June 18, 2010

Improv Wisdom

Posted in books, personal at 2:59 am by jimazing

shell-artI picked up, Improv Wisdom: Don’t Prepare, Just Show Up by Patricia Madson in one of the many bookstores in Berkeley last month when we were visiting Erin and Justin.  The title stirred me and a cursory browse of the book showed promise.  I wasn’t mistaken.

Each day I understand better that our value is not tied to what we do or even what we can do.  We all have value because we are.  There’s value in just showing up and being present.  Planning and preparing are important, but they aren’t everything.  I am learning that, while being prepared is invaluable, being present is just as important if not more so.

The section I read today in the book was on rituals.  Being one who loves variety, I have always thought of rituals as ruts, but this book has given me a different perspective.  Rituals can help us get in the groove.  Madson was relating about the rituals she was introduced to in some classes she took.  She says,

At our desks in calligraphy class, we began with the ritual of grinding  the ink.  There is a correct way to hold the ink stick and to move it in small circles in a tiny pool of water on the stone that serves as an inkwell.  The action of making ink became both a physical and mental preparation for the work of learning how to paint Japanese characters and bamboo leaves.

These rituals at the beginning of each session had the effect of creating order and harmony.  We knew what we had to do when we entered the sace.  Cleaning and grinding ink got us into the world of the art without the stress of creation.  There was a calming effect…

My best meetings have been the ones where I not only prepared for the content, but took time to prepare my self to clear out the clutter and be more present.  What a wonderful way to look at rituals as preparation for the art of being present.


  1. Good analogy of both planning and improv. Your effort to relate what you read to your life is encouraging. I love you NB

  2. John Teeling said,

    Great post, Jim. It stirs a desire in me to want to talk to you about real talk and the “pressure” that it presents. In addition, it prompts me to think what is missed when we think we have to have our “ducks in a row.”

  3. Few things please a writer more than to learn that their books “hit the mark”. I appreciate your taking the time to blog about what you found of value in Improv Wisdom. The utility of ritual can be profound. I’m pleased that you cited this passage. I’m enjoying your website. My husband is also a family history buff so I understand your work in this area. Best wishes from El Granada, across the bridge. Haven’t we been having lovely weather?
    Patricia Ryan Madson

  4. Fernando Ibanez said,

    I’ve gone to conferences where I was doing a training class 3 or 4 times in a row. My first training was always the best. The trainings that came after, hit me “unprepared”. I always sensed that my energy level diminished somewhat, but there was more to it than just energy. I wonder if each training cluttered me and disconnected me from the moment.

  5. jimazing said,

    @Fernando Interesting thoughts. Sounds like feeling unprepared was a negative experience for you as the presenter. Why do you think you became more disconnected after the first training session? Were you actually less prepared?

    @Patricia Ryan Madson. We have chatted on email, but this is a long overdue public response. Few things have thrilled this writer than seeing the author of the book they just read as a commenter. Thanks for taking the time to respond and to join me on Facebook. I hope you have many fans like myself. Your book has inspired me on many occasions already. I was in a meeting just this past week that I began to stress over because I had not prepared. I decided to purposefully not prepare more than to have a few specific ideas I wanted to discuss. That helped me to not come across as disengaged and allowed me to enjoy the half-hour journey to the office for the meeting. It also made for a very engaging and productive meeting. I believe it was because “I” showed up… and not just my ideas.

  6. Fernando Ibanez said,

    I was not less unprepared. They were exactly the same trainings, same content every time. Before the first training I had time to clear my mind, and be more present. As the day went on, I felt a bit more tired, and my voice would get more tired as well. I always thought it was a physical consequence. What I wonder after reading your post is, could have also been a mental tiredness? Thinking about each training as it happened, anticipating more trainings coming, basically to use your language “cluttering my mind”, stepping away from the present? I don’t know. I also wondered if the audiences had the same tiredness issues. They get tired as the day goes on. I know audiences after lunch are a sleepy bunch for sure. So the first audience is preppy and excited, the last one is thinking about the end of the day and going Kareoke?

  7. jimazing said,

    I hear ya! Being present is about being in the moment, engaged and mental or emotional clutter is a good indicator that we aren’t fully present. I read something (I can’t remember where) about how audiences need a change after about 10 minutes. If we stop and tell a story, change the pace, volume… something, it helps the audience stay connected. Maybe it would help the presenter stay connected too.

    It’s going to drive me batty trying to remember where I read that. 😉

  8. Fernando Ibanez said,


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