On the second Sunday of every month, I have been told that I engage in what appears to be an uncharacteristically reckless pursuit. Alongside a group of my closest friends, I step into a spotlight, atop a stage facing a group of strangers. We ask for a word, any word. Stepping out from the back line of the stage we then create a comedy show from scratch inspired purely by that word, a show never seen before and never to be performed again.
Ironically, I didn’t plan any of this. My first improvisational comedy class sounded like a novel way to make friends and try a skill when I first arrived in Australia to start my PhD. Something that I could tick off my to-do list, or maybe even use as one of those quirky icebreaker facts when a conversation dries up. What I didn’t expect was the impact that improv would have on the process of doing the PhD itself.
Applications of improv are gaining increasing attention from within Academia, with institutions such as the Alan Alda Centre at Stony Brook University and the company ImprovScience leading the way in demonstrating the benefits of improv for communicating complex scientific ideas to the public as well as to other academics. Exercises developed to help actors to listen to each other, and communicate ideas concisely, confidently and effectively can have the same effect on academics. However, improv lessons also apply to the process of planning, executing and generating a thesis;
Lesson 1: Step off the backline
Not knowing what comes next is a fundamental aspect of improv. Yet, the beginning of any improv scene (when you first start classes), is invariably the most terrifying part. We stick to the backline of the stage, unsure of what to do, scared that when we step out, our ideas won’t be good enough. Yet, once that first step is made, the idea is accepted and built upon and the adventure begins. Like the seed-crystals of the crystal growing kits I would get every Christmas as a child, the first idea is a scaffold from which the next crystal grows, and without which nothing starts.
Starting a new protocol or experiment for the first time used to give me the exact same feeling. Preparation is, of course, key to any experiment, but I would find myself preparing beyond the point to which more effort would improve the design. I was apprehensive of what might not work. Taking that first step forward, beginning and accepting that some things were beyond my control, helped me to quickly develop my lab skills. An awareness that things will happen that are beyond your control enables a quicker, more robust response to them and I believe, can make your experiments stronger as a result. If you accept that some things may change, you never get that feeling of being stuck or unsure.
Lesson 2: Change your definition of listening
It was a terrible lesson to learn aged 25, that I had been listening incorrectly my whole life. Improv training does however redefine the process of listening in a very useful way. In improv, you are only listening if you have been changed by what was just said to you. So, you don’t just blurt out the thing you have been impatiently sitting waiting to say, instead you change your response depending on what was said.
I used to go into meetings with my supervisor with a list of things I needed to talk to him about, or to update him on. Most meetings would follow the list quite closely, and I would leave feeling it had been an effective use of our time. However, once I put that list away in my pocket to refer to (at most) at the end of the meeting, everything changed. The process of active listening made me open to all of the ideas I hadn’t really been listening to before, or building upon. I started coming out of meetings with a range of new ideas, and concepts to apply to my experiments, and would be inspired to progress my project.
Lesson 3: Be open to failing. A lot.
My own PhD has had many ups and downs. Experiments fail, and plans change but at the same time unexpected results can inspire further exploration. The practice of doing improv, I think, has not only made me more accepting of these ups and downs and more ready to embrace the failures that are an unavoidable part of the journey. As in improv, failures in experiments can actually lead to new and more exciting ideas. It has also helped me to develop a stronger bias to action; to reduce the trepidation of what I can’t control and what might happen, and to step forward and do the next thing that needs doing. Such a bias makes the unknown pretty exciting really, and has helped me to do what I came into science to do: ask questions and keep testing ideas.
Note: This post was first published on 12.09.15