Improvisation or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love to Bomb

Improvisation or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love to Bomb

(This was a keynote speech to students at the UNI 2023 Harvest Conference)

I’m here to start a revolution!  Who’s with me?

I AM here to start a revolution. A revolution of ideas. It is a revolution that will start small but could grow into a cultural phenomenon.

It is a revolution born from collaboration, cooperation and kindness. It begins by building self-confidence, actively listening and creating partnerships. It will grow from productive lives and ultimately becomes a movement of peace.

Now who’s with me?

Every cultural movement throughout human history has procured philosophical and practical disciplines by which to attain a peaceful existence.  In Buddhism it is the liberation from “Duhkha” which is often translated as pain or suffering.

In Africa, grandparents share their wisdom through proverbs and stories passed down from generation to generation. A proverb from Gambia says: “When an old person dies, a library burns to the ground.” It is healing wisdom to understand that life is an intimate relationship with the world that surrounds us.

The Japanese teach “lkigai” which is to “Discover your purpose in life.  Find something that makes you want to wake up each day that aligns with your talents to make a contribution to this world.”

In American culture we don’t have the history of thousands of years of philosophical wisdom, but that does not mean there are no principles to guide us. I grew up with the “Golden Rule” which means to treat others as we would want to be treated ourselves.

That can be traced to the Book of Matthew, but it also dates back to the time of Confucius. It is foundational to kindness, generosity, and ultimately to happiness.

Today, in America, however, many foundational principles have been lost.  Or if not lost, diminished by other pursuits. An obsessive pursuit of wealth often replaces moral and ethical tenets. Selfish pursuits can become pathways to ignorance and become weaponized in the form of greed, anger, and cruelty.

Last Spring the governor of Illinois, J.B. Pritzker, gave the commencement address at Northwestern University. In his address he made the following comments:

“The best way to spot an idiot- is to look for the person who is cruel…Empathy and compassion are an evolved state of being…in the last few years our society has come to believe that weaponized cruelty is part of some well-thought-out master plan.  Cruelty is seen by some as an adroit cudgel to gain power. Empathy and kindness are considered weak. I have found one thing to be universally true- the kindest person in the room is often the smartest.”

I’ve found, on my own path, that it is a universal truth; kindness is a virtue of strength and intelligence.  But it is also a political statement.  Not an indoctrination of any political party, but a statement of purpose that inevitably falls within the spectrum of public policy.

Recently we have seen pillars of diversity, equity and inclusion fall to socio-political agendas.  Pillars your generation has been instrumental in building. Programs that were created to promote equality, and to study true history, particularly that of racism in America, are being called “divisive” by a counter intuitive agenda.

In the district in Florida where Walt Disney World is located, leadership, at the behest of their governor, stated: “Our district will no longer participate in any attempt to divide us by race or advance the notion that we are not equal.”

They were reacting to programs previously enacted to promote inclusion and a more critical study of racist history.  They concluded that more in depth analysis is “divisive.”

I know. That makes my brain hurt too.

Also in Florida, public schools now require teachers to instruct middle school students that enslaved people “developed skills which in some instances could be applied for their personal benefit.”

Last month in St Louis, a school board revoked an anti-racism resolution. The resolution read:  “We will speak firmly against any racism, discrimination, and senseless violence against people regardless of race, ethnicity, nationality, immigration status, sexual orientation, gender identity or ability.”

The new school board called the principles too vague and rescinded them saying they hadn’t created any results.

How do we reconcile assaults on the dignity and progress we have made toward addressing systemic issues that compromise justice and equality in America?

We cannot let our words and actions be redefined by forces set to contradict our purpose. But how do we move ahead? What are our obstacles?

Talks with students, colleagues, and friends, confirm a study conducted last year by the American Psychological Association that says 76% of us are stressed out, and that more than a quarter of Americans are so stressed they feel they can’t function. We are “stressed” from conflict, from being misunderstood, from feeling that we are not being heard or that actions just aren’t enough.

The American Psychological Association says that America IS stressed out.  Covid, injustices, political divisiveness and a feeling that there is nothing we can do about it has caused viral stress.

The National Institutes of Health published a report in 2015 on how stress can lead to dysfunction in our thoughts and create lack of motivation.  Think for a moment about the stressors we’ve dealt with since that study came out.

Stress from politics, inflation, working conditions, low wages, stress from school, relationships, competition, and even overwhelming information from a vast and complicated set of world circumstances.

The NIH went on to link stress and anxiety to fear. Fear of failure. Fear for the future. Even fear of looking foolish, or of being criticized. That’s a lot to unload. All very real. But that cycle of stress and fear complicates or obfuscates our ability to overcome those hurdles.

This is this is how our revolution begins—–

Imagine overcoming fear.  Overcoming the very obstacle that keeps us from discovering our unlimited potential.

Let me tell you about myself. I grew up right here in Cedar Falls.  I went to college to study theater and as a very young man found myself on Saturday Night Live.  I had a career that lasted nearly 30 years in New York, Chicago and Los Angeles.  Sounds pretty fun, right?

That’s the 10,000 foot view. In reality I had to learn to deal with rejection, fierce competition, bad reviews, insults and during a certain period, having gone broke.  

I learned to believe in myself. And I learned to take failures and turn them into lessons from which I consistently began creating successes. Psychologist Abraham Maslow might have said  I discovered “self-actualization”; the concept of individuals striving to reach their full potential and fulfil their unique purpose.

I’ve attended my share of seminars and have heard countless speakers say the very same thing: Believe in yourself and learn from your mistakes. And those tenets are true, but they don’t tell us how to believe in ourselves. Or how to turn negatives into positives.

The HOW is to build new habits and by exercising our brains like we do any muscle, to a stronger capacity for confidence and to overcome our fears.

The first time I discovered that fear can be conquered was in college. There was a talent show for hundreds of other students and I choose to do standup comedy since I was a relatively funny guy.  I worked up a 20-minute routine and did my act in front of friends, teachers, community members AND I BOMBED.  BOMBED.  Not a laugh.  My girlfriend at the time said it was the most embarrassing experience of her life to be associated with someone who was so UN-funny.

WOW.  Was that the realization of a human being’s worst fear, or what?  I looked like a fool without talent and was criticized for having the audacity to waste people’s time. Not a good feeling.

I was afraid to go to the student union after that.  I didn’t want to go to the cafeteria to eat. But after a while I realized something….

The sun still came up.  My friends were still my friends. My mother still loved me. And Peanut Butter Cups still tasted as good.

I went through my deep fear of humiliation, that dreaded experience along with Death and Taxes that everyone fears, and realized that nothing really changed. Except now I knew it was okay to fail. I survived.

After that I took classes at Second City in Chicago and learned about IMPROVISATION. Improvisation was a tool to exercise an actor by creating truth in the context of an untrue reality.

The byproduct of improvisational exercising is self-confidence and a new way to collaborate. It taught me how to overcome several deep seated fears, which, in turn, reduced stress.

In life we’ve been trained to question, even to assume a position that antagonizes what we hear.  We ask in our heads “WHY did they say that?”  Often in conversation we are just waiting for the other person to stop talking. While they yammer on we aren’t listening so much as thinking about what WE are going to say next.

Imagine instead that we ADD to what we’re given, rather than question or posture to defend ourselves. Imagine instead of thinking to ourselves “Thank you. That was the best thing you could have said to me.” And that is exactly the first thing I was taught in my first improv class. Imagine how that could improve nearly every conversation.

When I ask people about Improvisation they usually recoil out of fear. “I wouldn’t know what to say” and, again, “I don’t want to make a fool out of myself.”

And so I ask them this:  Did you get your script this morning?


Your script so that you’d know your lines.


And yet, you’ve known what to say in every situation. To your mate or kids at breakfast. To the grocer. To the security guard- whomever you encountered you knew what to say. THAT is improvisation. LIFE is improvisation. It isn’t about being clever or funny, it is about active listening and responding appropriately.

We all know what to say when we take the burden off ourselves to control the conversation. And this is where we can solve some of the loggerheads we reach in our socio-political realms. Allow the person across from you, whether a colleague, or a person with an opposing view to carry as much of the responsibility for the interaction. You know who you are, so trust who you are. Give them the same courtesy. It is from within that framework that authentic communication and cooperation begins.

A deeper dive into the art of Improvisation will reveal more disciplines than these, but the basic rules to remember are these:

1) Never negate- don’t deny the premise, instead “add” to what you’re given as if it were the best choice that could have been made.

2) Stay in the present.  Listen and respond.

3) Trust yourself.  And trust your team.

This is not meant as a platform to give odious ideas an equal voice, it is a platform to empower ourselves with confidence by which to have better ideas and to give those ideas a wider audience.

Our revolution is not going to be an overnight seismic shift that suddenly tilts our national ideology to more socially conscious ideals.  This starts as a small revolution, one that begins with you, in a room and branches out into another, and in one community and then another.  It keeps branching out until it reaches criticalmass to become viral and change how we communicate.  And how we share kindness.

The art of listening, the trust of collaboration and confidence within oneself along with mutual respectWILL lead to better ideas and more clearly definedobjectives.

And what is that if not the GOLDEN RULE? To be treated as we’d wish to be treated ourselves. We can, individually, begin to align our talents with contributions to the world.  We can find our peaceful existence from the empathy and compassion that will spring from being human.

In conclusion, thank you.  This was the best experience you could have given me.

Published by gary1164

I'm an advertising executive and former actor/producer