New Year, Same You, Different Improv

Last night I went to an improv show and was asked to write down a suggestion of a New Year’s resolution. I racked my brains. After ten minutes of sitting painfully trying to think of something, a question occurred to me: are New Year’s Resolutions supposed to be fun?

I wrote down: to wear more hats.

But the question persisted inside me, a marble knocking about in a wooden box. Because seasonally speaking, surely midwinter is pretty much the worst time of year to be putting effort into anything new and at high risk of failing. Our instincts are telling us to bed down, and hibernate, to conserve energy, keep it familiar, keep it safe, survive.

But instead relentlessly the start of a fresh sparkly new year comes with it the inevitable questions involving resolutions. What will your goals be? What are you striving for this year? What new pattern or process or product are you looking to position on your horizon?

Truth be told, resolutions make me uncomfortable. Maybe that’s because statistically the majority of them are doomed to fail. Or maybe because I used to approach them like an action learning set (a labour intensive method of education), trying to rally all the disparate parts of me and unite them for the common goal of improving. I’d make a list of all my accomplishments from the previous year. Then I’d create a list of all the ways I could do better during the following one. I called it ‘The Annual Review’ like I was trying to justify my position in my own life. Would I get to continue in my role? I really hoped so.

Yeah, pretty intense. Pressure. Incredibly high stakes. That kind of striving is going to wear anybody out. In recent years I’ve looked back on it and thought God, that was a weird thing I used to do, but interestingly my dogged attempts at self-improvement aren’t so unusual historically.

To early Christians the first day of January was traditionally when they considered the mistakes of the previous year and would resolve to do better in the future. It is worth acknowledging, they probably didn’t write over 4 pages of A4 to do it (front and back) – most of them were likely illiterate – but they paved the way for my Annual Review.

The looking-back-to-look-forward concept wasn’t exactly fresh then either. To the Ancient Romans, January was dedicated to Janus, a two-faced God, with one face looking back into the past, and the other, ahead, into the future. Janus was also a God whose spirit inhabited doorways and arches which also seems fitting and kind of lurky.

But resolutions go back further still, to when the beginning of the new year was in March. 4000 years ago, in the same season they were sewing their seeds, Ancient Babylonians made promises to their Gods; ones they would keep, hoping to gain the Gods’ favour. Following suit, most resolutions throughout history have been spiritual or religious in some way, hoping to impress the dieties and earn their blessings. It’s only in recent years we’ve started to make resolutions as promises to ourselves.

“I’ve never had much luck with New Year’s resolutions. Last year I only lasted three days before realizing I couldn’t survive without junk food. And the year before that, when my sister and I promised not to argue anymore, we didn’t even make it to the end of my dad’s New Year’s Eve party. I’ll spare you the gory details, but fruit punch and guacamole were involved. So was dry cleaning.”

James Ponti, Blue Moon

I was brought up by atheists but some of this historical resolving must have been embedded in me as I annually made out my dissertation length list of all the ways I could improve myself. I have to confess that on occasion, I’d ‘forget’ to do the Annual Review at the start of January. In my defence it did take a long time and sometimes I was busy doing other things… like having a life. When I delayed, I’d get disappointed with myself.

Yes, that’s right… I’d get disappointed I hadn’t set my New Year’s resolutions in a timely manner. I hadn’t even started working on them yet! I was already failing.

Failure is one reason I’m apprehensive about making resolutions that matter to me. ‘Wear more hats’ is the kind of throw away resolution I can claim to be behind but forget about it pretty quickly when it doesn’t come to fruition and I remember I do not have the hair for hats. But why then bother to resolve at all?

“The more specific you are about your resolution, the better your chance of sticking with it. Don’t just say, “I want to lose weight.” Say, “When my arm jiggles, I want it to look less like a pelican’s throat-pouch choking down a bass.”

Colin Nissan

A few years ago, with a group of friends, we tried a different way to beat the system by playing the system. To boss resolutions, we set ourselves some SMART goals. SMART is an acronym for creating goals that are more likely to set you up for success. So we have to ask is the goal Specific? Measurable? Achievable? Relevant? Time-Bound?

So let’s use the example: Get better at improv.

It’s not specific because improv is a wide field. What kind of improv? What exercises, games, scenes or structures? What aspect of improv? Are we talking a particular skill within the practise of improvisation?

How can we measure when ‘getting better at improv’ has been achieved? This is particularly difficult with a subjective art form to know for sure. One of the most controversial performers we ever had at out community variety night divided the room. Some people loved it which was baffling to those that did not. Who is to say what is better? Who is to say what is worse?

Is it even achievable to get better at improv? Well, partaking in courses, classes, practice and rehearsals would suggest that it is. Often it is very obvious the acts that rehearse and those that don’t. But it’s not easy to achieve a constant quality. Impossible even. Over time our ‘bad’ improv becomes better so we are more likely to produce a decent improv but still these things fluctuate. Sometimes you’re riding high at the top of your game. Sometimes you’re blocking like you’re playing Minecraft. Sometimes you’re forgetting the name you just a second ago called your scene partner. Sometimes you’re cracking a line out that gets the biggest laugh of the night.

How relevant even is it to be striving to get better at improv? Now that’s an interesting question. Does it matter if you’re not getting better? Are you having fun? If you’re having fun and practicing , you’re giving yourself a good chance of getting better.

When do you need to get better by? Next year? Next month? Next show?

So to get smart about it, you want to try to hit the SMART criteria. So instead of ‘get better at improv’, you might want to try: ‘use three new edits successfully by March’, for example. It’s specific, measurable, achievable, relevant and time-bound. You’ll either nail it or you won’t.

My friends and I all felt quite smug about our SMART resolutions. Until it dawned on us we’d actually have to work on them. If we didn’t, there would be nowhere to hide. A couple of our friends didn’t quite nail the time-bound bit so are still publicly rolling over their SMART resolutions now. It reminds me of in Galaxy Quest where the characters fly through a magnetic minefield and the spaceship comes out trailing mines. When we trail resolutions, that’s going to take some explosive chunks out of our self-worth.

I trailed ‘lose weight’ on my list of resolutions for years. It didn’t matter what I weighed during any given year, society said I must be always striving to lose more. Talk about way to crush your self-esteem.

I suppose it’s remembering that process, and the ways I’d fail at it, which, in part, makes me uncomfortable with setting resolutions now. Even when I do succeed at sticking to something, I feel like surely that can’t be a win. Could it ever be that easy? My work here can’t be done already? Where’s my list?

But my list is gone. And now I’m trying a new thing. It’s called: I am enough.

“You’ve been criticizing yourself for years and it hasn’t worked. Try approving of yourself and see what happens.”

Louise Hay

Striving to do better is exhausting when we’re working from a deficit. I made long lists of ways I didn’t feel enough, thinking if I could only achieve these things I’d finally be deserving, worthy, enough.

I now know I can be enough without satisfying a list of shortcomings. So if your New Year’s Resolution is going, or has gone, array, know that you are not out for the count. This was one goal. There will be others. And if this is something you still really want to make happen. Pick it up again now. And do so knowing that whether you succeed or not, you will be enough for yourself.

Oh yeah it’s much easier said than done. For sure. Feeling enough for yourself is, for many of us, a struggle in itself, but one that could get you off the hamster wheel of self-improvement.

Resolve, goal, strive, struggle, slip, fail, feel unworthy, experience shame, sulk, despair, rally, resolve, goal, strive…

Enough! I am enough.

For me, I feel New Year’s Resolutions don’t work. A bright public spotlight gets shone on performance; the pressure is on. Too much of my worth can get attached to an outcome. It makes me want to go for very easy wins or things I don’t really care about. Thus paving the way for: wear more hats.

The way our society is set up is geared towards the capitalist myth of constant progress. And I can’t help but feel resolutions have got caught up in that. Constant progress is in need of constant striving. However, these constants are not present in nature. They are human constructs created to prop up a failing system. So being a forever-apprentice is to the benefit of the system. But not to you.

This is one of the things I love about improv. It feels like rebellion. It defies the nonsense society is peddling. It scoffs in the face of legacies, of permenance, of constant progress. What would improv think about New Year’s resolutions? Would it wave a middle finger in the face of them and run onto the stage as a gibbering iguna? Probably.

What would the improv Gods like to hear you promise? What do they want from you? More improv? Or maybe to just do what brings you joy in the moment. Follow your fun. That might not even be improv as it looks on a stage. Embrace the Hell Yeses! Hug them in. ‘Yes, And’ the things that bring you excitment, adventure, love and delight this year.

And if it all goes to Hell in a hand cart again, just improvise.


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