The Magic of Improvisation
"It's dark because you are trying too hard. Lightly child, lightly. Learn to do everything lightly."—Aldous Huxley
Palms sweaty, heart booming, cheeks flushed—to Ju-Han, LivingOS Fellowship’s cohort manager, the only benefit of improvisation was that it marked the end of the worst part of her job: the 15 minutes of walking through her coaching assignment with fellows.1 “Let’s record our next Fellowship lecture now, without preparation,” I said.
Ju-Han had repeatedly told me that improvisation was not for her.
“I cannot do this,” she said, as she recalled the lengthy script and heavy rehearsal that went into each lecture. “I need it to be perfect,” she said. “Fellows will view it, and I don’t want to embarrass myself.” When I asked her what would be perfect, she told me every word would be poetic, every moment filled with meaningful content, the whole lecture delivered in a late-night DJ voice. “I care about literally everything,” she said.
She didn’t need to deliver perfection, as it turned out. When I watched her improvised lecture—the one with desperation and fatigue—I was amazed at her eloquence, warmth, and compassion throughout the lecture. “You sounded just like a lifestyle YouTuber,” I texted her right after my initial review. Little did I know that it was far from the perfection Ju-Han had envisioned.
While rehearsal creates neuropathways that allow you to be instinctive and playful, too much rehearsal feels paralyzing.
It took Ju-Han more than five hours to plan and shoot a 15-minute video. “I became so critical that I struggled to see myself finishing this shot, but I had to turn in something before the deadline, so I powered through that one final take,” Ju-Han said.
Perfection is an asymptote. Most perfectionists struggle to articulate what perfection means. While it might seem rigorous, or even glorious, to strive for high standards, perfection is, at best, a façade of your timid soul. If you are always a work in progress, no one can ever say you are not good enough. Perfection makes you feel safe and comes at the cost of your dream.
Ju-Han wasn’t alone. I too was and am far more comfortable staying in the perfectionism rut. When I wrote Model Breakers, I went through dozens of back-to-back revisions and rewrote the entire storyline three times. If I were to edit the book today, I would add more examples or rewrite a few paragraphs to make the content more compelling. It’s so tempting to continue making these incremental improvements that 98% of books never hit the finish line. 2
When I asked Ju-Han whether she could think of any ways to make this recording process enjoyable, she had to think hard. “I enjoyed doing the assignment and exploring myself,” she said. “I would like to bring that joy to the recording.” I challenged her to experiment with a different way of recording. She accepted the challenge on the spot.
As the recording began, Ju-Han shifted into a very focused state. With zero preparation, she had to make the most out of what she knew and improvise. She took a few long pauses—which can easily be edited out—but didn’t stumble at all. As she articulated the principle and walked us through the exercise, she would draw new connections and come up with new ideas. “I was fully present the whole time,” she recalled after the demo. “I don’t know how to describe this feeling, but ideas and words flew out so smoothly and naturally.” She had entered the creative flow state before she knew it. When asked about her inner critic, she noticed that the voice had softened. “I appreciated everything that came up during the improvisation, and I forgave the part I stammered.”
The magic happened when Ju-Han accepted my offer and took that leap of faith without preparation.
Just do it.
Thanks to Dani Trusca, Jillian Anthony, Kiki Schirr for providing feedback on this piece.
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