Life lessons from my Second City improv class

This morning, I woke up with a sore face from laughing bloody hard over the past two weeks: I just completed my first intensive improvisation course at Second City, the world’s premier comedy club/theatre and school of improvisation. Despite suffering from a brutal sinus infection, I spent the past two weekends speaking gibberish, making sounds I never knew I was capable of, and generally acting like an idiot — along with 13 other brave souls — all with one purpose: funny.  I’ve wanted to do the intensive improv course for years, but for reason after excuse I never did it — until now.

Second City gave birth to many of Canada’s talented comics. Think of these masters of funny: John Candy, Gilda Radner, Catherine O’Hara, Dan Akroyd, Martin Short, Eugene Levy — all names we still associate with Second City.  On my show, Extraordinary Women TV, I’ve had the pleasure of interviewing Second City veteran, One Funny Lady, Deborah Kimmett. I have also had the opportunity to see one of her shows and, while Kimmett makes comedy seem easy, as I’ve now discovered, it is far from easy. However, Kimmett was one of my inspirations for finally committing to taking improvisation, which I thought might help me be a better public speaker.

As it turns out, I did learn some skills to help with my public speaking. But, what I learned was so much more. Thanks to my talented class instructor, actor and improviser, Lisa Merchant, who was engaging, energized and funny as hell, the invaluable “take-aways” can be applied to not only my work, but life in general.

Here are four things I learned from my Second City improv class:

1. Make mistakes and move on:  Improv is a great way to bust perfectionism, which can hold us back in our careers (as it has done for me), because it is comprises mostly of making mistakes — one big fat mistake after another.  You try something — a sound or physical action, to a more complex sketch with others — which may or may not work. If it doesn’t work and you fall flat on your face, you just pick yourself up, dust yourself off –  and move on. As Jana Kasperkevic recently wrote in about entrepreneurial sensation, Jessica Herrin, founder of and Stella and Dot jewellery, we focus so much on success, we forget that failure is part of it. Improv showed me that failure is not only okay, it is necessary to succeed with our end goals.

2. Take risks: You need to be willing to take risks. It takes courage. In the case of improvisation, you may not be risking your life (probably no-one died doing improv on stage), but you are risking exposing your vulnerabilities and insecurities by putting yourself out on display. When you do it — and realize you didn’t die — you are more willing to take another risk — and then another.

3. Help support your partner and team: You’ve heard the old adage: a chain is only as strong as its links (or some variation of this). The same principle can be applied not only improv, but to your work and personal life. To be effective, and successful, we must take care of our partners and our teammates, and work together toward the greater good and success of all. No matter where we are at in life, we all need support from others.

4. Be present: By not being fully engaged in the moment, we miss out a lot in life. In improv, if you are not present and in the moment, you might miss a cue, or a necessary action to help out your partner who is counting on you. If you are thinking too much about activities on your to-do list, you will not benefit from the power of now. One of the greatest gifts we can give someone is to be fully present with them.

Although I am certain I don’t have a career as an improviser, because I pretty much bomb at it, I have committed to continuing with the Second City improvisation courses for its many benefits. More than ever, I am willing to taking bigger risks, make more mistakes — and laugh about it — and, in caring fashion, help support others around me.