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Starting From No Perfection


By Kelly Leonard – Executive Director, Insights and Applied Improvisation

In the improvisational field, we talk a lot about incorporating mistakes and failures; of the necessity of errors; and the fact that imperfections are the norm not the outlier.

But three different encounters last week providing even more fuel for the idea that we human beings are oriented incorrectly in our orientation to be correct.

We are awash in adages like “starting with a clean slate” or “going back to square one” or “making a clean sweep” – as if there is a point in time wherein a perfect Eden exists; a normalization that doesn’t include unease, discomfort or lack of reason.

This is our problem. That place and time simply does not exist.

We are in the muck and we’ve always been. And it’s those of us who are practiced in moving forward through the muck that have a distinct advantage over those who are attempting to live their lives sans muck.

The first encounter was during a taping of an upcoming podcast with the Reverend Doctor Samuel Wells. Sam is Vicar of St. Martin in the Fields and the author of many books, including an excellent book called “Improvisation: The Drama of Christian Ethics.” We were talking about marriage and Sam’s idea that at the core of marriage is a “…constancy that runs through mistakes, misunderstandings and failures.” Pressing on, Sam offered that, in fact, all of life could be looked at as an individual’s faith and actions in a world that was in a constant state of upheaval.

The second encounter was during a Second City corporate workshop focused on inclusiveness in the workplace. One of our senior facilitators, Andy Eninger, talked about the orientation of a Second City improviser. Andy said, “All we have is ourselves, some chairs and the audience’s scrutiny.” Later, he talked about inclusiveness as “allowing for the complexity of a conversation that’s always been there.” Andy’s insights were spot on. We often simplify the state of things as a way to cope in real time. Then we forget that the simplification was merely a tactic, not an accurate representation of how things actually are – which is far messier, nuanced and inscrutable in fact.

Finally, I started to dig into the book “Mindwise” by the University of Chicago scholar Nicholas Epley. I hadn’t gone farther than the preface when I was struck by Epley’s contention that the sixth sense that so many of us rely on – our innate ability to understand what’s going on in someone else’s mind – is deeply flawed. He writes, “…our mistakes are especially interesting because they are a major source of wreckage in our relationships, careers, and lives, leading to needless conflict and misunderstanding.”

We aren’t starting at zero. We’re starting at a negative.

This is all so obvious, but it does seem to fly in the face of the way we “talk” and “feel” about our place in the world.

Rebirths, start ups, fresh beginnings, being ahead of the game… these are all just euphemisms for “less shitty than before…but still basically shitty.”

But this isn’t a bad thing. It’s just a true thing. And when we finally come around to working with the true thing, we have an opportunity to improve our general mode of everyday conduct. For Sam Wells, problems aren’t defeats – they present opportunities; for Andy Eninger, the complexities – while sometimes difficult to manage – provide a kind of richness that leads to illumination; and in Nicholas Epley’s view, human beings do get it right a lot of the time. As he writes, “Most of us avoid getting into fistfights or looking like complete idiots because we have a reasonable sense of what others think and feel…Being able to understand others is a major part of what lets you move smoothly through life.”

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