Improv Wisdom by Madson

Improv Wisdom is a quick read that draws compelling analogies between the art of improv and living a great life. This may seem like a stretch, but the advice given is actually incredibly good. One thing I really enjoyed about the book were the suggested exercises in each chapter. The author’s suggestions made it much easier to turn good advice into personal practices.

I should mention that my review has some bias in it because my attitude about life has gradually transitioned from planning everything down to a tee to improvising through whatever situations I encounter. I can only speak for myself, but the results of this transition have been great, and being able to improvise through anything has given me a lot of confidence and personal satisfaction while taking away a lot of stress.


  • Some people prefer to say “yes” while others prefer to say “no”. The first group is rewarded with adventures while the second group is rewarded with safety. Most people fall into the second group, but that can be retrained.
  • Improvising in life doesn’t mean you should be careless or be spontaneous for spontaneity’s sake. Life involves a mix of long-term planning and day-to-day improvisation.

Maxim #1: Say “yes”

  • In improv, the best improvisers go with the flow of whatever their partners are doing; the worst improvisers reject their partners’ “offers” and try to mold scenes to their own tastes. Saying “yes” is about supporting someone else’s dreams and ideas; it lets you share control instead of trying to keep it.
  • Try saying “yes” to as many offers and opportunities as possible. The goal is not to be a “yes man”, but to be open and courageous enough to accept opportunities that lie outside of your comfort zone.
  • Always say “yes” if someone asks for help and you can give it.
  • Saying “no” is often an attempt to control situations instead of accepting them.
  • Build on people’s ideas. Respond with “Yes, and..” instead of “Yes, but..”
  • Exercise: pick a person like a spouse or coworker and try to support all of their ideas for a week.
  • Exercise: for one day, say “yes” to everything. Set your preferences aside and note the results.

Maxim #2: Don’t prepare

  • Excessive planning blocks our ability to see what’s ahead because we lose track of what’s happening in the present.
  • Psych experiments show that when we are about to get called on, we lose track of people who are speaking just before us (because we’re preparing) or just after us (because we’re self-evaluating). Our time would be better spent listening.
  • “Don’t prepare” is not about a lack of planning, it’s about letting go of our egos and our desire to look competent or to show off.
  • Exercise: spend a day without any plans. Do things based on what you want or need to do in the present instead of planning ahead.
  • Exercise: do an activity with the intention of being immersed in whatever you are doing. If you find your mind drifting toward planning, consciously try to bring it back to the present.

Maxim #3: Just show up

  • It’s very easy to procrastinate, be lazy, etc. Woody Allen: “Eighty percent of success is showing up.”
  • Quote from the book: “Love your parents? Pay them a visit. Need to write? Sit down at your desk. Want to have more friends? Show up at a volunteer job or a class in a subject that interests you. Need to exercise? Go to the gym or walk to the park. Believe in ecology? Take a plastic bag to the neighborhood park and pick up the trash.”
  • A bit part of showing up is creating rituals or habits to trigger the behaviors you want. For example, you might get your gym clothes ready in the evening so that you’re ready to run out as soon as you wake up the next day.
  • Exercise: think of a habit you wish you had (e.g. exercising regularly or going to bed before 1am), then set up a ritual that makes it easier or more pleasant to establish the habit (e.g. arrange your gym clothes before you go to bed or set am alarm for midnight that reminds you to start getting ready for bed).
  • Exercise: change the location of a familiar activity. Try a new coffee shop, a new park, or a new gym. Sometimes additional perspectives can make an activity even more enjoyable and enriching.

Maxim #4: Start anywhere

  • There’s rarely a need to find the best place to start. All starting points are equally valid. Worrying about where to start a project often results in the worst of all possible consequences: never starting at all.
  • In improv, saying whatever comes to mind when it’s your turn to speak is often  far better than pausing while thinking of the “best” thing to say. Go with whatever you have and try to turn it into a good idea rather than trying to find a good idea before you start.
  • You can apply this maxim for speeches. Instead of writing your notes down precisely, write your speech as a series of questions to yourself, then answer the questions naturally while you’re talking with whatever comes to mind.
  • “Once it’s underway, any task seems smaller.”
  • Exercise: think of a project that needs to be done. After you finish reading these notes, go and do the first thing that comes to mind about completing the project. Repeat until you are done.

Maxim #5: Be average

  • Applying 100% of your effort often backfires because of higher expectations for results (which are often outside of your control) and heightened disappointment if you don’t succeed.
  • Striving for perfection or originality often stifles your performance and creativity. It’s like trying to hit a tennis ball as far as possible: if your arm is flexed and rigid and you’re holding the racket with a death grip, you won’t hit the ball nearly as far as you would if you were relaxed and not trying too hard.
  • Trying to come up with original ideas often blocks our natural creativity. It often happens that what is obvious and natural to you seems original to other people with different perspectives. Use that to your advantage.
  • Exercise: think of something you need to do and how you would approach it if you didn’t have to do your best or do a perfect job. Now trying doing that and see what happens.
  • Exercise: instead of racking your brain to come up with creative gifts for people, consider ordinary gifts and everyday items instead: a wallet, a sharp kitchen knife, some nice coffee, etc.

Maxim #6: Pay attention

  • What you pay attention to plays a major part in how you experience the world.  If you’re focused on your own problems or on how you’re perceived or how much something will cost, then you will miss things that don’t fall into those contexts.
  • Exercise: Pick an ordinary activity like ironing your clothes or eating lunch, and pay attention only to what you are doing while you are doing it. Don’t multitask, talk to other people, watch TV, etc. Just do the single activity and notice everything that you can. This might sound easy but it’s surprisingly hard.
  • Exercise: When you’re in an unfamiliar environment, look around and try to notice something new. Try to notice something new every time you do a regular task.
  • Exercise: Once a day, devote 100% of your attention to listening to what someone is saying. Don’t think about how you will respond or whether you agree, don’t let your eyes drift, etc. Observe how this pays off.

Maxim #7: Face the facts

  • Wishing things were different is a waste of time. Work with whatever circumstances you find yourself instead of dwelling on how some things are not ideal.
  • Exercise: identify an issue in your life that needs attention. Describe all of the facts without injecting emotions or judgments. Next, think about about what you could do with the given situation, whether it’s favorable or not. Once you’ve created a course of action, take the first step.

Maxim #8: Stay on course

  • Even when you’re improvising, you should have a general direction/purpose in mind. Keep an eye on whether you’re moving in the direction that you want to be moving in.
  • Don’t just ask yourself what you feel like doing, ask yourself what your purpose is and what you can be doing to move closer to your objectives.
  • Exercise: when you’re not sure what you should be doing, ask yourself, “what is my purpose right now?”

Maxim #9: Wake up to the gifts

  • You can look at anything pessimistically, objectively, or optimistically. While the objective view is the most “accurate”, the optimistic view can be equally useful because it helps you see things as gifts and opportunities, not just lists or pros and cons.
  • Many of us are very fortunate in a lot ways, but we don’t notice that because we rarely inspect what we have.
  • Exercise: thank people for doing thankless jobs. They make your life a lot easier but rarely get the credit they deserve. When you thank someone, take the extra step and mention something concrete.
  • Exercise: Make a list of what you have received from others today.
  • Exercise: Write a thank-you note/email every day.
  • Try to give at least as much as you receive. =)

Maxim #10: Make mistakes, please

  • Don’t be afraid of taking risks and possibly failing.
  • Being willing to make mistakes is not a carte blanche to be sloppy, it’s permission to fail as long as you learn from failure and are willing to try again.
  • When you mess up, don’t try to hide it. It’s not the end of the world, so lighten up, admit it, and move on.
  • Exercise: Take a risk. Try an unfamiliar cuisine or a new sport, read a book from a genre you typically avoid, etc.

Maxim #11: Act now

  • The essence of improvisation is action. Not talking or planning or promising, but action.
  • “You don’t need to feel like doing something to do it.”
  • Collaborate with friends to make unpleasant solitary tasks more fun to make hard tasks easier to face.
  • Your actions should always be appropriate to the situation. On some occasions, the appropriate situation might be to do nothing and observe before doing something else.
  • Sometimes changing how you do something has unexpected benefits. Try to occasionally do familiar tasks in new ways.
  • Exercise: leverage the power of friendships by making plans with someone to do something together (e.g. get in shape, fix up your houses, volunteer, etc.)
  • Exercise: take an existing habit and change it slightly. Get coffee from a different cafe, bike to work instead of driving, or shift your entire schedule to be an hour earlier.

Maxim #12: Take care of each other

  • People are always encountering hardships and suffering. Help them out however you can.
  • Be willing to share control with people instead of hogging it for yourself.
  • Quote from the book: ”It’s not my job” is not an acceptable excuse. It’s always my job, if the job needs doing and I am there to do it.
  • Deliver more than you promise.
  • Exercise: pick a friend, family member, or coworker, and look out for that person as much as you can. See what you can do to make their life easier or better or more pleasant.
  • Exercise: consider others first by spending an entire day putting everyone else ahead of yourself. Observe how this makes you feel.
  • Exercise: do a random act of kindness without telling anyone about it.

Maxim #13: Enjoy the ride

  • Not every activity is inherently fun, but you can still look for ways to enjoy whatever you are doing.
  • “If something is not to your liking then change your liking.”