During my freshman and sophomore year, I attended an academically rigorous high school. I took schoolwork and my grades seriously, so my parents and I thought the school would be a good fit.
But just because there weren’t a bunch of jocks running around didn’t mean there wasn’t bullying. The only difference was that instead of being ridiculed for my inability to throw a football or kick a soccer ball, I was teased for only getting a 92% on an exam.
I was thankful when my family moved two years later and I switched schools. The competition among students had turned coursework into a zero-sum game. If you weren’t getting the best grades, you were a failure. No one wanted to study together, compare notes, or help one another out because that would be giving away your competitive advantage.
Unfortunately, that’s the way we’re conditioned to think about most things in life. To quote Ricky Bobby, “If you ain’t first, you’re last.”
If our friends are chosen over us for an improv team, we have failed. If our sibling gets a better job, we’re the black sheep at Thanksgiving dinner. If someone else gets the promotion we were hoping for, well, there’s our new enemy.
But life isn’t a zero-sum game.
I’ve been reading this fascinating book about astronauts, and the author (a former astronaut himself) goes into detail about how difficult it is to not only to be chosen by NASA, but to actually be chosen to leave Earth. There are years of intense physical and mental training as well as bureaucracy and timing that all play into the decision about who is chosen for space flight.
Despite the intense competition (literally, some of the world’s smartest), the most successful astronauts were those who gave up their competitive advantage. The best astronauts were willing to freely give their time and expertise to help others succeed.
While reading, I couldn’t help but think about one of improv’s key tenets – make your scene partner look good. Even in auditions, an exercise that is actually zero-sum, improvisers are reminded of this principle.
It’s not out of a sense of pride or nobility either. Making your scene partner look good actually increases the odds that you’ll be selected in the audition and/or succeed in improv generally.
Making your scene partner look good means you’re following the important improv “rules” – YES AND-ing others’ ideas, supporting game moves, working together as a team to create something. That generosity, kindness, and skill, in turn, make you an improviser others are excited to play with. It makes directors want to choose you in the audition. It makes you successful.
Making your “scene partners” look good in real life is just as relevant. In work, love, and friendship, we want to spend time with people who are willing to help us succeed and celebrate that success with us, without asking anything in return.
The fierce academic competition in my high school didn’t encourage teamwork or help create a community. It did the opposite. I didn’t want to be friends with many other students because they were so obsessed with being number one, not with helping one another out when the going got tough.
Even now, my best friends are the people I can count on to help without asking “what’s in it for me?” I’d like to believe I do the same for them.
Life isn’t a zero-sum game, and treating it as such is often the way to fall behind, not get ahead. Your success is often determined, simply, by how often you make your scene partners look good.