Patricia Ryan Madson was Head of Stanford University’s Undergraduate Acting Program and has taught a generation of students in all disciplines how they can bring the lessons of Improv Theatre into their lives. She has written a fantastic book that summarizes this philosophy: Improv Wisdom: Don't Prepare, Just Show Up.
In her 20s, when she missed out on tenure in her first University job – in spite of doing “all the right things” – she decided to focus instead on what she loved. Her explorations of Eastern Philosophy and spiritual practices informed her work in theatre and led to her success at Stanford, including being awarded the University’s highest teaching prize, the Lloyd W. Dinkelspiel Award for outstanding contribution to undergraduate education.
In this first of a two-part interview, Patricia discusses her early career path and shares her belief that thinking “inside the box” can often lead to more creative solutions.
“Trust your weird instincts”
Read on to find Patricia’s thoughts on:
1. What can happen if you just do work you love
2. How a regular paycheck give you freedom
3. How a book can create a busy retirement
Read the full interview:
Avocationist: Could you tell me what you do for a living now or how you spend most of your time now?
Patricia: I am retired now from full-time university teaching and consulting, which I did for 40 years as a university teacher. Since I started my retirement I have been almost busier than I was in my working career. Most people say that.
“I timed the book with my retiring from full-time teaching with the thought that it would be able to help to a wide cross-section of folks.”
I wrote a book called Improv Wisdom: Don't Prepare, Just Show Up, which was published by Random House, Bell Tower Books in 2005 and I timed the book with my retiring from full-time teaching with the thought that, if the book came out and the book did what I hoped it would do, it would be able to help to a wide cross-section of folks.
What I am doing now is basically, every day, doing something that will help promote the book or try to get it into a wider readership. I do that by checking blogs and doing blog searches to see if anyone has mentioned the book, which happens fairly regularly.
“In March of this past year, the Sunday New York Times business section did a huge, full page article on Improv in Business, which featured me with an interview.”
As well as talking about it here and there, I have been really fortunate because the book has gotten really nice press, and in March of this past year, the Sunday New York Times business section did a huge, full page article on Improv in Business, which featured me with an interview. They mentioned the book and talked about Improv as a mindset that is being utilized by businesses. Having a big article in the NYT is huge.
“I have been invited to do some really diverse sorts of things. I just got back from Mexico where the annual convention of Remax Realtors was held.”
I have been invited to do some really diverse sorts of things. I just got back from Mexico where the annual convention of Remax Realtors was held. Remax asked me to be a keynote speaker about improvising in business. And then a couple of weeks later I was in Oakland, CA working with some social workers who are first call responders to youth in crises and I did an Improv workshop with them using improvisational thinking and mindsets to help deal with youth in crises.
“The diversity of different groups and individuals that have read the book and found it useful really pleases me.”
The diversity of different groups and individuals that have read the book and found it useful really pleases me. For example “ I got an email from a person in Virginia who trains psychotherapists and who uses the book as a training manual and gives them a copy when they graduate for psychotherapy training.
It is like, “Wow! Here is a book that is helping real estate agents and businessmen and social workers and psychotherapists and social workers and ministers with their sermons, and all sorts of things. Hurray!”
Avocationist: You worked on this book for a long time?
“People who took the Improv classes, said, ‘Golly! This is useful information. You ought to write a book!’”
Patricia: Yes I did; 20 years. Literally I started over 20 years ago. I was teaching a class for adults in Stanford night school, their Continuing Studies Program, which is open to anyone. I taught classes that had 20-30 adults that were Silicon Valley computer geeks, librarians, retired people, people in transition; moms and whatnot. These are adults that would come for a 10-week course to learn how to improvise. People who took the Improv classes, said, “Golly! This is useful information. You ought to write a book!”
“The thing that I have been most happy about is when people say that the book is really simple and that it is clear and easy to read.”
So I started writing in 1992 and it was then that the book began; actually it has been 20 years so that would take it back to 1988. I had a first version of the book in 1998. It was long process. The book has continued to morph from one thing into another. As I have grown older and learned more things, the ideas have been more refined; the gist of them has gotten clearer. The thing that I have been most happy about is when people say that the book is really simple and that it is clear and easy to read.
Avocationist: If you could think of what is the core of the book after the 20 years of refining it, what would you say that is?
“The real message of Improv is ‘Wake up and pay attention to life; don’t just live in your head’”
Patricia: I would say the book is basically how to find your voice; believing in yourself and trusting your own ideas and then checking them out. I think a lot of us have ideas about what we want or how we might want to live our lives, and sometimes we act on them and sometimes we don’t. I think the real message of Improv is ‘Wake up and pay attention to life; don’t just live in your head’. The attention is partly intellectual, but a lot of it is really visual and sensory. Move your attention out into the world around you; notice other people and notice what is happening. Deeply in the Improv message is to pay attention to life. Get out of your ruminating, planning, thinking, fearing brain and wake up to what is actually happening, and then, take a chance.
“Do something that is important to you that means something and see what happens.”
One of the other maxims is: make mistakes and take a risk. The improviser doesn’t know how his actions are going to turn out. You can’t think into the future and you are not supposed to. You just stay in the present and try something. The real message is to try and take a step. Do something that is important to you that means something and see what happens. Then you have data. Once you have taken a step in any direction, you have more data about whether you like that direction or not and whether there is a path there. I think this can apply to the thing that you are studying, which is how to help turn around a life that might be not going in the direction that one wants or is not really fulfilling. An example of that might be, if there is something that you are passionate about, something that you love that may be in the avocational area of your own existence, find ways to devote more time to that. Maybe you could volunteer to give yourself a way of doing it. Some of these things can lead into a wage-earning activity. You might create a new job that may not even exist.
Avocationist: I agree with that. As you follow your instincts, you will find other people that like these same things you do and you can form your own support group of people that are like you with the same interest.
“I would suggest you think inside the box with clearer eyes”
Patricia: The world is full of amazing potential and it is not so much even thinking outside the box, which is the common terminology for thinking creatively, but I would suggest you think inside the box with clearer eyes, and that means looking at what is really obvious to you. Write what is obvious to you and do the thing that you are very good at or that pulls your attention and draws you. I think we are all born naturally with interests and talents and proclivities, if given a chance to try out various things. I am always suggesting people follow their wonder or their passion or something that seems interesting to them, no matter how illogical it may be.
“Often it is an illogical tangent that leads to something later.”
I do believe that everything we do is grist for the mill and becomes part of the mix of who we are. It doesn’t have to be logical. Often it is an illogical tangent that leads to something later. Trust your weird instincts.
Avocationist: I agree with that and have experienced that as well. I got back into a hobby of photography and found a group locally in Charlotte. A speaker came one time to talk about what I thought was going to be the subject of lighting, but he ended up talking about his blog and that led me to start this blog. It turned out to be a different thing I was interested in and it all started because of exploring one thing that I was interested in, photography, and had nothing to do with my work or anything else.
Take me back to how your career started.
“I finished college and there I was with my philosophy degree in one hand and my Greek studies in the other and thought, ‘Well, what job is suitable for you?’”
Patricia: I was a philosophy major in college – philosophy and Greek studies – real practical things. I was the first in my family to go to college, and I put myself through college working in a Thom McCann Shoe Store and living at home. I loved going to college. I loved thinking and studying and was not even considering a job or a career or anything. I finished college and there I was with my philosophy degree in one hand and my Greek studies in the other and thought, “Well, what job is suitable for you?” I looked around and nobody was really hiring philosophy majors or Greek study majors. I was not suited for anything.
“Well, if I am not fit for anything, I might as well go back to school and do what I really want to do, which is drama.”
Instead of just giving up at that point, I thought, “Well, if I am not fit for anything, I might as well go back to school and do what I really want to do, which is drama.” I am trying to figure out how on earth I managed. I took a job as a waitress just to earn my keep and I was still living at home for that time. I followed my wonder at a critical point and I started taking classes at another college in theater, which was hardly a logical choice. Theatre classes were not likely to lead to any gainful employment, if you think about it.
Avocationist: Had you acted before, like back in high school?
Patricia: Yes, a little bit in high school and then while I was back in college studying philosophy, I got into the drama group and I was in plays. That is what I loved doing, but I wasn’t a major or anything. So I thought, “I would really like to study this.” Again, not thinking it was going to lead to any career because I was intelligent enough to know that you are not going to earn a living as an actor, for heaven’s sake.
“The head of the department said, ‘You know, I think you would make a great drama teacher’”
Then, one semester into classes at Richmond Professional Institute the head of the department said, “You know, I think you would make a great drama teacher, and actually St. Catherine’s School for Girls is a private Episcopal school here that is looking for a drama teacher. If you would like, I will put your name up for that because I think you would be really good for in that position.”
“I had fallen into it because I followed my wonder and did the thing that I loved to do.”
So this amazing thing happened after only one semester of formally studying drama: I found myself the head of the drama program at St. Catherine’s School for Girls, which was fabulous. I was living as a resident teacher in Richmond and had an apartment and got my food at the school and had the princely salary of $3500/ per year plus room and board. This was like in 1963 and I was a drama teacher, and I loved it! I had fallen into this without really even trying. I had fallen into it because I followed my wonder and did the thing that I loved to do.
Avocationist: What did you think the head of the department saw in you that made him think that you would be a good teacher?
“I think he was right because I think deep in my soul more than anything else, I am a teacher.”
Patricia: I don’t know. I think he was right because I think deep in my soul more than anything else, I am a teacher. It didn’t matter that it was drama and it is not that what he saw in me was an actress or a director, he saw in me someone who loved to communicate about education. That has been true throughout my life and I have always been and have the soul of a teacher, but I never thought about teaching or being a high school teacher. So he saw that… I think part of it is intellectual; a kind of capacity for thinking in a certain way, good communication skills and the like. The other thing that really suits me to be a teacher is that I like a salary and a regular job. I would be a really lousy business person trying month by month to figure out how to get to the next month. I would be a bad boss for myself. I love having a regular paycheck and being able to figure out how to live on what I was bringing in, which I have always been able to do. I am very sensible at finance and even on $3500/year that first year, I saved $800 and was able to travel to England. Isn’t that something? Saving is another one of those things - I don’t write about this in the book - but I think it is something I learned at an early age and I am so proud of how I manage money. I am a good saver and I never overspend. I think part of the problem that the world is in today is that we have started believing that all you need is a credit card and the world can be yours. Instant gratification is always around with purchases and money and it has become culturally widespread. I was thinking about how to write my next book called Bring Back Lay-Away!
Avocationist: I have actually seen that some stores are doing that this year.
“Taking a risk and following your wonder is possible if you have your rent paid.”
Patricia: I started writing an article a year ago that is about managing your life by being really careful about saving and putting things away for the future. That is another secret of my success, that no matter what I earned, even when it was $3500/year, I saved $800 of that. I am a saver so that allows me to take risks if I have created some kind of small cushion for myself. I am not fearful that if I don’t do “X”, then I am not going to be able to feed my family. So by looking at whatever situation you are in and being realistic about your money, saving carefully, and how you spend is part of the mix. I think by being able to talk about these other philosophical issues - taking a risk and following your wonder is possible if you have your rent paid.
Avocationist: Another thing that occurs to me about what you are saying is that, a lot of times if you have constraints that you put on yourself and on your spending, it helps you to be more creative and conscientious about what you do. I remember one year my wife and I decided that because we had bought a new house and we didn’t have a lot of extra money that we would just spend $10 on each other for Christmas gifts that year. I found a little $9.95 photo album and put together this really nice gift for her that was probably more meaningful than if I had spent a lot more money. Also I had a great time doing it. Those are the sorts of things that you don’t do if you can buy anything you want.
“It involves the value of restraint and limits in life because it forces us to be more creative.”
Patricia: That is true and I think that is at the heart of the message of the book plus it involves the value of restraint and limits in life because it forces us to be more creative. In the world we live in today we often have more money than we need, and we use that money more than we use thoughtfulness. We all know, and there is a lot of data that shows prosperity does not bring happiness in itself, that there are other human values that are going to make the difference (time with our community and family, getting away from the television, and eating healthy food, for example are simple things that bring us happiness).
Avocationist: Yes; and those things don’t necessarily cost anything at all.