Ryan Madson, Patricia

Patricia Ryan Madson
Patricia Ryan Madson is the author of Improv Wisdom: Don't Prepare, Just Show Up. She is an Emerita faculty from the Stanford University Drama Department where she taught from 1977 through 2005. She teaches at the Esalen Institute and for Stanford's Continuing Studies Program. She founded the Stanford Improvisers in 1991. Patricia lives with her husband, Ronald Madson, and their Himalayan cat, Buddha, in El Granada, California, where they direct The California Center for Constructive Living™ [www.constructiveliving.com].

Improv Wisdom Book Cover

tompeters.com asks …

You’ve been writing this book for a very long time. I think you’ve said your first draft was in 1981?

PRM: That’s right.

Can you talk a little bit about that?

PRM: It’s ironic that a book about spontaneity and improvising took literally over 20 years to write. When I started teaching improvisation, it became clear that there was a message that the work was imparting to people who studied with me. I wanted to capture that message. People who took my classes said, “You know, improv study is useful in business, and even in life. Gee, I wish you’d write something.” So prompted by this, I started writing a book. It kept taking different forms. It went through a phase where it was more of an academic text. Then, at one point, it morphed into a self-help book. I think it needed the 20 years of my experience as a teacher for me to fully digest the ideas and put them into a simple enough form to be useful to a broad cross-section of readers.

I wanted to start off this way because I think it is important that you took that long to write the book. At first, I saw “improv” and thought, “Okay, it’s about being improvisational,” or it will sum up what you’d learn in an improv class. Yet it’s not like that at all. I think this is a great guide to life. I was really impressed. I want to give this to a lot of people.

PRM: That compliment means a tremendous amount to me. What wanted to be born was a small, easy-to-read book that garnered the basic principles I learned through my life teaching improv. I wanted to put them together in a concise fashion, using the metaphor of improv as a way of communicating life tips.

Your subhead here is Don’t Prepare, Just Show Up. If I said to a business person, “You ought to read this book.” They would say, “What do you mean, ‘Don’t Prepare, Just Show Up?’ I can’t do anything in my work that I’m not prepared for.” Is there a reason for having that subtitle? Or have you gotten any kind of negative feedback about that?

PRM: Sure. I think that’s an initial reaction. Of course you can’t just show up. But my point is not that preparation is in itself somehow improper, onerous, or unhelpful. It’s that the notion of preparing or the act of preparation often gets in the way of people actually doing what they need to do, or following a clear impulse. Preparation becomes the substitute for action. We find ourselves with incredible to-do lists, and at the end of the day, not much having been done.

Or we’ve just checked off a lot of things that we’ve done.

PRM: That’s right. The deep message of the book is that we have important things to do in our lives. We have dreams, talents, things that we love, and we’re naturally creative. The spirit of this book is to invite you to kick start your dreams by not letting preparation get in the way of showing up at places where you don’t feel fully prepared.

I believe that our life is a preparation for each moment. The businessperson who says, “I have to be fully prepared for the meeting,” probably already is. If at the meeting, instead of reading their notes and showing their PowerPoint carefully, they look at the situation with really clear eyes, observe who’s in the room and what questions are there, many times a much clearer and deeper understanding of what they’re trying to communicate will come through.

It made me think about all the meetings I’ve sat in. What’s always terrified me is when they say, “Let’s go around the room and talk about ourselves.” You don’t hear anything that anyone else is saying, because you’re thinking, “What am I going to say about myself?” So the next time I’m in one of those meetings, I am going to think about what you wrote. I’m just going to listen to what everyone else is doing, and then let it go and see what happens. I think that’s huge.

PRM: The idea that, “I will speak about myself better if I think about what I’m going to say in advance, if I prepare my remarks,” is flawed. The whole idea of picking something good to say gets in the way of the natural way our mind would answer a question.

You should listen to the other folks and trust that when it comes to you, what you need to say will come forward. I challenge everybody to try this. Trust that when you start to speak, you have a lifetime of being in meetings, being a person who can communicate. Human speech is the ultimate improvisation. If you screw up, you can correct yourself.

That’s another thing I want to say. Go ahead, make some mistakes. Maybe the sentences aren’t perfect, but you can go back and sculpt them and fix them. I think natural utterances produce credibility. We feel comfortable around people who speak naturally rather than too smoothly, in my view.

That reminds me—I went to this Pop!Tech conference in Camden, Maine, in October. There were a lot of really interesting speakers, many of whom aren’t accustomed to speaking onstage, so some of it was slightly excruciating to sit through. Yet they had very interesting things to say. I think we’ve become awfully accustomed to slick speakers. The most horrible moment was when an author got up and just read from his book. Everyone in the audience started looking at each other, like they could not believe this was going on. You could see a shudder go through the crowd. It was amazing to me. Luckily, it was good writing.

PRM: I think some people would rather read because they’re so fearful of making mistakes or not having their preparation down pat. I know lots of people who simply won’t speak in public unless they have rehearsed and rehearsed, and pretty much memorized the speech that they’re going to give. That’s why I think a PowerPoint presentation will often hook you into a very fixed spiel. Now, I’m not against PowerPoint, because I think it’s valuable to illustrate things, to be able to have graphics along with a speech. But it seems to me that the fewer words on the PowerPoint screen, the better.

The suggestion I make to speakers is, instead of writing down your point and reading it as if it’s a speech, ask yourself questions and answer them. So my notes might say something like, “What brought you here today?” or “Why did you write this book?” I can look at that question and see what kind of a fresh answer comes right now. It will probably be more persuasive than if I had put it in statement form.

Right. Plus that answer grows and gets more interesting over time as opposed to the scripted one that remains static. I thought that was brilliant. Now, you’ve set this book up with a structure of 13 maxims. Can I ask you why 13? I’m guessing it could have been almost any number.

PRM: It could have been. You’re absolutely right. I probably have 20. We could have brought them down to seven. It was a question of making a decision. Finding the form for the book was an interesting journey. There seems to be something for everybody in the book. Maybe not all of the maxims seem to be useful to one person, but there might be some tidbit for most folks that would help them do whatever they’re doing a little better.

Can you talk about a couple of them?

PRM: Sure. If you think about the quality of improvising, I think some of them are obvious. Things like, “Don’t prepare.” Instead of preparing, come and pay full attention to the present moment. There is a lot of interest these days in what is called mindfulness. The Faustian bargain I hope to make is, instead of preparing, when you show up, pay keen attention to what’s happening in the room. Who else is there? What are they wearing or saying? Shift the attention from “How am I doing? What do people think of me? How is my presentation going to be?” in favor of listening well and being fully present.

I think the natural default is to think about the past and future and worry and plan. We have a lot of stuff going on mentally most of the time. We’re multitasking. So the suggestion to pay attention to what’s happening right now, which seems pretty simple, is radical because the modern world is so full of multitasking, that just to be here, now, to use the Ram Dass phrase, is a challenge for most of us. But I think it has a payoff.

Yes, I agree. Though I was disheartened to see that you wrote, “Avoid multitasking.” I thought I was doing so well as a man! We have Tom Peters and numerous others out there writing about the differences between men and women. Women, it seems, are more natural multitaskers. Guys do one job at a time if they’re lucky. So I thought it was great that I was improving my multitasking skills. But then you say to avoid this.

PRM: I prefer to focus on the virtue of paying attention rather than the avoidance of multitasking. In fact, there’s a great old story about a Zen master who was teaching, “Pay attention to one thing at a time.” He was caught one morning having a cup of coffee while reading the paper. They said, “Roshi, roshi! We thought you said when you drink a cup of coffee, just drink a cup of coffee.” He said, “Ah, yes. But when I drink a cup of coffee and read the paper, I just drink a cup of coffee and read the paper.” Gong. [Laughter]

So perhaps doing two things at once is also a skill we can work on. But it’s relaxing to say, “You know, I can now just tune into this meeting. I don’t have to pull out my Blackberry and pretend I’m listening while planning something else.”

I’ve always hated that. I think, “Why are you bothering attending this meeting if all you’re doing is attending to your cell phone, or some other piece of machinery?”

PRM: I think it might be wonderful if we considered some kind of new ethical rules for our society that related to those devices—which are so helpful and useful in life—to make it a trend among the people who are trendsetters in business and industry not to abuse those things.

I think as they become more ubiquitous than they already are, people will eventually calm down. There’s still this sense of the coolness of it. Over time, primarily the guys won’t feel compelled to let everyone else know that they have this newest, coolest gadget. I think that’s what drives a lot of it.

PRM: It could be the newness of the toys and such.

I actually made a note here that I thought your book should have been called Pay Attention!!

PRM: That’s a good title.

It does seem to underlie a lot of what’s going on in the book.

PRM: I would have liked that as a title, too, frankly. Titling is always a challenging thing. The book had various other titles, The Spontaneous Life or Showing Up For Your Life or things like that.

Let’s see … we were on maxims, weren’t we? There’s one that I think is counterintuitive. It’s “Be average.” How can that possibly be good advice to those of us who are in search of excellence?

Good quote there! Nice Tom Peters reference. [Laughter]

PRM: I first heard “Be average” from Keith Johnstone, the wonderful Canadian improv guru. He says, “Just do an average scene. It’ll be fine, you know?” A great relief came into the room of students who were trying really hard to come up with interesting ideas.

It’s a mental trick to say, “When I’m doing my work normally and effectively, I’m pretty good.” Saying to ourselves, “I’ve got to do my best here. This has to be the best idea, ever,” is often the kiss of death. As soon as we try to excel, it’ll put the kibosh on what we’re up to. I find when I’ve taken the pressure off myself to make this be the best interview I’ve ever given, when I say, “Just be honest, see what happens if you are true to your ideas, speak naturally, go ahead, make mistakes, be your own self,” that often the result is much closer to what I’m hoping for than when I’m trying hard.

Right. Well, I know from doing these interviews with authors that some of them clearly have practiced the four main points that they want to make and they almost seem to be talking from a script. You can ask them almost any question and you’re going to get a spiel. It’s a little disconcerting because you think, “Well of course, they want to be sure they get their points across.” But it doesn’t make for a very interesting conversation, because there isn’t a conversation. You’re battling their need to make sure they say the right words. It’s like talking to a PowerPoint presentation.

PRM: We get bad information if we’re told, “Make sure you get your four talking points in, or the interview will be a disaster.” Human communication is so much more complex and potentially wonderful and lively if we would trust our natural ability to have a conversation. That makes it fun.

I had written down a note on this “Be average” thing, just because it was so counterintuitive. I was reminded of my neighbor, a young woman who’s an anesthesiologist at Mass. General Hospital here in Boston. I mean, talk about a crucible for excellence, she’s in charge of keeping people alive on the operating table. One night we were talking a little bit about her work. She said, “You know, perfect is the enemy of good.”

PRM: What a great quote.

I thought, “Wow. This is coming from an anesthesiologist.” It was what her professors had said. If you relax, you’ll do it right. If you’ve done the background work, you know the stuff.

PRM: When you take the pressure off, it allows you to get in touch with your ordinary mind. When my mind is working naturally, my database is open and I have access to what I know in life. “Be average” is a reminder that there’s something valuable that comes from using our ordinary, natural mind.

Right. You write at one point, “An improviser learns to memorize a name the first time it is mentioned.” I think you say that not being able to remember names isn’t a genetic deficiency; you’re just sort of being lazy. Can you talk a little bit about remembering names, the importance of it, and how to do it?

PRM: Sure. It’s a matter of attention. I prove this time and again with groups of students who all imagine, “I’m just not very good at remembering names.” I think it’s a lie we tell ourselves because we haven’t done it. There’s no magic to name retention. When there’s something important, we figure out a way to remember it, whether it’s a telephone number or an email address. It’s a matter of saying, “I think people’s names are important. I’m going to make that a goal of mine.”

I suggest that what you have to do is not simply assume that because someone has said their name once, you’ve got it or are responsible for it. It takes repeating. Ask them for it again, ask them to spell it, write it down. Do a couple of things that you would do if you were trying to code something in your own mental databank.

Try little exercises like looking at the nametag of the clerk in the grocery store. When they ring up your sale and say, “Thanks, Ms. Ryan, for shopping at Safeway,” you look at their nametag and say, “Thanks, Emily, for ringing me up today. Have a good day.”

Starting to pay attention to names is the first step. But remember that on the road to becoming better at it you’re going to make mistakes. You have to pick up another improv maxim, “Make mistakes, please.” When I try to remember names, I’m going to screw up. So I have to ask again. It might be three times and I might have to deal with my embarrassment of saying, “I know this is just crazy. I’ve asked you several times, but I’m still stuck. I haven’t quite learned your name. Would you help me once more?” I find people are often flattered that you’re taking the trouble to try to get it right.

Yes, I’ve seen that. I have tried to get better about the name thing. Somewhere along the line I’ve absorbed enough embarrassment to ask again. I always find that, as you said, people are flattered that you care enough to want to know their name. So there isn’t really any reason for embarrassment. You’re honoring them.

PRM: I think so, too. If we let embarrassment rule our lives, boy, we’re not going to do very much. Almost anything makes me embarrassed. Instead of saying, “Get comfortable with it,” I just say, “Get used to being embarrassed. It’ll happen and it’ll pass.”

It makes me think of Click and Clack from the radio show, Car Talk. If somebody like Kathleen from Iowa City calls in, one guy always says, “Well, is that with a ‘K’ or a ‘C’?” Or they guess how it’s spelled based on what part of the country you’re from. They make it fun. I think that would be an easy way to approach it, if somebody says a name, try to spell it.

PRM: Yes. In fact, if your name is a little unusual or is a foreign name, it is kind and helpful if you say it very slowly, even spell it when you introduce yourself. Make a joke or find some way to help others remember it.

You lead a group called the Stanford Improvisers. Are they tied to the university?

PRM: Yes. Actually, I’m the former coach and founder of that group. I just retired officially from Stanford in June. The Stanford Improvisers are a Stanford University student group that performs improv shows for the dormitories and for the campus at large. They also teach workshops. They study, teach, and learn the skills of the improviser.

These are students who are engineers and business students, undergraduates and graduate students who have been selected for their interest and ability. It’s a group of about 20 students right now. They’re a lively, interesting group. They have a wonderful webpage [www.stanford.edu/group/simps]. At the beginning of each term, when they have a show, they put out a video, a little teaser video on some funny theme. The website has information about their shows and all of their trailers for the last five or six years that are pretty funny, three-minute videos of the group doing some kind of scene. They’re very clever young people.

It’s fun to watch Stanford students who are very good at getting the right answers be part of a group that’s a little bit anarchic. They play improv games and have a great time making up their own plays and stories.

So these aren’t people who are interested in going on to a life in the theatre, necessarily? They’re doing this as a life skill?

PRM: Yes. A lot of them are. Probably 10 percent of the group are drama students. It’s eclectic. Improv playing seems to attract a real cross-section of personalities, not always the drama types. Sometimes they’re shy engineers who just love to get up and solve the problems, making a story together with others. It’s been fun.

Another major thrust of your book is, “How can we give back?” One exercise you suggest is to think about, for example, all of the steps it took and the people involved with the creation of the chair you’re sitting in. I’m sitting here on my Aeron chair and immediately think of the delivery guy schlepping it up the stairs. I was sitting in the hot tub at my health club the other day doing the same thing. That’s my big treat to myself, exercising and then sitting in the whirlpool. I thought about all the people that it took to put it into place. It’s a fascinating exercise. You start thinking about all the people who’ve helped make your day better.

PRM: I’m thrilled that that exercise spoke to you. Of everything in the book, it’s the thing I would be most pleased that people understood. I think it’s a profound idea to begin to look at the detail of how we are supported by others. It’s so easy to imagine yourself as a lone wolf. But that simply isn’t true, instead consider how the actions and the efforts of others—that man slogging the chair way up the stairs—contribute to your well-being right now. To see that is to have a changed perspective on life, a valuable and important one. I suggest using that exercise of looking at the detail of what you’re receiving every day as a lens to look at life.

It’s very easy for me to notice how people cause me trouble or what I don’t like because my mind just works that way. So this becomes a kind of discipline. When I’m most annoyed at something, I try to say, “Okay. What am I receiving in this moment when I’m stuck in traffic and it is keeping me from getting where I want to be right now? Well, I’m sitting in a comfortable car that was designed by Japanese engineers. I’ve got money from teaching a class and writing a book to allow me to pay for this. Someone brought this car over from Japan.” And on and on. I can look at the wonder of any moment in my life; think about how I have so much and that I’m supported by so many.

Are there any particular inspirations in your life that have influenced your thinking about these maxims?

PRM: Absolutely. I mention in the book that “I’m standing on the shoulders of two giants.” One of them is Keith Johnstone, who is the author of a book, Impro. His ideas about education and about the act of improvising really transformed how I looked at the teaching of drama.

The other is David K. Reynolds, who created a paradigm called Constructive Living™ He’s written dozens of books, one of which is A Handbook for Constructive Living. It is about a way of looking at life derived from two Japanese psychotherapies. The psychotherapies are the origin of the ideas we’ve been talking about. One came from a Japanese psychiatrist named Shōma Morita. The other came from a Japanese businessman, Yoshimoto Ishin, who created something called Naikan. It sounds like the camera, but it’s a meditation form in which you ask and answer these three questions: “What have I received from others? What have I given to others or given back to others? What trouble and bother have I caused them?” It’s a rubric that’s used to evaluate a situation, or to look at the day. It’s also a meditation form where you go over your whole life, using these three questions to create a catalogue of your experience using your own values.

I went to Japan years ago to experience this mediation form. I sat in a Buddhist temple in a hot, steamy, Japanese summer, and spent a week looking at my life with these three questions as the lens. It really transformed my whole experience, much more than years of psychotherapy or other forms of personal growth or est or whatnot. When I answered those three questions in detail, year by year, going through my life, I found a whole new perspective on things. One in which I wasn’t the star, but I was one of many players who had been doing a lot to make my path smooth. That was a transforming experience.

The chapter in my book about “Wake up to the gifts” tells that story, and invites others to look at their own lives or their daily experience with these questions in mind. It’s a pretty simple set of questions. But not questions that naturally come to mind.

No. I can see that once you start to think about “What have I been given,” you’ll focus on a lot of folks from your past who’ve helped you.

PRM: I did a workshop for the Stanford Roundtable on Entrepreneurial Education recently. I was their plenary speaker. The first exercise I did with a group of business educators from around the world was, “Let’s take a moment to think about who we have to thank for being here today. You have five minutes. Write down the names if you know them. Or perhaps you don’t know the names, but you may know the occupation. Who else’s efforts made it possible for you to be at this conference and in this room right now?”

They wrote for five minutes. Afterwards, a CEO from Turkey said, “I just had a profound experience doing this exercise. I realized that it was really thanks to my mother that I’ve become the man I am. I haven’t spoken to her for years.” And he ran out of the room to call Turkey, having had this moment of recognition that his mother was a big part of the world that he was in now, and who he had become.

I think if you see the world from the vantage point of how you’re supported by others, it looks different. I think it’s more realistic to see life this way.

Yes, it seems to look better.

PRM: Thank you. My goal for the next couple of years is to try to spread the word about my book. You probably know from talking to other authors that the world of book selling is a challenge, because every year there are 120,000 books that are published in English. How they find their niche is a challenge.

Yes, exactly. With a manual for living like yours, I think you needed those 20 years of gestation to perfect it. I think it was worth the wait. It reminds me a little bit of A River Runs Through It by Normal Maclean. He’d been a longtime professor at the University of Chicago, retired, and then wrote that one perfect book. I think he then began writing another book, but I’m not sure anything came of it. I had the same sense with your book, that it’s been percolating for a long time.

PRM: It’s funny talking about writing another book. I feel in a way that this book says what I want to say. So I’m more interested in promoting this book than writing another one. I could write the same ideas with different wineskins or in different stories, but this book basically distills what I know about life that I have found helpful.

Yes. One of the weird quirks of the publishing world is that things seem dated so quickly. After a few years you have to write another book simply to be fresh, but it doesn’t have to be that dissimilar. In the meantime, you will probably collect a lot of stories of the feedback from this book that will actually begin to inform something else. I think that may happen a little more naturally than you might suspect.

PRM: I like to watch how it moves into the world. It’s still a mystery to me. My favorite email so far came from a fellow who said, “My name is Jeremy. I live in Las Vegas and I’m 26 years old. I saw your book in the library while renting a DVD. I haven’t read a book in about ten years, but I picked it up and read it twice. It changed my life. I’ve been overweight for years, but now I’ve started showing up at the gym. I’ve lost 16 pounds. I just started doing the things I needed to do thanks to reading your book. So I wish you good luck. I hope you write another book.”

I love this. Some young man, not an improviser, not a business type, sitting in a library in Las Vegas. Wow, the power of how books can move into the world is thrilling to me. I’ve had a nice correspondence, cheering on this young man.

That’s exciting stuff. You’ve done your work. You’ve changed this person’s life. You have changed the world.

PRM: That’s a very kind thing for you to say. The ideas in the book resonate because they’re part of a perennial wisdom. I’m not special in knowing the right way to live. I’m one person who has lived a wonderful, long life, and received a lot of good advice. It was a wonderful thing to be able to put that into a book that finally got published with a real publisher. I was ready to self-publish 50 copies and give ’em to my friends. Now I think, “Oh my gosh! It’s a real book!” I’m so grateful that reality kept moving me along and finding all of the right connections so that the book came to life.

Thank you Patricia, this has been fun.


Her website: www.constructiveliving.com
The book website: www.improvwisdom.com
Her blog: www.myimprovwisdom.blogspot.com

Email: improvwisdom (at) – comcast.net