Improvisation – the art of being spontaneous

  • February 15, 2016
Improvisation – the art of being spontaneous

Sridhar Rajan Jagannathan on how improvisation can help you navigate everyday problems.

Imagine that you are stranded on a deserted island and you are allowed to bring one object with you that can help you survive. What would you choose and why would you choose that? Sounds a little farfetched? How about scrambling to solve a crisis in your workplace or for that matter babysitting for your four-year-old nephew. Everything involves some sort of improvisation and adaptation in an emerging situation.

The Gates Cambridge Learning for Purpose programme recently organised a workshop to highlight the importance of improvisation in our daily lives. We invited Domeka Parker, an instructor in improvisational theatre, to lead us through activities and techniques to learn about improvisation. So, the next time when you are faced with a sudden challenge, whether looking to turn your mistake into a miracle or be it just being ‘present’ in the current moment, follow these basic tenets to adapt and overcome.

Observe and absorb – living in the present

The first step in improvising is to closely observe the environment and to absorb cues that help us in solving the problem. In short, ‘Stop living in the future and be present in the present’. But how do we go about this?

Scenario 1: Imagine that a friend of yours is talking with you about something. Most often we want to say something clever and start thinking about it, instead of listening to what our friend has to say. In such a situation, try simply repeating in your head what your friend is saying. This will help you focus on the present and retain relevant information for you to process!

Scenario 2: Let's say that you are in a conference and you are invited to give a talk impromptu. You feel nervous, though you are competent enough on the subject matter. Just before you give the talk, focus on your breath and try to feel the air that you take in and let out, slowly! This will help reduce your anxiety and focus on the present moment.

Delete and discard – the undesirables

The next step is to recognise information that is not useful and to discard them, so they don’t interfere in solving the problem. Let's see a practical example.

Scenario: Imagine that you play a game with your friend, wherein he does an action and says a word. For example, he can raise his arms up and say ‘up’ and do the same while putting his arms down and say ‘down’. Your task would be to simply mimic your friend. Sounds like a piece of cake, right? But now think of a situation where he raises his arms up and says ‘down’, now you have to only listen to what he says and ignore what he does, so you need to put your arms down and say ‘down’. Most often we get confused and end up raising our arms up and saying ‘down’. The trick in this case is to simply focus on what you hear and not what you look at!

The human brain always tries to create coherence in order to process less information, but when the information coming is non-coherent, confusion reigns. So the idea is to devote more of our attention to his words and not his action. If you make this as a conscious decision you can perform well on this task.

In short, if you want to discard useless information: don’t try to actively discard it, but rather put more of your intentional focus on the useful information.

Accept and add – change your reality

The next step is to actually accept the current situation without any judgment.

Most of the time, when something goes wrong or contrary to our plans we refuse to accept the reality and resist it. The solution in this case is to apply the ‘Yes and’ rule. It states that you accept any current situation and say ‘Yes’ to it. Further you add bits of your own reality to that situation and say ‘and’ to it. Let's see an example.

Scenario: Imagine that you are travelling to the US from London. Unfortunately, the flight is delayed by a few hours. Our usual reaction in this case would be to curse our current situation and blame the carrier for poor service. But the solution would be to say ‘Yes’ to the current situation of the flight getting delayed. You accept the situation without any judgment. Now you say ‘and’ and add a part of information that conforms to your reality. For example, it could be that you never had the opportunity before to explore the shopping area in the airport and this current situation has presented yourself with an excellent opportunity to explore.

Dare to risk – fail forward

The final step is to actually ‘act’. For most people, the fear of failure keeps them away from trying something new or engaging in something unprepared. The mindset that we need to have in this case is to imagine that we are navigating the rough seas. It would be nice to have calm waters, but in reality it is never the case. If you want something you have never had, you must be willing to do something you have never done.

Once you have diligently followed all the basic tenets, you enter into the state of ‘relaxed readiness’. You are relaxed, as you know you are prepared to handle any curveball that life throws at you. You are ready to launch your sails and to navigate the rough sea. This is the state most creative people aim to attain.

So the next time, you are faced with an unexpected challenge, I dare you to improvise!

*Sridhar Rajan Jagannathan [2015] is a Gates Cambridge scholar and is currently a PhD student in psychology at the University of Cambridge focusing on consciousness. Picture credit: League of improvisational theater by Aude Vanlathem. Picture credit: Aude Vanlathem /, via Wikimedia Commons

Sridhar Rajan Jagannathan

Sridhar Rajan Jagannathan

  • Alumni
  • India
  • 2015 PhD Psychology
  • Churchill College

What differentiates the truly great people from the rest? I believe it is standing tall in the face of adversity. Growing up in one of the biggest cities (Chennai) in India, I saw the struggle my parents faced to provide a quality education to me. Despite never having been to a university, they strived hard to provide for my university education. To say it in the words of my mom "As humans we don't live forever, why don't we make something that lasts forever". This is my motivation for research. My quest took me from India to the Netherlands and then to UK. Here at Cambridge, I would be working on the entanglement between consciousness and attention. I aim to create a cognitive neuroscience inspired model on the deficits of attention during transitions of consciousness. Further to apply them in patients with attentional deficits like Stroke to predict their recovery prognosis. During my PhD, I would like to combine my expertise in clinical (Maastricht University), cognitive (Radboud University Nijmegen) neuroscience along with my knowledge in mathematical methods (University of Oxford) to provide a holistic approach to the problem in question. I'm truly humbled at this award and would like to thank my friends, family and my teachers for supporting me through thick and thin. I look forward to join the vibrant Gates Cambridge community and contribute my part to this noble cause.

Previous Education

Radboud University Nijmegen
Technical University of Eindhoven

Latest News

Towards better public service delivery in Pakistan

Rafi Kakar [2024] is keen to contribute to better public service delivery and development outcomes in Pakistan by employing a research approach that blends theory with the realities of public policymaking. He believes that the devolution of social sectors to the provinces in 2010 has created both challenges and opportunities for governance reforms and improvements […]

Using virtual reality in the service of stroke recovery

Brielle Stark [2012] is pioneering new ways of approaching the language problems faced by stroke patients. She was recently awarded a Fulbright Scholar Award to conduct research in Australia, starting in Spring 2025. She will be moving to Australia to work with her long-time colleague Dr Lucy Bryant at the University of Technology Sydney on […]

The ethical implications of AI

Three Gates Cambridge Scholars address the ethical implications of Artificial Intelligence and the need for ethics to keep up with the pace of change in AI in the fourth episode of the Gates Cambridge podcast, So, now what? out today [30th May]. The episode, featuring Andreas Vlachos, Kerry McInerney and Richard Diehl Martinez was hosted […]

Rethinking feminist approaches to gender-based violence

Ilaria Michelis [2019] was completely surprised when, earlier this year, she was awarded this year’s Journal of Gender Studies Janet Blackman Prize. The Prize celebrates scholarship on international feminist movements and trade unions/women in work.  It was awarded for an article she published the year before in the Journal of Gender Studies based on an issue […]