Most of us want to do well at the things we attempt. We want to do them right. If it’s improv, we probably want to get a laugh. If it’s dancing, we strive to get the steps correct. All our lives we’re taught and encouraged to meet expectations and excel, whether it’s getting good grades at school, winning at games, or selling ideas or products at work.
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. But the destination is only the final part of the journey and not separate from it. And in good improv the destination is determined by the journey because it is an exploration rather than a planned expedition.
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 chooses three foods and mimes eating the food for the audience. The stated goal is “to eat the imaginary food.” When the players are finished I ask the audience 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 their audience and the exercise becomes a broad pantomime that’s just not that interesting.
What is interesting is watching people deeply engaged in what they’re doing rather than trying to manipulate an audience and force an outcome. For example, Patrick, an MBA student, devoured a mango with such fervor that he made a virtual mess in the classroom and we were amazed at his abandon. He was focusing on what he was doing and not on us but we knew 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 what he was doing and his personality.
Mary Pinard, a poet who works with business students at Babson College in Boston, 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 the poetic form you’re using (e.g, a sonnet) and the poem and its resolution will take care of itself. This is also what fiction writers mean when they talk about a story that “writes itself.” The 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 and instead relate their experience of the course and surprise both of us by discovering what they learned. This is focusing on process.
When we concentrate solely on outcome rather than process, we also open ourselves up to the paralyzing trap of self-evaluation during performance, which is harmful, wasteful, and inaccurate.
There is no way we can know whether or not we have 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 and self-evaluation robs us of that energy and can dishearten us if we have decided we are failing. The stories are legion 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 will 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.
So next time you’re thinking only of where you want to go, think instead of where you are and how this moment can make your journey better.