Before an idea is a good idea or a bad idea, it is a new idea. To write a book, start a business or simply change up a go-to dinner recipe, we have to test out a new idea. But with every new idea put into action we take a risk; many businesses don’t succeed and sometimes the new ingredient we try out ruins the dish. For so many of us that risk of failure – any failure – prevents us from putting new ideas into action. We are so scared of being wrong.


At our Monday improv group this week, we witnessed the effect of a space where new ideas are celebrated for simply being new, without any thought of being right or wrong. 


At the start of the lesson we played a warm-up game called “Five Things” in which participants quickly name five things that are on their mind, sometimes centered around a theme. This week the theme was, “five of your favorite things.” Family members and “money” were common answers, and then one man listed off the five days of the work week one at a time. There was laughter around the circle, then the man sitting next to him said to the group:


“Is he allowed to do that?”


Yes, and it’s encouraged. In improv, no answer is ever considered wrong. We do not penalize or reprimand responses that may seem silly or not make sense. We embrace such responses as opportunities to think and act outside of conventional behavior in a safe and creative environment. In improv, new ideas are gifts. 


For our main exercise, we passed around a series of bizarre looking objects and asked participants to interact with the object as if they were an Extra Terrestrial discovering Earth artifacts for the first time. The activity encouraged silliness, but it also encouraged the group to embrace the freedom of wrong answers. We all knew the first object was a pair of fuzzy dice car ornaments, but for the exercise we had to use them as if we had no idea what they were. We had to invent some use for these dice other than their actual intended purpose. We had to be wrong.


For many adults, this exercise is far more difficult than it looks. Sir Ken Robinson, author, creativity expert, and creator of the most watched TEDTalk video of all time, describes a longitudinal study in which kindergarten students were asked to come up with as many uses for a paperclip as they could imagine. The study was designed to test our capacity for creative thinking as we age. 98% of the kindergarten students scored “genius level” in creative thought (over 200 uses for the paperclip). Just five years later, less than half of those same students were still at the genius level and as they aged the percentage continued to drop. 


In our group, we witnessed many participants discover bold new uses for the various objects we passed around. Fuzzy dice became ear muffs, a serving platter became a cowboy belt buckle and an ice scraper became a lumberjack’s axe. But for others the task was difficult. The simple act of using an object the “wrong” way goes against everything we have been taught about how to behave. In school, right answers are rewarded and wrong answers are punished and there is no middle ground. At work, good ideas earn us favor with the boss and bad ideas can cost us money or even our job. The stakes for being wrong are set so high we become frightened of any new idea as it might turn out to be a bad one.


But as the group continued the resistance to taking risks began to break down. In improv, new ideas are rewarded with laughter regardless of how much sense they make. In the object exercise the boldest, most “wrong” uses for the objects were rewarded with the most laughter and support. The energy in the room began to change, and we all felt the relief of not having to worry about wrong answers, even for just a short period of time.


As we reflected on the lesson with the group, one woman struggled to express her feelings with mere words. She said, “When I arrive here every week I feel like this,” and she slumped her shoulders and hung her head. “But by the end of the lesson I feel like this!” She said as she lifted her head, smiled, and extended her hands in a gesture of excitement and energy. The sentiment was endorsed by many across the circle. To me, she was describing the feeling of freedom from self-censorship. Passing judgement on every thought we have is exhausting. All day we try to predict how our ideas will be received by others to decide whether or not to share them out loud. We are ruled by the fear of being wrong. Through improv, we can at last relieve ourselves of the burden of critiquing our own thoughts and simply share our ideas in a space where we know they will be accepted and rewarded; right, wrong and everything in between.

Improv Therapy Group offers an applied improv approach to team building, communication, creativity and learning emotional intelligence.

A few example modules include:

  • Magic Words: Communication and “Yes, And”
  • On the Spot: Public Speaking and Performance Anxiety/Stage Fright
  • Heal Thyself: Humor and Self Care
  • Let Go: Stress Reduction Through Improv
  • Us is More: Group Mind and Team-Building
  • Feelin’ It: Emotional Intelligence and Empathy
  • and many more . . .