The art of making s**t up: How to use the principles of improvisation to become an unstoppable powerhouse

It's so empowering.

30 Jun 2019

Contrary to popular belief, creating and executing brilliant ideas isn’t the domain of only a few chosen virtuosos. All of us can use our mental radar to search out those blips of inspiration and bring them to life as something concrete. Don't believe us? A new book might just prove you wrong.

In his new book, The Art of Making Sh!t Up: Using the Principles of Improv to Become an Unstoppable Powerhouse, Norm Laviolette - a performer, director and producer of live comedy for more than 20 years - reveals how the lessons of improv can be applied to empower ourselves to proactively recognise and act on opportunities.

The Art of Making Sh!t Up combines the lessons learned from his personal journey of working in improvisational comedy and of building multi-million-dollar businesses from the ground up. He maintains that in the end, iterating, failing and advancing the concept are all part of the process — which becomes the springboard to huge ideas.

Here, he shares an extract of his new book with GLAMOUR...

Nobody knows anything. The longer my career continues, the more I am certain of this. People think they know shit. They have ideas about things. They have thoughts and theories, hypotheses, and past studies. Yet the more things I do and the longer I do them, I have come to discover that most everybody is making shit up on the fly. And that is a good thing.

The whole point of innovation is to create something new. If we are going to create something new, then we can never be certain how it is going to work out. At some point we have to take a chance and make decisions based on the information we have at hand, our past experiences, and our gut intuition. Sprinkle in some wishful thinking and luck and we just may come up with something that nobody else has.

Much like when you figure out that “nobody gives a shit” about you, realizing that by and large nobody knows anything is quite empowering. What can be incredibly intimidating is the idea that everybody else knows much more than you do about whatever it is you want to attempt.

Clearly there are experts in every field and people who’ve accomplished great things and have far more experience then we will ever have at the start of something. It can cause us to have immense self-doubt in our own ability and lead us to quit before we ever even get started. I mean, everything has already been done by everyone everywhere, so what’s the point? Might as well stick to the same old same old, and wait for that cold black cloud to come on down.

Don’t you believe it, even for a second. There is always a way to do something new or different or better. There is always a way to compete. People like to say that for every Coke there is a Pepsi. There are also Dr Pepper, Polar Cola, Moxie, Jones Soda, Pascual Boing, Bundaberg, La Croix, Squamscot, Cheerwine, Brooklyn Soda Works, Lester’s Fixin’s Bacon Soda, and literally hundreds of others. There is always room for more if it is better or differentiated in some way. I’m sure at some point someone told the creators of Lester’s Fixin’s Bacon Soda that they were insane. Who the hell would want bacon soda, or buffalo wings soda, or ranch dressing soda? Yet they obviously believed in their own insanity and now they have a KISS-branded line of colas. They may never be Coca-Cola but that’s not the point. They created something original and brought flavors and branding opportunities together in way others were not thinking about.

Even the biggest, most established brands or experts I’ve ever spoken with, when pressed, tend to concede that to a degree they still feel like they are making things up as they go along. I think that most of us, if we don’t feel like an outright fraud, then there is a certain feeling of fooling most of the people most of the time. I mean, hey, if they are going to promote me and let me keep going then, sure, why not? Until they figure out that I’m faking it until I make it, then I will walk down the path as far as they will let me go.

The further we go down the path the more knowledge and experience we pick up, so by the time we reach a certain point we actually do end up knowing some stuff. And the best way to learn about anything is by doing it. You can study comedy all you want but until you actually get on stage and do it, it is nothing but high theory. This concept is true for just about everything; making soda, flying planes, creating an app or having sex. The true knowledge and thrill is in the doing.

Yes, I get it, you need to acquire the basic skills to pursue whatever it is that you want to pursue. In today’s day and age, access to the initial information that you need about anything can be easily found. For most of human history it was the access to information that would stop or limit individuals from branching out of their small area of knowledge. If you were born into a farming family, you were most likely going to be a farmer. If you were born to a fisherman, that was most likely going to be your lot in life.

Hundreds of years ago somebody born into a fishing family who wanted to build beautiful churches most likely would never have access to even the basic information about architecture, engineering, and design. Nowadays there is open-source everything. Want to build your own rocket to go to outer space? You can find that information online. Looking to dabble in mind control or maybe the dark arts? There is a how-to guide for that. You just have to Google it. Once you start a general course of study to get the basics down, the key is to put what you are learning into tangible practice in some way, shape, or form.

Your first attempts will suck. They will. There is no getting around this. Your first rocket will blow up and your initial attempts at commanding people to do your bidding will be woefully disappointing. Everybody sucks at everything at first. That is perfectly okay. There are very few prodigies in the world, and if you are reading this book with this title, I have to assume you don’t consider yourself one. I sure as hell know I am not. It makes no difference. The ability to do does not reside in the hands of a small minority any longer.

No longer do you have to feel that creating something is the domain of chosen virtuosos who have either been tapped by the gods or spent all of their time studying in their chosen field with the most eminent teachers available to them. If you have access to either of those things, then good for you. For the rest of us, sucking is the first step to greatness. Or at least mediocrity. Mediocrity leads to proficiency, proficiency leads to mastery, and mastery leads to excellence. It is heartening to know that the best of the best sucked at one point.

This is an edited extract from The Art of Making Sh!t Up: Using the Principles of Improv to Become and Unstoppable Powerhouse, by Norm Laviolette (Wiley, 2019).