Creativity Is Not A Pretty Sight: Rethink Perfectionism Through Improvisation
The scene is an improvisation training intensive with a well-respected improvisation teacher from LA. Flooded with what starts as awe and anxiety in equal measure, anxiety starts to win out as waves of self-doubt are stirred by my inexperience relative to the other players. My stomach in a knot, I hope to simply get through a scene without embarrassing myself. I approach my scene partner, whose only instruction from the teacher is to sit at a table. My instruction is to open the scene with a single line that informs my partner who we are to one another. I walk towards my partner holding an imaginary note pad and ask “Are you ready to order or do you need a little more time?”
“I’m ready to order,” he responds, “but what I’d really like is for you to sit down and have dinner with me.”
“Sorry I’m working,” I respond. “I won’t be able to sit down for dinner while I’m working.”
“Oh come on, just sit down and have dinner with me.” he insists. I insist right back. “Sorry, I’ll get in trouble if I sit down on the job.” That’s when the teacher jumps in.
“He’s made you an offer. You have to take it,” he says.
I freeze. Another surge of adrenaline jolts my addled brain. What was wrong with what I said? I don’t get it.
“But I can’t sit down and have dinner with him if I’m a waitress doing my shift,” I argue.
He persists. “You made an offer that he is a customer in a restaurant and you are a waitress. He accepted that offer. That’s called a ‘yes.’ The ‘and’ is that he wants you to break the rules and sit down with him. Now you have to accept his offer.”
My brain is overloaded with competing impulses: Cry. Sit down. Leave the room. That’s about it. I feel like I have failed without understanding what was expected. Failure equals embarrassment. This is not a rational assessment of what is happening. It is however, a highly emotional one.
“But I thought I was creating the character. And a waitress can’t just sit down with a customer,” I say, trying to sound reasonable because I really believe I can win this and that I am correct. I cannot accept the idea to sit down and somehow “make it work” when a waitress simply would not do something like that in real life.
“But your partner made an offer. That changes what you started out with. Now you have to accept the offer or you are not improvising. You are blocking,” I am told with increasing intensity. Whoa. I am the problem here? Yes, as it turns out, but not consciously. Not purposefully. I feel wounded and highly defensive. At the same time, I know that while this is beyond my cognitive grasp at the moment, something about what I am being asked to do is important — and dramatic enough that it threatens established mental habits in a big way. I believe that this teacher’s intention is to coach and assist, not hurt nor humiliate. Intuitively I know I have to jump into this or my defensive default settings will harden my responses even more. But it is still very difficult to stay in this moment.
The teacher takes over for my partner. He sits at the table and says “I’d like you to have dinner with me. The hell with what your boss says. The hell with what other customers say. That’s what I’d like you to do.” Clearly I have to do something against my ingrained impulse to stick to a kind of scripted version of waitress. And moving beyond my structured thinking into the unscripted zone — even though this is improv and what I signed up for and want to learn — is more uncomfortable than I ever imagined. But my defenses are not working very well since their primary objective — which is to avoid embarrassment — has shattered into a million pieces at this point. So I sit down.
“Okay. I’d love to have dinner with you,” I say, breaking into a completely fake smile. “Maybe I’ll get fired and then I can finally break out of this dead end job.” And I swear — even though it sounds made up this is completely true — those words did not occur to me until I sat down and took the role. When I accepted this unexpected offer and jumped into the situation, an entirely new idea popped in organically.
“Yeah, maybe you’ll do something you never thought about doing before” says the teacher playing a rule-breaking restaurant patron. “You’re going to love being free.”
And that was the end of the scene. But it was not the end of the learning. The most potent learning was almost immediate: when I broke out of my highly-structured self-protective thinking, novel ideas broke into consciousness. An emotional shift took place as a result of a new choice. The scene immediately had more creative potential. and in that way improvisation is probably the best antidote to the restricting and repressive constraints of perfectionism. Because despite the rules that make it possible to improvise — “say yes,” accept offers, make your partner look good, let go of agendas — improvisation has a messy quality to it. No one is really in control and what it takes to “get it right” is a more expansive emotional embrace of uncertainty than any other art form. It is creativity in action.
“Perfectionism is a mean, frozen form of idealism, while messes are the artist’s true friend” writes Annie Lamott in Bird By Bird: Reflections On Writing and Life. “Perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor, the enemy of the people. It will keep you cramped and insane your whole life, and it is the main obstacle between you and a shitty first draft.” And an improvised scene is always a first — and last — draft of a particular, unique moment in time, produced through the combined interactions of people who listen, respond and build on one another’s ideas. It is the acceptance of the messy unknown that gives improv its great power to recover the creative self that many of us abandon because of pressure to “get it right” in order to make good grades, be chosen for a team, earn that promotion and succeed in the systems that shape our thinking and our world. But creativity can infuse any endeavor and the “growth” mindset — which places emphases on effort rather than outcome, on the process rather than the product and recognizes that through our experiences we can change our thinking and our brain — can replace the confining limitations of perfectionism. The other powerful learning was that extreme discomfort and confusion can bring about a breakthrough that takes us beyond self-limiting barriers drawn by habit.
And in the words of an improv guru I realize brought about a turning point in my own development as an improviser, therapist and human, maybe we will do something we never thought about doing before. In any case, it feels pretty great to be free.