Fire Your Internal Quality Control Technician

Train surfing

I do a whole bunch of things with the time I haven’t sold to a company to support ourselves and one of those is Improv. I, and one or more others will get up on stage, and make up characters and stories usually inspired only by a one word suggestion. I’ve been doing it for about two years and surprisingly it taught me even more about life off stage than it did about how to manage on stage. And much of it ties back in to this project.

There will be times when everyone goes on stage, the audience gives a suggestion, let’s say “Anthracite”. Everyone goes to the sides of the stage and there’s an uncomfortable moment when perhaps some of the folks on the team are thinking “Wait, what is anthracite again?” or “What does coal make me think of? I have nothing.” But the show must go on, and usually someone will step forward, and start something. Maybe they knew anthracite was a kind of coal, and so they thought of pretending to be a thrill seeker surfing on top of a freight train. Now, though, the rest of the team is thinking “Oh no! What’s he supposed to be doing? He’s all alone up there, he must feel a bit put on the spot. I should probably get up there and join him but I have nothing.” At the same time a few of the less confident in the troupe might have some idea of what he’s doing and how he might step out and make a scene happen but then his internal voice pipes up and lets him know he thinks it’ll be a stupid idea and not only will the audience hate it, his teammates will also think it’s dumb so probably it’s best to just hold back and let someone more experienced and confident take it. And meanwhile, Jeff, the guy who stepped out there is now 30 seconds into pantomiming surfing on the stage. The audience is confused and unsure of what is happening.

Here’s a couple of things I’ve learned, and admittedly am still working on learning to actually put into practice consistently:

If you have nothing in your head as to what you will do when you step out to support your teammate, that’s fine. Quite often, the inspiration for what you do on stage can come from all sorts of different things. You could get inspired to be a character by how you feel walking out, or Jeff, seeing you walk out could call out to you “Officer! I have a perfectly good explanation for this.” And now you have a direction. The scene moves on and Jeff is supported.

And if you have something in your head? That’s fantastic, too. What I’ve learned from paying attention to my own inner monologue both on stage and off, is that I have lots of ideas, but my internal Quality Control group is often very conservative and sometimes cuts them off half way through the pitch. And in the process, lots of really great ideas get shoved back down. And the shame of this is that instead of even making an effort to help our friend Jeff, we stand by the sides thinking that we’re not qualified, or we won’t know what to do.

Another thing I have learned is that sometimes those inner voices are right. You step out with or without your idea, and things don’t quite go as you’d hoped. But I try to keep a couple things in mind. First off, those situations are not the norm and supporting Jeff is more important than a potential minor embarrassment at a scene that wasn’t what you’d thought it would be. The second is, it’s all ephemeral. After a couple minutes that scene will be ended and a new one started, and in 15-20 minutes, the whole show will be over. And finally, what are the consequences of this failure? A bit of discomfort and embarrassment, mostly in one’s own head – i.e. within your control.

But the thing is, if we don’t take those risks and go forward not knowing what will happen, or not being completely sure of ourselves, that is often where the magical things happen. The most fun I’ve had on stage wasn’t when I had an idea on the sidelines, and then everything on stage went exactly as I’d planned. The best times were those times when I didn’t know what was going to happen and discovered it on the way – or even more worrisome to the internal QC: when you walk out with one idea: “Jeff’s train surfing” and as soon as you step out, Jeff offers you a hoverboard of your own. Quick! Drop every idea you had, it’s all different.
Where the magic happens
Great, so what does this have to do with 500 Kindnesses?

Everything, actually. I can’t speak for everyone, but I know in my own head and from many I’ve talked to that internal QC person who vets your ideas on stage with tremendous harshness, also does the same job in our daily life.

First off, there are a lot of unknowns about taking on a bike ride of this scale and a lot of things that might not work out as we’d hoped. We know this. But I also know that sometimes, when it goes far from the way we expect or even want, it can be one of the most magical experiences.

But as much as it has to do with taking on a long bike trip, it has more to do with the presence of kindness in our daily life. We have great ideas for nice things we can do all the time that we shoot down before they happen because we think they might be dumb or taken the wrong way. Sometimes we see people who clearly need help but we don’t know what to do. And in both cases we do nothing when doing anything could be the best possible thing. And in most cases the consequences of failure are most likely very small, and in the majority of those cases, those consequences only occur in our own heads anyway in the form of embarrassment that only we feel because so often those we feel embarrassed in front of don’t even notice.

So I encourage you as you look at the Pledge link, and elsewhere in your life, bypass that internal QC every once in a while. You’ll be glad you did.

Train-Surfing Photo: Micah MacAllen