Why Improv Is Absolutely Essential

"I hate imagination," the woman growled at me during an innocuous exercise in a FIZ program I was leading. I wasn't expecting that. I'd never heard anyone say that ever, much less in one of the hundreds of course and workshop sessions I've led.

A bit stunned, the most appropriate response I could come up with was something like, "Well, that's a choice and you have the right to make it..."

"That's right," the woman interjected.

I continued, "I have chosen to integrate imagination into my life as much as possible and I've found it has made for a successful and fulfilling career and a happy life outside of work. But that's just my choice."

If anyone ever tells me he or she hates imagination again though, I'm going to be loaded for bear.

"So I guess you hate Gandhi and Jesus and Einstein and Martin Luther King, Jr. and anyone who has tried to make the world a better place," I might retort. My intention isn't going to be to hurt feelings but to ask why. Why do you hate imagination? What do you have that's so much better that makes you want to hate?

Of course, I'm not really going to have to say anything because I'm already saying it. Indeed, I am indebted to the woman who hates imagination because she made me realize just how important it is.

Imagination, I contend, is nothing less than the heart of civilization, of social evolution.

Certainly imagination as the soul of art is a familiar concept to most people. Painting, writing, musical composition, choreography—it all revolves around the artist's vision. For many adults, imagination is artistry and that is this woman's objection to it; she's just not comfortable being artistic.

But let's look at people like King, Jesus, and Gandhi. What were they all about? Justice, I say. Justice is fairness. Fairness is doing what's right not only for yourself but for others as well. And how can you escape the cold boundaries of self-interest? With imagination! You've got to imagine yourself in the other guy's shoes.

And when you imagine yourself in someone else's situation, you find yourself feeling compassion. It's the step beyond justice—not just doing what is right by others but also treating them as you would yourself.

In addition, true communication demands that you imagine your message as others might see it and imagine yourself making the messages of others.

Uh-oh, touchy-feely alert! Let's bring this back down to earth a bit. What about businesspeople? They've heard that imagination is good for them but is it in anything other than a 'soft,' intangible way?

Well, problem solving is a pretty solid, no-frills skill and it relies on imagination. How? You've got a situation you don't like. In order to change it, you must conceive of what might make it better and how you might effect that change. Imagination is at the heart of solving problems.

Innovation is imagining a new and better way to do things and it is the by-product of the creative process.

Managing and motivating people requires imagination because the manager has to get an idea for what it's like to be the one managed and what's going to work from that perspective.

Even the scientific process relies on imagination. A hypothesis must be imagined that will be subsequently proven or disproved. Data is collected but how will that data be organized? Once again, imagination must be summoned; data will not just arrange themselves.

When you consider that the evolution of homo sapiens has rested upon problem solving, innovation, and paying close attention each other, I feel one can state that civilization and progress are the product of applying imagination to the assumption that people can create something greater than biology alone dictates (an assumption that in itself requires imagination). Perhaps imagination resides in our genes.

Okay, the dead horse has been beaten. What next?

If you are convinced of the importance of imagination—if you trust that imagination should not be hated--how do you go about developing and using your imagination? Same way you get to Carnegie Hall: practice, practice, practice.

Artistic disciplines give participants an opportunity to exercise their creative and imaginative muscles. Just as with actual physiological muscles, the more these muscles are exercised, the stronger and more ready for use they become.

Improvisation is an ideal artistic discipline for developing and using imagination for many reasons, including that it can be done in groups and that little preparation or technical expertise is required to do it (at least if you're not asking people to pay to see it).

You get a group of people with nothing but their minds and bodies and you let them create and magic can happen. It's fun. You get to know each other. Unexpected things transpire.

Once imagination is welcomed into the process, even if it is simply by doing some improv exercises, suddenly you have the tool you most need to solve problems, to create and innovate, to communicate, and to adapt and evolve.

There, I said it: Improv can save the world.

-Greg Hohn, Director