This groundbreaking book describes the concepts that make up the world of everyday improvisation. It offers you a vocabulary and a framework on which to build your skills. It will develop your confidence and creativity, so that you’ll see better results.
Be more comfortable with uncertainty
Treat confidence as something that you do
Discover the potential of co-creation
Recover when it's tough, overcome difficulties and make progress
Rather than fight or flee, learn to flow
Discover who you are and expand your range of personal possibility
Have you heard the Mistakes Myth? It’s in two parts. First this myth says we can’t learn without mistakes; then it adds that we should embrace our mistakes. Well, up to a point.
The first part is plain wrong – or, as one might call it, ‘a mistake’. It seems obvious to me that it is possible to learn any process by following it correctly without mistakes.
Whether it’s tying a shoelace, playing a sonata on the piano, or even assembling flat-pack shelving, first-time success is a theoretical possibility. You probably won’t get it right first time, but you just might. And in order to do it a second time, you definitely need to accomplish it a first time. If it did happen to go right first time, and your memory was working well, you could be said to have learned how to do it – and would prove that to be the case by getting it right on each subsequent occasion.
Also, in attempting such tasks, even when you make a mistake as part of a process, most of those mistakes offer Useless Learning. If you hadn’t made the mistake, you’d have been fine – and no less learn-ed.
To learn to do the task, you need to learn each bit of it, and making mistakes adds nothing to your knowledge of the accurate bits that comprise the entire task. You can learn about a boundary without crossing it. You don’t need to crash a bike to ride one, break a leg to ski or have your business go bankrupt to be a successful entrepreneur. From any mistakes along the way, you’ll learn only a particular thing not to do again.
I was wondering why the mistakes myth is so prevalent – and it pops up like acne all over the place. I heard it, for instance, during a workshop at Stanford Design School, one of the world’s leading business schools. They gave only one example – of a child learning to walk, through a series of stumbles. But stumbles are not mistakes.
In a process of trial and error, the errors give you feedback allowing you to make quick corrections to keep going with the bits that work. No mother would say ‘my child made a mistake today’ if he had a small bump as a toddler; it’s all part of the process in any environment in which learning is encouraged.
What you get most of the time in a learning environment such as a science lab is not mistakes or failures (unless you don’t record your data, which is a mistake, or don’t complete your projects on time, which is a failure), but information or results.
Let’s contrast a learning environment (where the focus is on learning or on experiment) with a professional environment – where the activity is expected to be executed to a high standard (for the clients). Would the proponents of the ‘OK to make mistakes’ myth be willing to subject themselves to a mistake-prone dentist with a drill to their mouth, a surgeon with a knife or a nurse with their drugs?
The value of a mistake is determined largely by its context. A driver making a mistake as a map reader may suffer inconvenience or frustration; or may gain an amusing story. A driver making a mistake as an avoider of cyclists or pedestrians could be facing a tragedy.
It’s possible with these topics to be confused by language. The opposite of failure is success: you cannot have the concept of one without the other. It’s like light and dark, profit and loss, but that tells us nothing about the world, only about how language works.
So what’s the opposite of ‘Mistake’? ‘Getting it right?’ In general, in most aspects of our lives, we get on with quotidian activities with a reasonable degree of competence, and ‘not making mistakes’ is so unremarkable that there’s no single word for it, and it’s easily neglected.
We tend to talk of success when something goes well… beyond expectation. What works fine and what works well are both worth exploring for learning: this are among the lessons of Solutions Focus, of Positive Psychology and of the Strengths movement.
Yet it’s mistakes – the things you are supposed not to do, usually for a very good reason – that get such a good press. Why? And why does it matter? We like drama and stories, and mistakes are often remarkable and interesting, but this preference can skew our values and perceptions.
Here are three examples:
– The Mistake that turns out well. You make the mistake of sitting at the wrong table, you meet a wonderful person and have been with them ever since. A good consequence, but there’s no learning about where to sit – and the right table could have worked out well too.
– The Happy Accident – a surprise result. You fail to make the strong glue that you wanted, and you make a weak glue by mistake – yet you are astute enough to invent the Post-it note. Alexander Fleming notices that penicillin kills bacteria. He’s reinforced his existing learning to stay alert, but he has not learned that it’s a good idea to have a dirty laboratory – and it was the dirty laboratory which was the original mistake. These are stories about noticing what works, even in unexpected circumstances.
– Process of elimination – When there are very few possible answers, you can arrive at the right answer by rejecting all the wrong ones. This raises you to the level of learning of pigeons in a maze, but most situations are more complex and interesting.
In improvisation circles you sometimes hear of the ‘Failure Bow’ (or even ‘The Church of Fail’) and are advised to embrace your mistakes. That’s the second part of the Myth. Embracing mistakes may be fine in a workshop and even to some extent on a stage (where the fumbled action or the mis-said word can turn into a happy accident), but it has limited application in life.
With embracing mistakes, the value is the de-value. It’s about reducing the stakes, appreciating that in these contexts mistakes are pretty inconsequential – and so it makes sense to reduce the fear of mistakes and encourage ‘having a go’.
That’s the same reason why we can celebrate abandoning the tradition of beating schoolchildren for errors in class (which got mixed in with beating them for behavioural lapses). Punishment made no more sense than castigating scientists for experimenting or decrying nature for proceeding via evolution.
We are also told that ‘We learn from our mistakes in life’ – that they are somehow psychologically good for us, perhaps especially character-forming. We are encouraged to develop resilience, our skill or resource for bouncing back from mistakes, failures and disappointments. Again, though, the learning is in the bounceback – the eventual success made all the more satisfying by the backdrop of the negative. It’s possible, too, that our difficulties bring into relief our resources of stoicism, endurance and plain coping. It’s good to be reminded of these, but the only learning from the mistake is ‘don’t do that again’ – which often times we already knew.
We all improvise every day. None of us get out of bed in the morning with a pre-planned script to face the day ahead. So how can we deal with the challenge of improvising well if it is an activity that isn’t planned?
You can think of improvisation as spontaneous creation and action. While, by definition, it occurs without pre-planning, improvising in life can be turned into a set of skills if consciously practised.
In ‘Easy’ the book and at the Improvisation Academy, we put words and structure to the creative practice that is improvisation and use a range of tried and tested activities to help you become more skilled at improvising both in life and at work.
We teach in the tradition of Keith Johnstone and Viola Spolin. That means an experiential approach in which you learn in a safe environment. There are clear explanations and purposes to every activity with time for questioning, reflection and discussion. You don’t have to be funny, though the classes are almost always fun. We’re not training you to perform on stage, but to perform better in life.
At the Academy, we cover many aspects of improvisation in 8 sessions. The course is split into two parts, Improvisation for Life and Improvisation at Work, each of 4 sessions, to make sure you get the skills you want.
Hear more from Paul Z Jackson about how we can develop skills of improvisation to apply in life and at work.
Paul Z Jackson offers a useful definition of improvisation.
Most creativity comes from collaborating with other people. Hear how co-creation works to help develop your creativity.
“Improvisation is a key to open up our hearts. It reveals the universe of possibilities that you can see, feel, decide and deal with in your life. "Easy" offers steps to find this key by starting with a step forward, a little step forward...constantly little steps forward, wherever you stand at the moment. It is up to you if you would like to move in this direction, but make sure, if you easily start to move in the path of improvisation, that you realise you are on the path to endless possibilities in your life. Start with a first step: open the first page.. that`s easy.”
"I really like the book and experienced some big moments of insight while reading it. I was happy to grasp that "Yes" is not always the right response, even though I already knew that on another level".
“The games give me an idea of gradual, additive improvisation which is a wonderful way to approach writing. Thank you!”
“I LOVE it. My favorite thing: “On Confidence: If we treat confidence as something we do rather than as an inner quality that we “have,” we can achieve extraordinary results in our everyday interactions.”