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Improv Skills: On the Path to a Life’s Vision

Excerpt from 21st Century Parenting: Grow a Generation

Tina Fey, the comedian, actress, writer and producer, describes what she calls the four rules of improvisation. Those rules apply to seeking a vision of your child’s (happy!) self in the future.

The first rule of improvisation:

Challenge them to agree* to every single opportunity that comes across their plate (that includes flyers sent home from school, invitations from friends, or advertisements for a local class that you can afford). They should volunteer their time and talent in pursuit of many different things.  They won’t discover they are highly skilled at working with the elderly and should pursue geriatric medicine with a voice whispering in their head in prayer. They discover it when they volunteer in a nursing home and find themselves enjoying the time spent with some of the residents and one of the nurses tells them that they have a gift in that line of work. It is human to treat the unknown with trepidation and to believe we will not enjoy an experience we have not tried before.  If they don’t know what they are good at, challenge them to put the fear and trepidation aside and say yes.

In improvisation, saying yes means agreeing with whatever your partner has created. So if we’re improvising and I say, “Freeze, I have a gun,” and you say, “That’s not a gun. It’s your finger. You’re pointing your finger at me,” our improvised scene has ground to a halt.

When a parent, grandparent, neighbor, friend, teacher, pastor, newspaper or library bulletin board say, “Come try this new thing,” and your child says, “I won’t like it” without trying it, their possible vision is ground to a halt.

The second rule of improvisation:
say YES, AND…

Once your child is somewhere they have never been, invite them to bring something uniquely theirs. Are they a great storyteller? See if they can put some of the elder’s life stories down on film or in scrapbooks.  Are they a great listener? See if they can improve the elder’s health by listening for fifteen minutes each visit.  Are they into animals? See if they can borrow a dog from the humane society to bring on a visit.  Are they into computers?  See if they can run a class on how to email.  Are they into chess?  See if they can start a competition at the nursing home.

In improvisation, saying “yes, and” means not simply replying “yes, you have a gun,” but you advance the scene by saying “Oh no, that’s the laser gun from the lab!”  “Yes, and” means not being afraid to contribute – in fact, seeing contributing as your responsibility.

The third rule of improvisation:

When your child has said yes and finds themselves somewhere new, and they’ve said “and” by contributing something unique, remind them to make statements – statements that build on what is there.  They cannot rebuild from scratch what the community is doing.  Your child can contribute where the community is, with the resources at hand plus the ones your child has brought with them.

In improvisation, “make statements” means if your partner replies, “Yes, I took the laser gun from Dr. Zarkov’s lab and now we can escape the planet.” You cannot go back and say, “No, no.  The laser gun is from the lab at the MIT medical facility and it is meant for micro-surgery” or “Who is Dr. Zarkov?”  “Make statements” means that you are not asking questions and pointing out obstacles. “Make statements” means that you are part of the solution.

The fourth rule of improvisation:
THERE ARE NO MISTAKES, only opportunities

Questing after a vision for a destiny and purpose should be fun.  It is not writing a dissertation (sorry – I challenge anyone to say that was fun!). Say “yes,” say “yes, and,” “make statements,” and then have fun with the opportunities that arise.  What if you start the chess club at the elder home and discover one of the residents is a chess master and beats everyone all the time? It may squash the idea of a competition at the nursing home.  But maybe you could run a chess clinic and recruit him as a teacher.  Maybe you could pit him (or her) against various computer programs and have residents bet pennies on the outcome. See problems as opportunities.  You are exploring your possible destiny.  What’s the worst that can happen?  You are asked not to volunteer anymore?  Go find a new place to say yes in.

In improvisation, looking for the opportunities requires being open to suggestions and willing to abandon your original set of assumptions and opinions. What imagined obstacle now lies in your path if your partner is holding the laser gun from Dr. Zarkov’s lab? If your partner said you are going to escape together and is pointing the imaginary gun at you, you might want to see what imaginary villain is lurking behind you!

For Tina Fey, some of comedy’s greatest moments have been happy accidents.  Dare to improvise, and may the effort unearth your own vision of your center of brilliance, passion, vision, destiny and purpose! It is discovered symbiotically as we explore our talents in relation to the circumstances of our life and the new circumstances created by our explorations.


* Obviously, agree to “every opportunity” is not physically possible and the advice is not meant to allow children to be subjected to rudeness, violence or injury (including the injury of stress from over-commitment).

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