Problems: Welcome! (Tight places are good for you)

I am reviewing Nassim N. Taleb‘s book “Antifragile – Things that gain from disorder” in the light of improvisation principles.  (if you don’t know the book, read my Introductory post here)

If you prefer to read this article on a white background, try this pdf.

Trouble and Problems

A life without any problems, who doesn’t want it? But do you also want a life without challenges? Probably not.


So an interesting question could be how we can differentiate between unpleasant problems and stimulating challenges, in order to get less of the first and more of the second.
Consider that challenges and problems are generally doing the same: they put a certain amount of pressure on our system. But picking up the crossword-puzzle from Sunday’s newspaper certainly feels different from attending a loaded family dinner, and therefore I am not really satisfied with the simple positivo attitude that puts both things in the same drawer: “Think positive! See your problems as a challenge!”. From a personal and from an improviser’s point of view, I am much more curious to explore why some challenges/problems create big stress and others somehow don’t.

In his book, “Antifragile – Things that gain from disorder”, N.N. Taleb is not answering this particular question in detail, but he does offer a very refreshing perspective which we can elaborate on.

Taleb is looking at problems from a system point of view: the human body is a (complex) system, but the housing market, social media and academic peer review are systems as well, and in all cases we can look at the way unexpected events or problems are affecting these systems. Are they fragile to them, can they absorb them neutrally, or do they even get better from these events (in the last case, Taleb calls the system or organism “antifragile“).
His main argument is that we generally should become more antifragile (in the way we live, work and in the way we build complex systems that we depend on), because the world is an unpredictable place. Or even shorter:
There will always be problems and unexpected events, so let’s gain from them rather than trying to avoid them.

Stress is good for us ( ! / ? )

To begin with, he says that making life too easy is not good for us, anyway. The complex system of our body&brains gains from a little trouble or effort every now and again. In first instance, this boils down to such common notions as keeping your body fit and your mind engaged by doing things instead of spending most of your time in front of the TV. We all agree, but so far, no news.

Taleb’s point becomes more pronounced once he suggests that this principle should be applied to almost everything. While most of us will agree that it improves our health to put some regular stress on our physical system by doing push-ups or yoga (or whatever is your favourite torture), we are more hard-pressed to accept that other forms of stress are generally good for us.

Taleb, however, is convinced. He quotes Nietzsche with “What doesn’t kill me makes me stronger” (which by itself is a questionable axiom, but we will come to that later). Taleb says that, while there is of course a point when stress is not beneficial anymore, any complex organism or system will generally gain from problems. He gives – in short – two reasons for this:

1. A complex system will overcompensate in reaction to a problem in order to withstand future stress of a similar kind. This will create extra output and redundancy, which makes the system more robust and stronger (this is for example how your body builds muscles)

2. The stress might destroy others around you which means that the system that you are part of will get stronger as a whole, simply because less resilient individuals are cleared out of the system. (Luckily, Taleb’s ethics are not just darwinistic, as one could almost think reading this. I will discuss his interesting views on morality in a future post.)

Taleb writes about generating new ideas: “How do you innovate? First, try to get in trouble.” And: “I mean serious, but not terminal, trouble.” Trouble, as we heard, generates overcompensation of the system, and in the unintended side-products that are produced, there will be some gems of genius and innovation, is the idea.

Translated to an individual this reads: when you are in serious trouble, you are acting and thinking ‘on your feet’ and therefore create more, and less consciously controlled ideas, which gives a greater chance that some of those ideas will be brilliant, out-of-the-box and original (to use some favourite words of innovation people). What is certainly striking is that a lot of innovations and discoveries are made in the effort to solve an entirely different problem (Taleb gives a few examples in his book).

Taleb also states which parts of our society are not working well according to him, and he argues that those social or economical sytems have been made fragile by keeping them unnaturally ‘stable’ (away from stress/problems) for too long. He says that any system or organism that doesn’t face trouble on a regular basis is creating for itself a false appearance of stability, where underneath the surface, problems are building (this will make the system also more vulnerable to big unexpected events which Taleb calls “Black Swans“, so when it goes wrong, it will go wrong much more dramatically).  He argues that facing problems and making mistakes generates valuable information, which means that creating a healthy environment where “failing” is appreciated as useful rather than being avoided will make any organism more robust, or even antifragile. For improvisers, this is known territory, but it is fascinating to see that Taleb comes from such a different area of expertise: a former trader in the stockmarket and now expert in probability issues. From that background, he builds a very convincing argument about the value of failing and problems in general.

To summarise Taleb before I go on:

There is an intrinsic quality in having problems and stress, and most complex systems (like our mind, our body, most parts of our society) are actually gaining from having to deal with them (up to a certain point, of course).

Improvisers in tight places

So in how far is this relevant for improvisation performance? In general, standing in front of an audience without knowing what you are going to do is putting yourself into a problematic situation. And as improvisers enjoy doing this, we could generously give all improvisers an antifragile-medal: Able and used to responding to unexpected events. But let’s go one level deeper: inside any improvisation performance, there is again the question to what extend you put yourself into a problematic situation. An improvisation can be in principle a relaxed and uneventful ride – if you are used to it, it is no big deal to produce notes and musical phrases, movement or text out of thin air – but this in itself is not necessarily interesting for an audience to witness.

One of my precious teachers, Enrique Pardo  tends to side coach his improvising singers/actors/dancers with “Get yourself into a tight spot!” – both meaning this figuratively (“get yourself into trouble!”) and literally (a physically tight place on stage or a physically challenging position of your body can do wonders in making the improvisation come to life).

Bill Evans, one of the greatest jazz pianists of the last century said that when you improvise, getting into the detail of your musical material is where things start to become interesting (again, a tight place).

Keith Johnstone, godfather of improv theatre, saw his actors avoid problems while improvising and devised exercises to let players understand how they go to great length in circumventing “tight spots” rather than facing them, and how they can train themselves to do the latter.

The thing in improvisation is that if you have a stage full of problem-avoiders, nothing substantial will develop and both audience and performers will risk to get bored very soon. The opposite is also true: When the audience sees performers in trouble and heroically (or even beter: just as humans) trying to deal with it, they will be riveted and often touched.

To speak with Taleb, in the first situation the system becomes very fragile – the performance is moving slowly from one thing to the next, avoiding real problems and therefore only hanging on the thin thread of a “smoothly developing story”. All disturbances are in that case problematic, because amongst problem-avoiders any unexpected event is a sizeable threat and could “ruin everything”.

In the second case, the system is more antifragile, because both audience and performers have all their attention on a ‘problem’ anyway and therefore any unexpected event can only have a positive outcome: it either makes the problem even bigger (= it becomes even more interesting to see the performers deal with it) or it turns the situation upside down in such a way that the current problem is resolved and things can move on to something else.

The surprising conclusion is that in taking more risks (putting yourself into a tight spot), the performance actually becomes more robust: There is less risk that you yourself or your audience will get bored with what you are doing, which evidently raises the quality of the evening.

By the way: “Getting yourself into serious trouble” can be done in many, also very subtle ways. In a peformance that explores silence for example, you might give yourself as improviser a very clear frame – and that frame might be about deep listening, about working from nothingness, or whatever gives you the focus for the type of performance that you are interested in. Note that also in these cases, you take a risk by limiting drastically what you allow yourself to do (again, a tight spot), and the improvisation gains from that focus.

I like this English expression of the ‘tight spot’. According to the Free Dictionary it implies something that is “difficult to deal with or get out of”, but the adjective ‘tight’ also has a comforting notion (as in ‘hold me tight’). In a tight spot, you are definitely bound by something, you cannot move easily, but the shackles are not cutting your flesh, so to speak.

So when does a tight spot become a problem? When is a challenge destructive rather than stimulating?

I have two answers for that:

1. When it is simply too much for the system to take.
2. When the problem is avoided, attacked or you are (quickly) trying to solve it.

First 1.: When it is simply too much for the system to take.
This should be obvious, but needs some mentioning in the context of Taleb’s book. His overall macho bravura writing style can sometimes give the impression that he is building his argument entirely on the rather one-sided Nietzsche quote (“What doesn’t kill me makes me stronger”). Taleb does stress that complex systems only like stress “up to a certain point”, but the thing is that this ‘point’ is in reality rather fuzzy. If you say “get yourself into serious, but not terminal trouble” it simplifies the matter beyond usability. There are many forms of violence and abuse that are not terminal, but nevertheless very destructive, for both the individuals and the relationships involved, and therefore also for the system of relationships as a whole, no matter how antifragile it might be (think of dysfunctional families). It is no small matter that some people may use Taleb’s line of argument to justify hitting their children, because, they will argue, “it builds their character / makes them stronger!”
Looking beyond the surface, however, I think that Taleb is not really that old-fashioned and that he wouldn’t approve. For now, suffice to say that there clearly are instances, short of being killed, when trouble is not good for you.

Avoiding strategies

Point 2. is more fruitful to discuss:
When the problem is avoided, attacked or you are (quickly) trying to solve it.

We humans seem to be very inventive in avoiding problems once we smell them. We developped numerous strategies for not really addressing a problem and everybody has his own favourite habits to achieve that. We either avoid the problem by ignoring it or fleeing from it, in many imaginative ways, or we rigorously go into attack. This last strategy is often misleadingly disguised as a heroic “I am facing the problem head-on”, but in fact it means most of the time that the attack/conflict gets all the focus, while the initial problem or issue is falling completely out of sight.

Let us look at improv theatre and dance improvisation for some examples.

First improv: Here is Keith Johnstone illustrating how actors avoid getting into any trouble, on the example of a Little-red-riding-hood scene (from his book “Impro for Storytellers”). Imagine two improvising actresses on stage in a situation taken from the well-known fairy tale.

– “Will you take these cookies through the forest to Granny please?”
– “But she’s gone on vacation, Mummy.”

The second actress is trying to be funny but most of all she is avoiding going into the forest and meeting the wolf.

Example of attacking a problem instead of dealing with it (when Little Red finally meets the wolf):

Wolf: “Where are you off to little girl?”
Little Red: “Go away, I don’t talk to wolves.”
Wolf: “Come here!”
Little Red: “Ow! You’re hurting my arm! Take that! And that!”
Wolf: “You little brat! I’ll bite you’re head off! Ow! Ow! Stop kicking my shins!”

Keith Johnstone writes about this: “Students are told that drama is conflict but scenes based on conflict grind to a halt until the conflict is resolved.” Moreover, in this case the actual challenge from which an interesting scene could develop (meeting a wolf is a dangerous situation for a little girl, with uncertain outcome) is completely ignored.

We see the same sometimes in dance improvisation where two or more dancers get into (or mimick) a physical conflict. Rather often, it is simply stagnation disguised as an activity, because no one on stage is really changed. What can be interesting about conflict is the tangible ‘thick air’ before a fight, and how each individual will deal differently with it. And also the aftermath of a fight, because then both parties have to start dealing with what happened (How is the loser of the conflict coping? Is the winner happy or regretful?). Dealing with a problem only ever really starts when the conflict that has been created around it is over.

In dance improvisation, avoiding problems comes most often in the disguise of continuous movement: although “flow” is an important concept for any improviser, if you dance mostly in a ‘flowing’ and continuous way, you are avoiding to be outspoken and clear in your expression. (Being outspoken and clear might get you into a tight place.)

We also know “Avoiding a problem by going into attack” from real life: think of how one can attack the bringer of bad news and create a whole personal conflict instead of accepting the bad news and allowing it to affect you (which would be the beginning of dealing with it).

Other types of real-life avoiding problems:

a) We avoided spending the appropiate time with a problem/task earlier and now there’s a deadline (which creates extra stress that we tend to blame on others).

b) We put too much on our plate in terms of tasks, because we avoid having a confrontation about workload with our collegue/partner/superior. In this last case, the avoiding strategy often turns into attacking (getting angry on others because we feel we do too much and others don’t…

Maybe a first conclusion in answer to our initial question about problems and challenges is: A challenge is becoming unpleasant and problematic once it is either avoided for too long, or a conflict is created around it. We often don’t see the avoiding habits we have (like distracting ourselves and later whine about a deadline) and we often misinterpret a conflict that we have as if the struggle is (about) the problem, while often the struggle is about not accepting the problem, rather than seeing the problem for what it is and dealing with it.

“A problem is there to be solved”, or not?

Another, third avoiding-strategy is especially good in its disguise, because most people will say that this how we should treat a problem: Let’s try to solve it. But often (not always), the very attempt to find a solution for a problem is keeping the problem at a safe distance from you. Beware of people who directly have a solution ready once they are confronted with a problem.

I am very fond of a “getting things done” attitude in general, but in the particular case of problems, slowing down for a bit might be a wiser path to take. Usually, the “a-problem-is-there-to-be-solved” attitude is underestimating the richness and multi-layerdness of most of our problems. Quick solutions often have unforeseen consequences because they don’t consider (or don’t care about) all the aspects involved. Moreover, we often experience that wanting to solve a problem can be the exact thing that keeps the problem alive and creates all the extra stress around it.

But is is important to take care about vocabulary here. There is a great good in the intention and readiness to “deal with a problem”, and it might very well happen that through the time you spend with the problem and the attention you give to it, the problem is (dis)solved. Amongst practical people, and in craftsmenship, dealing with a problem can be very much a type of problem-solving, but I would claim it is problem-solving with a specific mind-set (read Richard Sennet‘s “The Craftsman” about this, it’s a great inspiration).

A craftsmen has a piece of material or a problem in front of him and he certainly wants to achieve something (solve the problem, if you will). But he is usually not going there directly: he will always first look at the thing from all sides, weigh it, maybe conduct some small experiments, let it rest, come back later. The focus of the craftsman is not on the solution, but the process. He is ambitious about quality, but it’s the quality of the work itself that he enjoys, there’s no short-cut to a good product for him. It is slow problem-solving, it is the way of trial-and-error, conducting small steps, which is the way of practical, hands-on professionals and it is the way to go to avoid stress and enjoy the challenge of dealing with a problem.

This last notion brings us back to Taleb’s realm of thinking. He is extremely in favour of trial-and-error approaches, which in fact means using improvisation and a practical (rational) mind to discard things that don’t work and keep things that do work in your pocket. You will fail more often, but because you are conducting small steps, the failures will not be consequential. At the same time, each error gives you information and therefore brings you slowly but surely in the right direction of a solution. This as opposed to the idea of finding the super-solution (in your head) that solves it ‘all in one go’. This last one is a much more fragile approach, because most of the time anything that we conceptualize works very well in our heads, but has many unforeseen consequences once we put the whole package into reality.

Don’t change the thing, change your position

We have this rule of thumb in the Genetic Choir that when we are performing (in this case vocal improvisation in a big group) and you find yourself being ‘ bothered’ by what the person next to you is singing, don’t ever attack (by singing against it, louder, etc.) or try to fix/solve the other person’s sound, but also don’t ignore the disturbing signal that you are getting. What I advice is to find yourself a new position (literally change your place in the choir) to get a new perspective on the ‘problematic’ sound. From a certain distance, with other sounds around you, listen again. The ‘problem’ will already look different, not because you intervened, but simply because you changed your own (physical, and by that also mental) position. It is fascinating to experience again and again that often by that time also the original (bothering) sound has indeed changed, because there was movement in the system around it.

We could summarise: When faced with a problem, don’t try to solve it, to attack it or ignore it, just try a different position (whatever that means in your particular case), and stay in contact (keep listening): it could be that you will have to change your position again. Enjoy the trial-and-error side of it: apply small, inconsequential changes and see what happens. Restrain your human tendency for quick solutions. Your first interest should not be to solve, but simply to ‘deal with’: Accept, absorb the problem – let yourself be changed by it (from the inside, or from the outside) – which doesn’t mean you approve or agree to it, it just means you accept the fact that the problem is there rather than wanting to get rid of it as quickly as possible.

We began with the question of the difference between ‘stimulating challenges’ and ‘unpleasant problems’. In the light of the above, we could state that a problem becomes a problem if it is blurred by the attempt of avoiding or solving it. While giving unbiased attention to it, dealing with it (which means allowing it to affect you, adjusting your position, being curious and open) is a way of creating a transparent, challenging situation, rather than a stifling one.

A certain number of push-ups is such a useful challenge, because your body will have to work hard in dealing with the problem, and there is no vagueness about it, it is completely transparent. Problems in other areas are usually more complex, so of course it is more difficult to find a ‘clear position’ to deal with them. The point is that it is OK if you don’t find the ‘right’ position right away. Failing will give you information, so don’t worry about making mistakes. Make more (small) mistakes! Keep listening – which means you stay in contact with the core of the problem, try again and keep the enjoyment of a craftsmen’s approach.

The most unpleasant side of problems is that we usually get tangled up in our sometimes unconscious and very subtle avoiding manouvers which will usually result in not giving the actual core issue proper attention.

And why is it so important for improvisers to train this? Because each improvisation performance will make a quantum leap in quality (and become much more antifragile) when all performers face each moment/situation/problem with the just described mind-set.
(I am not qualified to talk about life in general, but I can certainly defend this argument when it comes to instant composition performance. 🙂 )

Do let me know your own thoughts about all this, if you feel inclined. (Comments below)

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