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A few years ago, Northwestern University alumnus Stephen Colbert spoke to our graduating seniors about improvisation. He said one of the first rules is that “you are not the most important person in the scene. Everyone else is.” He explained that your job is to pay attention and serve the other people in the scene.

He added that there is good news: “You’re in the scene, too, so hopefully to them you are the most important person and they will serve you.” In other words, if everyone is doing their job, each is focusing on serving the other.

Out of that thought came one of the more unusual and highly popular courses available to Northwestern’s engineering students: Engineering Improv. And I became one of its unlikely teachers.

For the past 23 years, a big part of my work at Northwestern has been helping struggling engineering students think and act productively when facing moments of intense uncertainty. It’s hard to imagine a cohort of young people more focused on getting things exactly right than engineering students. So when things seem to be going wrong, or success is not certain, it can knock them off track and make some of them feel as if they are losing -- especially those who arrived at college never having tested the limits of their abilities.

My challenge is helping them turn obstacles into opportunities. It seemed to me that an art form designed to help a person focus on the needs of others might be just the thing.

So I hired someone with a background in improv instruction to help me develop a curriculum to get us started and let the adventure begin.

If you’re unfamiliar with the principles of improv, they include “Just say yes,” “Start anywhere” and “Embrace your mistakes.” As it happens, these are also essential skills for the effective problem solving and design innovation that is central to the study of engineering.

All successful improvisation -- and effective engineering -- begins and ends with paying attention. I tell students to think of their attention as a flashlight. It creates a beam of light, and whatever that light illuminates represents their awareness. In addition, wherever they shine that light represents their intention. For many students, the flashlight is constantly being jerked back and forth by deadlines, crises or failed expectations, leaving them feeling ungrounded and exhausted much of the time.

Early in the course, we introduce the idea of the flashlight, telling the students that when they realize they are the one holding it, they will come to understand that they also hold the power to be intentional. By deciding where to direct the light, they can choose to illuminate things that feed their energy rather than consume it with thoughts that haunt or distract.

I ask my students if they have ever wondered why we use the verb “pay” in reference to attention. The act of attending is a transaction, in which the currency is energy and the product is awareness. For example, when I walk around my house and shine my attention on all the unfinished projects and broken appliances, I feel a burden in terms of time and resources: “It just isn’t right -- when will it be right?” If, in contrast, I can redirect my attention from a desire to have everything be right to simply saying, “Yes, it’s a mess” and just getting started, I become open to opportunities to practice creative problem solving. And it’s that kind of creative problem solving they need to learn to embrace as engineers.

Just saying yes is more difficult than it sounds. Engineering Improv students learn the difference between figuring it out and letting it out. Improv isn’t about winging it. It actually requires enormous structure, as participants commit to a character and to a common set of assumptions and boundaries before committing to each other as they enter a scene. Agreeing on the context of the scene allows the players the freedom to let the content emerge through connection, which is the true joy of improv and an extraordinary thing to witness. The same thing happens in engineering, but the context is the problem, the commitment is to the team and the process of user-centered problem solving, and the content that’s allowed to emerge consists of the users’ underlying needs and interests -- which leads to a user-centered solution.

One evening in class, the students were engaged in a group scene exercise that began with one student starting an action and another joining that action with the intention to be helpful. I observed one of the students gently shoving a teammate into the scene while saying, “I got it. You start and I will come in.” Imagine how hard it must be for a perfectionist to trust that a scene will organically develop and work. And imagine the group discussion that follows. Why is it so hard for us to avoid the need to always be right? What gets in our way? Think about the continuous stream of judgments and feelings flooding each moment: “You better not blow this.” “Don’t embarrass yourself.” “Think of something funny.”

When the students recognize that they are having an unhelpful thought or feeling, they can redirect the flashlight of their attention to what is happening outside their own head, allowing them to notice what is being offered so they can say yes without piling on more judgments and expectations. Improvising is responding with generosity and expressing optimism, while giving the benefit of the doubt to yourself and your team.

That is an important lesson that translates directly into a highly challenging curriculum like engineering. Having self-critical thoughts or doubts is human. The students come to understand that those thoughts are not necessarily accurate and thus don’t need to be resolved or even pursued. That allows them to be pragmatic with their intentions as they choose how best to invest their energy through their attention.

A student who took the class last year recently told me that the Engineering Improv is the only course he has taken that has changed how he lives his life. This past quarter, the overall course rating was six out of six among the students who completed the evaluation. Some sample student comments:

  • “This course challenged me to throw all my preconceived notions on what it means to be an engineer and student at Northwestern out the door. When we entered the room, we entered a judgment-free zone where everyone had a clean slate. The course challenged us to reconstruct ourselves by focusing our intentional attention on the present moment. After I left the classroom, I was able to use my new control over my focus throughout my life and in other classes.”
  • As an engineer, we rarely have the opportunity to think critically or question our own convictions, but this class forced me to begin to pay attention to my surroundings and behavior and the behavior of others.”
  • “Improv walked a beautiful line between the creative expression of theater and the purposeful, collaborative involvement of engineering. I think every engineer should learn to ‘share the stage’ by taking this class.”

It may not seem as if there is a big difference between the intention to succeed and the intention not to fail, but when considered through the flashlight analogy, those two intentions produce very different outcomes in the form of awareness. If your intention is to not fail, you focus your flashlight on what failure looks like, what threatens your success, how you have failed in the past and the consequences of failing now. Shining your light on such things produces an awareness of fear, rumination and threat, which is unproductive when you are seeking to say yes and achieve your best performance. Setting the intention to succeed in the form of curiosity, excitement and connection allows you to shine your flashlight on opportunities to learn and find common purpose and authentic connection as you work with others to find a mutually beneficial solution.

Setting one’s sights on success doesn’t eliminate potential threats or risks, but it does trigger a fundamental shift from reacting defensively to responding proactively with optimism. For the students in Engineering Improv, applying these principles to their work as engineers helps them worry less about getting it right and encourages them to just get started. It helps them realize that making mistakes isn’t losing but learning. And it can be the best part of the scene.

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