The Art of Improvisation
Updated: Dec 11, 2020
Hey it’s Fabian again, from the think-team!
The other day a friend asked me: “What is the one lesson that took you the longest to unlearn?” It didn’t take me too long to answer this as I was still pondering from last post. If you haven’t read my previous post, I would highly suggest reading that first here to get some back story. Consider this as a part two 😊.
I grew up knowing life was pretty predictable. Growing up in a private school in Jakarta, there was a very straightforward logic to living life. Get good grades to get into a good university to get a good pay. Which essentially is nothing wrong. But I was fixated that these activities would produce a specific outcome. More importantly is, I learned that my life had to be planned. It was engrained in our DNAs, that life had to be linear.
Before I finished my Bachelor’s, I was stressing out about my Master’s. I was not sure which one I would like to commit and pursue. My thought process was very... simple. If I do Neuroscience, I will spend my life scanning brains and training monkeys. If I do Sustainable Development, I can go home to Indonesia and help rural communities. I was absolutely stuck on the idea that one thing leads to the next and that I the future was in my hands. Fortunately unfortunately, I could not have been more wrong.
One month in when I entered su-re.co November 2019, Meredith (a su-re.co alumni) and I were preparing a presentation for su-re.co’s annual workshop. We were going through the Low Carbon Development Initiative by the Indonesian Ministry of National Development Planning. I had no idea what was going to happen, I have never presented to high-level officers especially about these topics. Tak, the CEO and founder of su-re.co, made us revise our slides maybe 10 times. We practiced every day for one week. Just when we thought we’ve finally succeeded in creating the perfect presentation, Tak still made us revise the same day of the event. Two hours before our presentation, Meredith was panicking and I was sweating profusely while revising the slides in the car on our way to the location. This event tested us in so many levels that could be a blog on its own. Most importantly I learned that we have to be critical, agile, and adaptive. I was improving a skill – improvisation.
Fast forward one year later to today, we just had a webinar with Ugandan and Ethiopian farmers and Entrepreneurs as part of the Switch Africa Green project (SAG) (which I wrote a blog about too). Prior to the event, Amanda (a fellow GiftMaker) and I created a guide for the participants. We revised the guide nearly everyday. I expected to revise it the same day as well. We didn’t, BUT, something critical happened and we needed to improvise. Essentially, time was not on our side during the event, and so Tak had to lead a discussion he did not prepare for. Knowing him, I knew he could improvise. But uncertainty was present the entire time, so it was still stressful even for me.
There is quite a lot to learn from here, but I'll point out one. I learned that often times we don’t know what the end result will look like and we don’t always need to. We clear the fog step-by-step, but sometimes you hit a wall and need to turn. The skill of knowing where to turn is what I would call improvisation. Being able to handle maneuvers. Having the courage to draw outside the lines a little.
Zooming out again to talk about my dilemma in choosing a master’s, I realized that the future is not fixed by my current perception of the path. You can always take a turn or even a U-turn. Everyone had dreams to get a high-paying and highly-respected jobs at a certain age, but no one told me you can be a researcher and a surfer at the same time, because nobody in Jakarta surfs. Simply, nobody in your surrounding will ever suggest something they don’t know. I think I felt discouraged at some point because my viewpoint was limited in who I can become and no one told. I was also scared of not following a plan.
Tying back to last week’s blog, a dangerous reaction to uncertainty is anxiety. But, a dangerous reaction to certainty is being stuck in a comfort zone. With the right lens, uncertainty shows a negative space. If anything, uncertainty is access to an infinite realm, which is overwhelming and exciting at the same time. Having said that, perhaps having the mindset of an impressionist by itself is incomplete to deal with uncertainty. Improvisation seems to be the most appropriate reactive skill to uncertainty. A skill that I am happy to have practiced in su-re.co.
So, going back to answering the original question, it took me almost two decades to unlearn the idea that my life had to be planned. An alternative version to the question would be. What is the one lesson that took you the longest to accept?: That improvising is inevitable. It’s not about disregarding the art of planning. But it’s about letting go of a structured outcome and appreciating the flow.
Thanks for reading, I know this blog went everywhere, but I hope your friendship with uncertainty didn’t end yet. I hope uncertainty continues to inspire you to be resilient in all situation, whether you have to choose a degree or adjust your presentation slides.