Improv(e) Your Life: Lessons on Risks, Gifts, and More


“Whatever the present moment contains, accept it as if you had chosen it. Always work with it, not against it.” ~Eckhart Tolle

Improv comedy is something I’ve always enjoyed. I thought it would be fun to try, so I eventually took a class. Countless classes and many laughs later, I’ve learned that improv is a lot like life. In fact, applying what you learn in improv can actually improve your life.

Risky Business 

Showing up at an improv class for the first time might prove intimidating or anxiety provoking for some.  I felt some nerves when taking my first class, knowing that I would have to expose myself to some degree. Being more on the introverted side of the social spectrum, this got me thinking.

Improv can be a great strategy for overcoming shyness. To work through these types of issues, realize that you will have to take some risks. This often requires you to step out of your comfort zone. Getting comfortable with being uncomfortable is key.

I began improv by adapting Susan Jeffers’ advice to “Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway.”

To do this, simply allow whatever thoughts or feelings arise within you to bubble up. Then, notice and acknowledge them without trying to change them. With practice, discomfort will become more tolerable and your comfort zone will have expanded.

Pay Attention

Whether you’re playing a game where you’re tracking an invisible ball that’s being thrown around, or in a scene where you have to read someone’s body language, paying attention is critical in improv.  Awareness of what’s going on around you (and within you) at any given moment is the foundation upon which improv is built.

Bad improv ends up looking sloppy, disconnected, inconsistent, and is usually not much fun to watch.  Not paying attention to internal or external cues can obviously have negative consequences in life.

Personally, it has sometimes been difficult for me to discern what I’m feeling emotionally. For example, this has caused strain in my relationships where the absence of strong feelings has kept me numb. As a result, I have held back in many relationships. Partners have wondered how I really feel about them and overwhelming emotional reactions have come when it’s too late.

Thanks to improv, I’m better able to discern whatever I’m feeling in the moment. It has allowed me to explore emotional nuances in between the extremes.

A powerful question to elicit your level of attention is: what’s happening right now? Consider both your inner state and external environment as you reflect on this question.

Monkey See, Monkey Do

Beginning improvisers usually commence a scene by mimicking their partner’s gestures or actions. This helps them get on the same page, establishing a shared reality from which a scene can emerge.

This approach was helpful when I was learning the guitar. I used to sit in front of the TV and mimic guitar solos note for note. This helped train my ear and showed me what was possible. Emulating my role models also kept me motivated, providing feedback on the development of my skills. In fact, I’m willing to bet that this is how they learned too.

Motivational speaker Tony Robbins urges people to think and act like those who are where they want to be in life. Why reinvent the wheel when someone already has a good, working model? Don’t worry, differentiation will come later. It did with my guitar playing. Master the basics first.


Improv is based upon agreement. This means that you accept what’s been said or done in a scene. For instance, I was once in a scene when my partner suddenly pointed and fearfully yelled out “that spaceship is coming for us!” I accepted that statement as true and reacted as if this was actually happening.

Many improv teachers would say that in that moment, I received a gift. That is, I was given something with which I could do anything I wanted, opening up a world of possibilities and taking the scene to new and unexpected places.

Not accepting a gift could easily ruin the illusion of a scene and keep it from evolving organically.

We don’t always accept gifts in our everyday life. This can result in arguments, dead ends, and power struggles. For example, I recently made plans to meet up with an old friend I haven’t seen in years. I was excited about catching up with her, suggesting we have lunch at a restaurant I’ve been dying to try.

Disappointment set in when she told me she preferred just getting a cup of coffee or tea somewhere. I wasn’t able to accept my friend’s gift, at least not right away.

Consider how well you’re able to accept the gifts given to you by others, even when things don’t go your way.  

Yes, And…

In addition to accepting a gift in improv, your job is to then incorporate it into your shared reality somehow. Going back to the spaceship scene, I acknowledged it and began to panic, shouting, “Damn, I forgot to pay my intergalactic taxes!”

This is an example of the golden rule of improv known as “yes, and.” It refers to accepting a gift that’s been given to you and giving back a gift that adds to it in some way.

The key here is to be open to the unexpected and to go with the flow, no matter where things or how end up.

Going back to lunch with my old friend, I saw that I wasn’t yes anding her. Once I realized this, I could then see her counteroffer as a gift. Disappointment soon faded and I became curious if there were coffee shops or teahouses in my area. My expectation was that there weren’t any.

I was astonished to discover an amazing coffee shop just a few blocks from home. Not yes anding would’ve resulted in lingering feelings of disappointment. I would’ve also missed out on one of the best cups of coffee I’ve had in a long time!

Practice “yes anding” things in life that you normally resist and see what happens. Doing this can increase spontaneity, heighten creativity, and allow you to better manage your expectations.

No Scripts 

Like improv, most of life is unscripted. Think about it: almost every conversation you’ve ever had has been improvised. Sure, you might have had some idea about what to say to someone. But things don’t usually go exactly as planned, do they?

Others say or do things you don’t expect. Like me, you may have even surprised yourself by your own reactions or by what came out of your own mouth. Remembering that most of life is improvised can make you more easygoing. It can also keep you open to the unexpected and help anchor you in the present moment.

Application of this principle actually helped me meet my girlfriend. One evening, I saw a beautiful woman as I got on the subway.

Improv gave me the confidence to approach her on a crowded train, knowing that I could come up with something spontaneous to say without having to resort to cheesy pickup lines. The rest is history.

Improving your life 

Applying the principles of improv can help you better navigate your life in innumerable ways, even during life’s more serious or challenging scenes.

However, I wouldn’t have been able to arrive at the ideas above by simply watching it on TV. I had to roll up my sleeves and step out of my comfort zone time and again.

Whether or not you’ve ever done improv, I’m curious: how have you improv(is)ed your life?

Photo here

About Jack Grabon

When not taking improv classes, Jack Grabon, LCSW, CPC practices spiritual therapy and holistic life coaching, helping those on a spiritual path who want to resolve their issues and live more meaningful, happier and improv(is)ed lives.  He offers in-person sessions in New York City, as well as phone and Skype sessions.  Contact him now for a free consultation.

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