"Monkeys and Sloths": The Living Improv Videos Are Here!

I'm SO excited to share my latest project!

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Introducing Living Improv, a series of video conversations in which people reflect on the challenges and perplexities of life, and how improvisation helps see us through. I can't wait for you to meet these wise, insightful, and funny folks. A special preview video is linked below, called "Monkeys and Sloths." Enjoy! It’s a fun one.

The conversation partners in this series are a lot like you, my readers:

Some of them are "church people"... but many are not.
Some of them are students of improv... but some are not. And yet as you will see, all of them tackle the trials of life with a spirit of Yes-And. I was inspired and energized by these conversations, and I trust you will be too. I came away from these interactions even more convinced that improv offers a powerful set of tools for approaching the world.

Here's how it will work: starting the first week of March (that's next week!) I'll begin releasing the videos via my email newsletter. There are 12 in the series, about 4-8 minutes each--perfect bite-sized pieces for reflection. Emails will arrive every two weeks, with two Living Improv videos in each message--which means the newsletter will follow the same twice-a-month schedule it always has.

Are you part of a small group? Book club? Sunday School class? These videos are great for group discussion as well as individual reflection. Each will be accompanied by questions and exercises, plus scripture suggestions for Christian groups. If you're studying God, Improv, and the Art of Living, I will include ideas for connecting the Living Improv videos with the book, but they also stand alone.

Living Improv will be archived on YouTube and on my website, but I'll be releasing them first and foremost through my email list. Don’t miss out—be sure to subscribe here.

Without further ado... here's Monkeys and Sloths, part of a conversation with my friend Tim Hughes Williams, pastor of Light Street Church in Baltimore. (You’ll see him twice more in the series.)

And thanks to my awesome brother Luke McKibben of Lukrative Visual, who shot and edited the whole series.

Subscribe to receive the series here.

Gratitude... and a Pre-Announcement Announcement

The following was sent to my email newsletter earlier today—to receive content like this right to your inbox, about twice a month, subscribe.

“Increasingly I discover that being alive involves taking a chance, acting on less than certainty, engaging with life. All of this brings change, and for me the process of change is life. I realize that if I were stable and steady and static, I would be living death. So I accept confusion and uncertainty and fear and emotional highs and lows, because they are the price I willingly pay for a flowing, perplexing, exciting life.” 

-Carl Rogers

I heard this quote on a podcast while driving to a women’s retreat I led over the weekend. Carl Rogers was an American psychologist and one of the founders of modern psychotherapy as we know it. I was so struck by this quote that I pulled over to jot it down so I could refer to it later. It seemed a perfect segue into a weekend of considering improvisation as a spiritual and life practice. When we say Yes-And to what the world offers us, in a spirit of curiosity and possibility, we often find ourselves in a life that’s flowing, perplexing, and exciting. 

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It’s also a deeply meaningful message for me personally. This week marks the beginning of my fifth year of ‘free-range’ ministry. That ministry has included writing, speaking, a couple years of managing social media and communications for a global non-profit, and now, approaching my third year of leadership and ministry coaching. Not to mention running coaching, the side hustle for all my side hustles. Life is often hectic, but it’s a grand improvisation and I love it all. 

Over the last four years I’ve spoken at some 70 retreats, conferences, workshops, and guest preaching opportunities. Wow! That’s a lot of seeing the church in action, and I’m grateful for the bird’s-eye view. Add to that the wonderful perspectives I get teaching medical students at George Washington University once a month, and a new role as parish associate at Trinity Presbyterian Church, Herndon.

There’s plenty to fret about in the world, but spending time with so many fine groups of people, and being inspired daily by coach clients, reminds me that, as Carrie Newcomer says, the things that have always saved us are still here to save us. 

Speaking of those connections… I’m excited to offer a teaser of a new initiative I’m rolling out in March, called Living Improv. These are short video conversations about how people engage with the challenges and perplexities of life in a spirit of improvisation. Some are clergy, some are not; some have studied improv, but many have not. These videos will be accompanied by a short reflection by me, plus some questions for reflection/discussion. You don’t need to be reading God, Improv, and the Art of Living to engage with these videos… but if you’ve been looking for an opportune time to get a book study going, this is it!

The videos will be released via email newsletter, so subscribe if you want to receive them.

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I am beyond grateful to each of you for these bonds of connection and curiosity we’ve forged over the years. Thank you for your wisdom and companionship.

Onward!
MaryAnn

The Joy of Yes-And

The following was sent to my email newsletter earlier today—to receive content like this right to your inbox, about twice a month, subscribe.

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You may have seen the amazing video of UCLA gymnast Katelyn Ohashi absolutely nailing her floor routine—with precision, energy, and sass. If you haven’t, please check it out, and the Washington Post story about this amazing athlete.

My friend and colleague Kathryn Johnston summarized what was so powerful about Ohashi's performance:

What really caught my attention is how Katelyn Ohashi stepped back from training to be on the Olympic elite level because it was breaking her body and spirit. She decided to focus on her college career instead, and have fun doing it. Obviously from the video you can tell, she's still pretty damn elite. There's a sermon in there about going for our joy even when it's not what society says should be our joy. 

I need that sermon, as I’ve gotten myself in a bit of trouble with Yes-And lately.

Many of you know Yes-And as the cardinal rule of improvisation—we receive what is offered on stage (or in life) and build on it in some way. I’ve written about this, I speak about it, and it’s the place where I start in God, Improv, and the Art of Living.

And it’s something I still get turned around about. Too often, Yes-And becomes an excuse to add more and more to my schedule without removing anything.

We had our first snowfall in the DC area this past weekend, which meant a snow day for my kids on Monday. Meanwhile I had a number of phone calls scheduled, and a lot of “thinking work” I really needed to do.

Now, my kids are old enough to entertain themselves, and also entertain one another. I could have made those calls. I could have sequestered myself for a couple of hours and gotten the work done, popping out from time to time to make sure everyone was OK. And I have done that—it’s a staple for working parents, and a Yes-And of a sort… to say “Yes, this is a lot, and I’m going to embrace the chaos, juggling these handfuls of Jello as best I can, and being kind to myself when some of it splishes through my fingers.” A full, abundant life is a gift.

But for whatever reason, this time I took my own internal temperature, looked at the bigger picture, and Yes-Anded in a different way. I rescheduled my calls and subbed in some less taxing mental work. This enabled me to help my eldest with a looming school project, consult with the middle child on making the traditional snow-day pocket pies, and when my youngest came back in the house, stomping snow boots and shedding gloves and coat, I was ready with the hot chocolate. Most importantly, I saw this as a faithful expression of who I am and who I wanted to be that day.

Now, as Kathryn points out, Katelyn Ohashi is still performing at an extremely high level. But too often, our culture looks at people who take a step back in terms of what is lost. Maybe Ohashi will not end up at the Olympics as a result of her choice... but it’s clear from that performance how much has been gained.

Sure, sometimes Yes-And is a process of sheer addition, and making it work imperfectly and beautifully.
But other times—maybe more often—it’s about subtraction. Clarification. Deepening. 

One of my favorite follows on social media is elite runner Tina Muir. Tina is a serious athlete, logging hundreds of miles a month, and winning and placing in all kinds of races (she won the Army Ten-Miler here in DC in 2015). 

A couple of years ago, she left running altogether—arguably at the pinnacle of her own physical conditioning—because she hadn’t menstruated for nine years and had simply had enough of putting her body through that. She and her husband Steve wanted to start a family. 

Now, a couple of years later, she has a baby daughter, Bailey. She’s training again, but she trains differently. Her body has changed. She logs a bunch of her training miles with a jogging stroller. The demands on her life are more complicated. She’s also happier than she’s been in a long time.

She entered this weekend’s Disney Half Marathon with no expectations, but determined to run the 13.1 miles as best she could—to run them hard, and to run them joyfully.

Well… she won:

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...Now, just because you Yes-And and shift priorities and embrace the journey and all that stuff doesn’t mean you’re going to “win,” whatever winning means in your context. Results not guaranteed; this isn’t a formula.

But using Yes-And as a way of aligning with your deepest purpose means that winning no longer matters. The joy is its own sweet reward.

When You're Tempted to Give Up

I'm on vacation this week, so in lieu of a post written by me, I want to pass along a story that's been resonating with me lately.

Many of us know and love Humans of New York, the book, website and social media presence. HONY is the brainchild of Brandon Stanton, who took a simple premise and made it a huge phenomenon: to photograph ordinary New Yorkers, telling their stories. It's a testament to the power of attentive listening and radical empathy, and has become wildly popular--an outpost of kindness on the Internet. (HONY is now nomadic, with recent trips to Pakistan, Brazil, and more.)

Brandon Stanton.

Brandon Stanton.

But have you ever heard the story of how HONY began? Here is Stanton talking about the tumultuous--and lonely--early days. I'm not going to offer any commentary or pithy summary at the end of this--I'm simply going to share it, so we can rest in these words and let them do whatever they need to do, for each of us:

“I’m in New York, and I’ve been trying to make it work for 6 months. I worked every day, including Christmas and Thanksgiving. All I did was photograph all day long. I had gotten thousands of these portraits and not many people were paying attention.”

“The hardest part about it was especially when I got started, and Humans of New York didn’t have any fans, and it wasn’t made into any books, and my family didn’t believe in it, and my friends thought I was crazy. I had no photography experience. I’m in New York City stopping random people and asking them questions. I’m feeling insecure.”

“When you walk up to somebody and you ask them if you can take their photo and they respond like you’re some sort of freak or that you’re weird, it’s hard to not internalize that because you’re so insecure at the moment about whether or not what you’re doing is weird and if it’s something that – am I weird for asking these people for their photographs? I’d go out some days, and ten people in a row would make me feel like I’m some sort of freak.”

“Like, “Do you know what city you’re in? You can’t be stopping random people. Get out of my way. What are you doing? No, you can’t take my photo. Get out of here.” And during my formative and impressionable early days when I’m trying to figure this out, five reactions like that in a row when nobody’s paying attention to your work, and you’ve been trying for months, and you can’t figure it out, psychologically was very tough. There’d be days where that would happen, and I just couldn’t do it anymore. I would just go home and lay in bed.”

“It was all of the doubt, and not having any money, and nobody’s paying attention, and I’m just doing this all day long for months. The loneliness too, I didn’t know anybody in New York. I knew two people. There was a Christmas break where those two people went home, and for two weeks, I didn’t see anybody that I knew. I remember I spent Christmas Eve alone at a diner. Then I just went out and photographed because it was the only thing that would keep me from thinking about how unlikely it was and how stupid of an idea it might be.”

“The only thing that I think kept me from thinking about the possibility of failing was doing it, was just photographing. Whenever I started to think, “Is this gonna work? Is it not gonna work?” I’d just go out and photograph. That was my only way of keeping those wolves away of, “Is this ultimately going to be a success? Am I wasting my time? Am I stupid?”

“The only way to keep those away was to go out and work. So that’s what I would do just all day long and do it and do it and do it. These negative things like the rejection of people and people saying no that I was talking about, all of the negative stuff, the thing that was counteracting that all the time was just loving it so much. I just loved it so much.”


Onward.
MaryAnn

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The Art of Coaching Improvisationally

“The five minutes before the coaching conversation begins are the most important five minutes of the whole encounter.”

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I remember hearing this in coach training and feeling surprised. Surely the wrap-up is most critical, I thought to myself, in which actions steps are articulated and clarified. Or, the initial check-in, which sets the stage for everything that is to come. As a coach, I now see the wisdom of this instruction. If I come into the appointment distracted and scattered, I cannot be of service. In my pre-conversation time, I try to center myself, prepare to listen deeply without agenda, and most of all, trust the process and my role in it. There’s always a bit of nervous excitement, too, because I have no idea what will happen and where we’ll end up at the conclusion of our conversation.

Interestingly, that anticipatory energy is exactly what I feel when preparing to walk out on a stage to do improv comedy.

READ THE REST at Coaching World, the blog of the International Coach Federation (ICF).

Yes-And: Worth a Thousand Words

I've been working with Lukrative Visual Products on a series of video interviews connecting improv with life. This week I'm combing through these videos for editing, and remembering warmly the great time Luke and I had filming these rich conversations.

Luke--who's also my brother, in addition to being a wonderful videographer and producer--knew very little about improv before reading God, Improv, and the Art of Living and taking on the project, but he's really embraced the ideas wholeheartedly. Part of the fun of our collaboration is getting little notes and tidbits from him about improv. Like this image he sent recently, which perfectly illustrates one of the basic themes of the book:

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Let's all strive to be Yes-AND people today!

Kick With Your Left Foot

I recently caught an episode of the Slate podcast, Upon Further Review, while out on a run. The program, and book by the same name, look at pivotal moments in sports history and ask, What if it didn’t happen that way? (Example: What if Richard Nixon had been good at football?)

The episode I heard considered the 1999 World Cup, in which the U.S. Women’s team beat China in a penalty shootout. The program used the “what if” format to highlight the fact that, despite the World Cup victory, women’s sports still struggle to achieve the same prestige, audience, and financial support as men’s sports. 

A particular detail in the story stood out to me. Brandi Chastain was the last of the US players to attempt a penalty kick, and when she prepared to walk onto the field, coach Tony DiCicco gave her a last-minute instruction: Take the kick with your left foot, not your right.

She did, and the U.S. won the game. You probably remember Chastain’s iconic celebration photo! (I covet those arms and abs... but I digress)

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Imagine if it had gone the other way. There was a lot riding on that kick, regardless of which foot she used, but think about what it must have been like for Chastain and her coach: she had never taken a penalty kick with her left foot in a professional game. Ever.

Chastain explained the rationale for switching feet: the Chinese team was surely well-schooled in Chastain’s moves, and would have be able to anticipate where the ball might go. Changing feet made that kick less predictable. But with my improv lenses on, I also wonder whether switching things up was a way of getting Chastain out of her head, allowing her to be a little looser, less mechanical, more grounded, as she executed that historic kick. 

As I am often fond of saying, I practice and write about improv because it doesn’t come naturally to me—I like my backup plans to have backup plans. And I’m a good planner. I could probably live the rest of my life making good solid plans and carrying them out. It would probably be a fruitful life. But… it also sounds a little boring, even to me. 

I’ve been wondering what it would mean for me to “kick with my left foot”—to intentionally introduce some unpredictability into my life. To do the opposite of what I’m conditioned for and comfortable with, just to see what happens. To surprise myself. What would it mean for you or your organization to do the same? What would we learn? What do we have to lose? And best of all, what do we stand to gain?

I went looking for more information about this World Cup story, and unsurprisingly, Chastain had practiced kicking with her left foot a lot. A lot. Yes, she’d never deployed that move in a game, but she’d practiced and prepared and conditioned. And when the moment came—the decisive moment—she was ready. 

And that’s how life works, isn’t it? We do what's ours to do, day by day. We pursue our “craft,” whatever that might be; we explore what it means to be our authentic selves; we learn, we engage in rituals and traditions, we practice—so that at moments when we are most needed in our communities and families, we are ready to give our best effort for the sake of tikkun olam, the healing of the world. As Danusha Veronica Goska writes, “When we study the biographies of our heroes, we learn that they spent years in preparation doing tiny, decent things before one historical moment propelled them to center stage.”

Tiny, decent things. 
Tiny, decent, surprising things. 
Tiny, decent, surprising things… so we’re ready to jump in, with either foot forward.

Onward,
MaryAnn

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Reframing Fear

I’ve always loved this image, which I got from the Improvised Life website, an early “conversation partner” for my book:

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I feel the truth of it, and also the incredible challenge of it. The world we live in seems supersaturated with fear these days. I admire people who can transcend that anxiety. How do they do it? I confess I often carry around my fear and anxiety over the state of the world like a banner: Look how vigilant I am. (Can I get an Amen?) 

What would it mean for us to reframe our fear, from “Oof, that’s scary,” to “Wow, that’s interesting”? And to follow up that curiosity with open-hearted response?

I was reminded of the shift from fear to curiosity recently, when I ran across a story by author Anne Fadiman about her father, essayist Clifton Fadiman. In the latter years of his life, he developed extreme vision loss that was so debilitating, so frightening to contemplate, that he begged his daughter to help him end his life. She urged him to at least try to adapt to what was happening to him. He finally agreed to attend a program, called VIP, that taught independent living skills to adults experiencing full or partial blindness. 

It was tough for him, but he found himself surprised and even captivated by the many tricks he learned for getting along in the world. Anne remembers his phone call after the first lesson. Her father, who had led a stimulating and remarkable life, surrounded by fascinating people and deep ideas, said, “That may have been the most interesting day of my life… Except for the first day of my life, it was the most novel.” He learned to fold paper money in particular ways so he could tell them apart. He learned to open milk cartons, and cook. 

The “final exam” for the VIP program was a trip to a simulated McDonald’s, where the participants would make their way through an entire transaction unassisted. Anne speculates that McDonald’s was chosen because everyone was familiar with the place—everyone except, as it turned out, her father. “My father had spent decades complaining about American pop culture without experiencing any. Finally, his opportunity had arrived! …What man can predict the form in which his enlightenment will present itself?” 

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Clifton Fadiman cultivated what Zen Buddhists call “beginner’s mind,” in which even a trip to McDonald’s can be a source of wonder—an opening to greater self-awareness and abundance. Anne concludes her reflection, “My father completed the VIP program and never mentioned suicide again.” 

Life offers us countless opportunities to move from fear to curiosity. Many of these opportunities are much less dramatic than the one facing Clifton Fadiman. Yet they hold the potential for transformation nonetheless. 

What might you get curious about today?

Onward,
MaryAnn

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