class

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.

The Landmark Forum

Course: The Forum

Institution: Landmark Education

Instructor: David Cunningham

Location: San Francisco

A Harvard MBA grad introduced me to Landmark in 2007. She wasn’t trying to recruit me but mentioned the name Landmark offhandedly during a conversation at dinner. At the time, I didn’t ask her what it was or what it meant. But I was curious enough that when I went home I googled the term “Landmark San Francisco” and discovered its program, The Forum. I also discovered that it is a fairly controversial one.

In essence, The Forum is an updated version of Werner Erhard’s Est – the group awareness program from the high flying 70s. Est borrowed heavily from Zen Buddhism and many of its principles are said to have been picked up by the founders of Landmark. The Forum itself is basically an intense weekend in a basement full of about 50 strangers.

There are many stories about how Landmark is a cult, how they push marketing too much, they verbally abuse participants, etc. You can read one take here (btw - what's with everyone needing snacks everywhere they go? That's for another post, I suppose). I wasn’t worried about being brainwashed so much as I was concerned about missing my daily runs, but given I’m open to learning (as you all well know) I signed myself up.

Day One

The first day was a Friday and because I had returned from traveling to the east coast for work the night before, I found the main struggle of the day was just to stay awake. Not to mention how difficult it was to sit for such long periods of time. There are scheduled breaks and yes, contrary to reports, you can go to the bathroom, but it’s still more sitting than I was used to.

I thought going into it, after reading all the terrible reviews, that I would not be receptive or at least, highly combatant. Surprisingly, I was not. Because what I heard were a lot of concepts and philosophies that frankly, I had heard before.

The class is about adopting a new language with which to structure your life. The Landmark Forum premise is that the language we use, affects what we think and hence how we behave.

This is not new. There is a whole research movement dedicated to how linguistics affects cognition, perception and memory. “Linguistic relativity” or “explanatory style” are different names for the same thesis: your thoughts create your reality.

The funny thing is that while you’re learning how language can trip you up, Landmark is teaching you a new vocabulary. Like “rackets.” This is the innocent front you put on to hide criminality in the back or said another way, the lies we tell ourselves. Rackets are defined as persistent complaints plus a fixed way of being. Rackets, like other persistent behavior, have a payoff - that's why we keep them up.

The day was mainly spent learning Landmark speak and illustrating the central idea: there is what happens and then there is the “story” we attach to what happened. We humans do it so much and so quickly it’s hard to recognize when we’re doing it. When you judge people, you are creating stories on the fly. Even when you see say a wrinkled forehead, you are assigning a meaning or creating a story behind that wrinkle. The story might be negative (usually) or it might be positive (still limiting), the thing to notice is that it’s a story. If you know when you’re creating stories and learn to give them up you can, in the Landmark parlance, “create a new possibility for yourself.” How? That was for day two.

At the end of day one, I was proud that I didn't storm out or argue with the teacher. I did, however, nod off a few times.

Day Two

Day two was more of a roller-coaster. The morning started with a bit of the hard sell. The program leader reiterated the importance of getting our friends and family to sign up for Landmark. It definitely turned me off. It was also hard not to notice all the subtle things that were done to make the program "work." Like the heavy use of the Socratic method. Most people aren't used to it and it can be very intimidating. It was used in law school and I hated it. This technique, however, can make it easier to guide someone to your point. I wondered sometimes what the class "conversations" would be like without it.

This day was full of sharing by participants. One gal in class got up and shared how her ex-boyfriend cheated on her repeatedly and they broke up and she was very upset. The teacher asked her several questions which led to the fact that she willingly entered a relationship she didn't respect. The leader asked how could she be disappointed with the outcome given how she went into it? I have to say that one was an eye-opener. The teacher and program were pretty ruthless in terms of getting folks to assume some personal responsibility. It also illustrated the point that you can cause a relationship that you want to be in. But only if you take responsibility for the ones you have been in; you are honest with yourself about why you’ve chosen someone. Playing the innocent victim, as the class gal was doing, it seems, is just another racket.

We also talked about the "Genesis of Identity." How because of certain events in our lives at certain ages we created core strengths (like being independent or a people-pleaser) to combat three thoughts: I'm not enough/something's wrong with me; I don't belong; and I'm on my own. The traits we developed in response to these thoughts are called our “strong-suits.”

While I struggled with this at first I came to realize my whole identity is based on not feeling good enough/thinking something is wrong with me. Is it any wonder that I’m such an over-achiever?

Day Three
Day three was about reinforcing the entire message. “Transformation,” as they call it, happens when you understand the role you play in your life.

We took another look at our strong suits and reevaluated them. The point of understanding these is to understand that you are not limited to your strong suits, your emotions, your decisions or your attitudes. That anything is possible for you when you take responsibility for your stories (which these strong suits are based on). When anything is possible, the only question is who do I choose to be?

In the end, who I choose to be is only truly up to me when I’ve set the stories aside and taken responsibility for myself and my actions. I learned I have the power to do that. Well, at least now, the vocabulary.

Big Disclaimer: I am in no way advocating that you should attend any of Landmark’s programs or that you shouldn’t. While I’m open to learning about myself I do have a pretty sensitive bullshit meter which is to say I like to think I wouldn’t have drank the Jonestown kool-aid. Ultimately though, you have to do what feels right to you.

I should add that Landmark is one way to hear a message that many other organizations, authors espouse, like Oprah, Eckhart Tolle, etc. Below is a diagram from MotherJones.com, that while snarky, illustrates my point.

Alicia Morga The Landmark Forum