and invites your partner to express themselves. An open ended question is an easy way that's taught to elicit that kind of behavior, but it doesn't have to be a question that invites the other person to join in on a conversation. It could be a compliment, an observation, or a commentary. The important thing is to invite people to be able to freely express themselves without giving them the entire burden of expressing themselves.

The Most Important Part of Improv is the Relationship

Relationship is a conflated word here. I will use “relationship” as to describe how people feel/relate to one other. “Relationship” is also often used to describe formal interactions, independent of how the individuals in that relationship feel. I call that type of relationship “roles”.

There was an activity we did in class that involved two people going onstage and assigned roles (e.g. brothers in law). Then they had to start a conversation and they could talk about anything. One pair of students were assigned the student/teacher role, and that scene was very difficult to play. The problem a student/teacher dynamic was that people were too eager to play the role and forget about the relationship. The scene quickly dove into the teacher giving the student advice and the student passively listening. People playing on their roles made the scene less about the people and more about the role.

I found similar problems play out when I feel assigned a particular role. For example, in the few mentorship programs I was a part of, I often found myself too mentally grooved into my role as a mentor to develop a relationship with my mentee. I would avoid showing weaknesses to my mentee, gave advice that wasn't asked for, or adhere to a strictly professional manner. Not seeing the human on the other side of the table resulted in a lack of rapport and chemistry. Less chemistry correlates with less trust to seek out my help when they ran into issues.

Similarly, even though I'm out of college, I catch myself often giving advice to college students that I meet, even if they don't ask for it.

In improv scenes, it's wise to quickly establish the relationship as a way of how people relate to each other. Do you and your scene partner hate each other, love each other, envy each other? When people can't figure out your relationship, they can't have expectations about how you should behave. Similarly, it's important to establish a relationship when meeting someone new for the first time. Without some way for you to emotionally relate to one another, the natural response is for people to not care.

Act Like You've Known Each Other for at Least 6 Months

It's a lot of drudgery of asking people for names, occupations, and where they're from. Improv scene start with the assumption that people have at least known each other for 6 months.

I find that interacting with people as if you've known them for a while really helps build rapport quickly. When I proceed too cautiously, I tend to ask more questions and try to figure people out. However, when I act like I've known people for longer, I find myself avoiding the prerequisite small talk and jump straight into something interesting. Most people respond reciprocally when you treat them like a friend you already know.

Yes, And

The biggest tenet in improv is defined by the mantra "Yes, And". It's an improv principle that sets the scene open to all possibilities, because everyone agrees that we're all going to build something together and that we value everyone's contributions to the scene. You can't build a scene by yourself and you can't ignore or destroy what other people have contributed to the scene or people won't want to play with you.

An interaction is similar to that. We want to acknowledge your conversation partner has added to the interaction and help create something beautiful and coherent together. Think of the statement people make as a brick they laid on the ground. If it's your turn to lay your brick, where would you want to lay it? Close to it of course!

How does this play out in a conversation? If someone says they come from Washington, you're going to want to acknowledge that somehow and then contribute to that thread. Acknowledge is not just a "cool!" or "neat!" but should contain either an emotional valence or another statement, or ideally both.

Inside Jokes and Callbacks


It's only a mistake if you reject it


Why You Should Consider Taking Improv

I would recommend improv to anyone who feels like they need to work on their social skills. I've only been highlighting the benefits of improv with respect to my social life, but even if I were to ignore all the social upsides of taking the class, I have to admit that improv is pretty darn fun.

Last update: 2023-03-12