Too much concern about how well one is doing a task sometimes disrupts performance by loading short-term memory with pointless anxious thoughts.
– Daniel Kahneman

Most of us want to do well at the things we attempt. We want to do them correctly. All our lives we’re taught and encouraged to meet expectations and excel, whether it’s getting good grades at school, winning at games, doing the right dance steps, or selling ideas and products at work. In improv, we probably want to get laughs. It’s only natural that most of us are tempted to skip from the means to the ends, to be concerned more with the destination than the journey. The destination, however, is only the final part of the journey and not separate from it.

In improv the destination is determined by the journey because it’s an exploration rather than a planned expedition. Indeed you might go so far as to say that improv is the art of process because the performers travel the entire creative path, from ideation to execution, right in front of the audience.

In scripted theater the audience sees the end result but doesn’t see the writing of the play and its evolution through the rehearsal process. The performers aren’t creating the story as they go but are instead following a script. They can definitely make mistakes, such as saying the wrong lines or doing the wrong blocking. This isn’t a criticism of scripted theater (of which I’ve done plenty as a professional and amateur), merely a comparison.

In improv, you can’t really say or do wrong things the way you can in scripted theater because the scene you’re doing doesn’t exist yet; there is no external standard. You can use poor improv technique and part of that is thinking that your scene is supposed to go a certain way. You have to be open to discovery fueled by interactions with your fellow players.

Mary Pinard, a poet who has worked with business students at Babson College, talks about getting her students to “trust the form.” She suggests that rather than worrying about where a poem will go and how it will end, you should work within the confines of your poetic form (sonnet, free verse, haiku, etc.) and the poem and its resolution will take care of themselves. This is also what prose writers mean when they talk about letting a story “write itself.” They key here is that you have to write—engage in the process—in order for that to happen.

Likewise, when I assign term papers, I tell students to avoid recounting what they think they learned. Instead I encourage them to relate their experience of the course and surprise both of us by discovering what they learned. This is focusing on process.

An old improv exercise I use regularly illustrates the danger of overlooking process and focusing solely on result. In this activity a small group of players secretly chooses three foods. Then, with the stated goal “Eat the imaginary foods,” the players mime consuming them for the audience. After about 90 seconds I ask the viewers to guess what the performers ate.

After all these years I find the exercise kind of boring to watch unless the players are really engaged and taking risks. You see, once the players realize that others are guessing what foods they’re pretending to eat, they’ll leapfrog the stated goal—to eat the imaginary food—and try to make the spectators correctly guess what the foods are. They pander to the audience and the exercise becomes a broad pantomime. Often I’ll see players looking awkwardly at the audience, desperately needing its approval and understanding. No one wants to watch a needy performer.

However we do want to watch self-possessed people deeply involved in what they’re doing rather than trying to manipulate an audience and force an outcome. For example, Patrick, an MBA student of mine, once devoured an imaginary mango with such abandon that he made a virtual mess on his face, his hands, and the classroom floor. He was focused not on us but on what he was doing and yet we felt what he was eating and didn’t need to guess. We really didn’t care what he was eating anyway because we were fascinated by him, what he was doing, and especially how he was doing it. We were engaged because he was engaged.

Incidentally, I’m not suggesting that we should be oblivious of our audiences. We should be sensitive and responsive but not slavishly beholden to them.

When we concentrate solely on outcome rather than process, we open ourselves up to the paralyzing trap of self-evaluation during performance, which is harmful, wasteful, and inaccurate. There’s no way we can know whether or not we’ve achieved our desired result while we’re in the middle of a scene, show, game, job interview, or sales pitch. We need all our energy and concentration to perform our task. Self-evaluation robs us of that energy and can dishearten us if we’ve decided we’re failing. Legion are the stories of folks thinking they stank only to find they were succeeding—and vice versa.

When we’re navigating an ambiguous situation—improvising—by definition we don’t know where or how it’s going to wind up. But if you concentrate on what you’re doing now, the answers tend to reveal themselves when they become relevant and you need them. In improv we trust that we’ll know what to do when we need to know it and not a moment beforehand. It’s scary but it’s necessary and it works.

If focusing on process sounds like being present and in the here and now, it should. In many ways they’re the same thing. Most of us are pretty familiar with the idea of being present. It’s a concept that has gotten a lot of attention in recent decades even though it’s one that goes back millennia, in Buddhism for example.

And speaking of Buddhism, there’s a sutra that focuses on the “second arrow.” The idea here is that there’s the first arrow, which sucks because it’s an arrow and it can hurt or kill you. The second arrow is the worry you have about the possibility of the first arrow, your subjective anxiety and suffering over the threat of an objective event. The second arrow is the “thousand deaths” we might suffer before our one actual death.

Once in a bicycle race I saw a hill ahead. I’m going to suffer on that hill and I might get dropped by the pack, I thought. Then the concept of the second arrow occurred to me and I figured I might as well suffer when I’m actually on the hill, rather than beforehand when the going’s still good. It turned out the hill looked a lot steeper from a distance than it really was, so I didn’t get dropped or even suffer much. That came later.

Do you dread presentations? Interviews? Improv scenes? You might be experiencing the second arrow and your energy could be better applied to preparation and focusing on process. Yes, that requires mental and emotional discipline but it could result in increased effectiveness and decreased misery.

I have a suspicion that most people think “being present” is kind of boring. I mean, you have to be all quiet and mindful to be present, right? Well, that’s only partially true. You might have heard of “peak” experiences, which psychologist Mihály Csíkszentmihályi refers to as “flow.” The experience might be something in nature, dancing at a party, live performance, or something extreme like rock climbing or skydiving. Whatever it is, you’re so consumed by whatever you’re doing that you’re simply not thinking about anything else. It’s like you’re on vacation from yourself or at least that part of yourself that’s always trying to be somewhere other than where you are.

Well, sure, if you’re plummeting earthward, it’s pretty easy to be in the moment. But what about those things that aren’t quite so stimulating, like your everyday life or conversations? In my book, I talk about how good improvisers always have something, even if there doesn’t seem to be anything, to go on. They’re aware and they dig into what’s happening around them. What is my partner doing? How am I moving or standing? What is my character feeling or thinking? And so it is off stage; you can always dig a little deeper and refocus on what’s happening right now, which is also known as reality. Your thoughts about what isn’t happening aren’t reality.

I love peak experiences and try to have them as often as I can. I’ve found that I dissolve into the moment more than I used to. Perhaps that’s practice or maybe it’s just maturation. Maybe it’s both. I like objectively intense things like riding a motorcycle on twisty mountain roads and skiing on double-black-diamond slopes. I also enjoy less demanding but beautiful things like hiking in the mountains in fall, the ocean, a campfire, and music.

Then there are times when I’ve finished a class or come off stage from an improv performance or a concert and it’s almost like I don’t even know where I’ve been. I’ve been so focused on what I’m doing and what’s happening, so in “the zone,” that I call it “becoming invisible.”

Just as being in the moment can sound kind of unexciting, it can also sound kind of soft and ferny, like it’s only a quality-of-life issue for Type B hippies. While being in the moment can definitely improve your quality of life, I believe it also has very definite applications toward effectiveness, productivity, efficiency, and other hard, Type A-sounding qualities.

Focusing on process means you’re paying attention to what you need to do in order to be successful moment to moment. Be mindful and thorough. Use your technique. Don’t half-ass it; full-ass it! Doing every step of a process well is the best way to achieve success. And if you don’t succeed, it won’t be because you didn’t do your best.

Focusing on process doesn’t mean you shouldn’t have goals or plans. No, no, no, I’m a big fan of those things. But your plans and goals can blind you to opportunity if you let them. Focusing on process means that you’re able to adapt if executing your plan isn’t working. Get around the obstacle rather than just looking at it, wishing it weren’t there.

Finally, focusing on process means you can be flexible enough to reach a satisfactory goal if your original goal becomes impossible or not worth the effort to reach. You might have been heading for Point A but Point B and other points might still suffice—and they may even be better. My life has been full of this. I never set out to teach improv in a b-school but I’m finding this to be more rewarding than so many of the other things I actually set out to do.

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