The first and most important rule of improv is this: don’t negate.
To negate in improv is to break the flow of absurdity and belief that animates the sketch. When the Roadrunner points out to Wile E Coyote that he’s standing only on thin air, he’s negating. In improv, when you deny a fundamental premise of the sketch – “no, Zoe, you’re not on the moon” – because you want to pull it in another direction. you’re negating.
This rule was also one of the toughest for me to master, when I did improv at summer camps and in high school. Though I like to think I’m a kind person, I’m also deeply sarcastic; it’s naturally easier for me to play the sardonic straight man and deliver a deflating riposte that points out how stupid the whole scene is.
I’m also someone who naturally likes to have a sense of control over things. I’m not a “control freak.” But I like to do things my way, and I definitely, DEFINITELY like to plan things out. Looking at my (eight different color-coded) Google Calendar(s), I notice now that I’ve booked every weekend from here through..well, freshman orientation for the class of 2015, in late August.
You can see why these character traits made it difficult for me not to negate. It’s easy, and comforting, to shut things down into the nice, clear plan you’ve made for yourself. It’s scary, and risky, to accept another person’s crazy idea, or to crumple up the plan and go with something else. But that’s improv.
Today was commencement for the Class of 2011 from MIT. This weekend, two of my cousins will be graduating high school as well; many of the Class of 2015 either have already or will soon go through the same pomp and circumstance.
This makes me feel old. It also makes me feel nostalgic. Chris S, who graduated today, helped interview me for my current job. During CPW, late one night after all the other admissions officers had gone home, Snively asked me if I wanted a walking buddy; we spent hours going from dorm to dorm and eating midnight breakfasts together.
So, on the occasion of commencement, here’s one insight that I would share with past, present, and future graduates:
Life is improv.
This doesn’t mean that life is random, or farcical, or shouldn’t be taken seriously. It also doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t think deliberately and carefully about decisions that you make, or strive to make the smartest decisions you can in any particular situation.
What it means is this:
The most important, and best, things that have happened to me, I didn’t, and could not have, planned for.
There was the professor with whom I took a class because it had an interesting title. I ended up TAing for him for three years. He chaired my thesis committee and I still occasionally advise his nonprofit organization. He’s one of the best academic mentors I’ve ever had.
The summer I began working at MIT, my then-girlfriend was a student intern at a free-speech organization. She had a big list of book bannings and challenges she had to categorize. I thought it’d be cool to post them on a Google Map to visualize the trends. The end product got a lot of press, and I was asked to join the Board of Directors of a major anti-censorship advocacy group. None of that would have happened had I not felt like trying something out that seemed like it might be a cool idea.
In fact, the best example of this principle from my entire life might actually be how I met that particular girl.
See, some of her friends were visiting my alma mater when a riot broke out. A guy down the hall invited them back to ride out the storm in our dorm. A few weeks later, she came over to a party with her friends and these guys from my hall.
I’m a nondrinker, and a much better conversationalist than partier. But that night I decided to drop in and see what folks were doing. She and I started talking (actually we began viciously insulting each other – remember what I said about sarcasm?); we became best friends and dated for several years. Even though that relationship eventually ended, we’re still close, and I learned more from that experience maybe more than anything else. And it wouldn’t have happened if I hadn’t decided to come out of my room and walk down to see what was up that one night.
There are countless other examples I could provide. Incredibly important, wonderful things that have happened, people I have met, opportunities I have had, without me planning for them. They were, to reference Rumsfeld, “unknown unknowns.” I didn’t know that I didn’t know they would happen to me – until they did, and were amazing.
And not just big, life-changing events like these; small, wonderful moments too. Thinking I’d go to bed on time one night and staying up late talking about something in the hallway. Ditching class one spring afternoon to go wandering around campus and finding my new favorite spot to study for future years. Applying randomly to a job at MIT and finding out it’s the best home I’ve ever had.
There was a terrible movie that came out a few years ago called Yes Man. The premise is that Jim Carrey is a really withdrawn dude who suddenly becomes blessed/cursed with the inability to say “no” to any particular situation. He always has to say yes when anyone asks him to do whatever weird or crazy thing they ask him to do.
I wouldn’t recommend taking “don’t negate” quite so literally (nor would I recommend seeing the movie).
But the core principle is correct.
When you get to college – or, for the class of 2011, when you get to the rest of your life – there will be so many opportunities for you to have. There will be so many times when people want to go do something. Maybe stay up late and just BS in the hallway while eating pizza. Maybe go over to a machine shop to make a crazy motorized shopping cart. Maybe go hang out with some cute girls visiting from another campus.
You are not going to have enough time in your life to say yes to every opportunity you have. But it is imperative that you say yes as often as possible. The worst thing you can do in college – and in life – is to close off opportunities for spontaneous serendipity.
It’s not easy. There’s comfort in planning. Comfort in booking yourself solid, losing yourself in your schedule; I think this is what a lot of workaholics (including myself) do to cope with the discomfort of the realization that so much of what happens in life is outside of our control. You schedule every minute of your day so that you never have the time to look down and realize you’re standing on thin air.
This leads me to my other, ancillary point about life being improv:
You can’t plan your life. You can only prepare for it.
I’ve now fully realized and internalized the fact that I am not in sole control of my life. But I have also come to understand that that doesn’t matter as long as I’m prepared for it. The same is true for you.
Part of that preparation is education, like the one I received and you all will (or have) receive at MIT.
Part of that preparation is mindset. You have to be prepared not to negate, to leave yourself open to opportunities, and to seek out serendipity in as much as you can.
You can’t always (if ever) control the things that will happen to you. But you can control how prepared you are to take advantage of them when the opportunity arises, and to condition yourself to take the leap to pursue them.
Whether you’re a member of the class of 2011 or 2015, your life is about to change drastically.
Let it happen. Let yourself be open and available to the moments of magic that happen in our lives. That are our lives. Never put on the blinders. Never try to wrest too much control of your life from the narrative of the world. The sketch is bigger and more powerful than you; all you’re doing is boxing yourself in to your own bit part, somewhere off stage left.
All you have to do is keep the energy going. Keep the scene flowing. Don’t negate. Everyone else is in the same thin air you are. No one has it figured out – and that’s awesome. So just keep whistling and walking along.
You are going to do great things in the world. You don’t know what those things are yet and that is ok, because if you thought you did, you’d only be shutting doors you didn’t even know were open yet. And the amazing truth is: if you leave those doors of opportunity open, only good things will find their way in.
Best of luck. I am proud of each and every one of you.