Thank you, professor!

“I learned that years ago.”

“I know that already.”

We hear this kind of comment occasionally in the world of professional and personal development. The challenge is that “I learned that years ago” has a hidden trap in it.

In Improvisation, we talk about accepting offers and building on them to create scenes and stories on stage. When our scene partner blocks or denies our offer, it makes it very difficult to build the scene. For example:

Mary and Jim start a scene, and Jim’s opening offer is:

“I’m so happy we came to the beach.”

If Mary’s responding offer is something like:

“I love the beach too and I can’t believe I forgot my swimsuit,”

then we have a line that acknowledges and accepts the reality that Jim has offered. The scene can commence, possibly with a story about skinny-dipping or Mary stealing someone’s bathing suit for her own. The possible directions are endless.

However, if Mary’s response is something like

“This is a train station, not a beach,”

then the scene grinds to a halt because Mary’s response has denied the most basic element of the scene – the location. Now the performers are in a pickle, needing to figure out why one character thinks they’re at the beach and the other thinks they’re in a train station. It makes the actors’ jobs harder because they can’t give full attention to the things that really draw an audience in, like characters and relationships. The audience is equally challenged and confused because they will struggle to follow a scene that is not grounded in a reality they can relate to in any way.

When we step into a learning environment, it’s normal to consider what we already know.  However, any opportunity to learn requires us to accept the basic reality of the "scene" that we're in: that there's something available to us. The art of being a learner requires us to make an active choice to learn, even if (perhaps especially) we are bumping into familiar information. If we’re doing our jobs as humans living fully and learning from all the encounters of the world, we can hear information or have experiences that we’ve had before and always take something new from away. “I know that already” is blocking the reality that there’s something available to be learned. “I learned that years ago” is a sneaky trap set by our egos. Fortunately, Improvisation also offers a solution by way of dismissing our inner commentary. We can invite learning by noticing that little voice in our heads that says “I know that” and answering it with “thank you professor, I’m busy learning!”

Try it next time you’re in a meeting or a workshop. Betcha you’ll learn something.

Jenny Drescher