What improv has taught me

1. Bring something to the table.

Me: “That’s a really nice dress you have on.”

You: “Wow you must be blind. I’m clearly wearing a t-shirt and jeans.”

[Scene dies, audience squirms]

Take 2

Me: “That’s a really nice dress you have on.”

You: “Thanks, it’s for my quinceañera tomorrow! I had to wrestle another girl to the ground for it.”

2. Listen.

We’ve all been in conversations where one (or both) parties is too preoccupied with pushing their own agenda to pay attention to the other person.

In improv, even more so than in normal interactions, you’re constantly thinking (read: freaking out) about what you’re going to say and do next. The problem is that it’s near impossible to build momentum this way, let alone capitalize on the nuances that make a scene memorable.

3. No (wo)man is an island.

You might have a creative spark of genius and see the scene evolving in a certain direction, but your fellow actors take a different interpretation or change the relationship between your characters. Roll with it.

At the same time, there’s going to be those inevitable moments when you draw a total blank. NBD. That’s what your scene partners are there for, lean on them!

4. Fake it until you make it.

I remember one class where we played a gamed called “Bad Celebrity Impressions”; we had to act out a scene while imitating a celebrity that the teacher secretly assigned each of us.

30 seconds into the first scene it was clear one of the girls had no idea who she was supposed to be. “It’s ok, there’s no wrong answer,” Rick coached from the side. “That’s why this game is called Bad Celebrity Impressions.”

But she couldn’t seem to break free from the notion of trying to emulate a character she didn’t know. The longer she mulled and waited, the harder it became to insert herself into the scene.

It turns out she wasn’t the only one who had never heard of the celebrity they were supposed to be imitating. Another girl’s version of Dan Aykroyd had a British accent and a spastic left foot, but no one in the audience cared. It was funny, regardless.

Creating your own luck

It usually happens towards the end of a profile you’re reading about some extraordinarily successful individual — the almost obligatory nod to “luck” and the role it’s played in that person’s life.

For mere mortals, it’s a comforting thought. No responsibility for what I can’t control, right? The problem, of course, is that this is only partially true. Maybe successful people really are blessed with more than their fair share of serendipity. But they also tend to set themselves up for more lucky encounters by leading lives designed to attract them. It’s kind of like how the cupcakes that are the most evenly frosted end up with more sprinkles. (Ok, I admit that was a stretch. I’ve just always wanted to work in a cupcake analogy somehow).

What you realize after reflecting on a few of these stories, and maybe on your own experiences, is that there’s no monopoly on cultivating luck. Anyone can tilt the odds in their favor.

How? A few rules of thumb as a starting point:

1. Do one thing every day, no matter how small, where you feel not quite in your element, maybe even pretty darn vulnerable. It can be as dramatic as running down the street to ask out a stranger or as simple as trying a new weight machine at the gym.

2. When life gives you options, choose the one with the widest range of possible outcomes. You’ll be surprised at how often you rise to the occasion just by giving yourself the opportunity.

3. Move on before you feel you’re ready. This isn’t to say never finish what you start or rush off and leave a mess for others to clean up. But if you keep waiting for all the variables to fall into place you’ll always end up floating in someone else’s wake.

4. Cherish time spent in others’ company. How much do you actually believe that everyone you meet has something worthwhile to teach you?

None of the above is groundbreaking by any stretch. It’s all rather intuitive, in fact. So why aren’t more people doing these things? If acknowledging the truth of a simple idea was all it took, the world would be a much more level playing field.

It’s not easy to push beyond your comfort zone every day. It’s not easy to embrace uncertainty. It’s not easy to fight inertia and voluntarily disrupt a comfortable routine. It’s not easy to invest in relationships when there are ten more urgent things on your to-do list all with more immediate and tangible consequences.

Just remember that luck isn’t something that passively happens to people. It’s something that can be actively cultivated with a measure of courage. So go out there and earn your sprinkles.

What color energy are you?

I love walking into someone’s office at Microsoft for the first time and looking for these guys:

These modest lego blocks can help you understand someone’s communication preferences, motivations, and decision-making style, all before the other person even opens their mouth.

The idea, likely familiar to anyone who’s taken an intro psych class or read up a bit on Carl Jung, is that people’s personality traits can be broadly broken out into four groups. The labels vary, but the Insights Discovery tool used at Microsoft classifies by “color energy” (excuse the slightly cheesy descriptors):

Fiery Red

  • assertive
  • determined
  • purposeful
  • decisive
  • daring
  • realistic

Cool Blue

  • tactful
  • concise
  • analytical
  • structured
  • consistent
  • exact

Earth Green

  • sensitive
  • reflective
  • cooperative
  • patient
  • reliable
  • loyal

Sunshine Yellow

  • impulsive
  • enthusiastic
  • optimistic
  • engaging
  • convincing
  • active

You can visualize the four colors plotted along two dimensions: attitude and function. Attitude is how you react to external and internal experiences (introversion vs. extraversion), while function describes how you prefer to make decisions (more thinking or more feeling). Red generally corresponds to an extraverted thinker, green to an introverted feeler, blue to an introverted thinker, and yellow to an extraverted feeler.

Everyone exhibits all four colors to a certain extent, but we tend to align with a dominant and secondary hue. For a small (and enviable) subset of the population, this combination consists of opposing color energies, i.e. green & red or blue & yellow. Hello, creative tension.

As with any simplistic framework, you can’t take it as gospel. But for the amount of time invested (~30 minutes), the assessment is surprisingly insightful. Beyond the self-awareness, what’s been most interesting is learning how to appeal to the underlying motivations of each color type. When working with people who have a lot of red energy, for example, you’ll meet with more success if you stay grounded in the concrete, give them space to operate, and focus on outcomes. This kind of adaptation obviously doesn’t happen overnight but it’s a worthwhile long-term goal.

3 types of value

“Back in the 1900s there was no such thing as Facebook where people could upload pictures from their vacation to Europe for friends to admire. Instead, the equivalent was to linger on the grand staircase of the theater’s foyer so others could take note of your outfit and recognize fashions that had been brought back from the Old World.”

-Tour guide at the Teatro Colon, Buenos Aires

Some companies unlock value by tapping into a deep-rooted psychological need. As our guide noted, these impulses have been around for a long time. Humans generally like:

  • To connect (Facebook, Twitter)
  • To share (Instagram, Tumblr)
  • To learn (Codecademy, Quora)
  • To be respected for our knowledge (Quora, Yelp)
  • To help others (Yelp, LinkedIn)

If you’re not addressing one of these fundamental desires, a second way to create value is by reducing friction in other parts of people’s lives so that they can spend more time doing one of the above. Companies in this category include Uber, Evernote, and Square.

A third type of value creation happens when a company is able to humanize interactions where the original person-to-person link has been obscured. During a recent Airbnb stay, I found myself treating my surroundings with much more care than I would have taken if we had booked a hotel. The reason was not just the understanding that I would be reviewed afterwards, but the simple act of meeting Florencia, the apartment owner, meant that her face stayed with me throughout our stay. You make a more concerted effort to conserve resources and keep things tidy when you’ve met the person who’ll to deal with the consequences of your actions. A number of industries—healthcare, environment, government—stand to benefit from the better alignment of incentives that results from reintroducing the human element into formerly impersonal interactions.

The hipster antidote

Tourists don’t get a lot of love from the worker bees who commute to Times Square. The catalogue of complaints is long:

  • They travel in packs at a pace slightly faster than the advance of molten magma.
  • They stop in the middle of intersections without warning to consult a map.
  • They whack you in the face as they open said map.
  • Their suitcases play xylophone on your shins.
  • They attract an entire striving ecosystem of tour bus operators, comedy show advertisers, and slightly sinister-looking Disney characters.
  • Anything and everything becomes photo worthy, from the Metrocard lying on a sewer grate to the mammoth-sized Sean John billboard they try to fit all in one frame, crushing your left pinky toe in the process. In the five minute walk from the subway station to your building, you interrupt at least as many Kodak moments.
  • And of course, the most common gripe: They’re always, always looking up.

But this last reason is exactly why I love Times Square and its ever-present tourist throng. They bring an energy and dynamism that go to the heart of what makes this city such an amazing place. Watching them take in the scenery, it’s like having your senses recalibrated to the sights and sounds around you for the first time. As reminders to stay curious and astound-able, tourists are the perfect antidote to the blasé breeziness of hipster culture.

And if you pause, for just a second, at 46th and Broadway, you’ll catch the quiet moments amidst the commotion: the tired shoppers savoring a coffee break, laughing as they review their iPhone pictures; the toddler waving absent-mindedly at the giant LED screen in imitation of everyone around him; the reassuring backward glances between couples as they negotiate the crowd, fingers linked.

But seriously, call me sometime

One of the hardest things about transitioning from Penn to “the real world” has been ensuring the friendships that sprang to life on campus don’t wilt in the concrete expanse of New York City.

Thankfully, technology has made it a real undertaking to fall completely out of touch.

Five minutes and a few clicks of the mouse was all it took to learn that a friend was road-tripping to Savannah for the weekend, another was in the midst of a Law and Order marathon, a third needed help moving a sofa she had bought off Craigslist, a fourth had also thumbs-uped “Hard to Explain” by The Strokes on Pandora, a fifth had checked into Wattay International Airport, and a sixth had just snapped a lovely picture from a sunset run along the Hudson.

Social scientists have a name for the collective impact of this omnipresent stream of updates: “ambient awareness.” Much like the way you can gauge the mood of someone standing next to you through small cues like throat clearing or feet tapping, all of these virtual data points coalesce to give a surprisingly holistic view of a person’s day-to-day life.

In making it possible for people to stay in the loop without having to check in on a constant basis, ambient information is a huge improvement from being in the dark. But it also makes it easier to substitute away from more meaningful interactions. Rather than picking up the phone to give someone a call, we make do with a wall post or a quick email.

Information overload can also lead to inertia. You’re about to dial a friend’s number, but then you see their Gchat status go from green to “Busy.” Now what? It kind of makes you nostalgic for the days when people would spontaneously call each other with no expectation of what would happen on the other end. So much faith!

The next time you find yourself perusing a friend’s profile, call or video chat the person instead. Even if you are interrupting, ninety-nine times out of one hundred, the reaction will be, “It’s so nice to hear a familiar voice checking in.”

Are you a tension-diffuser or a tension-enhancer?

One of the key criteria used to evaluate senior bankers in my old group at Morgan Stanley is whether you’re a tension-diffuser or a tension-enhancer: When an unexpected deadline or major obstacle crops up, are you able to stay calm and proceed to break the problem down into manageable parts, or do you get agitated and raise the blood pressure of everyone you come in contact with?

It’s an often under-recognized facet of leadership that encapsulates many intangible qualities about someone’s working style.

What's your resting face?

The other night I stepped out to hail a cab on my way to meet a friend for dinner in Union Square. As I settled in I noticed the driver kept glancing at me in the rear-view mirror and smiling as if he knew something I didn’t.

“Where are you from?” he asked.

“I went to school in Philly but home is Houston.”

“So not a New Yorker, huh?”

“Nope.”

The driver nodded and smiled cryptically again.

“What gave me away?” I asked, slightly offended this stranger had immediately judged me to be a non-native. This was my new home, after all.

“Your face,” he said. “It’s very open, unguarded.”

Expecting him to mention my clothes or manner of speech, I wasn’t quite sure how to respond.

“It’s not a bad thing,” he followed up. “Don’t lose it.”

His comment got me thinking about the expressions we wear when we’re not actively reacting to something. What mood are you projecting? Content? Worried? Excited? Fatigued? Confused? Angry? Curious?

Women, in particular, are much more likely to be judged by the smallest of facial expressions. “Watch what your face is doing, there’s more written on it than you realize.”

Recharge for the soul

Growing up, the extent of my preoccupation with religion revolved around a few scattered memories: watching my grandmother wade into a swimming pool wearing a bright blue smock; tagging along to church after a Saturday night sleepover at a friend’s house; stealing a glance during prayer circle at Camp Good News, a Christian summer retreat I enrolled tol in so I could spend two weeks with my best friend.

Despite, or maybe because of, this ad hoc exposure, one of my favorite things to do is visiting places of worship, especially when traveling abroad. If buildings were therapists, religious structures would be the best kind. There’s something immediately restorative about the vaulted architecture that draws your gaze up and up. In cheap jerseys those first few moments after I step into a church, it’s as if all the tiny pieces of myself that have been worn away over time come flying back to make me whole again.

My mom once commented that everyone feels equal in a spiritual space, cheap jerseys differences seem smaller. No matter my mood before entering a temple, plumes mosque, synagogue, church, fill-in-the-blank, I always leave in a better one. If ten minutes spent in one of these buildings can make people feel kinder, more patient, more forgiving, and more hopeful, regardless of their faith, that’s Quisque pretty powerful.

Next time you walk past a place wholesale jerseys of worship, don’t—duck in for a bit. Tilt your head back and let your eyes linger on the highest point of the ceiling. If there’s a service going on, sit and listen for a spell. If not, cheap jerseys China sit down anyway, close your Sports eyes, and take a few deep breaths. It just might be the cheap mlb jerseys most well-spent part of your day.