“When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do, sir?”

John Maynard Keynes

One meaning of the word ‘improvisation’ is ‘what you do when things go wrong’. When a plan falls apart, you improvise, right? The groceries didn’t come! Quick, what can we make from what’s in the fridge? Remaining calm and applying your skills under pressure is something improv teaches. But believing you should only improvise in a crisis is like saying you should only think about your health when you are ill. It’s only part of the story.

Improvising means building your expertise and skills so you can trust your reactions in all situations, not just crises. A good improviser concentrates just as much on taking opportunities as they do on dealing with mistakes. In fact, we don’t tend to use the word ‘mistake’ very much at all. If there is no script, nothing can be wrong or right. We concentrate on what is happening and discovering how we can react to it. 

One of the most important and underrated parts of improv is the skill of letting go. Our educational and work culture constantly requires us to set goals and then achieve them, no matter what. But equally important is recognising when a goal or strategy is no longer useful to us and not spending any further time or money on it.

That doesn’t mean that planning is a bad thing or that preparation is, or expertise. Considering what might happen in a meeting, or even a simple conversation is very important. Brains form expectations whether we want them to or not, so they might as well be useful, informed ones. Just as long as we have the flexibility to change. Plans should be resources, not restrictions. 

Improv teaches an embodied version of the growth mindset. It teaches the skills of interacting with what is really happening, good or bad, rather than wishing things were different. Sure, some things don’t happen how we expect them to, but that doesn’t have to be a catastrophe. Agility is not just about preserving but finding opportunities for growth. ‘You can argue with reality, ‘ says improviser and opera director Phelim McDermott, ‘but you’ll always lose’. Improv teaches you not to start the fight.