If you look for truth, you may find comfort in the end; if you look for comfort you will not get either comfort or truth only soft soap and wishful thinking to begin, and in the end, despair.
Unless you’re looking to become an onstage performer, one of your main reasons for studying improv is probably to expand your comfort zone. Good for you! Just keep in mind that you’re the only person who can do this work for you. Someone else might be able to help or to create the circumstances in which it happens but you’ll have to do the heavy lifting.
The only way I know to expand your comfort zone is to get out of it. You have to court what you want to avoid, making yourself feel uncomfortable or maybe even like a complete fool. It’s akin to how athletes work themselves to exhaustion and weakness in order to build stamina and strength.
By venturing outside of your comfort zone, you’re likely to encounter feelings of confusion, incompetence, embarrassment, and shame, among other things. And yet you’ll find that none of these emotions is immediately fatal or even very harmful—although the deleterious long-term effects of emotional stress have been well documented by science.
Improv activities can cause anxiety. You might be doing something as simple as improvising an abstract gesture and yet you experience an elevated pulse rate, sweating, and shortness of breath. With repetition, however, these responses diminish. You become desensitized and can improve your ability to handle embarrassment and stress.
At the end of courses I like to reprise an exercise or two from the beginning so that students realize just how far they’ve come. Through repeated forays outside their comfort zones, students claim new territory that was once the realm of discomfort and is now a bigger comfort zone. Students have to take the first step though, as well as the steps that follow. No one can teach them that experience; they must live it for themselves.
My Kenan-Flagler MBA students came up with a term for the border between the areas of comfort and discomfort, action and stasis. They called it “the Fuck-It Zone” (or FIZ if you prefer a more polite and effervescent acronym).
You know how you’ve straddled the fence between doing something daunting and not doing it? Maybe you were trying to figure out how to ask out that special someone or working up the courage to jump off the high board at the swimming pool. Well, you probably reached the point where you tired of your indecision, said “fuck it,” and just did it. You committed to a course of action instead of staying put or reversing.
That’s a beautiful and exciting thing because you’re opening yourself to growth and new horizons. The FIZ is the gateway to infinity, the limitlessness of yes. By contrast, your comfort zone is limited. Its border seems to offer safety from the unknown and the frightening, which is how opportunity and adventure appear from behind that line. That border not only keeps things out but it also keeps you inside.
In my classes I often have students give spontaneous speeches with the goal of conveying an emotional message. If speakers are only hinting at the emotions, I’ll push them out of their comfort zones by having them exaggerate or emote. Sometimes students object, saying, “That’s just not me.” I see their point but that’s not the point.
I want these reticent and tentative people to burst through the FIZ and out of their comfort zones. I want them to risk appearing foolishly enthusiastic about seemingly inconsequential things like cookies or shoes so that they can bring that same fervor to truly important things like justice, love, and their dreams. I want them to go “too far” and be surprised by the positive and enthusiastic reactions they invariably receive. Heartily expressing your emotions not only helps your audience to understand your message but also to share your passion.
What seems like outlandish exaggeration to the speaker from their interior perspective usually seems just right and real to the audience from its exterior perspective. And because speakers can go over the top, they don’t necessarily need to do so because they somehow convey that potential, texture, and depth. I don’t know why this is but I’ve seen it often enough in speakers, actors, and singers.
After leaping through the FIZ and surviving it, the next step is practicing. With repetition, what once seemed outrageously risky and scary becomes a matter of course. Part of that is familiarity and part of it is increasing expertise. You learn and improve with practice.
You’ll still make mistakes but because your comfort zone is bigger, the mistakes won’t get to you like they once did. Your comfort zone might become so big that others might never even be aware or care that you’re making mistakes. (This is not an argument for being unprepared, incompetent, indifferent, and dishonest but rather one for letting confidence and comfort enhance your honest hard work.) You might even realize how a lack of commitment to a course of action, doing something halfway, can cause failure.
Accepting and getting past mistakes is crucial in improv and probably everywhere. It seems to me that people are most likely to fail when they’re worrying primarily about not failing rather than about succeeding. That’s what sportscasters mean when they say a team or player is “playing not to lose” rather than “playing to win.”
I prefer “playing to play.” Most of my classes begin with a silly game. Sometimes there are potentially deep takeaways from the game but often my goal is simply for us to loosen up and have fun. There are no prizes or awards at stake. Yet most students, at least early in a course, are focused on winning the game rather than merely playing and having a good time.
Hey, I like to win too. Victory can be very gratifying. But it seems we adults lose the ability we had as children to play and wind up knowing only how to compete. Process-oriented playing changes into result-oriented competing. Fun can become pressure as players become contestants. Don’t mess up; you might lose!
Our society inculcates us with the need to compete and to win. This isn’t all bad but at its extreme it engenders a desperate aversion to losing. Life, however, isn’t a competition and mistakes aren’t defeat. Fear of losing can cause stagnation because we become unwilling to risk making mistakes and stick to the known. “Better a known devil than an unknown angel” is a Nigerian proverb that describes the outlook many of us have.
To my mind, stagnation and stasis are worse than defeat. If you’re not making mistakes, you’re not trying hard enough (a saying that has been attributed to numerous individuals, including Evan Davis and Vince Lombardi). If you want to improve as a tennis player, you have to play with people who are better at it than you are, which is just another way of saying you have to lose to improve. This principle applies to much more than just tennis.
Regardless, if you want to get better at something, you have to do it a lot. In doing it a lot you must do it wrong and learn from your mistakes. That we learn from our mistakes more than we do from our successes is a timeworn truism. Everyone’s got a good war story about learning how to do something, whether it’s parallel parking, public speaking, or dating. Chances are we learned from those mistakes and didn’t repeat them. If we hadn’t made the mistakes, we wouldn’t have learned so well.
Beyond that, however, is the possibility of the sublime or transcendent mistake. History is littered with examples of artists and inventors finding themselves in a place better than the one where they’d planned to go. Good improvisers know this and welcome the “divine error,” a mistake that is not a mistake but is rather something unplanned and unexpected that takes them far beyond what they had intended. Just because you didn’t mean to do it, doesn’t mean it’s wrong!
Improv demands that you go beyond the known—beyond security and the ego—in order to excel. You have to do it well and not just right. So when I’m teaching and directing, I encourage players to abandon what they know, their bag of tricks, and explore the unknown. The process is often disorienting and might feel wrong for the player but results can be stunning.
Now I’m not suggesting that you deliberately try to be wrong but rather that the true measure of a person isn’t whether or not they make mistakes but how they handle them.
Feeling at ease being and sharing yourself, mistakes and all, is the comfort zone to seek. If your comfort zone is less than that, it’s not as safe as you think and it’s limiting you.