I had a student in a clinic recently, who I’ll call Sarah. She was experiencing difficulty while climbing a challenging route. I noticed she was shaking her head “no” as she climbed, which caused her to climb in a hesitant manner. She would reach for a hold, shake her head “no,” and then reverse it. I was curious about what was occurring in her mind that would cause this to happen. 

It’s stressful when we climb challenging routes. We enter the unknown, which creates messiness because there are many factors outside our control. In Tim Harford’s book, Messy, Tim counsels us to engage situations that are disordered because they can transform our lives. He cites theater actors, such as comedians, who learn improvisation as a way to use messy situations to create humor. 

One skill they learn is “the habit of saying yes.” The idea is to stay open to how situations develop. Comedians say “yes” by adding to what their opponents said, instead of saying “no” and disagreeing. The improv begins by one person saying something. Then both comedians alternate by accepting what was said and figuring out how to say “yes” by adding something to it.

Here’s an example of two improv comedians:

  • First: I grew two feet taller today.
  • Second: Yes, and now none of your clothes fit you anymore.
  • First: Yes, but that means I get to go shopping.
  • Second: Yes, you could, but you don’t have any money.
  • First: That’s true, but my mother has money she can give me.
  • Second: Yes, that would be possible, but she lost all her money gambling yesterday.
  • Etcetera

Neuroscientists using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scanners show that improvisation shuts down broad areas of the brain’s pre-frontal cortex, which is the executive center of the brain and our sense-of-self. This shutting down of the pre-frontal cortex creates freedom from our inner critic and allows us to let go of control so new ideas can flow into our experience. Improvisation shifts our attention from protecting our sense-of-self to trusting ourselves. 

Improvisation is defined as the act of creating something spontaneously without preparation. However, Tim points out that improv actually has a foundation of preparation, grounded in three elements: practice, willingness to deal with messy situations (stress), and listening. Tim suggests that perhaps the most important element, though, is being willing to take risks and to let go. 

We need awareness of our resistance to taking risks and tendency to be controlling before we can improvise. We can observe our own thoughts and how they manifest themselves in the body. Or, we can ask a coach to observe us and give feedback. However we develop this awareness, we become aware of how our thinking manifests itself as unnecessary tension, shallow breathing, or how we move. Then we can properly assess risks and commit to action. 

Our risk-taking will include the elements of practice, welcoming stress, and remaining open to it. Saying “yes” can be a starting point. But what are we saying “yes” to? We say “yes” to practicing incrementally, to focusing on what’s occurring in the moment, and to being curious about what we’ll learn. We can say “yes” if we take small steps into stress. 

I made Sarah aware that she was shaking her head “no.” She hadn’t realized she was doing that. I instructed her to shake her head “yes,” to say “yes” to herself each time she made a move, and to focus on only one move at a time. Saying “yes” to just the next move helped her improvise. She was able trust herself to let go of control. It made her willing to be immersed in messiness and be curious about what outcome each move would create. She made one move at a time and soon arrived at the top of the climb. The simple act of saying “yes” to one move changed everything.

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