Making a choice (or not) is something I took for granted. I never stopped to consider the power of my choices. This is probably why I’ve made some decisions that were not the best, and some that I put off making, came back to bite me.
I felt frustrated over other people’s decisions and powerless, or lost, when I needed to make my own.
Just make a choice
I’m indecisive…at least I think I am. I’ll waver back and forth between options for what seems like an eternity (just ask my wife). I have the habit of being paralyzed with analysis and I’m afraid to make the wrong decision.
Making a selection though, even if it turns out not to be ideal, allows for the opportunity of practice. I’m not advocating making a decision that has negative consequences but the sooner you make a choice, the faster you can learn from it and get to where you want to go.
Improv is the perfect place to build this skill. While performing, we make choices constantly and the amount of options can be paralyzing. I see inexperienced improvisers sometimes struggle with making a choice, but the sooner the context of the scene is established, the faster we can get to the funny part. I also struggled with this when I started improvising and my improv drastically improved when I just made decisions (the “and” in “yes and”). Decision making is part of contributing to the scene.
Making choices in the present
Putting off or failing to make a choice is still making a choice (thank you Geddy Lee, Alex Lifeson, & Neil Peart). Past decisions and future what-if’s do not matter as much as the choices you make right now. It’s impossible to change the past, and impossible (for most) to predict the future.
I’ve heard the phrase “living in the past creates depression and living in the future creates anxiety.” I can see how this is true. When I was depressed, I was not living in the present and I dwelled on the negative choices I made. I sometimes wished for things to be different in the future and my worrying over those things was overwhelming. A lot can happen in the future and it’s easy to fill your head with an infinite amount of what-if’s.
As improvisers, we can’t dwell on the decisions we’ve made in a scene because we’d miss what is happening in the now. Additionally, we can’t plan for the future because it might not happen (hint: it probably won’t, and if you force it, it can feel contrived). We need to be aware of the choices we’ve made, while at the sametime be open to new possibilities that have yet to happen.
“We are not animals. We are not a product of what has happened to us in our past. We have the power of choice.” – Stephen Covey
Power over your choices
A reaction is a choice you make at any moment in time. Your choices have more importance than you may realize and being aware of this helps with making decisions. It proves to yourself that, in this moment, you have control over the choices you make. Having power over your reactions is the ultimate power over yourself.
I used to feel that I didn’t have any control over my reactions to events. I would get upset easily over minor things.
In improv we get to practice making decisions that we wouldn’t normally make. We can choose to get teary-eyed over a scoop of ice cream or elated that we missed throwing paper in the trash. By controlling my reaction during a scene, I have proved to myself that I have the power over my choices, both onstage and off.
For example, if your kid spills some milk while eating their cereal and you’re late for work, and you get choose to get upset, which puts your wife in a bad mood, which then you feel bad about, and in turn puts everyone in a bad mood when they go to school and work…instead choose to see it as not a big deal, because in the big picture, it’s not. (Trust me)
“You cannot change what you are, only what you do.” – Philip Pullman
Commit to your choice
Nothing has taught me to commit to a choice more than improvising. I remember a defining moment, a few minutes into one particular scene, I found myself playing a completely average person. At that point I realized that I had already made a decision to be incredibly average. I then fully committed to a character who was average at everything. I felt like I had direction and the scene became grounded and interesting… even with me playing an average guy!
Fully committing to a choice is freeing. You no longer have to waver between all of the options. It frees up your mind to focus completely on that selection and leave the indecision behind.
Growing through new choices
When we make the same choices over and over, we’re destined to stay where we are. Even a small change today toward the thing you want to accomplish in the future can have a huge impact. Choosing to do something new is the first step towards a different path in life.
Maybe you’ve seen the short-form improv game called “new choice” or “ding”. The game is often played by having a normal scene take place and an offstage person will either say “new choice” or ring a bell. Each time this happens, the improviser speaking has to come up with a new word selection. Often the improviser gets to a word that is so far removed from the initial word, that it alters the direction of the scene.
I lived inside my shell for a long time, scared to try anything new. When I finally realized that I’ll never improve myself if I don’t start making new choices, I instantly “leveled up” and started down an entirely new path. Living a different life in the future depends on making new choices in the present.
“The strongest principle of growth lies in the human choice.” – George Eliot
The choices of others
Another struggle of mine in the past was accepting the choices other people made. We don’t have power over others, we only have power over our decisions. Accept the fact that other people might not make the same choices that you would. One of the greatest things I’ve come to realize is that I don’t have any control over the choices of others. It’s a freeing concept once fully accepted.
On stage we need to be accepting of the choices others make. Denying their choices would create a confusing world where the audience doesn’t know what is real and what is not.
When I learned better ways of making choices and living with the consequences, I felt more free to focus on the things I needed to take care of and less stressed about things that were out of my control. While I finally feel more decisive and less afraid to make a choice, I can still work on controlling my reactions.