It’s a Thursday morning, 11:30 am and I’m halfway through my weekly check-in meeting with my boss, the Managing Director of my company. I have been tasked with building a corporate curriculum from scratch, and we’re discussing the impasse I’ve reached in attempting to generate course content for departments in the company that I am not very familiar with. We’ve agreed (we usually do!) that it would be best to delegate this task to the various Directors who are best suited to address their own teams’ training needs.
“Great, can you present to the group at our Directors meeting today at 2:00 pm?”, he asks.
Was I bluffing? How could I be ready to present to some of the most important players in my organization with no advance notice and nothing prepared? The answer is simple: I improvise!
I arrived to my current role, Training Specialist for an eDiscovery services company, completely by accident after traversing a long and winding career path. I moved to New York City 13 years ago to attend law school and, ultimately to build a career in the entertainment industry. Upon graduation, I paid the bills by working in a small Brooklyn law office drafting wills and trusts, all the while pushing my resume out by the truck load to every entertainment firm and company in town. Eventually, I made my way into a yearlong contract position at Viacom which I assumed was my foot in the entertainment door, so to speak. It didn’t quite work out that way though. Once my year was up, I bounced around from temp gig to temp gig, holding onto the hope that I would succeed in finding a job that 1.) I was substantively passionate about and 2.) Would cover the cost of living in New York City with law school debt.
As I approached my 30th birthday single, uninsured, and unemployed, my priorities shifted. I wanted a job. I wanted paid time off, an OBGYN that wasn’t Planned Parenthood, and a desk to set my coffee cup on. I “sold out.” Cue the sad music. Suddenly, I was looking for gainful employment in any field, and the one that I landed in was eDiscovery. One of my responsibilities was to train our attorney clients on how to use software to prepare electronic evidence for investigations and litigations. This evolved into a role as training specialist, designing and implementing a company-wide corporate education program, in addition to client training. It’s a far cry from my aspirations of a career in entertainment but I am really good at it, and there is a delightful satisfaction in being really really good at something. So it works.
To keep true to myself through the years, since I veered off the entertainment path, I’ve indulged in hobbies that make me feel in touch with my creative side. I paint, I attend live concerts and theater events as much as possible, and I perform improv comedy. My first exposure to improv was an “Acting for non-majors” class as an undergrad at Michigan State that left me laughing to the point of side pains on a weekly basis. When I moved to New York, I took improv classes with the Second City Training Center as a way to make friends. I later moved on to take classes with the Upright Citizens Brigade Theater (UCB), completing their core improv curriculum and taking additional classes in acting for sketch comedy as well as advanced study long-form improv. I’ve been on a handful of improv teams, and currently I’m on a 3-person team that performs monthly in a bar basement near Penn Station.
Standing on a makeshift stage in the back of a bar pretending to be a sheep, a ghost, or a lumberjack taking a bubble bath seems, on its face, to be very different from what I do at work every day. Really though, it’s not. I would argue that my improv experience has informed and primed me for a role as a corporate educator. You’ve probably heard the phrase “fake it till you make it” at least once in your life. That’s the general concept in any corporate environment as far as I’m concerned. That’s where improv comes in handy. One of the mottos of the UCB is “Don’t think.” That motto has gotten me through more than a few work situations. Those who over analyze a situation, who hesitate, who doubt themselves before going into a big meeting or interview are less successful, plain and simple.
Once you’ve stood on a stage facing an audience of 5, 10, 50 people staring directly at you, expecting you to not only speak but to make them laugh, you can face any boardroom or corporate training room. That feeling of panic you get your first couple times on stage dulls, subsides, and eventually for some, turns to an empowering adrenaline rush. Your confidence grows, and you realize you can literally handle any situation you’re thrown into. In improv you’re not trained as a fire fighter before you are thrown into an imaginary fire and expected to squelch it with expert gusto. You put enough panache behind any action, and it becomes believable, entertaining, engaging. That’s not to say that you don’t need to know your craft. There are rules to improv that you study before you perform, just like there are rules of business you need to know before you’re qualified to serve a specific role. The rest is in the delivery.
It wasn’t long before I realized this quality I had been honing in secret on Thursday nights was reflecting in my work by day. I was commanding attention, and I was holding my head a bit higher. I wasn’t thinking too much. I had no fears. Sure, I occasionally second guess myself but I rarely let that tiny flicker of insecurity surface. In practice, it also allows me to tackle any task I’ve been handed because I know I’m capable of anything. It’s Tuesday and we need to create a brand new training course by Friday? I’ve got this. And even if I haven’t, I’ll improvise!