8 Life Lessons You Can Learn from Improv (Without Ever Stepping into a Class)

You’re onstage with nothing prepared and an expectant audience to entertain. Sound like a nightmare? For those who practice improvisational theater, this scenario is the very opposite of a bad dream—it’s more like a magical opportunity. And alums of Stanford Improvisors, developed by drama senior lecturer emerita Patricia Ryan Madson in 1991, say the magic goes far beyond performing. Improv as Madson taught it, they say, offered students a code for living, with lessons that they now apply in their lives and careers. “I loved how Patricia connected improvising on the stage to improvising in life and showed us how the skills that we were learning had a much greater relevance than just engaging people in a show,” says Jacob Klein, ’01, MA ’10. Here’s how to do it.

Illustration of redheaded woman pointing to chart on wall while businessman holding coffee cup is listening.

Pay attention.

Jacob Klein, ’01, MA ’10
Director of learning games, Curriculum Associates

The most important skill you have as an improviser, says Klein, is your ability to deeply observe and listen to your fellow improvisers. “If they do the simplest thing, if they walk to a beat or if they slightly trip over something onstage, you’re observing that. You’re working with everything they do and trying to build on top of it. So the smallest little action or speech irregularity becomes something noteworthy. You react to it. And you go from there.”

At Curriculum Associates, which acquired the start-up that Klein co-founded while he was a student at the Graduate School of Education, he leads a team that designs interactive learning games and consults on how to implement them in classrooms. It’s a role that requires a lot of responsiveness, whether he’s brainstorming ideas with co-workers or getting feedback from users—who, in some cases, are kids who tested a game and reacted to it in ways he didn’t anticipate.

“Particularly at the beginning, looking at math concepts that students struggle with, I’m trying to really empathize with them to understand why certain math concepts are challenging and then thinking about how to teach it in an engaging, visual way,” he says.

Of course, it would be impossible to sustain the level of focused attention that improvisers have onstage throughout your workday, he says. “I think of it more as a tool to draw on when needed—when you really want to pay attention to how things are unfolding.” That deep observation, he says, is what enables “really listening to your users. Really being able to empathize with someone else and notice what they’re doing with your product.”

Illustration of woman with long hair throwing a paper airplane into the air.

Be obvious.

Jonathan Palley, ’07
Founder and CEO, Spire Health

People often assume that new ideas come as a spark, a great, fully formed epiphany, says Jonathan Palley. “We grow up in schools with an image of Einstein and the light bulb. Somehow a new idea is like this: ‘ding!’ The reality is that it’s a process. It’s a process of iteration. And improv gave me a structure to do that.”

One of the most important rules for improv, he says, is to “be obvious.” Following this rule means letting go of the belief that you have to get somewhere really creative right away and, instead, embracing small steps. “What you learn very quickly in improv is that when you do that, you get to somewhere really fantastical. When you apply that to entrepreneurship or starting new businesses or building new products, it’s really the same thing,” he says.

One example, he says, is a system his company developed for remotely monitoring people who have chronic respiratory conditions. One of the challenges of such monitoring, Palley says, is that it’s often difficult for elderly or sick patients to remember to charge and wear a device such as a Fitbit or an Apple Watch. The system has to be as barrier-free as possible. So he and his team started with the obvious. “We were talking about this, and it was like, ‘Well, all these patients are wearing their clothes.’ That was kind of an obvious thing. . . . So the next obvious step was wondering, ‘What if the technology was part of the patient’s clothes?’” People have different kinds of clothes. So what if it could be a part of all of their different kinds of clothes? “And then it was like, well, what goes on clothing? Clothes always have little tags on them. Another small step.”

The end result was Health Tags, which monitor patients’ respiratory rates, pulse, steps and other metrics, and send data to their care teams. “It’s a totally new technology,” Palley says, “but we got there by just taking a bunch of small, obvious steps.”

Illustration of businessman running with briefcase.

Accept that you don’t have control (even when you think you do).

Ryan Laponis, ’02, MS ’03
Associate professor, UCSF School of Medicine; Academy of Communication fellow

When Ryan Laponis’s friends urged him to take improv freshman year, he was hesitant. “The idea of being onstage and not having anything prepared was really deeply terrifying,” he says. Eventually, he came around. “They were friends of mine. I trusted them.” The most striking thing about the experience, he says, was discovering he didn’t need to be in control of everything. “Even the idea that I would have control of everything just isn’t true. It’s a false paradigm. The reality is that I’m improvising all the time. I have no idea what could happen from one moment to the next,” he says. “Being able to sit with that discomfort and really process that was probably one of the most transformative experiences of my undergraduate career.”

Laponis says improv changed his view of failure and risk-taking in a way that helps him in his work today. Part of his job as a physician involves teaching students and faculty at UCSF Medical Center how to better communicate with patients and one another. “A lot of the work I do involves role playing and giving people feedback on how they are communicating,” he says. In order to do that effectively, he says, he has to cultivate a space where people feel like they can be vulnerable and receptive. “In order to do improv, you have to create a sense of safety and connection to allow for that vulnerability, to allow for failure,” he says. “Going through that as a learner was incredibly powerful.”

Illustration of man walking and holding a giant pencil while waving.

Trust that the scene will evolve.

Ilyssa Silverman Bass, ’03, MA ’03
Clinical psychologist

“Improv energetically prepared me to be a clinical psychologist in a way that I don’t think anything else really could have,” says Ilyssa Silverman Bass. “Early in graduate school, when a lot of my co-workers had tremendous anxiety about seeing their first client, I remember feeling a little bit guilty that I was excited. And I remember having a distinct realization that that was an improv thing. I was really excited to enter someone else’s scene and find that flow.”

One of the things that develops in an improviser, Silverman says, is a calm confidence that the scene will evolve. “You start improvising with all this nervous energy about, what if this scene’s not good? And the longer you do it, the more you enter the scene with a calm curiosity and excitement to discover what comes next.” That means, she says, being willing to step up if needed to move the scene forward, and equally willing to let someone else take the scene in an unexpected direction.

Bass finds this mindset also applies when interacting with children. “Especially with small children, how much time do you spend entering their world and making them look good and being the support or the background scenery for their adventures, literally in play and figuratively in just supporting their development? I think I was sort of conditioned through improv to look forward to the unexpected with other people.”

Illustration of two businessmen shaking hands, holding briefcases.

You can’t do it alone.

Claire Slattery, ’09
Actor, improviser, speaker trainer

Improvisers are drawn to the experience of collaborating, Claire Slattery says. “The improviser mindset is that you can’t do it alone. It’s much more interesting and fun when you celebrate other people’s ideas, when you ask for help.” Whether onstage or in a meeting, she says, improvising teaches you to “really tap into that sense of ‘I can learn from other people. Other people are fascinating. Other people have great ideas.’”

In addition to acting and improv, Slattery coaches and trains business groups on collaboration techniques. Applied improv has become so sought after as a skill set, Slattery says, because even as technology enables people to work more independently, there’s growing recognition that some of society’s more intractable problems need a team approach, the kind of powerful humility and openness to partnership that improv teaches. “We’re seeing it in politics. We’re seeing it in social justice. There’s so much more empathy and understanding that nothing can be done alone,” she says. “No idea is great just because one person has it, but because an entire group comes together and feels a sense of shared control and shared ownership.”

Illustration of man looking into the sky with a telescope.

Focus on the how, not on the what.

Lisa Rowland, ’04
Stanford lecturer in theater and performance studies, performer and teacher at BATS Improv, corporate communications trainer, co-host of the podcast Monster Baby

When you’re studying improv, says Lisa Rowland, you’re working on a way of being rather than on what you want to create. What makes improvisers so good at creating something out of nothing isn’t as much about what they do as it is about how they do it. “Approaching one another generously; paying really close attention to each other; assuming brilliance on the part of our partners; showing up with a willingness and an openness and a playfulness and a boldness; being willing to be courageous; also being willing to cede the floor if something else is needed and I’m not.”

It’s an attitude she describes as equally rewarding in life and onstage. “I can’t guarantee what will happen onstage, but I can commit to showing up in a particular way. I can commit to supporting you, and I can commit to staying connected with you, and I can commit to making [you] look good.”

Which is why, she says, if you can, forget about the what and focus on the how. “Because I don’t know the what. I don’t know what will come out of our partnership, but I know how I can show up for you. And I trust that if both of us commit to showing up for each other in that particular way, something good will be on the other side of it.”

Illustration of woman standing, looking down negatively.

Stay positive (or at least neutral). 

Ted DesMaisons, ’90, MBA ’96
Mindfulness teacher, author, co-host of the podcast Monster Baby

When improvisers want to tell a good story onstage, they start with the setup. “You have to establish what’s normal first, and then go from there,” says Ted DesMaisons, whose book, Playful Mindfulness: A Joyful Journey to Everyday Confidence, Calm, and Connection, is a guide to applying the teachings of improv and mindfulness. “If the setup includes conflict, or something negative, that really limits your options because the urgency of the negative has to get resolved right away. If the setup is more neutral or positive, the scene has more places to go.”

Just like players onstage, our minds are powerful storytellers, DesMaisons says. When something occurs—we receive a curt text from a friend, for example—we build a narrative around it that affects how we respond. Often, that narrative takes us in a negative and thus more limiting direction. It’s not that you have to choose a Pollyanna perspective, he says. But when you can choose a neutral or even slightly positive starting point, “a broader horizon is possible.” (In other words, if you allow that your friend may have been distracted when he or she sent you that curt text, you’ll have more options for responding than if you assume your friend hates you because of something you said.)

Illustration of woman holding up her arm to a man standing on a ladder, reaching back to the woman.

Take the offer.

Adam Tobin, ’93
Screenwriter, Stanford senior lecturer in art and art history

One of the many things that improv taught Adam Tobin is that there are offers everywhere, just waiting to be noticed and accepted. “An improviser goes onstage with nothing, and just by the posture of their partner, they can start a certain scene,” he says. We all instinctively do this all the time, Tobin says, but it gets more difficult when we’re put on the spot.

The lesson he derived from improv of accepting the offers posed by the people and situations around him, he says, has helped him successfully pitch TV scripts and has influenced his teaching. “Rather than thinking of my teaching as a one-way lecture, I constantly think of it as something that the students are participating in, that we’re building together.”

Seizing offers might be as simple as an exercise Tobin sometimes does with his screenwriting students: He’ll ask them to write down a title for a movie or TV series using their own first initial, and then start thinking about what that story might be. “The point is to get information, notice it, and then trust yourself enough that you can play around with it a little bit. And it doesn’t have to be perfect.”


Charity Ferreira is a contributing editor for Stanford.