Learning teamwork through laughs

You’ll often hear current students say that “being a team player” is an important value to highlight in MBA applications. More often than not, students at Booth work in teams – for classes, as part of clubs and other extracurricular responsibilities. However, not everyone has been exposed to extensive team-based environments in our pre-MBA careers.

Thankfully, it’s an easy skill to build. First-year student Vikram Sivakumar reflects on his journey in teamwork that he learned in a unique way – through the ten-week Improv course offered by Booth’s Public Speaking Club. And what better place to learn than in the city of Chicago – home of Improv legends like Second City and Up Comedy Club!

Improv means different things to different people. For some it’s a skill to make a living, for some it’s a hobby, and for some it’s a way to build confidence and presence. When I joined Improv classes, I expected that it’d make me funnier, better on my feet, and an all-around winner. To some extent it did (some say otherwise), but it also taught me many other things. Here are my top 3 realizations…

Before I start, let me caveat these realizations – none of them are “new” and perhaps that is the essence of Improv. To me, Improv is a mindfulness exercise with immediate feedback loops. In an effort to be more effective on stage, I learnt lessons that translated directly to my effectiveness in daily life. 

Team before me – The essence of  “Yes, and”
“Yes, and” is a rule-of-thumb at Improv and frankly should be a mantra for life. It means you accept whatever your team throws at you and volley it back. No rebuttals, no belittling, no arguing, no “making it better if we did it that way instead.” Instead keep building with the team.

Think about using that spirit in a team meeting. I’ve forced myself into that rule (as often as I can remember) and it’s been tremendous at meetings. It means I don’t need the limelight. I don’t even need to force myself to contribute. I need to watch out for the team and add value to make the whole better. Team before me.

Stop thinking about yourself!
I’m going to borrow a friend’s story. He was in a scene and a team member was slated to join him on stage. Just before the team member’s entry – the audience started laughing hysterically. My friend spent the rest of the scene wondering why they laughed so hard – he didn’t think he said anything that funny, he was scared he accidentally made a mistake and he even wondered if there was something wrong with the way he looked. Why did the audience laugh? The team mate entering the scene had apparently walked in with a funny gait that got the crowd rolling.

WE SPEND SO MUCH TIME IN OUR HEADS! We think about ourselves, we think about what others think about us. So many questions and so much doubt. At Improv, it causes stage fright, and you may freeze on stage. These doubts in life, however, have more dire consequences – they drive lack of confidence, they stop you from executing efficiently, and often they stop you from even taking a shot.

Does Improv help you get over this fear? Yes, it trains a muscle. A muscle that makes you take the first step before your thoughts overpower your judgement. Sure, you’ll make a fool of yourself a few times, but you’ll also learn to get comfortable with that.

Mindfulness – being present
Improv requires you to listen to your team and accept their ideas as-is (lesson 1). Then you need to trust yourself, get out of your head and not be afraid of being judged (lesson 2). And if you manage that, you can take a simple scene and build an enjoyable experience. BUT these skills are so hard that you can only do them when you are fully present.

Improv caught me off guard here. I would be on an imaginary garbage truck in a scene, but my mind would wander to my Accounting homework. I knew my mind wandered, but I never realized how often my mind wandered. This was perhaps the BIGGEST takeaway for me.

Since then, I’ve caught my mind wandering – to conversations, lectures, and meetings. And if the wandering mind reduces the quality of an Improv scene so substantially, the impact on life is much worse! I don’t think there is a quick fix here, but Improv gave me the awareness to catch myself.


My class: Can you feel the love?

Bonus: Weekly Stress Relief
A weekly Improv class is like going to a standup show every week. Not just any show—this is a show where you are great friends with the performers (even if you aren’t when you start, you will be by the end). A combination of laughing and love does wonders when life is rushing past around you (read: recruiting crash landings).

Vikram Sivakumar is a first year student at Booth. He is a co-chair for Booth’s Public Speaking and Communications Group, which offers the 8-week Improv level A classes. 

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