Improv Wisdom Book Review and Life Lessons

improv-wisdomImprov Wisdom: Don’t Prepare, Just Show Up, by Patricia Ryan Madson, is a great read that translates the powerful concepts of improv into life lessons from which everyone can benefit.

At only 159 pages, Patricia is able to concisely cover the 12 Maxims of Improv and how they can improve your life and career. Rather than regurgitate the points below, I thought I’d share some of the most compelling insights learned from Improv Wisdom. I highly recommend you pick up a copy for yourself–the personal experiments (dubbed “Try This”) are worth the small price alone (less $12 on

Improv Wisdom Book Synopsis

1. The only real failure is not doing anything. (page 17)

No matter the circumstance, whether in improv or life, you can only succeed if you take action. When you attempt something and don’t succeed, it’s not that you failed but that you’ve learned. And when you try again, you’ll have a better chance of succeeding. Failure is not even trying.

2. [Improvisation] is a method of working. (page 22)

Improv is certainly an art, and a science in many respects, but it is also a way of working. The method of improvising in life doesn’t mean never planning or just going with the flow–it means being able to do what’s necessary given the right circumstances.

3. The mind that is occupied is missing the present. (page 35)

Humans are amazing creatures with incredible talents, but multitasking isn’t one of them. If we are preoccupied with something else, we’re missing the now.

We are at our best when we work in the now. Actors refer to it as being “in the moment.” For athletes, they are “in the zone.” For everyone, it’s really about just being “in the now”–paying attention to and focusing on the present.

4. Motivation is not a prerequisite for showing up. (page 52)

Motivation, or lack thereof, is often the scapegoat for not getting things done. “I would clean the garage but I’m just not motivated.” “I would go running but I don’t have any motivation.” “I would start that project that I’ve put off for 2 years but…” Just show up and see what happens. 9 times out of 10, you’ll actually accomplish something.

5. Try thinking inside the box. Look more carefully. (page 63)

A common misconception about creativity is that you have to change your thinking; in reality, you only have to change how you think. And not drastically, just specifically. The common cliche that “everyone is different” is true because we are the sum of all our experiences, and no two people grow up with the same exact experiences.

That uniqueness alone provides the skills to “think differently”–if we pay attention to our thoughts and trust our instincts, our ideas will be different and creative, even if they seem obvious to us.

6. Life is all about balancing, not about being balanced. (page 81)

Peter Drucker talks about a well-run factory/business as being boring because nothing exciting happens–everything runs as expected and contingencies are in place for any possibly issues. Life isn’t (and shouldn’t be) like that.

Instead, life is about the daily balancing act of taking the good with the bad, the necessary with the unnecessary, and the planned with the improvised.

7. Ask yourself, what would not get done if I were not here? (page 87)

When trying to determine the best use of your time, look at what unique contributions you can bring to the situation. If someone else can do the job better than you, enable them to–focus on what only your set of skills and experience can accomplish.

8. See the gift in it. (page 90)

Patricia explains there are three ways to look at any event in life: to see what’s wrong with it, to see it objectively, or to see the gift in it. The improvisers learn to see the gift, and this attitude can change how you perceive and experience the world. Problems become opportunities and failure becomes our greatest teacher.

Of course this is not to say bad things don’t or won’t happen. James K. Feibleman said it best “That some good can be derived from every event is a better proposition than that everything happens for the best, which it assuredly does not.”

9. There are no Olympic judges watching our lives. (page 103)

Take chances, make mistakes, look silly. We will always be our own harshest critic and it’s time to realize that we don’t live in a world that requires perfection. Learn to accept good enough because it is better than nothing.

10. The essence of improvisation is action. (page 114)

Beginning improvisers often get caught up in talking about what would be cool or interesting or funny instead of putting it into action. Life demands action.

Patricia put it best: “Motivation is not required. Good intentions, beliefs, resolutions, even promises don’t matter. Action does.” (page 116)

Improv Wisdom Summary

These are just 10 insights I learned from Improv Wisdom by Patricia Ryan Madson, but there are a number of other great lessons within the pages.  If you liked the ideas here or want to see them explored further, pick up Improv Wisdom on Amazon.

Have you read Improv Wisdom? What did you learn from the book.




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1 thought on “Improv Wisdom Book Review and Life Lessons”

  1. Patricia Ryan Madson

    Hi, Drew,
    My computer ATE your last email to me. Truly mysterious. Can you resend it? I’m free next week to do the interview. Would Monday work for you? And, I don’t need to see questions in advance, really. I love to actually improvise and model what I teach!

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