Improv Your Career

The power of an unscripted career path.

If you’re at all familiar with improv theater, you might have heard the phrase “Yes, and…” as the mantra for this particular kind of entertainment.

If you’re not sure what I’m talking about, an improv situation involves a group of people onstage all working together to “build” a scene. They take suggestions from the audience and simply roll with it. Improv is the definition of “winging it.” (See Rachel Dratch and Tina Fey execute this perfectly at "The Second City" before they were famous).

So the “Yes, and…” mentality is indicative of team spirit—one actor responds to another actor’s idea (ie: says “yes”) to further the scene and keep everything moving. Then, the next person joins in. The passing and bouncing of ideas goes back and forth until “End Scene.”

I did a lot of theater throughout my childhood but was always most intimidated by improvisation. Any time we had an “improv day” in drama class (yes, I was that kid), I’d try and prepare a list of funny subjects to talk about or pop culture references to use. This was partly because of the awkward adolescent years I was going through but largely because improvised acting is scary! I wanted to be prepared! I was onstage with a group of strangers, none of us had a script and, well, humans are notoriously unpredictable.

When I was that age, I thought I was going to be a star. I wanted to be Gilda Radner. I pushed myself to be good at improv because I thought that was going to get me on SNL or, at the very least, on the Ellen DeGeneres show as one of her cute kid stars. When it later became clear I likely would not make it on Broadway (aka I had no desire to prepare monologues for the rest of my life), I feared that my years backstage, hanging out at cast parties, and becoming what I thought to be a cultural, influential artist, would be for naught.  

Flash forward to my first job in advertising and how wrong I was. While the “Yes, and…” idea was created for the stage purposes, that mentality can translate into a lot of facets of life. Specifically, the “Yes, and…” theory can be applied quite aptly to business and marketing.

During your day-to-day, you probably have a routine. You wake up at the same time, you commute to work, you treat yourself to a pick-me-up coffee around 11am. But when you’re in a meeting, when creating campaigns, collaborating on projects—there is an air of the unknown. The market is always changing and best practices are constantly evolving.

A background in theater or the knowledge of the “Yes, and…” mantra can be vital to team-playing. And a successful team is crucial to any company.

Being able to add onto a curveball idea your boss throws at you, speaking in front of your peers, or even seeing a few steps ahead into your client needs can elevate you to star status employee. (Don’t think the dream of your name in lights has dimmed simply because you’ve stepped offstage).

Indeed, the unpredictable nature of improv is not unlike that of the startup and entrepreneurial economy. “Yes, and…” is bringing something to the table. It’s working with what you’ve got, even if what you’ve got is a single chair onstage and no props. It’s being scrappy and making something from nothing—and it’s exactly that mentality that helps startups not only stay afloat but thrive. Instead of shrinking away from unpredictability, harness it to your benefit.

When humans aren’t given a framework for which they’re meant to communicate a message, it can get ridiculous. People get nervous. That’s one of the many reasons that improv is an entertainment of the comedic variety.

But it is also during those vulnerable moments that people can see what we’re really capable of.

So go on, the curtain is rising.

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Inspiration