Potential: Revealed

Strategic Thinking, Innovative Ideas, Growth Marketing, and Revealing of Potential

Archive for improv

Do it your way

A little while back I read an article about Brett Favre, quarterback now for the Vikings but for most of his career the star of the Green Bay Packers. It was a very personal profile. More recently there was an article about Ringo Starr, who will soon turn 70. Ringo of course was the drummer for the Beatles. (Trivia: he was not the original drummer! Do you know who was?). After reading both I had similar reactions and thought I’d write about it.

Both clearly had much potential – potential that was fully and famously revealed by each in their own unique ways.

They were similar in some respects: both grew up in families and surroundings of modest means. Ringo perhaps more so but Brett didn’t have any silver spoons either.

They had different influences though. Ringo said Liverpool was rough and at times violent and unsafe. But he has clear memory of loving and kind people, in his family and from his neighborhood growing up.

Brett had an excessively tough father who was his high school football coach and life long (tor)mentor. His father was critical and unforgiving well into Brett’s adult life and professional career. In one famous incident, he criticized his son’s play and abilities despite Brett having the best year of his career and having just won the league Most Valuable Player award for the 3rd time.

What does this say about revealing one’s potential? It doesn’t matter if you are loved or ridiculed and it helps to start out by growing up poor and then striving hard enough to be successful beyond expectations?

I don’t think so. Something else that they had in common seemed more like the key.

Brett did not have good football passing mechanics. In fact they were unusual and not very pretty. What he possessed was an unusually powerful arm and knack for improvisation, and he could throw the ball farther and more accurately than any rival. He said he simply loved throwing the football. Always had and still does. It is what drives him to compete despite recently turning 40 – and compete at a level that nearly took him to yet another Super Bowl in 2010. He listened to – and focused intently on – this love he had.

Ringo was not a classicly great drummer. Many have said he was the “weakest” Beatle, musical talent-wise. Of course he’s competing with the greatest song writing duo in modern music history (Lennon and McCartney) and a multi-talented artist (George Harrison) so it might be fair to cut him some slack. It’s like saying Dimaggio was only the 4th greatest baseball player – behind Ruth, Williams and Aaron.

But Ringo said he loves drumming. Always had and still does. He has for many years since the Beatles broke up put together a series of touring bands he’s called the All Starr Band (usually packed with contemporary greats from the 60’s and 70’s such as Joe Walsh, Dave Stewart, Gary Wright and Edgar Winter, and from more recent times such as Ben Harper, Joss Stone, Don Was and Benmont Tench). The reason why all these great musicians want to play in his All Starr bands is because Ringo is so fun to play music with. He brings out the best in them because his drumming is there to complement and enhance – not overshadow – his band mates’ playing and singing. He’s considered a pioneer of this style. I’m sure John, Paul and George felt this when they were writing, creating and playing all those great Beatles tunes together. His love of drumming and the role it plays in making great music with great musicians drives him, despite the fact that he is soon going to turn 70 years old.

What’s the lesson? One is a common one: do what you love and follow your passions. Potential and success are often revealed if you do. An important corollary seems to be: don’t worry if how you do what you love is “flawed” or “different” somehow. If Brett and Ringo had let that stand in the way, think of all the potential greatness we would have missed.

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Yes, and…

A little while back I took a management development class (at Duke, with props to their exec ed team) that was unique and continues to have impact on my work and management thinking. It was an “improv for business” course, taught by an great full time b-school prof plus a colleague of his who is a member of 2nd City, the famous improv troupe out of Chicago (John Belushi, Bill Murray, John Candy, Bonnie Hunt, and many othersn are alumni). Some surprises from that experience:

Improv while looking chaotic and without form (and at a given moment it may be) is actually governed by some clear rules and norms.

Rather than being at odds with business improv provides a framework and method for breakthrough thinking.

Improv is first about listening, then about acting. Intense listening with the intent to truly understanding the sender’s message is the key to being a good improv player.

While there are others, and for the experienced improv player many additional and deeper levels to the world of improv, here are the most basic of rules:

1. Say yes, and. That is, agree with your stage partners, and expand from there. On a superficial level this agreement can be literal, eg. “let’s go to the gym”, “yes, and I’m going to get you RIPPED for your wedding”, but on a more fundamental level it’s about agreement between the players that if they are truly open to knew information — and trust one another — they can create something unique by building upon each others input and ideas.

2. Treat everything your partner says/does like manna from heaven. Everything is a gift, and if you take the time to really listen to/explore what he/she has said/done, there is a bounty of treasure there for you to use.

3. Make bold choices. New improvisers tend to put the onus on the other improviser to add information to the scene rather than you putting it out there themselves. You learn however that it is more productive — and more fun — to be bold and add as much to the scene every chance you have.

4. Don’t try to control the scene. Look after your own character, and trust that your scene partners are doing the same. The best scenes emerge from your interactions with others, rather than any singularly funny or outrageous thing you or another character says or does.

We did many fun group exercises over three days where we practiced listening — ensuring we truly received the message from our partners. This is not easy and revealed all of our weaknesses in this area. We also did many exercises to practice being “bold”. This rule (#3) stretches — and hopefully breaks — your natural defense against experimentation and failure. If you are going to be bold you will fail ocassionally (and a lot, at the beginning). And lastly, rule #4 played itself out over and over as we worked together and practiced improv scenarios, reminding us that the most beautiful tapestry comes from the weaving of many threads.