Chess Story Two: Chess and Improv

A student of mine, Karim, called to tell me some things about his acting career. Karim is not a student, technically. He’s three years away from 30. If he were still a student, he’d be in deep trouble. He called to tell me he had just conversed with a famous actor from my generation.

“I called you because you know who that is,” he said. I wasn’t sure how to interpret that. “Know who that is” because I know tons of stuff, or because I’m ancient, just like this legend.

Either way, I’m honored. When students include me on their short list for communicating major life events, I’ve succeeded in my job as a mentor. When someone makes me Call Numero Uno, that’s more than a metric–it’s beyond compare. I never take it for granted.

It's lonely up thereKarim told me about his improv class.  I’d tried my hand at acting. I was terrible. I couldn’t project or transform. At least I’m spontaneous. It’s a gift in teaching.  In fact, the reason I wanted Karim to be a famous actor to begin with, advice I have given exactly once in my teaching career, was because he always had that spontaneous wit. I wondered why he’d need an improv class.

“Let me ask you this. You always have wit. Creativity. Something to say. Do you need improv class? Is it helpful, or a situation where you’ve either got the ideas or you don’t?”

I recorded his reply in my book of life’s lessons. This is what he said:  “Studying improv helps me to develop two or three scenarios for everything. It’s kind of like this–in life you have to have the moves ready before anyone else,” he explained.

“So, it’s like chess? Where if you don’t have the moves for every situation well in advance, you get slaughtered.” Chess has been coming up a lot lately.

“That’s exactly what it is. That’s the only perfect analogy,” he said. “I always think ten times faster than everyone, but this class helped me think twenty times faster than that. By the time you have something in mind, I’ve already planned what I’m going to say to that. Then when you actually say your piece, I have two or three more things on top of that. The first response I created is already old. I’ve already moved on.”

He took it one step further, making the connection to life–that’s what good teaching does. “Everyone should take an improv class. It helps you. It helps you plan strategy. It helps you think. It helps you have something to say. Let’s say a client throws you a curveball. Your mind is ready for it. You’ve got an answer,” he said.

“The answer doesn’t have to be right. You’d have to be some kind of savant genius to always have an answer that’s right. But you have to have an answer. If you’re able to have some sort of retort, you’re good. Then you throw the ball back at them and they have to say something back to you. It buys you time.  And by the time they answer, you got three more things to say. That’s what the improv class does for you. It helps in business. It helps in marketing. It helps in life. It would help you in the classroom.”

Plan three things ahead. The answer doesn’t have to be right. Be spontaneous. These are the things that help in business. In marketing. In life. 

I got off the phone inspired. Ready to go find an improv class so I, too, could be perfect in life. I might even apologize to the kid who was the lead in the play I wrecked in high school  because I was a sucky actor. Either way, I’m thinking deeply about those things that make learning real. Karim is right.

And that is why I teach. To have my lessons paid back in spades.

Carnegie Hall--the most coveted stage in the world

Carnegie Hall–the most coveted stage in the world

Incidentally, a school field trip to the theatre ignited the fire in Karim. The type that is being cut all over America in a tragic turn of testing over talent, where we’re losing our ability to recognize that the answer doesn’t always have to be right–that the ability to be flexible, spontaneous, focused, and apply what we’ve learned is the key to success.

Karim said he wouldn’t have attended the theatre without that school trip. “Seeing the lights, the stage, the people creating themselves into something else. It’s what we all try to do in life…in our little realms, our jobs, our identities, we’re all trying to create something of ourselves. This stage is just more formal.” For him, just as real.
[Here’s Karim Léon’s website. Any readers who are in The Biz? You should hire him.]