Shall We Improvise?

December 2021

By Patricia Ryan Madson, Emerita, Stanford University


“In the long history of humankind (and animal kind, too) those who learned to collaborate and improvise most effectively have prevailed.” ― Charles Darwin

Dreaming of a well-organized life, stress free? When was the last time that everything went exactly as planned? Good luck. And in our crazy, cattywumpus Covid world there is very little that is stable and predictable. The reality is that we are improvising most of the time. So, why not take a few tips from the professionals?

I’ve spent a wonderful career teaching improvisation around the globe and across ages and professions, including thousands of Stanford students. I’m not talking about improv comedy, although some study this work to perform on stage. Actors who improvise are able to create full length plays without a script because they are operating on a few simple, yet profound maxims. My tilt is using the foundational principles of improvisation as a mindset for a meaningful life. These principles can help you become a better listener, a more grateful partner and a more confident you. Here are the four pillars of improv:

  1. Attention
  2. Acceptance
  3. Appreciation
  4. Action

Attention is our superpower. Use it to improve your life. Begin to take control of what you are noticing. Notice what you notice. And if your mind drifts off into some ruminations, anxieties, and daydreams, return your attention to the world you inhabit. Notice the detail of that world. And, if you can, savor the moment. Isn’t this tangerine succulent? What a nice breeze this afternoon? It is common to walk around in a fog. Start the habit of noticing more. Shift your attention from self to other. Become a better listener.

Acceptance is the foundation of a satisfying life. The improvisor’s basic rule is to say yes to all offers. Mind you, this isn’t the same thing as liking whatever comes your way. Acceptance implies a default perspective of opening to what life brings. We say yes—AND. This means to build upon the reality you find yourself in. Life may bring you an unexpected illness or professional surprise. The improvisor says: “Now how can I work with this? How can I find the good and make this a win? We build upon our capacity to take a constructive and positive attitude toward life.

Appreciation is the capacity to “find the good and praise it.” This is the life skill of constantly asking the question: “What am I receiving now and from whom?” I’m a great believer in radical gratitude. This involves more than the current fad of thinking of ‘three things I’m grateful for.’ Ordinarily we only feel gratitude for things we like or that make us happy. What about all of those services and things that keep our lives going? Even the ones we pay for . . .

Thanking people for work well done and for things we like and to folks who are nice and cheerful and thoughtful should be a no brainer. What I’m selling today is something fundamental; I want us all to take a deeper look at the support we receive—all the time—from countless individuals. Who or what makes your life possible right now? This computer allows me to write this article. Thanks to those who designed and created it, and thanks to my husband who gave it to me as a gift. When we really start to notice our world (see Attention above) we can discover that we are “thirsty, swimming in the lake” . . . that is, everything we need is around us if we simply pay attention to it. Appreciation takes an ordinary life and makes it extraordinary.

Action creates our world. What we do matters. While we can’t control feelings per se we can always control our behavior. Feeling a little grumpy and sad? Try doing something physical . . . clean out one shelf in the pantry. Sweep the sidewalk. Fold the laundry. Take a long, spirited walk and notice the colors of the season. Or turn your appreciation into action: write a thank you note by hand and mail it. Improvisors know that we can take a step into the unknown to discover where we are going. We can act without knowing the outcome; and by starting anywhere we get the engine running and in no time we find a direction. Improvisors go: ready, fire, aim! Maybe it is not so crazy to begin something without a clear plan, so we are in a new position to see what is possible. Uncertainty is natural.

The practice of improvising our lives teaches us to trust reality and have confidence in our ability to manage challenges; and in the act of improvising we are likely to make some mistakes. This is great. Applaud yourself when it doesn’t work out. Learn something from it and redirect your focus. Mistakes are so often our friends.

And a final piece of improv advice is to “aim for average” . . . Use your ordinary mind to do or create what is obvious to you. Relax your “clever” muscles. You will do better if you give up on trying so hard. Be average. It’s enough.

I’ve found that the maxims of improvising turn out to be valuable life advice. You might seek out an improv class to test this thesis. Even if you are sure that you have no talent for improvising you will likely be surprised when you try. Or you may find some ideas and exercises in my book, Improv Wisdom, Don’t Prepare, Just Show Up, 2005, Bell Tower Books, Random House. It’s available as an audio and Ebook and it’s in nine languages. It’s full of tips and exercises.

And you have my wish for a life of many happy improvisations. Keep on saying YES to life.



Patricia Ryan Madson is a world authority on improvising in everyday life. She is the author of IMPROV WISDOM: Don’t Prepare, Just Show Up. Random House, Bell Tower Books, 2005. Her book has been translated into nine languages and is also an Audio and Ebook. Patricia is a professor Emerita from Stanford University where she taught since 1977. In their Drama Department she served as the head of the undergraduate acting program and developed the improvisation program. In 1998 she was the winner of the Lloyd W. Dinkelspiel Award for Outstanding Innovation in Undergraduate Education at Stanford. She is a frequent speaker for business and educational groups. Her corporate clients have included: IDEO, Google, Gap Inc.’s Executive Leadership Team, The Lucille and David Packard Foundation, the Banff Centre for Leadership, Sun Microsystems Japan Division, Apple Computers, Adobe Systems, and Price Waterhouse. She lives in El Granada, California with her husband Ronald and an elderly cat named Lyra.

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