Improv Wisdom: Don't Prepare, Just Show Up - by Patricia Ryan Madson

A good improviser is someone who is awake, not entirely self-focused, and moved by a desire to do something useful and give something back and who acts upon this impulse.

A successful life involves both planning and improvising. Sometimes we actually do need a script. Those scripts that are working well for us (positive habits, for example) should be preserved and treasured. Spontaneity for its own sake is never the key. Knowing which strategy to use involves examining things clearly. Our moment-to-moment experience is improvisational, even though it exists within a structure or plan.


  • Just say yes.

  • Become a "can-do" person.

  • Look for the positive spin, for what is right.

  • Agree with those around you.

  • Cultivate yes phrases: "You bet"; "You are right"; "I'm with you"; "Good idea"; etc.

  • Substitute "Yes and" for "Yes but." Add something to build the conversation.

  • Exercise the yes muscle. This builds optimism and hope.

Saying yes (and following through with support) prevents you from committing a cardinal sin--blocking. Blocking comes in many forms; it is a way of trying to control the situation instead of accepting it. We block when we say no, when we have a better idea, when we change the subject, when we correct the speaker, when we fail to listen, or when we simply ignore the situation. The critic in us wakes up and runs the show. Saying no is the most common way we attempt to control the future. For many of us the habit is so ingrained that we don't notice we are doing it.

  • Try this: Support someone else's dreams. Pick a person (your spouse, child, boss), and, for a week, agree with all of her ideas. Find something right about everything he says or does. Look for every opportunity to offer support. Consider her convenience and time preferences ahead of your own. Give him the spotlight. Notice the results.

  • Try this: For one day say yes to everything. Set your own preferences aside. Notice the results. See how often it may not be convenient or easy to do this. Obviously, use common sense in executing this rule. If you are a diabetic and are offered a big piece of pie, you'll need to find a way to protect your health. Perhaps you can say boldly, "Yes, I'd love to have this pie to take home to my son who adores cherries."


  • Give up planning. Drop the habit of thinking ahead.

  • Attend carefully to what is happening right now.

  • Allow yourself to be surprised.

  • Stockpiling ideas for future use is unnecessary.

  • Trust your imagination. There is always something in the box.

  • Welcome whatever floats into your mind.

  • Fear is a matter of misplaced attention. Focus on redirecting it.

Don't spend your energy in preparing for the future. Redirect it to the present moment. Instead of packing, show up empty-handed but alert, cheerful, and ready to receive unexpected gifts. Change the habit of getting ready for life in favor of getting on with it now. Instead of preparing an outcome, ready yourself for whatever may come. Open your eyes, breathe fully, and attend to just this moment. Make it your world. Allow planning or thinking-ahead thoughts to pass through if they occur. If your mind gets absorbed in these thoughts ("stockpiling," I call it), redirect your attention to a detail in the immediate environment. Just as stray thoughts occur in a meditation, allow planning thoughts to pass by like clouds. Don't go with them.

  • Try this: Spend a day without a plan. Have an adventure. Instead of following ordinary routines at this time, open your eyes especially wide and move along with curiosity and attention. Don't consult your to-do list; instead decide what to do based on what needs to be done right now, using your heightened awareness.

  • Try this: Substitute Zen-like attention for planning. When you notice that your mind is planning what you will do or say make a conscious shift of attention to the present moment. Notice everything that is going on now. Attend to what others are saying or doing as if you would need to report it in detail to the CIA. Listen with both ears. Substitute attention to what is happening for attention to what might happen.


  • Walk, run, bike, skip to the places that you need to be.

  • Motivation is not a prerequisite for showing up.

  • Start your day with what is important.

  • Use rituals to get things going.

  • Showing up to help others is already service.

  • Change your vantage point and refresh your mind.

  • Location, location, location--in real estate and in life.

  • Be on time for the sake of others.

  • Show up on time for yourself. Lost time is never found.

The "just" in this maxim reminds us that showing up is already enough. Woody Allen quipped that it is "eighty percent of success." Prerequisites such as motivation, desire, and warm, fuzzy feelings aren't necessary. It is a con to imagine you must have these to get going.

  • Try this: Create a simple ritual. Identify a habit that you wish you had. (Exercising, reading regularly meditating, paying bills.) Think of what will make the habit easy or more attractive to do. (Shall I lay out clothing or equipment, clean or organize my desk or workplace?) Set a time to do the preparatory ritual each day. Focus on doing it faithfully.

  • Try this: Just show up. Make a list of five places that are your "hot spots," places where the important things in life happen for you. Why not put the book down, pick one of the places on your list, and show up there?

  • Try this: Change the location of a familiar activity. Surprise your cohorts by moving the weekly meeting outdoors, to the booth of a coffee bar, to the lounge at a local museum. Try moving a chair into the garden to read a book. Take your lunch to a new location away from your workplace. Explore a new vantage point.


  • All starting points are equally valid.

  • Begin with what seems obvious.

  • Once it is under way any task seems smaller.

  • When speaking in public don't use a script. Write down questions and answer them.

  • Talk to your audience. Don't give a lecture.

  • Trust your mind.

  • Edit and develop ideas as you speak

There's no need to find the right starting place. With a big task or a confusing problem, when you don't know where to start, begin with the most obvious thing, whatever is in front of you. The notion that there is such a thing as a proper beginning, and the search to find that ideal starting place, robs us of time. We distance ourselves from the task, and the vision of what it will take to do it makes tackling the job seem mountainous. Once a job is under way you have a new and more realistic perspective. You are inside the problem while looking at it, rather than standing safely at the perimeter.

  • Try this: Start anywhere. Identify a project or task that needs to be done. When you put this book down, follow your first thought and begin the job. Do the very first thing that comes to mind. Continue doing what comes next.


  • Close enough is perfect.

  • Dare to be dull.

  • Think "inside" the box.

  • Celebrate the obvious.

  • What is ordinary to you is often a revelation to others.

  • Remember "classics" or "favorites" can be fresh ideas, too.

  • Don't make jokes. Make sense.


  • Life is attention.

  • Notice everything, particularly the details.

  • Become a detective.

  • Shift your attention from yourself to others.

  • Make an effort to remember names and faces.

  • Keep on waking up.

  • This moment happens only once. Treasure it.

  • Avoid multitasking Attend to one thing at a time.

For those of us caught in a spiral of self-absorption and rumination, the redirection of attention outward can have a profound effect. Where we are looking makes a difference.

I train my students to make a special effort to learn names when they are first given. Repeat a name several times out loud when you first hear it. Look directly and fully at the person. Check to be sure that you are pronouncing it properly and that you have coded it by observing the face of the person to whom it belongs. Write it down, if you have the chance. Say it silently as well as out loud. Be prepared to ask again. You may need several tries before it is fixed in your mind. You may experience an embarrassing moment if you need to ask again. Don't let this stand in your way. Most people are pleased that you care about their names. Make the decision to be a person who notices and remembers names, and then start learning them.

  • Try this: Attend to one thing at a time. Choose an ordinary activity (sorting laundry, eating lunch, brushing your hair) and pay attention only to what you are doing while you are doing it for the duration of the task. Avoid multitasking. If you are eating simply eat. Avoid reading the paper, listening to the radio, or having a conversation. Reflect on the taste of the food, on who prepared it, and how it came to you. If you notice that your mind has wandered, bring it back to what you are doing.

  • Try this: Notice something new. Use this exercise when you are in a familiar environment or doing a routine task. See how many new things you can observe. What haven't you noticed that has been there all along? When you find something, examine it carefully. Repeat the exercise in the same location at other times. Invite yourself to "notice something new" each time you return to this place or do this task.

  • Try this: Listen completely. Once a day devote your attention 100 percent to someone who is speaking to you. Focus completely on what is being said. Look at the person as you listen. If you notice your mind drifting, simply bracket your thoughts temporarily and return your attention to the speaker. Listen as if you needed to repeat what is being said in perfect detail. Observe how this effort pays off.

  • Try this: Go for a fifteen-minute walk in your neighborhood. Imagine you have just landed there from another planet. Use all five of the senses: sight, sound, touch, taste, and smell. What surprises you about your environment? What is especially beautiful or noteworthy? What needs doing around here (picking up trash, replacing a fallen garbage-can lid, weeding, sweeping)?

  • Try this: Study other people. Become a secret anthropologist. Notice (and remember) names and faces. Check out what people are wearing. Listen to what they have to say. Observe what kind of day they seem to be having; discern their manner or their mood. Return to a familiar shop or place of business and discover something new about the workers. Learn something new every day about those closest to you.


  • Don't fight reality.

  • Accept other people as they are.

  • Work with what you have been given.

  • What are the facts? You are probably not noticing all of them.

  • Embrace the wobble.

  • Insecurity is normal. Count on it.

The seventh maxim follows from the cardinal principle of saying yes. First we say yes, and then we work with what has been given.

  • Try this: Write down the facts. Identify an issue or a situation in your life that needs attention (some personal challenge or work issue). Write a detailed description of the issue, indicating what the facts are. Avoid judgment, critical comments, or discussing your emotions. Use simple, declarative sentences. Work to create an objective picture of the problem first. Now, taking into account all the facts, what needs to be done? Propose a course of action, and spell out the steps you need to take. Then take that first step.


  • Every improvisation has a point.

  • Don't let feelings alone run your show.

  • There is meaning in everything we do, even small tasks.

  • Keep an eye on where you are going.

  • If you miss the target, adjust your aim.

  • Ask often: "What is my purpose?"

  • What would not get done if you were not here?

  • Try this: "What is my purpose now?" Use this question as a weathervane. Ask it often, especially when you are anxious or unsure of what to do next. When you have the answer, act upon it.

  • Try this: What would not get done if you were not here? Consider your unique vantage point, your talents, your loves, what you have been given to do. (If your first answer to this question is "It wouldn't make any difference to the world if I were not here," think again.) What are you here to do? If you keep a journal, pose this question and answer it in writing.


  • Notice that the glass is half full.

  • Treasure the details.

  • Who or what is helping you right now?

  • Make a point of thanking those with thankless jobs.

  • What are you doing to give back?

  • Keep the gift moving forward.

  • Our smallest actions count. Everything we do has the potential to help others.

  • Make "thank you" your mantra.

Whenever you take the time to thank someone, go that extra step and mention something concrete.

  • Try this: Make a list of what you have received from others today. Find the particulars. What unseen faces have been helping you today? Define both gifts and givers.


  • If you are not making mistakes, you are not improvising.

  • Be like a turtle: stick out your neck to make progress.

  • When you screw up, say "Ta-dah!" and take a bow.

  • Mistake? Focus on what comes next.

  • Let go of outcomes. Cultivate a flexible mind.

  • Mistakes may actually be blessings.

  • Become a confident mistake-maker. Lighten up.

  • Try bricolage--use what is there artfully.

  • Admitting a mistake shows character.

  • Try this: Take a risk. Check out a new restaurant with cuisine that is unfamiliar to you. Order something you have never tried that seems as if it might be appealing. Expand your world of culinary experience.


  • The essence of improvising is action.

  • Act in order to discover what comes next.

  • You don't need to feel like doing something to do it.

  • Schedule a difficult task and stick to your timetable.

  • Invite a buddy to join you in doing what you need to do.

  • Do the hard thing first.

  • To find a new perspective, try doing something a different way.

  • Sometimes not doing is what is needed.

  • If you can't get out of it, get into it.

  • Try this: Schedule that job you have been avoiding. Write it on your calendar or in your date book. Set a specific time and show up. Focus on taking the first step. What action will begin the task? (Making a phone call? Pulling everything out of the refrigerator? Assembling papers? Picking up the broom? Writing an apology note?)

  • Try this: Do the essential job first. What is it that really needs to be done? Try doing it first thing in the morning.

  • Try this: Change some simple habit. For example, instead of using a mug, experiment by drinking your morning coffee from a bowl, the way the French do, or from a small glass, as people do in Turkey. Instead of walking briskly from your car to the office, try a different pace-- walk very slowly, observing everything.

  • Try this: Go home a new way. Find another route from your home to work (or from your apartment to the store) and take the new path. Pay attention to the landmarks and the vegetation. Become a traveler in your own neighborhood. You may wish to take a different route every day for a week and see what you find.


  • Be someone's guardian angel. Make your partner look good.

  • Rescue or join someone struggling.

  • Share control; don't hog it.

  • Kindness is essential during chaos or a crisis.

  • Try giving yourself away.

  • Always put positive thoughts into words and action.

  • Do "random acts of kindness."

  • Put other people's convenience ahead of your own.

  • Listen as if your life depended on it.

  • Deliver more than you promise.


  • Find joy in whatever you are doing, including ordinary tasks.

  • Look for ways to play. Play is essential to human growth.

  • Learning is enhanced when we lighten up.

  • Laughter is good medicine.

  • If something is not to your liking, change your liking.

  • Give away smiles every day.

  • Do something just for the fun of it.