My experience with Impro[v] (the book and the activity)

Back to the personal posts. It has recently come to my attention that historically I need to and excel at apprehending things in an intellectual fashion. (Part of the reason that I really value new concepts, they quite literally let me see more.)

In this essay I describe my recent experiences with improvisational theatre. The first, reading the book Impro, of which a review follows. The second, taking an Improv class,  of which a review follows. (The third, the intellectual apprehension is this essay.) Enjoy.


Impro review

Multiple authors I enjoy have praised Impro over the years. Also, two close friends who are enormously different recommended it. So after 2 years my brain decided to pay attention and I read it.

It wasn’t  mind blowing, which I expected from seeing various reviews over the years. In retrospect this seems an instance of the Seinfeld is unfunny effect: it is 40 years old, authors I like have read it a long time ago and so it has diffused through the worldview they espouse.

The book is divided into 5 parts: Notes on myself, Status, Spontaneity, Narrative Skills, and Masks and Trace.

The chapter on status was very, very rewarding although it hasn’t shaped my mind totally. (This is due to me having studied PUA analysis in the past and thus having some understanding of how to convey high status and what low status looks likes.)

Having said that , the book led me to *spontaneously* analyse interactions in status transactions terms a few times already. I would mentally translate every action into a status move. Including my own. This is incredible because I was blind to status moves I did in a non-purposeful fashion. Just for this the book is worth reading.

The chapter on Spontaneity was pretty good and all of it resonates at a very deep level.

Some meditation, a lot of therapy and introspection have led to various experiences of spontaneity that I identified. It has also led to dealing with “demons” of the obscene, psychotic, and religious tendencies, and after those have had their turn to show the vulnerable children. Yes, yes, yes, and yes, all that made perfect internal sense; even if Johnstone is describing it from the perspective of Improv and Theatre (None of which I had ever done then.).

The chapter on narrative skills was pretty great. He aims to explain that it seems that humans have some sort of story mechanism and you can take advantage of this to create stories. Things like reincorporation (reintegrating a piece, or closing an open end) activate the story mechanism. He also had several writing prompts. I tried one of them  and ended up with a short story I’m quite happy with.

I’m midway through trance masks and I got a much better understanding when I saw the videos. I assumed the masks were of the african tribal mask sort, but instead they are of the exaggerations of *human* faces sort. Keith uses the mask plus a mirror plus a person willing to take social responsibility to induce altered states of consciousness.


Screen Shot 2015-02-13 at 14.57.24


Fig 1. No and yes, respectively.


Having dabbled in those, and having once looked at a mirror to see a demon, or a goat (in a dream) I totally feel how powerful the experience can be and how it can create trance states.

(See this for a video of how trance masks work)

Overall the book is excellent, in addition to the content, Keith has a splendid author voice. (Which makes me empowered to treat him on a first name basis.) The book has a *treasurable* characteristic – it is by an expert that throws observations at you, not theory. If it is the case that you have little to no knowledge on the area (as it was for me) you can connect to the observations by linking them to your experience, and by the end you used your experiences as a scaffold to build out your map in an area you had nothing. This is very, very rewarding. I suspect this is why many people enjoy the book.

(Although there might be other reasons. The book also prompted me to try out the exercises, to think about what it said and attempt to link it for inordinate amounts of time and to go on youtube and search for videos. Some books just prompt me to “read one word after the other until I read them all”. This might be due to the style of writing. Unclear, don’t know enough about writing, but it seems reasonable that different styles imprint different states that lead to different action likelihoods.)


Improv review

The book pumped me up (raised my Emotional Energy) enough to actually take a workshop. This was 2 days, 3 hours each over a weekend. One of the best decisions I ever made.

The professor guiding the seminar was excellent. He was what Johnstone refers as a status specialist – he could raise and lower his (and others) statuses at will. If he wanted to say something he would slightly alter his posture and look down on everyone and the room would fall silent. If he wanted everyone to relax he would laugh too much, and become goofy and everyone relaxed and started interacting instead of standing still paying attention. This is tough to describe but the effect was very vivid.

Further, it was rare for him to talk. He seemed to be focused on praxis on doing over talking, over logos. And so he wouldn’t. He would do and you would have to understand from trial and error. He would set up the group in an ellipse and do a movement and a sound. And you copied it and tried variations, and if those were legal he would let you stay in the ellipse, and if not you would be sent out.

One of the games was Zip-Zap-Boing. In this game you either say Zip and turn and point right or let, say Zap and turn and point to anyone but the people on your right or left, or you jump and say Boing to whomever sent you a Zip or Zap to send it back.

In the beginning people were upset when they lost and so they would loudly moan. But this “stole the energy off the stage” and so they stopped doing it over time, and what happened was brilliant: you could see a logic developing in the game, a tempo, a symphony of Zip-Zip-Zap-Zip-Zip-Zap that would be broken with a Boing and someone would exit. But the break would be correct, if you were seeing it from the outside it made sense from the overall picture, if not to the person that was surprised by it.

There are two very cool things about this game:

  1. You never win. There is no end. You just keep playing, and getting better, better reactions, better tempo, better symphonies, but no end. It is an infinite game.
  2. You must be empty. If you are thinking about you are going to do, then you will flinch too soon or too late and you will lose and exit the ellipse.

This second point is precisely what spontaneity is about. It reminded me of Wu Wei, which I have felt a few times. It’s not flow, or inner freedom, but a sense that things happen and things get done by you, but not that you are doing things. I can imagine that if a group keeps playing this game, then a shared ritual consciousness emerges.

Another game was the predator. One person is a predator, and they have to touch the others. If you get touched, you die. But just before getting touched you can yell out someone’s name. If you do, then that person becomes the predator. What ended up happening is that in the frenzy of running away people would call out people that were dead already, multiple people would be called, and so on. And then the game was interrupted and you were asked what was wrong. It was seldom the case that someone knew, although over time our awareness got better.

And awareness was another thing distinguishing the professor. He would know what you were doing even if he had his back turned to you. This was very freaky in the first hour and then it became OK.

Back to his approach. At some points he would talk. After we had done the praxis, then he would explain it referring technical terms from Aristotle Poetics, or scenes from the Illiad and Odyssey. So he would force you to understand by trial-and-error and then explain it with drama theory. It was brilliant.

A third game was the gibberish game. At some point he started talking german sounding words to me and I replied back in german. They weren’t words it was gibberish. And so I replied in gibberish. And it made sense. From the context, the body language, the cadence, the repetition of words – it started making sense, you knew what was meant.

This game was used to do a improv scene at the end of the second day. The setup was two best friends meeting after not having seen each other for 10 years, discovering they were living in the same city, and then discovering they were fanatical extremists of opposite sides of a cause.

It was overwhelming. Literally. There was a point of quiet recognition, two points of extreme happiness, an uncomfortable tension, and then a realization. After the realization there was a fight, and at some point I made a closed fist. My improv partner started crying out of anger and I couldn’t handle it. I had to exit to the backstage where I was shaking for 1 or 2 full minutes. Still unsure of what happened.

A highly recommended experience, if you can, go and do an improv workshop.


How does one act under maximum life ambiguity?

I’m using “maximum life ambiguity” to describe a state in which you have neither fixed your axiology not your epistemology. You don’t know what you want and you don’t know what is. You can’t state the problem except by handwaving because the goal state is unclear, and the initial state is unclear as well. You can only hand wave and point and say it is a wicked problem or that it is difficult to explain or formalise or pin down.

How to act then?

Life comes at you at shotgun point in every moment, it’s not like you can ask for a time out and sit and think things through and figure things out, and then carry on living.

I have been thinking this for long. A related idea is the idea of moral uncertainty which I like a lot because it speaks from the same place of uncertainty – from a place that understands both epistemic humility and epistemic responsibility – in other words, it takes the bull by the horns.

In what follows I present a variety of heuristics and frameworks I have collected and used over the past two years to think about and live life day-to-day whilst grappling with these uncertainties.



Living from within ambiguity

Heuristics for living and thinking life under ambiguity are divided under 3 main sections:

  • Goal construction
  • Pursuing reasonable instrumental goals
  • Cheap stuff

Following I attack each section in turn.


Goal construction

The keyword here is Effectuation, about which I talked previously. It is partially a blueprint for how to act without an object level goal, with the meta-level goal being to build a startup. It refocuses the question from what must you do (axiological and teleological) to what can you do (exploratory and teleonomical).

According to the theory, goals emerge as ones takes available means to do what is possible, in the vicinity, in the adjacent possible, and as one does that stakeholders and commitments will be added to the enterprise, and goals will emerge.

And effectuation is really nice, but it is a framework for entrepreneurship – for the time being. The question is how to lead your life day to day under massive uncertainty?

I have collected over the past 2 years a bunch of heuristics. It was unclear then why I was attracted to them, but in hindsight it seems clear. They are divided into 2 sections: a) Pursuing reasonable instrumental goals, b) Cheap stuff.


Pursue reasonable Instrumental Goals

This is a relatively simple idea with two main forks: 1)  Pursuing resources that are generally useful like money or knowledge. It is unlikely that these will be a handicap, whatever goals end up being constructed; 2) Going through the motions faster. Even if it is unclear where you are going, the faster you go, the faster you’ll get there. This pretty much means running on a faster tempo. (That is, shortening the total time it takes you to go through your decision-making cycle – presumably starting with observing and ending with acting – for the same result quality).


Do cheap stuff

This section is divided into 5 main ideas: 1) Opportunistic decision-making, 2) Little bets, 3) Convex payoffs, 4) Strategic information gathering.

  • Opportunistic decision making

Says Rao, that opportunism is a “(…) sense of timing and leverage, adaptability and willingness to rapidly shelve existing plans and disrupt procedures.” And that a way to achieve it is as follows:

  1. “Start by training (untraining?) yourself to be more of a daydreaming, idle, idea person. Put more unrealistic, unachievable desires in your head. Things that you know are going to be too difficult to attain from where you are now. This is how you prepare for luck.
  2. Become aware of, and start cultivating, your ability to recognize opportunity. This is NOT the same as trend-spotting or trend-prediction. You are not trying to sensitize yourself to happenings in the world at large with a “listener” mindset. You are watching with a motivated bias for connections to things you’ve already thought about in some depth.
  3. You’ve started noticing the right things? Good. Time to start probing. Probing means idle playing and dabbling. If something catches your eye, poke it with a metaphoric stick. Click on random ads, connect with people who intrigue you in unclear ways, act on impulses. Donot get sucked in and get addicted only to small, idle experiments. The key to probing is to drive towards yourself more information about opportunities you might be able to act on, and less information about stuff that will not yield opportunities. The reason this works is that most people just manage a deluge of zeroth-order information broadcast at everybody, and filter out what they don’t want. To such people, it seems silly to actually goafter even more information than comes at you naturally. But that’s the key: information coming at everybody, no matter how sophisticated your filtering, is of limited value. Until you probe to discover first-order information that is available to all at low effort, but which few bother to poke out, you don’t have much of an informational advantage. Think of it as using your stick to clear away fallen leaves as you stroll through the park. No more complex than that. No high-effort digging. Just more information than the guy without a stick.
  4. Start developing a sense for leverage. Leverage is what creates disproportionate returns. Opportunists aren’t lazy, they just act in focused bursts and get more returns for every ounce of action. But this only happens with a lot of idle watching. Leverage is a combination of timing, selection and energy bursts. You develop your instincts for leverage by pushing with varying amounts of intensity on the opportunities that your constant and restless probing will reveal. This will gradually lower your resistance to agile action, lower the inertia of your planned, reactive or procedural thinking, and prime you to act in bigger ways.
  5. Act. If you’ve cultivated your opportunistic instincts in time, when an actual opportunity comes, you will recognize it faster, be more prepared to act given your background ideas, more armed to act, given the extra information your probing will have delivered you, and finally, more willing to act, even at the cost of disrupting well-laid plans, ingrained behaviors and ponderous rituals. Your sense of leverage will tell you how much you need to do. If you’ve accepted my religious preaching, you won’t be held back by an unnecessary sense of guilt about trying to steal a bargain from Mother Nature when she isn’t looking. But at some point, you’ll actually have to start placing your bets, so learn to tell yourself in no uncertain terms, pure black-and-white terms: this is it; I am going for it. The worst thing ever is not knowing when you are committing, and paying the high cost of a ‘dip’ without realizing it. I did it once. It wasn’t pleasant
  6. Burst. If all your work disciplines were acquired through a moral ethic and a sense of static work-life balance, you won’t be able to do this. Within an extremely short period of time you have to bet a LOT. Not just direct effort (as in staying up nights), but relationships, earned trust, all your brownie points, money.
  7. Rinse and Repeat. Here is the fun part. More often than not, you’ll lose. Watch leopards hunt on the Discovery channel. You’ll see burst after burst trail off into lazy ambles. That’s how you live the opportunist life, like a hunter. Which means after every failed burst, you go back to your laid-back, droopy-eyed-but-watchful life, waiting for the next window of opportunity.”
  • Little bets

Little bets are concrete actions taken to discover, test, and develop ideas that are achievable and affordable. They begin as creative possibilities that get iterated and refined over time, and they are particularly valuable when trying to navigate amid uncertainty, create something new, or attend to open-ended problems.”

  • Convex payoff actions

This idea comes from Nicholas Nassim Taleb, in his book Antifragile. The idea is that you only play games that are tilted in your favour, games that have bounded losses, but unbounded gains. 

  • Strategic information gathering

Here the focus is on the taking cheap actions that fail or succeed at giving you information soon after taking them, be this information about yourself or the world.


(With regards to information about yourself, I strongly endorse Mark’s recommendation to see a therapist. Best value for money ever, even if not necessarily a “cheap” action.)

(Note that the above all interact: cheap stuff shortens tempo, cheap stuff has convex payoffs, strategic information gathering is knowledge, etc – this ontology is a first pass.)

(It feels wrong to give a conclusion to an essay that collects heuristics to deal with life ambiguity. So I won’t.)