Are You “Prepared” to Improvise?
"Flying away on a wing and a prayer" is not a good strategy for life...
There’s a difference between “winging it,” and “being able to improvise.” Great improvisers understand that the better you prepare, the better you improvise. I was reminded of this as I watched a humorously minor tragedy befall a young Philadelphia student recently.
I was walking to a meeting through the streets of Philadelphia, when a suddenly heard a rather aggressive thumping of footsteps running up behind me. Using my cat like martial arts reflexes I slowly and slightly turned my head to see what was going on? Was I being attacked? Was a friend running up to say hello? Was Ashton Kutcher about to “Punk’d” me?
It turned out to be nothing that exciting. A young guy, clearly a student, was running to catch the bus that had just passed by. I assume he was a student because he had a sweatshirt with a school’s name on it and he was carrying a backpack full of books. I could tell he had a school sweatshirt because I can read. I could tell his backpack was full of books because of what happened next.
He had run past me and was about half the distance to the bus, when all of a sudden the books and notebooks come tumbling out of his bag! Oh no! It seems his bag was not properly zipped up…
The guy freezes for a second as his eyes go wide. He looks at the bus, then at his books, then back at the bus. All seems hopeless.
But wait! There is a glimmer of hope. The bus has stopped at a red light! The guy quickly scrambles to gather up all his belongings. This takes longer than you might think, as he had a very full backpack. Fortunately (for him, not for me when I’m driving) this is also a very long red light.
He manages to gather up the last of his books just as the light changes green. He breaks into a sprint as the bus slooooowly begins to accelerate. He reaches the corner just as the bus pulls beyond it, screaming out a desperate, “HOLD THE BUS!”
Hey, even Spiderman misses the bus on occasion
But it is to no avail. The bus continues on without our young hero, who is now faced with the overwhelmingly depressing task of waiting ten minutes for the next one.
What was his response to missing the bus? He slams the pile of books and papers on to the ground in frustration. Seems a bit ironic, since his books and papers falling to the ground was the source of his whole problem. The Smart Ass in me half hoped another bus would come along at that moment that he would have to miss because he was picking up the papers he himself had thrown down…
I felt bad for the kid. It’s a pain to miss a bus that you can actually see right in front of you, especially when it’s due to a unexpected event.
But I also couldn’t help but thinking, “you know, if he had just made sure his bag was properly zipped up before he left he wouldn’t have this problem.”
There’s a lesson here:
Good Preparation Makes it Easier to Improvise
Since I am an improviser, I get a lot of funny looks and joking comment when I talk about preparing. If I say, “I have to get home and prepare for a speech I am doing next week,” someone will invariably respond, “prepare? Aren’t you an improviser? Can’t you just “wing it?”"
Well sure, I suppose I could improvise, but just because you can do something doesn’t mean you necessarily should. I have a third degree black belt. I could kill you my bear hands, but does that mean I should? I think not…
The ability to improvise is a valuable tool. It allows you to react when things go off plan (and they will), but it still helps to have a plan. It allows you to not worry about over-preparing, but doesn’t mean you should under-prepare.
In our story, the first unexpected event was not the books falling out of the bag. The first unexpected event was, “him showing up a minute late and the bus already being there.” This led to him reacting (running for the bus) which led to the second un unexpected event (the books falling out).
Two seconds of prep up front (properly zipping up the bag) would have allowed him to easily improvise with the second event. Bad prep, and his troubles got worse and worse.
Ah,. the original master of improvisation. You know MacGyver was always prepared with his duct tape and pocket knife. And probably a hair dryer and can of hairspray...
You can apply this idea to any area of life. Having some emergency cash saved up makes it easier to deal with your car breaking down. Staying in touch with friends and colleagues makes it easier to react to getting laid off. Keeping the phone number of the person you are meeting in your cell phone makes it easier to deal with getting stuck in traffic. Keeping your most important items in your carry on bag makes it easier to handle an airline losing your luggage. And the list goes on and on.
There is no possible way you can eliminate the need to improvise. The universe is an unpredictable place, and things will always go a little askew. Ding Happens! But if you cover the basic fundamentals in your preparation, you will be much more able to handle life’s curveballs.
Question: What can you be doing this very day to increase your preparation and therefore improve your ability to improvise?
By Avish Parashar. As the world's only Motivational Improviser, Avish uses techniques from the world of improv comedy to engage, entertain, and educate audiences on ideas around change, creativity, and motivation.
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