Somewhere in the space between you and your subject

This week features a note from Adam Keys; friend, Uncommon founding member, and all-around good guy. He writes software and smart things on the internet from Austin, and provides great insight into music, comedy, and furry creatures upon request.

I expected two years of improv classes would teach me a lot about performing and comedy, but I didn’t expect to learn so much about myself and how I’m different from everyone else in the process.

Improv taught me to approach things from a positive footing. You've possibly heard the improv principle of "Yes, and…". In short, if you and I are in a scene and I say "That's a lovely tree sloth you have there!", you should  say something like, "Yes, Arnold the Sloth has been my life partner since we met two years ago", rather than something like, "No, this isn't a sloth. Why would you think it's a sloth?" Building off your scene partners with a positive attitude makes it much easier to create an amusing or compelling story. That doesn't mean all improv scenes consist of the players vigorously agreeing with each other; rather, they're trying to work together instead of at odds.

Adopting this attitude wherever I can in life has helped me see past differences in opinion and miscommunications. I may not immediately agree with someone, but positive baby steps down empathy lane help me find common ground, resisting my rational impulse to tell them they're WRONG WRONG WRONG.

Lesson number one: finding ways to agree is better than scoring one for yourself in the snark column.

In my improv classes, not everyone is in it for the laughs. Having done standup a few times, grown up on sitcoms and comedies, and possessing a special spot in my heart for Saturday Night Live, my metric for success is laughs. And yet, lots of people are in it for other things: drama (in the theatrical sense), story, the theater, genre, even art. Faced with someone not playing for laughs, I thought "What are you doing?", but later realized, "Oh; art."

Lesson number two: everyone's coming from a different angle, so check your assumptions.

Finally, improv has shown me, much to my surprise, that I’m a relatively square guy. I graduated high school, went to college, got a job, bought a car and a house, got married, filled the house with a bunch of dogs and so on. The people I've met through improv served in the Peace Corps, lived abroad in Italy, Armenia, and Colombia, wait tables, freelance as writers, work in TV commercials, run theaters, teach in schools, or run after school programs for minority children. It's easy to get caught up with high-functioning peers in the communities around design, development, startups, technology, and media. In fact, there's an amazing spectrum of how people have chosen their lives and how they've responded to the peaks and valleys that they've encountered.

Lesson number three: my normal is not anyone else's normal, no matter how many people around me seem similar.

Even if you're the most introverted, stage frightened, unfunny person on the planet, you’ll get a lot out of an improv class. The first class at any theater or school is designed to get you out of your head, out of your skin, and to find a shared story with all kinds of people, no stage time required. It’s a a great way to spend an evening. — Adam


Last week's dispatch asked, Who was the first friend to help you see the world differently?

Radhika wrote:

My friend JC was the first friend to help me see the world differently. In high school, he was an avid photographer. I'd experimented with photography myself around the age of 10, but a few words of adult judgement had stalled my interest back then. On a school trip to Europe (language exchange), JC photographed anything and everything, including all of his friends. I was interested in what he was doing and would ask questions. In that completely generous spirit that friends have as teenagers, he would tell me about his camera, what it could do, settings he was using, etc. After the trip, something about his photos spoke to me, and it inspired me to get my own SLR and find my own way of looking at the world through the lens. <br><br>I can't describe the amount of peace photography has given me over the years. That ability to stand still and capture something in a way that only you've seen it - it's a priceless feeling. And it's a wordless way of expressing and channeling creativity, which attracts me because I don't always want to put words to something. Somewhere in the space between you and your subject, something happens, and I have JC to thank for helping me see it differently.

Erin wrote:

I'm not sure I remember the first friend, but my friendship with Michelle (Miche, Michelley, M, Ofaxy, M-Dawg) has taught me so many little yet invaluable lessons. Her quirky personality and idiosyncrasies give me permission to be who I am without hesitation. Her quiet and reserved nature reminds me to listen. And her attention to (and almost obsession with) detail points me to a path full of purpose and intention.

Jenny wrote:

First friend who helped me see world differently was the programme director at my local youth centre called "Chan Sir" (not a real sir but it's a polite way for people to address a more senior person/ authority in Hong Kong). He encouraged the 12-year-old me to use the Internet and also made me fall in love with the great outdoors. I used to go on long hikes, camping and canoeing trips in summer, despite the tough fitness challenge and weather conditions. My experiences were all great. Chan was my mentor, and also a supportive friend in some of my important adolescent decisions. He taught me to be strong, but also humble in admitting my weaknesses.

Kesha wrote:

The first (and still my best) friend that helped me see the world differently is my boy Shawn. I'm ever so grateful to have met his acquaintance! From my spiritual beliefs to mindset shifts to how I see myself and others in the world, I'm forever changed - for the better!

Uncommon reads

Entertainment is Eating the World by Ian Hogarth:

I share David Foster Wallace's concern that a world in which we are more and more entertained is not necessarily a healthy one and I think much good can be done by helping people find that empty space. The counter cyclical investment thesis for entertainment if you like. I think at some point we will be in search of that lost boredom.

Your turn

When was the last time you were on a stage?