Improvisation

I began to think of children not as immature adults, but of adults as atrophied children. – Keith Johnstone

The topic of this post is an obscure book called “Impro: Improvisation and the Theatre” which was recommended to me twice in a day by 1) a standup & comedy writer (my sister) and 2) a coder turned philosopher (Kevin Simler). Two very different people, same strong book recommendation. It is not a book title that would normally catch my attention. I hate the theatre. I haven’t fully digested the book yet, but it could turn out to be an all-time great.

Good improvisation (or creativity) requires that we “unlock” ourselves and let down our defenses. The methods presented in this book for unlocking ourselves, and rediscovering child-like creativity, are odd and often unappealing, given that we like to project ourselves as sane and in control. But as the author points out, “Sanity has nothing directly to do with the way you think. It’s a matter of presenting yourself as safe.”

Peter Thiel’s Zero to One tells you what you need to do: be truly creative and original in entrepreneurship. This book, without trying to, tells you how to do it. I doubt it’s any coincidence that one of the two people who recommended the book (Simler) was an early and seemingly important employee/coder at Thiel’s big data company Palantir, and that he put this book atop his list of “all time most influential” books.

Three key lessons emerged from the book. Here they are, with quotations to support each:

First, to be creative, we need to bring down our defenses and rigid world views. We should find our most biased beliefs and hunt there. We have to crush our own egos to let the subconscious do our work for us. I always loved the idea that the best creatives (artists, entrepreneurs) aren’t themselves geniuses, instead they each “have” a genius, something for which they are merely a conduit, and their success happened because they stayed out of their genius’s way. Defenses and bias get in the way of each of our geniuses.

Schiller wrote of a ‘watcher at the gates of the mind’, who examines ideas too closely. He said that in the case of the creative mind ‘the intellect has withdrawn its watcher from the gates, and the ideas rush in pell-mell, and only then does it review and inspect the multitude.’He said that uncreative people ‘are ashamed of the momentary passing madness which is found in all real creators … regarded in isolation, an idea may be quite insignificant, and venturesome in the extreme, but it may acquire importance from an idea that follows it; perhaps in collation with other ideas which seem equally absurd, it may be capable of furnishing a very serviceable link.

We have an idea that art is self-expression—which historically is weird. An artist used to be seen as a medium through which something else operated. He was a servant of the God.

As I grew up, everything started getting grey and dull. I could still remember the amazing intensity of the world I’d lived in as a child, but I thought the dulling of perception was an inevitable consequence of age—just as the lens of the eye is bound gradually to dim. I didn’t understand that clarity is in the mind… I’ve since found tricks that can make the world blaze up again in about fifteen seconds, and the effects last for hours. For example, if I have a group of students who are feeling fairly safe and comfortable with each other, I get them to pace about the room shouting out the wrong name for everything that their eyes light on. Maybe there’s time to shout out ten wrong names before I stop them. Then I ask whether other people look larger or smaller—almost everyone sees people as different sizes, mostly as smaller. ‘Do the outlines look sharper or more blurred?’ I ask, and everyone agrees that the outlines are many times sharper. ‘What about the colours?’ Everyone agrees there’s far more colour, and that the colours are more intense. Often the size and shape of the room will seem to have changed, too. The students are amazed that such a strong transformation can be effected by such primitive means—and especially that the effects last so long. I tell them that they only have to think about the exercise for the effects to appear again.

According to Louis Schlosser, Beethoven said: ‘You ask me where I get my ideas? That I can’t say with any certainty. They come unbidden, directly, I could grasp them with my hands.’ Mozart said of his ideas : ‘Whence and how they come, I know not; nor can I force them. Those that please me I retain in the memory, and I am accustomed, as I have been told, to hum them.’ Later in the same letter he says : ‘Why my productions take from my hand that particular form and style that makes them Mozartish, and different from the works of other composers, is probably owing to the same cause which renders my nose so large or so aquiline, or in short, makes it Mozart’s, and different from those of other people. For I really do not study or aim at any originality

I tell improvisers not to feel in any way responsible for the material that emerges… An artist has to accept what his imagination gives him, or screw up his talent.

I was coaxing students into areas that would normally be ‘forbidden’, and that spontaneity means abandoning some of your defences.

My attitude is like Edison’s, who found a solvent for rubber by putting bits of rubber in every solution he could think of, and beat all those scientists who were approaching the problem theoretically.

Second, traditional education destroys creativity by creating rigid and homogenous structures for thinking and for evaluating the world.

Maybe our artists are the people who have been constitutionally unable to conform to the demands of the teachers. Pavlov found that there were some dogs that he couldn’t ‘brainwash’ until he’d castrated them, and starved them for three weeks.

At about the age of nine I decided never to believe anything because it was convenient. I began reversing every statement to see if the opposite was also true. This is so much a habit with me that I hardly notice I’m doing it any more. As soon as you put a ‘not’ into an assertion, a whole range of other possibilities opens out… In a normal education everything is designed to suppress spontaneity, but I wanted to develop it.

Reading about spontaneity won’t make you more spontaneous, but it may at least stop you heading off in the opposite direction; and if you play the exercises with your friends in a good spirit, then soon all your thinking will be transformed. Rousseau began an essay on education by saying that if we did the opposite of what our own teachers did we’d be on the right track, and this still holds good.

People think of good and bad teachers as engaged in the same activity, as if education was a substance, and that bad teachers supply a little of the substance, and good teachers supply a lot. This makes it difficult to understand that education can be a destructive process, and that bad teachers are wrecking talent, and that good and bad teachers are engaged in opposite activities.

Third, every human interaction is a show of status. Understanding what conveys high and low status (and when to deploy them) can be very powerful. For example, try speaking without moving your head AT ALL. This is a high status power move, and it’s very hard to do.

When we tell people nice things about ourselves this is usually a little like kicking them. People really want to be told things to our discredit in such a way that they don’t have to feel sympathy. Low-status players save up little tit-bits involving their own discomfiture with which to amuse and placate other people.

There are people who prefer to say ‘Yes’, and there are people who prefer to say ‘No’. Those who say ‘Yes’ are rewarded by the adventures they have, and those who say ‘No’ are rewarded by the safety they attain. There are far more ‘No’ sayers around than ‘Yes’ sayers, but you can train one type to behave like the other.

Finally I explain that I’m keeping my head still whenever I speak, and that this produces great changes in the way I perceive myself and am perceived by others. I suggest you try it now with anyone you’re with… Officers are trained not to move the head while issuing commands… ‘I find that when I slow my movements down I go up in status… status transactions aren’t only of interest to the improviser. Once you understand that every sound and posture implies a status, then you perceive the world quite differently, and the change is probably permanent.

I have been applying some of these exercises to market research (and in normal conversations) with some really odd and interesting results. Whatever business you are in, or whatever strong feelings or biases you have outside of business, I suggest you question them and tinker with alternatives. The results may surprise you and enrich your life. Also, if you are like me, your neck will be stiff from trying to keep it still.