I started my graduate program a little under a year ago. Figuring out what the hell I was doing was a lot like figuring out what I’m doing every time I do a Harold (a type of long-form improv show, for those who don’t know). Hear me out on this.
I had no idea what I was getting myself into. I came straight from undergraduate, and even though I had a lot of research experience and strong problem-solving skills (woohoo! Go Liberal Arts Universities!), I had acquired those skills at a cost. Not having experience at an R1, I never learned the demands or political hierarchy of a big research lab, or the importance of establishing a “programatic line of research.” I’d never heard the words “mechanism” and “elucidate” used as many times as I did in the first week that I was here. (Am I right, other grad students?)
Luckily, I’m a quick learner. I have a better idea of what I’ve gotten myself into, but something new unfolds each day. The rough thing about graduate school, or at least my experience with it thus far, is that there is no instructions manual whatsoever. (Unless you can stomach this awesome guide.) In every job I’ve had in the past, there has been some sort of employee manual, an extensive job description, etc. I do not envy entrepreneurs – they’re also figuring all of that out on their own.
But isn’t that the rough thing about improv, too? I mean, sure, you’ve got Truth in Comedy, Improvise, and a ton of online resources (check out these blogs, in no particular order: The Boiling Point, Improvoker, ImprovMantra, Women Improvisers Trust, Bill Arnett, The House That Del Built, USSRock’n’Roll. There are so many other great ones, but that’s just a random, representative sampling.) But when it comes down to it, there is nothing that can prepare you for improv better than just doing it.
Last week in class, we were learning how to approach the game-slot of the Harold. For those unfamiliar with this, a Harold is a type of long-form improvisation that more or less follows a specific structure:
Scene 1A, 1B, 1C
Scene 2A, 2B, 2C (each of which is some sort of callback to a theme, character, or idea in 1A, 1B, and 1C, respectively)
Scene 3A, 3B, 3C (which sometimes become a run, meaning characters and ideas from different scene-slots start interacting with each other)
For many people (myself included), the game-slot is one of the most intimidating parts of performing a Harold (which, shameless self-promotion, I will be doing at iO on August 26!). It typically turns into a giant group scene, and often lacks that game-y quality that we’re all looking for (i.e. what else is true?). In class, we talked a little bit about why the game gets messed up. It’s honestly a classic bystander/freeloader effect, without malicious intent. The person who initiates has a great concept for a game, but he is one of about 6-8 people who are about to go on stage. Knowing that he will never possibly be able to dictate the whole concept for his game without coming off like a douche, he goes out with what he thinks is a great opening line. But obviously the rest of the team is not inside his head, and so the follow-up line to his opening is less clear. (Alternatively, he gets really excited about the concept he has and assumes that the rest of the team will fill in the blanks, and runs with the half-baked idea.) The rest of the team, eager to support, and courteous not to “steal” his thunder/step on his idea, agrees vehemently. But they don’t “and”. I say it’s a classic bystander/freeloader effect, because everyone is looking at everyone else thinking, “Well, go ahead, say something.” “No, please, by all means, I’ll be polite and let you go first.” “Well, let’s see where Joe is going with this. He’s got an idea because he started this. Let’s not be jerks.” With such a diffusion of responsibility, and everyone trying to be polite to everyone else, no one says anything! Then the game is slow to develop, as everyone is fumbling around looking for the pattern. Or the game turns into the classic group scene, which is comfortable, but not necessarily exciting. Or it turns into a dictator game because Joe feels the pressure on him since he started the game. None of these is an ideal situation. (Perhaps you have thoughts on why the game-slot is so intimidating? I’d love to hear, if so.)
Well, how do you fix it? How do we show these game-slots some love? We’ve got to be like bat-shit crazy, that’s how. My teacher explained it like this: bats have no idea when they enter a cave where they are going. But they don’t freeze in hesitation at the cave’s entrance and hope for a miracle. Nope, they use their sonar system of echolocation to figure out where they’re going as they head in. Maybe they pause for a brief moment to get their bearings, but they approach a new cave with a sink-or-swim mentality. They affect their environment and use that to propel them forward. And that’s what we have to do with the game-slot of the Harold. Remember that the best way to support isn’t by agreeing vehemently, it’s by giving a gift and helping shape the pattern of the game. Remember that you might not have any idea what’s going on in the game, but that’s because no one has any idea. Because the game doesn’t exist until you make it exist. So go in head first, start screaming your head off like a bat (metaphorically of course), and make that thing work.
You have so much power! If the first person goes out and she makes a weird noise and movement, go out and make another one. Great, you guys are part of a machine together. What the heck does this machine do, and how well or poorly does it do it? That’s the game. (If it’s true that you are a human machine, what else is true?) Or, go out and start rapping. Wonderful. You guys are a band/rap group – what irks you? What’s the inspiration for your raps? Or, go out and comment on the mendacious nature of the sound and start a mock-philosophical commentary on Chicago’s streets at night. Whatever you do, do it!
Looking back on it, that’s what I did to get through this year. I love what I’m doing and I’m confident that I’m getting the hang of it, but I’ll admit that I’m still riddled with self-doubt (which likely won’t be quelled until I get my first publication. Or maybe that will only propagate it!). I’ve been sort of throwing things up at the wall, and seeing what sticks and what doesn’t. I’ve learned a lot about scientific reasoning. My content knowledge has increased more than I can articulate. I can’t show you these things, but I know that I’ve changed and grown as a researcher. But I just sort of dove in head first (not aware of how deep of water I was about to tread), and hey, I’m swimming. (This is an ironic metaphor, since I don’t know how to swim in real life.)
I have so much power to affect my future career – I just can’t let the anxiety of figuring out grad school paralyze me. The key to success is working through what you don’t know and figuring it out along the way. A lot of really important science is discovered that way, right? Some experiment doesn’t turn out right and then we seek to explain why not, and we get Pavlov’s dogs.
“Enter a Harold game-slot, or graduate school, or really life in general, like a bat enters a cave.” Never in a million years did I anticipate that that would be a piece of advice I would give myself!