Fear, Failure And Improvisation

22 Oct 2013

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a woman crossing a perilous rope-bridge

Originally published by Wikipedia under creative commons

Making mistakes and failing can be a scary concept. This makes fear a big part of the issue. When we say fear, what exactly are we afraid of?

In business (and life), we are often affected by three main kinds of fear…

  • fear of being judged
  • fear of getting started
  • fear of the unknown

There are a number of different strategies for dealing with these fears. Right now, I want us to look at the use of improvisation as a tool for dealing with these fears and the failures they can foster.

Fear And Failure Are Useful

Improv, which has a lot in common with mindfulness, can teach us a lot about how we approach life and our relationships with other people. Improv and mindfulness are very much aligned on the subject of fear, for example. Both practices ask us to walk towards our fears and make friends with them.

I once heard a buddhist friend describe fear as a squatter that you come home to find in your house. Instead of yelling at this person to leave, you should offer them a cup of tea and then leave them to it. Eventually, they will move on. You could even engage the person in some light conversation, such as “it’s interesting that you chose my house, can you tell me more about that?”.

The key take-away is that the lessons we learn from these fears (and indeed from our failures and mistakes) will often make us stronger and smarter.

The act of failing gives rise to some essential qualities, such as…

  • resilience
  • courage
  • humility
  • empathy

In improv, we are constantly practicing our mistakes in private and in public, rewriting the story as we go and adapting to the environment and circumstances. As improvisers, we take the lean, agile approach to failure (watch out for a blog post on this subject soon).

“The sooner you make your first 5000 mistakes, the sooner you’ll be able to correct them.”

Kimon Nicolaides, a well-known Greek-American art teacher

The Key Is Trust (And A Little Fun)

We believe that the key to having a positive attitude to failure is the creation of a trusting environment. We create a place where experimentation is welcomed and mistakes can become shared learning experiences.

Applied improvisation is becoming more and more popular as a tool to help people build this environment within their organisation. When we are having fun, we are much more likely to let go of our default responses. Improv is unusually effective at creating a safe, collaborative environment because fun is the core thing it’s built from.

I hold to a number of principles (as shown on the homepage) that I believe are at the heart of improvisation … and that should be at the core of all business.

Three of these principles are particularly striking as ways to address the fears mentioned earlier…

  1. Be kind (fear of being judged) - We are positive, patient, warm and trusting with ourselves and others. Kindness and empathy make us great team players.

  2. Be bold (fear of getting started) - We chase our dreams. We explore new things. We are fearless in the face of change.

  3. Embrace uncertainty (fear of the unknown) - We never know what’s around the corner. Improv teaches us to be highly adaptable; adding value wherever it’s needed.

In applied improvisation training, I use specially designed exercises to help people embrace these principles and to spread them throughout the culture of their organisation. Drop me a line if you’d like to know more.

Next post: A Leap Into The Unknown

Previous post: Productivity And Collaboration Via Distributed Working

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