rules — real or imaginary?

In creativity, learning, stories by Jay Clouse

A few months ago, I signed up for Level 1 improv classes because I thought I’d be good at them. Then, just a couple weeks ago, I signed up for Level 2 improv classes because I realized I was not.

But I’m really enjoying the process of it, for a lot of reasons. For one, it’s fun to fail hard in a place that it feels safe and the stakes are low. But another reason is the surprising number of ideas and core themes that are super transferable outside of improv.

This week, we started Level 2 by playing a game we learned in Level 1. In Level 1, we were taught to get in a circle, one person would make eye contact with someone across the circle, and state their own name. Then, that person would take that “handoff” and do the same — looking someone else in the eyes and state their own name.

Yesterday in Level 2, we were just told to get in a circle, look at someone, and say our name.

At first, I (and several others) were operating using the same rules we had learned in Level 1. But then someone started looking at several people, saying her name to each of them, and doing it whenever she wanted — even when someone else was doing the same.

Not to be dramatic — but it blew my mind. She created an actual physiological reaction of stress and even a little bit of anger. But when we finished the game and talked about it, we talked through the point that we were only given one rule: look at someone, say your name.

The other “rules” were something I projected and assumed.

We played more games, and the same thing happened: I would assume certain rules that simply weren’t rules. Other people did the same — sometimes we assumed the same rule, sometimes we didn’t.

Once I realized these rules weren’t really there, I started instigating challenges to the presumed rules of the group, and then different games would take place within the game. It was more fun to play the micro games inside the macro game at times (especially when others were willing to accept my new non-rule as a “rule” in itself).

This happens in the world around me all the time. And, if I were to be bold — I’d say this is part of the reason there are so many “unprecedented” things being done by the President — he’s challenging the assumed rules we’ve held as a society for his office. While the presidents before him have operated under a relatively similar set of assumed rules, he’s not doing that. And probably having some fun.

Of course, there’s the very real danger of making the game not fun for the other players involved when you try and upend the unspoken but generally accepted rules…but I digress.

It’s worth considering when we’re operating in a certain situation which rules or boundaries we’ve created are simply narratives we invented. In Seth Godin’s altMBA, we went through an Asset, Boundaries, Narrative analysis for just this reason.

Rules can be a very useful and beneficial constraint. Sometimes having a rule or two is the perfect anchor to use as a jumping off point to find a creative solution. Inventing rules can be useful in the same way — but if you’re inventing rules without realizing it (or realizing that you don’t need those rules) then you’re probably needlessly limiting yourself.


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