Table of Contents
How good are you in improvisation? Believe it or not, this is also one of the soft skills every freelancer, entrepreneur and person must have. It is this skill that allows us to always find a way around any obstacle. In this article, you will find seven tips to get better at improvisation. You will also learn how you can apply this skill on various life situations. In the end, you will also learn what WWMD means and who the hell is MacGyver. So, without further ado, let’s begin.
All parts of the 7 Soft Skills Every Freelance Web Designer Must Have series:
7 Soft Skills Every Freelance Web Designer Must Have Pt7-Improvisation
Soft Skill No.7: Improvisation
The last of the seven soft skills we are going to talk about is improvisation. Along with critical thinking, the ability of improvisation is often overlooked by freelancers and even entrepreneurs. This is unfortunate because freelancers and entrepreneurs are the people who need this skill the most. I would even say that if freelancer or entrepreneur is not able to improvise he will not be able to stay in the business world for long. No matter how hard he or she will try, the odds that he will not survive are quite high. Why?
Soft Skills and Survival
Let’s suppose you are a freelance web designer. Now, take a minute and imagine following scenario. You are in the half of the month and, out of nowhere, your only clients just terminated the contract. Whereas it was your only client, you now have another two problems to solve. First, if you will not, somehow, make enough money, you will not be able to pay the rent. In other words, you might end up on the street. Second, you also don’t have enough money to cover your basic needs. In other words, you might end up with nothing to eat.
Sure, this is one of the edgy cases. However, that doesn’t mean it can’t happen. You, as a freelance or entrepreneur, should be prepared for situation such as this one. So, my question is following: “What will you do?” There are couple available options. First, you can ask your family or friend to lend you some money. Although this option is doable, I don’t recommend it. Living on debt is not fun at all. What’s more, this debt can have an impact on the relationship with the person you are borrowing money from. It can create tension and discomfort.
Another thing you should think about is … What if you will not make enough money next month to pay both, rent and the loan? Now, you will have to ask your friend or family member to extend the time to pay your loan. Can this have some effect on your friendship? In many situations, it will and you will not like this effect. The worst thing is that even when you pay back the loan, it is quite possible that the “aftertaste” persists. Meaning, your friendship will never be the same again.
The Second Option
Now imagine different scenario. In this one, you will reject the option of borrowing money from friend or family right on the spot. It is just like with starting a new business venture. You are not interested in living or doing business in the expense of someone else. Meaning, you are a hard-core bootstrapper. Instead, you will immediately choose your second option. You will assess your skills and pitch your services to couple business and contacts in your social network. You might get one bigger gig that will earn you enough or you might get couple smaller ones.
With one or couple smaller jobs in hand, you will not waste your time. You will immediately start working. After couple days of work, you will get the job done, hand it over to your client(s) and get paid. Next, you pay the rent, buy some food and start looking for new clients.
Business as Usual
The previous scenario doesn’t happen only to freelancers. Something similar can happen to entrepreneurs and businessmen as well. In a fact, I would venture to say that something like we simulated is more likely to happen if you are an entrepreneur. In that case, there is much higher amount of important things that can go wrong and can figuratively start a fire. For example, you may not get what you need from your supplier, your customer may not pay you on time, one of your factory machines can break, bank may increase interest on your loan.
Another thing that can happen is that someone will rob your store or there might be a fire that destroys your inventory. Weather is another factor that can create couple moments of discomfort. Please, don’t get me wrong. Although it may look like it, my intent is not scare you. If you are thinking about starting your own business, don’t get discouraged by what I just said. Just take it into account and prepare for it. Although, if the previous paragraph was enough to make you reconsider your decision, entrepreneurship may not be the right thing for you.
Anyway, back to the soft skills and improvisation. It is at this time, when every entrepreneur and businessmen has to stretch his skill to improvise. Many people in business call this skill resourcefulness. You probably already encountered this word in the past, or at least heard about it. In case of any confusion, resourcefulness and improvisation is the same thing. You have to take the resources available at the moment and use them in the best and most efficient way.
The Case of Immigrants
Have you ever heard about the theory that immigrants are often one of the best adepts for entrepreneurs? One of the reasons they are often so successful in their business ventures is that they score very high on the scale of resourcefulness or skill of improvisation. If you think about it, it is logical. These people often leave their countries with almost nothing. When they arrive into their new homeland, they have to start completely from scratch. They often don’t have any friends or family to reach to for help. They are on their own. They will either learn to swim or drown.
Now, I don’t want to suggest that you pack your backpack and leave your country to experience these conditions. I just want to show you how important the skill of improvisation can be in your life and why you should keep it on your mind while working on your soft skills.
Improvisation in a Daily Life
Until now, we discussed improvisation only in terms of freelancing and business (although I consider these two terms to be the same, some people like to distinguish between, so be it). What if you are a web designer, developer or just anyone who is working as an employee? Or, what if you are still in school? Will improvisation have in benefits also for you? My answer is one big YES. My opinion is that improvisation can benefit everyone regardless of profession, age or gender.
Similar to other soft skills, such as critical thinking, you can use improvisation in virtually any part of your life. Let me give you one of the examples that can happen to any of us. Let’s imagine you invite couple friends or your girlfriend or boyfriend on dinner to your home. Unfortunately, just as you start preparing the food, you find out that you don’t have certain ingredient. You have about forty minutes before your guest(s) arrive. So, what can you do? Now, it is your chance to test your ability to improvise. What are the options you can choose from?
First option is to call the guest(s) and cancel the dinner. However, if integrity is important for you (as it should), this is not an option. Or, it is the last one. Second option is to pick up the phone and order food from your favorite restaurant. This is easy, quick and you will have time to work on project for your client before both, the guest(s) and food, arrives. The downside is that it will be cheating, and probably more expensive. Why cheating? When you invite someone on a dinner to your home, that person is likely to think that you are the one who will cook the food.
By the way, cooking the food doesn’t mean unpacking it and placing it on the plates. What’s more, cheating and integrity are mutually exclusive. Don’t cheat. This makes our second option also unacceptable. What’s the third option? Improvise! Go through all the food supplies you have at home and try to come up with some combination that will not send your guest to the hospital. In the worst case, you can always prepare vegetable salad with some cheese and melted butter (please use butter made from milk, not plant-based oils and other crap).
The upside? It is quite hard to crew up salad. So, even if you are one of those people who can “burn” a tea, salad is still quite safe choice. Also, you can always offer your guest a choice to either take the salad or go to the restaurant. Remember, the key is not to show have amazing you are at cooking. It is about training your ability to improvise. However, for the safety of other people, you may train some of your soft skills rather in solitude.
Soft Skills Academy for Improving Improvisation
After a shorter (or longer) intro, it is time for soft skills academy and some tips, tricks and pieces of advice to help you improve your skill or ability to improvise. Below, you will learn about methods such as “Yes and …” and “What if …”. You will also learn why cooking may be good not just for your health, but also for your career and work. You will also find out why it may be a good idea to create constraints for your code. In the end, we will also tackle routines, WWMD and creativity (again).
Yes and …
Let’s start with one interesting experiment. Have you ever heard about improvisational comedy or improv? Improv is basically just another word for improvisation. There is no script to play by. You have to simply react on what’s happening at the moment. Although it could be interesting to try improv in its complete form at work, let’s start on a smaller scale. This means using “Yes and …” method. This method is quite simple. Every time someone asks you on your opinion, instead of saying plain “yes”, you will say “yes, and” and then expand on what the person said.
This may be scare for many people. You basically can’t prepare any answer ahead. It pushes you to come up with something right on the spot in that very moment. Aside from improving your improvisation skill, this method will also make you think more about what was said. After all, instead of just agreeing with the claim or statement, you have to say something that supports it.
It might be interesting to use this method not just for development of your soft skills, but also for generating new ideas. Well, that is still in the range of improvisation. Anyway, what I’m suggesting is to use “Yes and …” method in conjunction with another tools such as brainstorming (just don’t rely on it for generating creative ideas). For example, when some of your colleagues comes up with an idea, you can use this improv method and take that idea further.
What if …
Second exercise to work on your soft skills and ability to improvise is trying various “what if” scenarios. And, in order to stretch your improvisation and creativity skills as far as you can, you should go with more extreme scenarios. For example, what if there was no gravity on the planet Earth? Or, what if there was an outbreak of epidemic and the worst sort of zombie movies would become a reality? Or, imagine that you were fired. To make things worse, imagine your house has been robbed. Or, what if the plane you were in crashed and you’ve ended up on a desert island? What would you do? This exercise will really stretch your skills for improvisation.
Based on the examples above, you may come to conclusion that either I am a pessimist or that everything that may happen has to be inherently bad or that “what if” works only with bad things. None of these assumptions is true. You can use positive events and create more less stressful scenarios. The only thing that matters is that the scenario you will create will motivate you to use your skill of improvisation. That is also why I gave you rather stressful examples.
Quick note. There is also a book with the same name by Randall Munroe. The full title of this book is What If?: Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions. In this book, Munroe uses computer simulations, stacks of declassified military research papers, differential equations, and help provided by nuclear reactor operators to explain the laws of science in an entertaining form.
Learn to Cook
No, this is not a joke. I really recommend that you learn to cook in order to improve your improvisation skill. We discussed cooking in the “Improvisation in a Daily Life” section to illustrate how you can apply improvisation on it. Now, I will suggest opposite approach – applying cooking on improvisation skill. In other words, using cooking as a way to train this skill. Why cooking? Well, cooking is very similar to programming. First, both of these skills are based on theory and also practice. You have to learn the basics – syntax and semantics or techniques, how the ingredients work together, flavors, etc. Next, you have to practice, a lot.
When you ask any experienced developer, they will tell you that, without practice, there is no way to become good at coding or programming. The same thing applies also to cooking. Unless you spend certain amount of time (not necessarily 10,000 hours) in the kitchen, you will never be a good chef. Another similarity is that both of them are using recipes. In coding, we call these recipes scripts or programs. Regardless of the name, recipe in relation to coding or in relation to cooking is still only set of variables (ingredients) and instructions (functions in coding) you have to execute.
Anyway, how can cooking help you improve your soft skills, namely skill of improvisation? The key is in the amount of available ingredients, techniques and, again, practice. This is what allows you to use your creativity and come up with whole new flavors and dishes. The best way to stretch your improvisation muscles? Take some recipe and commit to not using one of the key ingredients. Next, find a way to supplement this ingredient without changing the flavor or damaging the dish.
Another idea is to take narrow range of food and prepare a dish from it. Don’t use any recipe, only your creativity and imagination. Again, for the safety of other people, and your pets, try this on your own first and taste carefully. With time, your soft skills of improvisation and cooking will improve. Have you ever heard that someone can prepare delightful dish even from a pile of sand? This is just result of hundreds even thousands of hours spent in the kitchen and practicing.
Sure, cooking is not your source of income. Still, it is a great way to learn how to handle situations you didn’t predict – your ability to improvise. It is also a great way to train and improve your creativity. Since creativity is important for us, as web designers, why not to give it a try?
By the way, unless you eat in a place where even food and hygiene inspectors are afraid to go, learning to cook will also help you safe money. This is time-tested fact. It is also one of the reasons, along with health benefits, why many people will recommend cooking your own food. If you want to test this hypothesis, follow this simple process. First, take one of the dishes you like to eat in restaurant. Second, write down all the ingredients necessary to prepare it the dish. Also, don’t forget to write down its price and amount of the food in portion.
Third step is to take this list of ingredients and visit near supermarket. Here, you have to find all the ingredients on the list and write down the price. Fourth step is a little bit harder. You have to do a bit of Math to calculate the price of the ingredients in relation to the amount used in one portion. When you are done with that, compare the result with the price from restaurant. In most of cases, dish “made” by supermarket will be much cheaper and you will also have a lot of leftovers to prepare more than just one portion. Here is one secret: women like men who can cook.
Let’s stay with coding for a moment and discuss how to use this great skill to improve your skill of improvisation. First, although the title may imply it, I don’t suggest that you spend less time coding. That would be against my advice about immersing yourself in practice. What I mean by coding less is that you should try the same approach as you did with cooking – create restrictions and boundaries for yourself. Come up with a problem and create some specific limits for its your solution. Let me give you couple of examples.
First, you can limit the maximum number of lines or the amount of code you can write. This is a challenge I love and do pretty often. Depending on your skills, you can push yourself and use more tighter restrictions. By the way, it is amazing how efficient and effective code you can create when you can’t surpass some boundaries. If you haven’t tried this, you should give it a try. After a bit of practice, the results will just surprise you!
Then, when you switch to completely different syntax, your brain will still want to use the old well-ingrained patterns. In the terms of these two front-end frameworks, this meant that I would often find myself wanting to use classes from the previous framework. Then, surprisingly, the code would not work the way I expect it.
Third, and more experimental, idea is to use completely different language than you would want to use otherwise. If you don’t know more programming languages, you can stick with the first two ideas. Just remember to make it a challenge and fun to keep yourself motivated.
Break the Routine
Honestly, this is a topic that’s hard for me to talk about. It’s not because I don’t like routines, rather the opposite. I follow the same set of routines every day, seven days a week. Meaning, I wake up at the same time, I go to bed at the same time, I exercise every day, I write every day and I work every day. I think it may be some kind of obsession. There is a downside. You will lose track of what day is today. If you do the same thing every day (okay, I have two sets of exercise routines), it is hard to distinguish between individual days. If you are in the same situation, use dates rather than days.
Anyway, let me tell you that routines can have a big impact on your soft skills in general. For example, it is often-mentioned by many people that routines can help you, indirectly, think better. The thing is that by implementing routines into your life you will spend less energy on making small and less important decisions. Then, you can use this energy to fuel more important ones. Routines will also help you use your willpower in a smarter way.
Here is the thing, your willpower is a finite resource. Although you actively train it on a daily basis, you can still deplete it if you depend on it too much. This may be the reason why it is so hard for you to get your training done in the evening (btw, fasted morning training is better). So, another reason for giving routines a try. Wait a minute … This is supposed to be about breaking the routines! Let’s get back on the track. Routines give you a sense of schedule, order and even safety. Unfortunately, all these things are also the main enemies of improvisation.
The problem is that the more you become comfortable to specific order and schedule, you also become quite fragile and less flexible. In other words, the more you will eliminate chaos from your life, the more uncomfortable, even dangerous, may any unpredictable event be. It is only by exposing yourself to discomfort that you can train yourself for such situations and become more flexible. By the way, if you haven’t read Anti-fragility by Nassim Taleb, do it as soon as you can.
Let’s now assume two things. The first assumption is that improvisation can be, in some sense, translated as the ability to be flexible. The second assumption is that routine can, again, in some sense, be one of the enemies of flexibility. The conclusion, which we can draw from these two assumptions, is that breaking out of some of your routines is something that can help you improve your ability to improvise.
Luckily, getting better in improvisation through breaking routines is very easy. One simple and fast to implement tip to change the road you go to work. For example, instead of subway, you can sometimes use bus. Or, you can decide to take the longer road and explore the neighborhood. Next interesting trick to improve your improvisation skill is to get of the subway, bus or whatever transportation you use, before the station you would otherwise. Then, try to find the way on your own. One suggestion: leave home sooner just for the case.
Another more adventurous tip is to one day just pack couple things and visit some foreign city or country without any plan or even a map. Activities such as this way will teach you how to be comfortable with discomfort, how to rely on yourself and how to always find a way. These three things are the cornerstones of improvisation.
So, what does the WWMD title mean? What Would MacGyver Do. Now, for those of you who have no idea about who Angus MacGyver here is a short bio: MacGyver is a secret agent working for Phoenix Foundation and Department of External Services. He is a former scientist with an encyclopedic knowledge covering various disciplines. MacGyver solves complex problems with everyday objects, you can find even at your home, along his Swiss Army knife. Since the premier of the first season, MacGyver became almost a synonym for improvisation.
What I want you to understand from the example of MacGyver is that, with a little bit of imagination, everything is possible. I will give you two assignments. First, watch just one or two episodes. You will be surprised by ways you can use ordinary objects to solve tricky problems. Second, when you will encounter any problem, difficult or easy, ask yourself: “What would MacGyver do?” Then, take a look at the things and tools you have at hand and … Improvise!
Take Care of Your Creativity
If you read all the tips on improving your improvisational skills, you may notice that all of these tips include certain amount of creativity. You are right. Without at least a bit of creativity, getting good at improvisation is not possible. So, the first thing, before you start your first improv training session, is to make sure your creative juices are not depleted. Otherwise, ten minutes of improv training will become ten minutes of pain. Fortunately, we already covered this topic of creativity in Creativity – 10 tips to become an idea machine article.
I recommend everyone interested in boosting creativity skill, and creativity in general, to read that article. You will learn about ten tips, tricks and hacks that will help virtually anyone become more creative – creativity guaranteed. This is the last tip I have for you today – take care of your creativity. Remember that, as a web designer, creativity is one of the most important tools in your toolbox. Without it, you will not be able to do your work.
Closing Thoughts on Soft Skills and Improvisation
With this, we will end this article and also the final part of 7 Soft Skills Every Freelance Web Designer Must Have series. Today, we talked about improv and “what if” methods, hidden benefits of cooking, why you should code less, breaking routines, WWMD and that you need to take care of your creativity. I hope you enjoyed it and learn something that made your work easier and more enjoyable. What’s next? Maybe a tutorial on CoffeeScript, maybe something about freelancing.
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