Use the secrets of improv to get your creative swagger back.
The Covid-19 outbreak has not been good for our creativity. For many, stress is the anti-thesis of the sort of expansive thinking that originality requires. While homeworking has also been a challenge. For every person waxing lyrical about the cognitive benefits of an extra hour in bed, there’s someone else lamenting the cognitive challenges of not having a room of one’s own. Yet while finding space to hear yourself think is important, ironically our lack of confidence may actually be down to enforced solitude.
For many of us, we are at our most creative when we are able to bounce off others. Like flint on flint, our brightest sparks come in collision with other minds. Whether that be in team brainstorms or even accidental chats at the office kettle. While we’ve done our best to replicate that on Zoom, it’s not quite the same. All in all, it’s not hard to see how many people have lost their creative nerve. The question is, what can we do about it? And how can we be more creative when working alone?
Improv your life
I am co-director of Hoopla!, the UK’s first improvisation school and London’s first dedicated improv comedy theatre. In my new book Improvise! I take the secrets of improvisation off-stage to show readers how they can use them to boost their own creativity. Improvisation is based on the premise that everyone is born creative. We all possess a vivid imagination, but often we block our access to it with various unhelpful habits of thought. These habits of thought mediate the gap between our imagination and our spontaneity. Fix these habits, and you’ll rediscover your innate creativity.
We all have an inner critic. An internal censor in our heads that judges our ideas and our work as we create it. Although our inner critic may sound like us, in reality it’s the internalised voice of other people. Or more accurately, it’s the internalised voice of what we imagine other people think. And it can be harsh. While our inner critic is useful at times-it stops us sending off any old crap, for example- it’s not conducive to creative confidence. In that light, here are two classic recurring thoughts of the inner critic and some useful improv inspired reframes.
Inner critic thought 1: “Great ideas are good right away.”
This is the classic myth of the inner critic. You beaver away, thinking of ideas as your inner critic sits on its high horse, petulantly smoking a cigarette and saying, ‘Is that all you’ve got?’ To get past this you need to suspend judgement of yourself, at least for a while. This is easier said than done, of course.
In improv, our goal is to ‘create from abundance.’ Rather than coming up with one idea that we pore over and try to perfect, we aim instead to produce lots and lots of options knowing that we’ll cherry pick the best ones later. This takes the pressure off. Because when volume is the goal rather than quality, it gives you permission to explore.
Inner critic thought 2: “I must be original.”
We get blocked creatively when we try too hard to be interesting and clever. To get around this, improvisers focus instead on the mantra ‘be obvious.’ This might seem like a meek surrender-who wants to produce obvious work? But remember the goal here: we are trying to unblock ourselves. To paraphrase improv pioneer Keith Johnstone, imagination becomes as effortless as perception when we let ourselves be obvious. Will your obvious idea need development? Of course. But at least you’ll have something to work with.
More often than not you’ll find that, when you let yourself be obvious, you’ll become original. Because what is obvious to you will likely to be surprising to someone else. Most of all, your ‘obvious,’ intuitive, reaction to a brief is often where your talent lies. Where your unique hinterland of experience, personality and expertise finds its purest, unfiltered expression. Why make things harder than they need to be?
Let yourself play
As well as reframing the tedious voice of our inner critic, we can play tricks on it too. This is why we teach improv to our students through games. By giving us some rules to focus on, games distract our inner critic long enough for us to express our innate creativity. We can employ the logic of games off-stage too. Here are three practical games you can play alone and apply to any creative brief:
50 Ideas in 5 Minutes
This turbo-charged version of the Pomodoro productivity technique is exactly what it sounds like! Set your timer for five minutes and see if you can come up with 50 ideas before time’s up. The false deadline keeps your inner critic in its box, and the ambitious target forces you to think laterally. If great ideas are like panning for gold, you are unlikely to find them if you don’t let yourself pan.
What’s the wrong answer?
Answering this question puts you in a fun, playful space as the need to be ‘good’ is totally lifted. Also, when we define what we don’t want, what we do want becomes a lot clearer.
This is a quirky way to look at a problem in a fresh way. First, write a list of your favourite creatives-they can be anybody: Lady Gaga, Jamie Oliver, even Dominic Cummings! Then ask yourself, ‘How would they solve this problem?’ By borrowing their perspective, you not only unearth new angles on the challenge at hand, but your inner critic has no rational reason to object. After-all, it’s not you!
Back to the future
As Picasso once said, ‘Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once we grow up.’ He’d have been a good improviser, I think. Adults get a bit snooty about games. It’s as if they’re above all that now they’ve got responsibilities, a pension and all the other accoutrements of age. Yet, rediscovering a sense of play is the secret to creative confidence. After-all, a child has never said, ‘Do you know what? I’m just not feeling it today.’ Covid 19 has made us all feel a bit older, a bit more serious. Now more than ever, then, we need to get back to play. If you can remember the simple fun of creativity, the self-doubt will lift, and the ideas will flow. Most of all, you’ll have fun again. And we can all do with more of that.
Max Dickins is author of Improvise! Use the Secrets of Improv to Achieve Extraordinary Results at Work which is out now. He is co-director of improvisation training company Hoopla! Hoopla run improv classes, shows and corporate training.