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In the lab during the day and on stage at night – this is how I spent a big chunk of my adult life. When I started getting paid to do improvised comedy on stage, I was still working in a lab hunting genes and discovering how the environment influences them. Work days were long, the nights were intense, but it felt great. It felt like Batman. The lab was my cave and at night I got to dress up and play. 

Falling Down

But every story comes with a twist and mine was that I started feeling unhappy, anxious and uncertain. My boss told me to work more, because everyone else was doing it and sleep became a scarce resource. Like a hamster in a wheel, I kept running, never stopping, never wondering why and still worrying if it was enough, if I was enough. I was so worried about being judged that my life became a court room. 

In improv theatre classes I learned that judging others and their ideas instead of supporting them was wrong. This was difficult for me. I became better at hidingmy judgement, but oh boy, I was still judging others and myself like a mad man, inside my head. I guess it was inevitable, my performance on stage got worse and I felt out of place in the lab. 

After bad shows I couldn’t sleep anymore. I would rerun scenes and situations in my head and imagine how I could’ve, should’ve would’ve done better. I had brilliant ideas at 3 o’clock in the morning with only myself as an audience. When I told an experienced improviser about this, he asked me: “What do a good and a bad show have in common?” I didn’t have an answer. “They’re over,” he concluded. This gave me some peace of mind for a while, but the judging and worrying didn’t stop. 

The Great Escape

When my brother and I were little, he got a pet hamster. As soon as he put it in its cage the hamster started running on its wheel. It squeaked while he ran and I would listen to it for hours before I fell asleep. One day the squeaking stopped and the hamster was nowhere to be found. It wasn’t in the cage anymore, but the door was locked. How was that possible? We found it in the bathroom, my brother put it back in the cage and the next day it was gone again. The cage was intact. But with all the training, the hamster had gotten leaner and strong enough to squeeze itself between the metal bars. Through purpose-driven and hard work it had found freedom. 

I thought about the hamster during that stressful time in my life and started researching. Indeed, purpose seems to be a much healthier driver than fear, if you want to reach any goal. Some researchers even argue that if the purpose of doing something is strong enough, it will pull you through difficult times, instead of you having to push (Hansen et al., 2018 – Harvard Business Review – Purpose, Meaning & Passion). However, you can build as many castles in the sky as you like, if you don’t grow wings, you’ll never live to see them up close and call them your home. 

Grow Wings 

Purpose is good, but how can we enjoy running in the hamster wheel until greater freedom is within reach? I read a book about resilience and then another one and another one. The subject fascinated me, because there seemed to be a link between the science of resilience, the things I practiced in improv theatre and the ability to deal with judgement, worry and anxiety. Resilience is the power to bounce back after failure, misfortune and difficult times. There is a genetic basis for resilience as well as an environmental one. Some people are more resilient than others, but you can also practice resilience. 

One resilience tool is to have a positive and optimistic outlook on the future. It goes back to purpose. The reason why we do what we do. It seems silly now, but it occurred to me that there isn’t just one future, but many possible ones that I can work on creating. There are many futures and we have built a platform to use all of the tools discussed in this article. You can try it for free here and also book one of my courses to learn about resilience through applied improvisation here.

In a nutshell, resilience is the ability to say: “I acknowledge that this is bad, but I am good enough and I can do something about it.” We acknowledge what is and as soon as we do that we can allow it to change. Sometimes this is all we can do. Sometimes we can also decrease the negative and increase the positive. As soon as I understood this, my approach to life changed. Acknowledging reality without a sense of defeat stops fear in its tracks.

The elephant in the room

Now, when I teach, I don’t tell others to stop judging. It’s a losing battle. The truth is, we all judge, all the time. We judge ourselves and others and constantly create our own reality. This is completely normal. Once we acknowledge our judgement it can change. We call out the elephant in the room. 

If someone gives you a crappy gift and you pretend to be happy about it, it will make you miserable in the long run. If you don’t acknowledge it, it will bother you and make you miserable as well. But if you can acknowledge it as a crappy gift and see it for what it is, not more, not less, you can accept it and take it from there. 

Dr. Ben Hartwig – Neuroblitz®and Future Me

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