Sometimes the keys to workplace success can be found in the most unexpected places. Like on the stage.
Back when I was an improv student, I came across this great blog post called The Perfect Actor. It was written by Mick Napier, who’s a legend on the Chicago comedy scene. He’s trained and directed thousands of comics, including Tina Fey and Amy Poehler before they were famous.
The post is from 1996—Mick was blogging before most people were even on the Internet—but it really holds up. (It’s also a little NSFW in the language department.) And I think many of the rules work equally well for business.
Here are three of my favorites.
1. Forget Your Fear
Okay, Mick used a different word than “forget.” But you’ll still get the gist:
Forget your fear. We want to see your power, not your fear. Nobody has time for your fear…When I teach, I expect insecurity; when I direct, I expect the opposite. If you find yourself in a show and you’re afraid…then fake it.
Notice how he draws the line between being a student and being a professional. In the classroom, it’s expected that you’ll express some insecurity and need help. In the workplace, you’ll need to step it up.
Showing fear and neediness just undermines your co-workers’ confidence in you. They’ll worry you won’t hold up your end of things. That you’ll let the team down.
Sometimes you’ve got to fake it to make it. If you have an opinion, don’t hem and haw; express yourself forcefully. Put conviction behind your words and in your gestures and expression.
As you go along, you’ll likely find your fears were exaggerated or even unfounded. And the mere act of expressing confidence will have the effect of making you more confident.
2. Be Open to New Ideas
There’s a foundational principle in improv called “yes, and.” It means that on stage you should honor your scene partners’ ideas and build on them instead of shooting them down. The same rule applies backstage:
Be someone who will try anything. If you have a consideration about something a director asks you to do, speak that consideration and do it anyway. Be someone who says, “Sure, I’ll try it.” Sooooo many good ideas have gone to hell because an actor (or director, for that matter) judges an idea, talks it to death, and has it never be tried even once. It’s so easy to be negative…
We’ve all worked with that guy. Hell, most of us have been that guy—the one who can identify every possible obstacle and roadblock. How refreshing it is to hear “Sure, let’s try it” when a new idea or a change or revision is suggested.
Even if you have doubts, keep them to yourself. Be positive.
3. Negativity is Contagious
Here’s a little more tough love. Mick’s talking about fatigue here, but the same applies to any expression of negativity:
Be someone who isn’t tired. I’ve seen too many people say they’re tired at the beginning of a rehearsal and then spend the next three hours proving it to everyone around them…If you find yourself saying “I’m really tired today”…know that everyone is tired and that’s a given and who cares and then get up on stage and be vital and engaging.
Not only are we all tired, but we’re all tired of people talking about how tired they are. Or how stressed out how they are. Or how many emails they have.
Complaining about this stuff is not only a downer to everyone around us, it’s self-perpetuating. Be the one who’s full of energy, who’s positive, who’s the calm center of the storm. It’ll do amazing things for your reputation.
Acting and Workplace Success
There’s a theme in all this, of course. A lot of life is acting. And much of acting is attitude and commitment.
To quote another smart thinker, Goethe:
I am the decisive element. It is my personal approach that creates the climate. It is my daily mood that makes the weather. I possess tremendous power to make life miserable or joyous. I can be a tool of torture or an instrument of inspiration.
Now go out and make some weather.