Unexpected Lessons from Improv

(or) Use it or Lose it Also Applies to Feelings and Emotions

Ten years ago, I was knee-deep in writing The Poker MBA and took a rare break to go on a first date. I mentioned that I played poker and was working on a book that showed how to use poker skills in business. Thirty minutes into what started as a promising evening, the woman said, “So what came first—the poker or the poker face?

I had become so adept at keeping my emotions to myself that this woman had no idea what I was feeling or thinking. She might as well have been having a drink with a robot. Since I write and talk so much about how emotion is the enemy to sound decision-making and negotiating, I had perfected this learned behavior. Particularly at the poker table, letting emotion get the best of you is a drain on your wallet. Moreover, showing those emotions gives your opponent an edge.

People who meet me now are surprised that I was a hyper-active and hyper-emotional kid. I would cry whenever my team lost a game. I would yell and scream a lot. I acted the way I felt, as opposed to the way I thought would be effective. There was tremendous honesty in the way I lived.

As life became more strategic, I learned to smile through the face of adversity. Integrating lessons from sports, poker and business, I developed skills to never let ‘em see me sweat. Part of it was practical. Another part of it was a defense mechanism, especially with women, when I wouldn’t want to let them know I was feeling hurt.

Words like stoic, balanced, unemotional, solid, unhinged all seem very positive in the context of poker and negotiating. When I don’t show my feelings, it’s a version of acting or hiding. It’s living strategically, rather than from the heart. What I learned on this date, and really uncovered in my Improv class, is that hiding emotion is a horrible trait for performing. And can often be just as bad for life.

I signed up for a 6-week Improv class at Westside Comedy to become a better speaker and workshop leader. I figured it would help me to think on my feet. I did what most of us tend to do—I chose to work on my strengths. I’m already skilled at knowing what to “say” when I’m on the spot. Finding the right words, in just about any situation, is easy for me. What I uncovered in this class is that I still have work to know how to feel.

The key to an Improv scene is emotion. Figuring out the who, what, and where is the easy part. It’s the why that really matters. We would do exercises in which we had to act sad, without using words. I struggled. At times we were told to act anxious, worried or surprised—without words—and I was clueless. Then it dawned on me that I had become so proficient at not showing any emotion that I almost never did. Like a muscle in which you must use it or lose it, I had lost it.

The other thing I uncovered is that I’m terrible at “space work.” We were given one minute to demonstrate a routine task without speaking, and I chose to make my morning smoothie. To do it well, you need not only to remember to open doors and jars, but also close them. It’s simple if you are grounded enough to reflect on something you do every day. And there again, I learned that I’m often so in my head that I don’t take the time to actually observe what’s going on at ground level.

Other great lessons that apply to both Improv and life:

-If you get stuck, say the truth.

-Look your partner in the eye.

-Listen. Pay attention.

-Say yes…AND…

My final class was last night, and I’m grateful for all that I learned. Our performance is this Friday, February 17, at 7 p.m. at the Westside Comedy Theatre at 1323-A 3rd Street Promenade–in the alley between 3rd & 4th. There’s no doubt I’ve become a better speaker. Time will tell if I’ve also become a better person.

I’ll know I’m on the right track if my next date forgets she is with a poker player.

And remembers she is with a human being.

2 Responses to Unexpected Lessons from Improv

  1. Greg,

    Beautiful post.

    Being part of the class and having the opportunity to meet and interact with you I can confidently say you are very nice person and true gentleman, someone with deep emotions roaring to come out of that poker veneer. I could see the transformation and hope that you carry the momentum forward.

    It was good knowing you and wishing you all the best.


  2. Hajjar says:

    I hope you video tape the show, I want to see you in action, Bro!

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