I took my first improv class a couple of years ago. I was at a Software Carpentry train the trainers workshop, and the lead Greg Wilson challenged everyone to take an improv class, so naturally, I did it because he didn’t think anyone would follow his advice. I took the level 0 course at the Improv Shop in St. Louis, and then I waited a year to take the level 1 course.
One of the first things that they teach you in improv is this concept of “Yes, and…” The idea behind it is that you’re supposed to accept what the other person said and amplify it.
Me: “Cupcakes are so delicious”
Mark: “Yes, and they’re even better when you can have them for breakfast”
(Okay, I may have fabricated what Mark would say, but I’d love him more if he said that)
Me: “Cupcakes are the best dessert ever”
Mark: “Yes, and they are full of cholesterol and sugars and are generally bad for your health”
(I literally frowned when writing this)
At Pixar, it’s understood that every time someone brings you an idea, you need to accept it an amplify it. I think that’s part of the reason they made such awesome movies! In improv, it helps you bond with your scene members, and helps the audience get immersed in your world. It sucks when you throw something out there and the other person is just like, “uh, we’re on an improv stage, there’s not a cupcake in your hand, you’re acting crazy.”
At work, one of the retrospective facilitators had us do this exercise, and we talked in pairs and amplified each other. It was funny, but I think we all immediately forgot the point afterwards that we shouldn’t knock down other people’s ideas so fast. It’s a hard line to balance between vetting a proposed solution and shutting it down too fast. We don’t want to let things go by unchallenged if there are pitfalls, but we also don’t want to stop thinking about potential other avenues.
This is great and all, right? This should have stuck around in my life since it’s so awesome, right?? But no. It did not. I didn’t realize that other people were shutting me down and I was doing that to others. Mark and I went to see an apartment, and I immediately launched into all the things that I hated. I literally couldn’t say a nice thing. He instantly felt shut down, and I felt guilty for making him feel that way. I struggled with it all weekend — what was the middle ground? Obviously, I didn’t want to say that I loved a thing that I hated. I didn’t want to give the wrong signals that could be misinterpreted later. At the same time, it wasn’t fair for me to overrun the conversation and just talk about the negatives.
I was reading Refactor Your Wetware, and the author talked a lot about how your environment affects a big part of your life. If you’re surrounded by “no, and” people, then you’re less likely to challenge yourself and believe in yourself. I felt that a lot this past week when I was trying to launch the Women Techmakers group. I had a lot of people who I trusted and respected immediately say negative things when I talked about it. Some people kept saying that I should be ready for very few people to show up or not as many as I expected (before even asking me how many expected!) Or, other people kept saying it was too ambitious. When I was printing surveys, I initially printed exactly the number of confirmed RSVPs and ignored anyone who said that they were tentative. Luckily, I’m a hopeless optimistic and I “accidentally” printed 70 instead of 40. I say accidentally in quotes because that’s the excuse I had in my head if anyone asked me why I had printed so many and spent extra time. There were literally a handful that weren’t used.
After reading that book, I started to realize more and more that I wanted people to be more enthusiastic than they were. And if I wanted that, I needed to start with myself. Whenever a friend wants to try something new or challenge themselves, I want to amplify it. And in return, I hope that they amplify me when I’m trying new things. I feel like I’m more likely to stick with challenges when they’re hard when I know that I have enthusiasm and support behind me.
For example, say you wanted to throw a Halloween party. You talk to someone about it and they say, “Oh, isn’t Halloween just for kids?” You start to feel like maybe you shouldn’t throw this party and that it is lame. Alternatively, you talk to someone else and they say, “Yeah, it should be animal themed! Because we can party like an animal!” You start to feel the adrenaline rush, and you get excited about this shared energy towards something.
I said it was an example, but that’s actually real life. I want to be more enthusiastic and supportive of people being proactive about creating new things and challenging themselves. And I want the same from you.
Special thanks to everyone who has amplified me and supported me throughout the years. <3