When a movie special effects crew couldn’t get a key mechanical device to do everything a young director asked, the director adjusted his strategy to obscure what he had originally planned to showcase prominently. The last minute revision worked and “Jaws” went on to be a smash hit.
Things don’t always go as planned and refusing to capitulate to unexpected challengesseparates a professional creator from a person who simply dreams of success. A professional solves problems that can’t be foreseen, while others simply say a plan is kaput.
Improvisation isn’t just about solving problems, however. It’s about seizing opportunities. It’s about noticing things you couldn’t possibly have seen until you got started, and realizing that your evolving insight is the compass needle you should be following.
Improvisation can trap dilettantes. Many people who jump into projects without fully appreciating what’s necessary to get the job done properly will bail out before those projects ever get close to completion. Improvisation does not mean making things up as you go along. The best improvisers will have a plan and a style. They’ll bring tools to the task or they’ll identify the tools available if they can’t bring their own.
Big engineering projects do not follow the same paths to life as artwork, but there are some fascinating glimmers of shared experience. The legendary Apollo 13 mission is all about improvisation, namely how to get a wounded spacecraft and three exhausted crew back to Earth after everything went haywire. Improvisation in that case behaved just like it does for trained musicians or dancers or movie makers: a lifetime of experience prepared participants for sudden flashes of insight and innovation. What had never been done before turned out to be the best way to solve problems, a route only possible because all of the participants had spent a lifetime preparing.
Good improvisation is all about use of ourselves at our deepest levels, intimately, astutely. There’s an expression among practitioners of traditional Japanese martial arts that the road to mastery is learning and forgetting. The nuanced meaning of the phrase is all about the power of improvisation. In learning the basic, outward techniques that develops expertise, we accumulate skill sets built of codified rules with clear, definable structures. We learn precision and we learn options. We discover traditions and we discover innovations. But expertise is not mastery. When we learn and forget we take those many structured lessons, internalize them, and then simply act when the appropriate time comes. We use ourselves as vehicles for improvisation, synthesizing a lifetime of experience into choices, right now. We build our vehicle to the future while we’re driving in it down the road.
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