An Improvisational Approach To Job Seeking

My ten years of experience in improv has taught me that we all can do things that on the surface may seem impossible.   Collaboratively improvising scenes and entire performances out of nothing seems like it should be impossible. How on earth can you come up with characters, contexts, relationships and on top of everything else, be funny? It shouldn’t work. Except that it does.  *Almost* every time!  and even when it doesn’t work, there is something to be learned (but more on that later).  So why does it work more times than not? Well, the simple answer is that all you have to do is yes-and. In improv this means coming up with the next turn at talk.   So too with networking (and ultimately job searching); all you really need to do is think about the next step.

E.L. Doctorow famously compared writing to driving at night in fog. There are many ways that job searching is the same.


So, if job seeking is basically a series of conversations in which all you can do is think about your next contribution….

Let stories be your “yes-and”
I suggest stories as your guides through this darkness and fog. If you are at a job fair and there is a lull in the conversation, find a story of your own to dust off and trot out. If the interaction is not going well, or is becoming too focused on you, pay attention for an opportunity to elicit a story from your interlocutor: “that seems really important to you, can you tell me more about why?” Wherever you are in the process, I suggest that paying some attention to stories will take you to the next step.

Some other rules of improv that I see as being applicable for job seekers:

One important lesson cultivated from the practice of improv is a reminder to listen to our curiosity. If something speaks to you, see whether you might try it out just to see what happens without fear and judgment. The next step is then to ask yourself…..

“if that, then what?”
So at a networking event, you might be thinking: “hmm, I might be interested in crisis communications, but I’m not sure”.  An “if that, then what?” approach might be to go up to that table and start talking to that person as if you were sure that this was something that you were passionate about and something that you knew that you wanted to pursue. So if it were true that I knew I had a passion for crisis communications, how would I talk about my background in linguistics? “yes, and I think that my skills and training XYZ are a unique fit for your organizations needs ABC….” As you are doing so, how does it resonate? Does it feel like you have found a passion for this idea? How so? How might you follow that…if that, then what?

In her book You Majorerd in What? Katharine Brooks talks about this in terms of “what would you do if you knew you couldn’t fail?”

As children we embrace this practice of curiosity, but as adults we learn that to be openly curious in this way is at the very least embarrassing, and at worst a dangerous way to approach important decisions, especially in the professional realm. However, I see this realm as one of the most important places to adopt such an inquisitive stance. If we do not try different things and allow for the time and space to be deeply curious (and indeed make some mistakes) how can we possibly learn?

Have the courage to follow ideas where they may lead.

There are no bad ideas
Honor the suggestions that your receive (whatever the source). You won’t possibly be able to actively pursue all of them, but can take them in and consider what they might mean. Trying to figure out “what do you want to do with your life?” is a sort of listening for your calling, a kind of listening, that requires a great deal of input and the assistance of many ears.

Pay special attention to listening when people who are close to you tell you what you should be doing with your life and gauge your own reaction to their suggestions. Do the things that they see as your gifts and strengths and weaknesses resonate? Or the converse? When I was first seriously thinking about graduate school in Linguistics, I was told by a professor (who shall remain nameless) that ours is a dying field, one which held no future for me or for anyone else. When I heard this, I knew that this person’s perception did not resonate for me. I did not know what exactly the future would look like for me or for linguistics (no one can), but I knew that I had passion and energy for it, and that I was willing to give it a go, to see where it might take me. What was supposed to have been a discouraging speech actually motivated me. And so far I have found energy for this for the past 15 years and counting.

Of course, this is not meant to say that you should never pay attention to advice from your elders, what I am asking you to do is listen more to yourself and your reactions to other people. When others whom you trust give you input, how does it resonate with you?   This is after all your life, you are the one who is going to live it, so you get to decide!

The world is your laboratory
Test things out! Your task is simply to be present to the opportunities and decisions in front of you. Try something. Katharine Brooks calls this “experiemental wandering.” As you are exploring, allow yourself to try things that you may not have tried before, have conversations with people you might not otherwise – maybe because you thought it would never be possible that you could manage to get that dream connection to that dream organization. Until suddenly you do! And so “if that then what?” One thing that I have learned after six years of working with job seekers is that even those who say that they don’t really know what they want to do after graduation can tell me what their dream job is. Have the courage to really look at that, explore what is behind it. See if there is an answer in the pieces.   How can you start moving towards that dream?

I simply adore the process of jobsearching advocated in “The Unplanned Career,” by Kathleen Mitchell, whose book shows us how one need not have a plan to begin! Get out there and begin exploring. Pick something and test it out. See where that leads you – what do you learn from that experience?

If you are able to get a temp job or an internship, so much the better! These experiences yield opportunities for learning how you respond to an environment, how you resonate to tasks, what it feels like to walk the walk of this job. You can think about it like an experiment, a laboratory. And now that you have become an ethnographer of your own stories around work, pay attention to the stories that you tell about this job. Ask your friends and family to be ethnographers of your own experience along with you.   What do you thrill to in the work? What makes you exhausted?   Why?

Do not fear mistakes – there are none
Steven Nachmanovitch’s Free Play has one of my favorite passages about mistakes

In school, in the workplace, in learning an art or sport, we are taught to fear, hide, or avoid mistakes. But mistakes are of incalculable value to us. There is first the value of mistakes as the raw material of learning. If we don’t make mistakes, we are unlikely to make anything at all. Tom Watson, for many years the head of IBM said “Good judgment comes from experience. Experience comes from bad judgment.” But more important, mistakes and accidents can be the irritating grains that become pearls; they present us with unforeseen opportunities, they are fresh sources of inspiration in and of themselves (88).

Often it is the fear of making a mistake or experiencing rejection that leads us not to try something, but there is almost nothing as informative or illuminating and thus valuable to us than are mistakes.  When we can reframe mistakes (or frustrations, or setbacks) as opportunities, we are more likely to do two things: learn what we can from them and move forward. Essential activities to any job search.

An improvisational approach to job searching ultimately asks you to show up and pay attention! Attend to the patterns in the choices you have already made.  Pay attention to your audience, your community – engage them in helping you as well. And most of all, listen for stories –  they are your YES-AND!!

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