Your 20s are special. You try things–good and bad–to varying results. You figure out who you are and what you want. It’s you-centric because, chances are, your 30s are bringing a family into your life. More responsibility.
In my early 20s, I had just finished serving with the Air Force. College was next, but I knew (even if I didn’t really know) that an entrepreneurial lifestyle was what I wanted. Still, I needed to figure it all out. I needed to try things.
This landed me in improv.
There wasn’t a grand strategy behind taking improv classes. I grew up loving Saturday Night Live. I appreciated comedians like Will Ferrell, Chris Farley, and Adam Sandler because of a simple truth: They never took themselves too seriously. Late-night television was also a favorite of mine. David Letterman’s down-to-earth personality always stuck out to me. So when a friend mentioned Second City, it was a no brainer. I could take improv classes without being a career comedian. Sign me up!
Little did I know just how much improv would help me. It was a memorable experience, one of those special times in life that you look back on years later and realize just how much it impacted you on personal and professional levels. Today, I think back to those days under the stage lights with a truth of my own: Improv made me a better leader. Here are five reasons why.
1. You’re constantly thinking on your feet.
As a CEO, you have to be quick on your feet. Each day is different, each challenge unique. It’s the same in improv. You might not be juggling a multimillion-dollar company or the livelihoods of hundreds of employees, but you’re certainly juggling something!
I loved this about improv, and I see its effect on me every day. At improv’s core is the need for quick wit and adaptability. Embrace what’s before you (in improv’s case, a scene that’s either working well or slowly burning down to the ground) and act fast.
Having to do this onstage quickly transferred to things I did elsewhere. I got better at decision-making, adapting to situations in the moment, and engaging with others.
2. Communication is essential.
A huge reason we fail at anything is because of a lack of communication. No matter who you are reading this–CEO, director, manager, department lead, staff member–you know what I’m talking about. If something doesn’t work, an easy first guess why is because communication was lacking.
Improv made me a better communicator. In the middle of an improv show, the only way you’re successful is if everyone is communicating. You’re reading your scene partner(s) and reacting to what they say and how they act.
Cut to the business world. Be it meetings or social functions, having the ability to communicate effectively is what I consider a “pillar” skill of leadership. Improv helped me tremendously in developing this skill.
I’ve always been a gregarious type, but improv gave me a better sense of how to read people and find a pulse in the room. Couple this with being able to think on your feet, and you have a wonderful one-two-punch for strong communication in any situation.
3. Your nerves get tested nightly.
There’s a lot of stress that comes with being a leader, and I’d wager that you, in reading this, want to be the best leader you can be. You care about your team and your company, which adds more pressure to your plate. Sometimes things will go well and other times they won’t, but you never want a problem to arise from faulty leadership.
It’s a familiar weight that all well-intentioned leaders have to lift. The nerves, the anxiety. If you ever need a crash course in the subject, improv should be your go-to. Talk about crippling fear; no matter how confident you are, getting up in front of a crowd and making yourself vulnerable is downright terrifying.
The more you do it, the easier it becomes. Soon you have a pulse on your own nerves, and you realize how they make you more authentic. They make you human. You recognize them, process them, and don’t allow them to affect your performance.
Exercising my nerves at a young age has benefited my entrepreneurial life. Do I still get nervous about things? Absolutely! (Unfortunately, we can never totally run away from a swarm of stomach butterflies.) Accepting your nerves, though, is something we can all do. And for leaders, it’s something we must do to grow.
4. You fail a lot.
The best lessons are learned from failure. When you do improv, you fail–a lot. When you’re an entrepreneur, you fail–a lot. If you want to succeed at improv, you take your failures, learn from them, and do better next time. If you want to succeed as an entrepreneur, you take your failures, learn from them, and do better next time.
It’s the same exact mentality, despite different job titles. Entrepreneur or comedian, you’re going to fail, and the only way you succeed is by not letting your failures completely derail you. Perhaps it was the public spectacle of improv that taught me this the most. To watch a scene I was in crash so beautifully toward the ground–and with a crowd of witnesses–could’ve been an easy ticket to quitting. Instead, I learned to accept failure for what it is: An opportunity to improve.
5. Growth becomes a mindset.
Because of failure, I actively looked for ways to grow. There was nothing better than killing a set in front of a fun crowd. I loved every minute when I got to create laughter for others. A lot of this came down to improving from show-to-show. It came down to growing with each class and each performance.
Improv wasn’t my long-term future, but it was the beginning of a mindset built around growth and improvement. It was an early opportunity to learn the importance of growing in your craft–whatever that might be–and building toward a better next opportunity.
While improv might not be the be-all and end-all of becoming a more effective leader, I do think it points toward another pillar of great leadership, which is exercising a willingness to embrace experiences. My greatest moments of learning have come from unique experiences. Whether it’s improv or something entirely different, I recommend you seek out these experiential opportunities. You’re bound to learn something valuable for the future.