How to Improve

Course: Improv - Foundation Level

Institution: BATS

Instructor: Chris Sams

I circled the block a few times. Where was this God-forsaken building? Nothing on the website indicated how complicated it would be to find the entrance. I headed back down the block and a fella was stretching his neck in a similar manner. He saw me walking towards him and asked if I was looking for Improv. Yes, I said. Yes, I am.

We were the last two to arrive. I immediately spotted a woman who was taking a writing class with me. “Oh, you’re on a self-improvement kick, too!” she cried out in front of the semi-circle of students. I brushed her comments off with a waive and thought, “Yes and it really helps for you to yell that in front of everybody.” Slightly embarrassed, and any semblance of cool shot to hell, I took a seat.

The group in total was fourteen strong. It was a pretty even mix of men and women from all walks of life. When we introduced ourselves I learned that most were there to get over performance anxiety or learn to think on their feet better. I was there, as always, to learn something about myself.

To start we did something I had feared about taking an improv class - throwing an imaginary ball. No one looks good throwing an imaginary ball. To my relief, however, we used an actual ball. I thought I was in the clear until the instructor decided to mix it up by introducing "sound ball."

This time we had to make noises as we threw the ball to each other. I found it pure torture. Yet, others, seemed to thoroughly enjoy making the most idiotic noises they could muster to another stranger.

I realized then this class was going to require something much more from me - I was going to have to let my guard down.

Mind you, I know how to get down. I am the same woman who regularly dances in my socks in my sister's dining room for the amusement of my little nephew. But this was something altogether different.

The next exercise hinted at the source of my problem and a way out. Our instructor had everyone walk around the room, go up to each other and yell, “I failed,” and then throw up our arms in exultation. Or, “I totally messed that up” and do a victory dance. The idea is to celebrate that you took a risk.

It instantly relaxed me. I had never allowed myself to say those words with joy and it definitely changed how I began to feel about the class. This was a safe place to fail. There are so few of those they are hard to recognize - even when you’re in one.

I’d like to say that after this exercise I jumped in wholeheartedly, but I can’t. I can take risks in business, but I’ve always found that taking risks with people is a lot more difficult. I can say that I waded in further.

Over the next six weeks we were introduced to many improv principles, like “Yes, and.” This is a way to build on the ideas of others as opposed to shutting them down or in the parlance of improv, “blocking” them, with the dreaded “Yes, but.”

Many of the principles were, of course, good life habits, like “make your partner look good,” “accept your own ideas,” “listen,” “make eye contact,” and “start positive.”

But I took the most away from the various games and exercises he had us do.

One of the last ones we did is called the status game. Everyone selects a card from a deck of playing cards. You don’t look at it but place it on your forehead for others to see. He told us that the higher the card number, the higher status the individual. Then he had us mingle, pretending we were at a party. Afterwards he asked us to line up according to what we thought our status was before revealing the number to ourselves.

Walking around, I thought I was lower status because of how people interacted with me. Turns out I was higher than I realized and the people who gave me quick glances and then looked away, were more often than not, those who thought they were lower status, even if their card number was high.

Many times when I’ve been at a party I’ve tried to connect with a stranger and been completely rebuffed. I had always assumed it was because the other person thought I was not worth their time or that I was lower status. What the game taught me is that people act according to what they think of themselves.

And that's when it hit me. What matters at the end of the day is what I think of myself, and if I'm not judging myself it makes it a lot easier to take risks with people. Being yourself, it turns out, never fails.

Shvitzing with Zuckerberg

I read yesterday the increasingly silly headlines about Facebook founder Marc Zuckerberg’s recent talk at D8: “Zuckerberg sweats privacy criticism”; “Great Perspirations,” etc. Apparently, Mr. Zuckerberg had a melt-down of sorts and respected news organizations and bloggers alike couldn’t seem to get enough.

I suppose our general discomfort with sweating harkens back to the days of Nixon or “Tricky Dick.” The cruelty of some of the Zuckerberg coverage and Nixon’s presidential antics aside, I was surprised to see how many people equated sweating with a lack of integrity on Mr. Zuckerberg’s part. I don’t know him personally nor did I pay much attention to his talk, but I did feel for him. You see, I am a sweater. And not the fuzzy kind.

In fact, I felt Mr. Zuckerberg’s pain today at the post office when trying to mail a box internationally. I bought the box there and the woman who sold it to me didn’t happen to mention that I couldn’t actually send the purchased box internationally. So I get to the front of a line with a big box that everyone in the long line has been eying and commenting on – “You sure you can lift that?” - only to be told that I will have to unpack it and put it into two smaller boxes.

“You. Go over there and do it. You come back to front of line when done,” the postal attendant barked at me and suddenly, beads of sweat sprang forward on my face. I tried to focus on his instructions while collecting my things and retreated to a corner to start unpacking clothes from my box. I was sweating uncontrollably. My brain was completely overwhelmed with all sorts of silent messages – the loudest being, “You look like an idiot.”

I wasn’t trying to ship a bomb and I wasn’t lying to the postal attendant. There was absolutely no nefarious cause of my sweating – other than this – I, like Mr. Zuckerberg, am a human being. I don’t know what the potential cause was of his public shvitzing, but I do have a theory.

As for me today, it was simple, I was tired, feeling vulnerable about other things going in my life and I was judging the hell out of myself. This I know after years of trying to staunch a tide.

You see, I always sweat when working out or doing anything physical – heavily. I have since puberty. At gyms it’s not an unusual sight. If anything, it gives folks the impression that I am working harder than I actually am. People will even come up to me at the gym and say, “Wow, man, what are you training for?”

“Life,” I say. “Life.”

So I never really minded that my glands were easily juiced up, as it were. That is until I turned 30 and seemingly out of nowhere, I suddenly began to sweat at the drop of a hat: a glance by a good-looking guy, singing a song in front of friends, even checking out at the grocery store.

At first, I chalked it up to lingering shyness from my childhood, but the sweating just seemed to get worse and worse. If it was warm and a legitimate sweat was necessary to cool myself down, my mind went into “Uh-oh” and then I started sweating in earnest. And of course, worrying about sweating only lead to more sweating. I’m not talking a glisten mind you, or even a pretty perspiration, I’m talking big beads of secretion rolling down my face. Yep, I don’t just get rings under my arms or a moist waist band, I sweat on my face. The water bombs explode like a declaration of war on myself. The first water shells form on my upper lip, then in a hurry to join the waterfall that is my face, their fellow sweat grenades come rolling down my forehead from their hiding spots in my hairline. No matter the temperature of the room or me.

I used to make all manner of excuses, both to myself and others. I started wearing super light clothes (even in 40°F weather) and carrying paper towels with me everywhere. I learned the hard way that tissue paper used to blot a sweaty face leaves bits of itself behind and made me look like I cut myself shaving. I also mastered quick escapes. “Oh, excuse me,” I would say when I felt the dark heat coming, “I have to get this call” – even when I had left my cell phone at home.

Sometimes I could feel the sweat coming and other times it hit me with such force out of the blue that I was reduced to tears. When I couldn’t run from a conversation or was stuck as the center of attention, I would do anything to deflect, while I struggled mightily in my mind. “Shit. I’m going to sweat. Please let me go. Please don’t let this happen. Please don’t see me.”

Finally, it got so bad that I didn’t even want to leave my apartment. I stopped going out socially and the only place I felt comfortable was in the gym. My resulting ripped abs aside, I was miserable. I eventually decided to seek medical help.

I first confided in my dermatologist, sweating while telling him about my sweating problem. He said I had hyperhidrosis and suggested I use a super strong anti-perspirant called Certain Dri. I was too embarrassed to ask if I could use it on my face. Besides, I was convinced I had a brain tumor of some sort and made an appointment with a general physician.

The doctor took all of 60 seconds with me and said, “It’s anxiety.” Then he wrote me a prescription for beta blockers. I thought, no way, this can’t just be a simple issue of worrying too much. I thought that surely I must be dying. Before I could ask any questions or communicate my fear, he had left the room and the paper gown was plastered to my chest.

I hate taking drugs – of any kind. Even aspirin is pushing it for me so I was loathe to try the beta blockers. I did, however, try one before a big event I had committed to attend. What the doctor failed to realize is that I already have a really low heart rate and the beta blocker made me feel like I was walking underwater. I could barely move with it in my system and the truly horrible part was that it didn’t help. I still sweated.

Then I decided that if western medicine couldn’t help me I would have to seek help from the east. I signed up for acupuncture. I went to a pretty well-regarded acupuncturist in Palo Alto. When I explained my problem, he said not to worry, “I treat runway models and horses.” His actual words. Perhaps because I was neither one of those things, the acupuncture didn’t work.

At a complete and utter loss of what to do next, I googled the terms “excessive sweating.” I happened upon a neuroscience program at Stanford that dealt with chronic, excessive sweating. I thought to myself, “Yes! This is it. I have a neurological problem.”

I called up the center and a woman answered the phone. I asked her how I could be seen at the clinic. She said that first I would have to be evaluated to see if I qualified as they took only the very serious cases. I knew I had to be one and I plunged into my tale of woe. She listened carefully and then took a long pause.

“So,” she said, “It sounds like you can control it.”

Her statement hit me hard and something went off in the back of my brain. “Huh?” I replied.

“You don’t sound like you qualify for this program,” she said and hung up.

I was stunned but it made me realize that this truly was a head problem. Her words were like a proclamation from heaven: an expert told me I could control it. The next question was how?

I was in denial for a long time. Like I’ve said before – your body knows before your mind does. At the age of 30, my body had things to say and luckily for me, it chose a time when it felt safe to start shouting, but I was trying to treat the symptom without first understanding the cause. I finally had to admit this wasn’t shyness. This was full-blown anxiety.

I went to see a cognitive behavioral therapist and he changed my life. He showed me how my body was telling me that I needed to pay attention to what was happening in my brain, that Anxiety is not a scarlet letter, and how a traumatic childhood coupled with some genetic sensitivities was likely responsible.

He taught me that along the way seeds of problematic thought or automatic negative thoughts were planted in my brain. It doesn’t have to be a result of abuse or trauma, however. These thoughts, beliefs, feelings can be triggered by a whole host of events, things, and people. The problem lies really not in how they got there, but what you do with them. Cognitive behavior therapy teaches people how to reroute neurological pathways and see things more as they are as opposed to how we think they are.

As a result, I’ve learned how to protect my brain. I no longer watch Law and Order or the local news; I surround myself as much as possible with supportive friends; and every day, I actively work to counter-act my negative thoughts with positive ones.

The first step is to notice you are having them – this is called mindfulness – noticing that a thought goes through your brain, acknowledging a feeling you may be having but not jumping on the roller coaster. The next step to managing anxiety is knocking the negative thoughts down immediately with positive thoughts or put another way, learning compassion for yourself and others. It’s important to be incredibly vigilant.

At first, I was so tired and discouraged. Why did I have to work at this when “normal” people seemed not to have this problem? Over time, I realized that learning anything new requires hard work and practice. Like riding a bike, once you learn new ways of thinking, you can do it without, well, even thinking about it.

By all this, I am not saying that Mr. Zuckerberg suffers from anxiety, just that I know from which well this all may spring. And if integrity is defined by some assessments of Mr. Zuckerberg’s sweating as related to the congruence of feelings with thoughts and actions, then they may be on to something. The reality is that what we are feeling and thinking are often not aligned with what we are actually doing. A lot of times we simply work through this disconnect to get things done. The problem is when the disconnect is not acknowledged - when we're not mindful. For example, try asking someone you’re interviewing if they’re comfortable. The reality is that they are not, but they almost always say they are - which in fact, often leads to their discomfort. I suspect this is where sweaty hands come from and perhaps what led to Mr. Zuckerberg’s outbreak.

That’s at least how this gal sees it. Then again, he just may be coming down with the flu.