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Four Powerful Ways Applied Improvisation Develops Creative Confidence

   The four fears that hold us back from trying new things, making strong, committed moves toward a personal vision or goal, or generally making positive change are: 

by Jude Treder-Wolff, LCSW, RMT, CGP
  • fear of the messy unknown;
  • fear of being judged;
  • fear of the first step; 
  • fear of losing control.
This is according to Stanford's Hasso Plattner School of Design founder David Kelley and his brother Tom Kelley, general manager of IDEO, who specialize in empowering people and organizations to engage with their creative capacities in order to reap the remarkable benefits.  And these are what many people describe as the fears that rise up when learning to improvise, in which we agree to a situation rife with discomfort but also riddled with delightful possibilities. 
Fear of the messy unknown. Because we are collaborating with other people in an improvisation, and based on the rules of the game, we step into a "messy unknown" which we do not control nor can anticipate. Something develops. We contribute to what develops. Others contribute to it too. The focus is on that process, and all need to know what will happen next must be surrendered for the good of the story that is unfolding. This requires a significant disruption of mental habits and defenses, which makes improvisation challenging but also makes it interesting and alive. When we cannot rely on a script and must respond to the unpredictable offers made by another person, we shift out of the automatic and into the dynamic self. The expressed willingness to explore unscripted moments with other human beings strengthens the inner self in wonderful ways and is a path to building up creative confidence that translates into empowered thinking and relationship skills, and to innovative ideas that solve real problems

Fear of being judged. What makes improvisation alive and interesting is the risk involved when we let go of scripted responses to others. But those scripted responses exist because of prior experiences that taught us how to get things right and how to stay safe in our interactions. The dread of judgment is such a powerful social force that we easily absorb and retain habits of relating to other people that are successful in social environments, which often has nothing to do with originality or authenticity. With all the pressures to perform in life, we can become so comfortable with the tried and true that to venture into the realm of unpredictable fails and flails in front of other people feels extremely threatening. But staying "safe" does not eliminate the threat of actually being judged, which is something we actually cannot control. Improvisation provides a path for engaging with that threat and powering through it in a fun, adventurous way. Creative confidence is the by-product of these experiences.

Taking the first step.  One of the tenets of improv is "don't ask questions, make offers," i.e. establish the relationship between the characters, where they are and why they are together as quickly as possible. It is harder than it sounds to think this way, and it is worth exploring the reasons for that rule. Say we are start a scene saying "So, what do you think about the new boss?" This is a legitimate offer  in the sense that we have established that the characters are at co-workers. But the partner has been given a role to play that requires filling in a lot of blanks. This is not so much wrong as incomplete, and less empowering to our partner. A stronger offer would be a full-bodied statement like "I have such a crush on our new boss. I just wish he wasn't your Dad." Now the partner has a number of things to work with in response - he/she is a co-worker who has a crush on his/her Dad who is also his/her boss. More information means more to work with to build the scene. 
   This tenet bears repeating because even experienced improvisers will fall into the habit of asking questions rather than making offers when the pressure is on. Improvisation is rooted in collaboration and is most alive and exciting when all players initiate as much as receive. Because every human interaction involves some degree of risk, we can hold back or overthink what we might want to contribute to an improvised scene. But just as in real-life relationships, taking initiative not only gives partners something to work with and respond to, it is strengthens our confidence that not every try has to land. It can transform our need for approval into a desire to participate and support others that circumvents self-consciousness. 

Fear of losing control. Our desire for control is understandable, because life is hard and the stakes are high. But the skills we gain through creative interactions with others are more empowering for solving problems we cannot yet know about, for which we will need to think and relate in new ways. "True improvisation reshapes and alters the student-actor through the act of improvising itself," wrote  Viola Spolin  who originated theater games and modern improvisation. "Penetration into the focus, connection and a live relation with fellow players result in a change, alteration or a new understanding for one or the other or both. The intuition gained remains with the player in everyday life, for whenever a circuit is opened for anyone, so it speak, it is usable for everything."

In their book Creative Confidence: Unleashing the Creative Potential Within Us All, David and Tom Kelley  argue that creative confidence "is like a muscle - it can be strengthened and nurtured through effort and experience" and that everyone has the capacity to be creative. What distinguishes innovators - "believing in your ability to create change in the world around you" - is what improvisation trains us to do in real time. 

Read an interview with David and Tom Kelley on Edutopia:  "How To Build Students' Creative Confidence"  

Jude Treder-Wolff, LCSW, RMT, CGP is a consultant/trainer and writer/performer. She created and hosts the storytelling show (mostly) TRUE THINGS and facilitaties a monthly applied improvisation group at LIfestage, Inc in Smithtown, NY. 


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