Life Lessons From Improv

The Gotham Gal and I just watched Dick Costolo‘s commencement speech which he gave yesterday at the University Of Michigan. He went back to his time doing improv in Chicago and cited two big lessions he got from that experience; take big chances and be in the moment.

It’s a good talk, brief as these things go, and relevant to everyone working in the startup world. It’s about 17 minutes long.


Comments (Archived):

  1. jason wright

    Google Glass Mr. Costelo, Google Glass.

    1. William Mougayar

      Did u watch the GoogleGlass segment on Saturday night live last eve? It was hillarious.

      1. jason wright

        I’l look for it

        1. jason wright

          i found it.i won’t ridicule Glass, but i’m betting Apple will iterate a better interface (pun intended).

          1. LE

            “n” isn’t very large here but I can’t remember any time where apple followed the lead of someone else with a product. Could happen but not typically what they do. (in no particular order..)- First Apple- Newton- Ipod- Iphone- Imac- Ipad- Ipad mini- Mac mini- Macbook Air- WatchMaybe when they made their first portable but even then (it was dockable) that was innovative.Once again possible especially since Steve is no longer around but I don’t feel it’s likely.Some of what Ilisted could be spun as iterative though.

          2. jason wright

            we shall see.Apple didn’t do mobiles first, and yet the iphone became the number one handset.

          3. pointsnfigures

            possible there isn’t a massive market for Google glass too. You never know. Early in the game, and someone might innovate something better.

          4. jason wright

            it’s clunky. if it becomes Google Glass Gossamer it could fly.

      2. ShanaC

        is it sad that I am usually in bed before that?

        1. Donna Brewington White

          Not necessarily…

  2. JimHirshfield

    “Be bold. Make courageous choices for yourself…what are you afraid of? Don’t always worry about what your next line is supposed to be…what you’re supposed to do next…there’s no script. Live your life. Be in this moment. Be in this moment. Now be in this moment.”

    1. fredwilson

      that’s the cliff notes version!

      1. Robert Holtz

        Thanks, Fred, for sharing that. I truly enjoyed it.

    2. LE

      I watched about 6 minutes of this (will return later probably) but I have disagreement if that is what Dick is saying.To me that’s one of those trite death bed memes like “nobody on their death bed thinks that they should have worked more”. Only said by people who have actually gotten to the point to be able to think something like that. (Take a walk around some hospitals and see all the gomers that nobody gives a shit about that weren’t “worried” about the choices that they made in the past.)I think it’s foolish and stupid for a young person to not think about the future and have a plan and just hope that everything will work out.So go ahead and “live your life”. There will be some other young person with their nose to the grindstone most likely with a head start and advantages over you because you didn’t plan and work as hard as they did.”.there’s no script”There might be “no script” but there are plenty of things that have a better chance of success if you don’t want to gamble with a 1 in a million chance of being the next standup comedy star living out of your car. Or artist. Or actor. Or Tv personality.It all depends what you view as the downside risk to pursuing a particular career path given your plan “b”. Meaning if you are born into money or have something to fall back on you can take more chances than if you don’t. As you go through life you will see many people that things just didn’t work out for.

      1. ShanaC

        I think you should have a plan but don’t be tied to it – because I’ve seen enough young divorces happen because they were more tied to the script than to life

        1. LE

          Much underrated is the benefit of making good choices and being smart in whatever you do.This goes for marriage as well. Making the decision for the wrong reasons of course does not make any sense.I watched Amanda Knox on 20/20 last night:…After seeing what she did I came to the conclusion (and I will say I’m sure I will be criticized for this) that the reason she got into the predicament that she is in is as follows:Her parents didn’t protect her. It’s obvious to me that she was not mature enough to be living as she was in Italy. (Judgement based upon her actions as highlighted when she was arrested doing cartwheels smiling and laughing in court as well as other things. Snap judgement of mine. Not mature enough. Even if this event didn’t happen (an outlier to be sure) doesn’t mean something else of lesser consequence wouldn’t happen to a person with her level of maturity to a degree that would outweigh the benefits. Not to mention that an attractive naive girls is a huge target (esp. if you don’t know the language which she didn’t).Noting also that she choose the guy she was with based upon the fact that he looked like Harry Potter!My niece is in France and she just went on a tour of Europe all by herself for 10 days. I think her mom (my sister) is crazy. No way she is mature enough to do this by herself. What’s the rush? What’s the benefit vs. the detriment? A few years ago her mom was worried about her going off the college all by herself. She’s incredibly naive. Remember how she was telling me at 16 or 17 about how great Obama.

      2. Aaron Klein

        I don’t think it’s “don’t have a plan.”I think it’s “don’t let someone else tell you this is what you have to do. Be bold. Make your own plan.”

        1. LE

          Well forgetting for a second what Dick actually said or meant I guess I take issue with this entire “don’t let someone else tell you this is what you have to do” part.After all he is speaking at the commencement of a major university. Obviously a large percentage of the people in the audience are there because they let someone (parents?) tell them “you need to go to college”. And despite the current hate with college (because of cost and job prospects now) that’s pretty solid advice. As long as you pick a reasonable major and have figured out employment wise where that might lead. Have to earn a living. It’s important.Fact is there are parents who have their shit together and they can point their kids in the right direction or sometimes even use other means to get them to do what is best because they have more life experience.Now of course if the child is smart enough or wants to put in the effort to show why they should not go to college or do something and they want to build a case that’s fine. But I suspect they don’t always have foundation in reality as far as what their dreams are.So there is a large gray area between “you have to be a doctor” and “do whatever you want pursue your dreams!” it’s all a matter of where you fall on that line.The fact is that a career that is “just ok” that earns you enough money to be financially secure will allow you a lifestyle where you can live comfortably and have other things you get more enjoyment from.

          1. Aaron Klein

            It’s never too late to learn that you can chart your own course and don’t have to follow someone’s predetermined formula.Especially since many of those new graduates are about to discover the formula sold them a bill of goods.

          2. zackmansfield

            One of his main points is that all these grads are sitting there in large part because they lived up to or exceeded the expectations of their parents (or teachers, or whoever was in their life directing them). But upon college graduation these sorts of expectations are wildly less concrete or discrete…so simply “staying within the rails” and living up to the expectations of others may not work anymore. In short, he was encouraging them to be entrepreneurial, to have the courage to define their own expectations rather than sitting back and living based on what someone else suggests. This may be a little too idealistic for you but I think is actually pretty germane to the audience.

      3. Dave Pinsen

        Why are you so quick to comment on everything (and at such length)?This isn’t a comment on the merits of what you’ve written here, but on your apparent inability to keep your thoughts to yourself for the 17 minutes it would have taken you to watch an entertaining speech given by a charismatic speaker.Watch it. Let it breathe. And then come back here and critique it to your heart’s content. But watch it first.

        1. LE

          “Why are you so quick to comment on everything (and at such length)?”Annoys you does it? Because I like to, that’s why. And I can.”but on your apparent inability to keep your thoughts to yourself”Why do I need to keep my thoughts to myself exactly?Or worry that it bothers anyone? Do you think that other people are sometimes or even regularly bothered by what others write? Do you think I should worry that something I write might bother someone or even everyone?”you to watch an entertaining speech given by a charismatic speaker”Your opinion. I did watch the amount that I said and I didn’t find it “entertaining” enough to keep watching although I thought that I might return to it later. But then again Fred did say “relevant to everyone working in the startup world.”. And I’m not working in the “startup” world. And I’m not a doe eyed recent college graduate either. I didn’t know Fred was running a love fest here where you have to be positive and only high five everything. Or you have to fully watch a video before you make a comments. Or reply to someone’s comment (which is what I did).Noting also that of the 47 comments on this post (as of now) over 20% of them are either my comments or replies to my comments. And nobody has to read what I have written either or like what I say. I’m not running for office or a popularity contest. (Always nice if people like what I say of course.)

        2. kidmercury

          this was a fun beef, though i can’t say i’m taking anyone’s side on this one. on one hand dave initiated the beef; my bias is towards supporting the defense. but on the other hand dave did incorporate a hate on long comments which is a passion of mine — long comments are the worst, the digital equivalent to body odor. so i’m a bit torn.

          1. Dave Pinsen

            I’ll let LE have the last word in the correspondence between him and me; I said what I had to say there. FWIW though, my issue wasn’t with the length of his comment per se, but that he expounded at length on a speech after admitting he had only watched 6 minutes of it.If it were an hour-long speech by an average speaker, that would mitigate things a bit. But a 17 minute speech by the CEO of Twitter, who happens to also be a former stand up comic / Second City performer? That called for an intervention, IMO.

      4. Rohan

        Hmm.. I feel you might be reading into what he said a touch too literally, LE.I feel the spirit of what he says is spot on. We all are guilty of chickening out of big decisions or big commitments or big changes more often than not.And we all are guilty of being too wedded to our own plans.The downside with taking any piece of advice or any quote too literally is that we tend to forget the spirit and only remember the literal meaning.For every “many hands make light work,” there is a “too many cooks spoil the broth.” Doesn’t mean either is wrong.. we just have to remember that one encourages team spirit and the other encourages us to do things ourselves when necessary.A pinch of salt to taste.

    3. LeifHansen

      Now is the moment you’ve been waiting for your entire life. Still is. Still s. Still is…. 😉

  3. Kirsten Lambertsen

    He writes good material 🙂 And he seems like he’d be great to work with.I studied acting in NYC for 5 years, and I use it every day in my life. I think good acting training is great life training because good acting training shares a lot with any mindfulness practice you can think of.Another great lesson from improv and acting is to say Yes to everything that your partners offer. You say, “Yes! And…”

    1. Richard

      I’ve played around with acting classes looking for a tool to get myself “out of the moment” (sort of why you go to movies to begin with.)

      1. Kirsten Lambertsen

        If you decide to take an improv class, make sure you confirm that it uses the Spolin method. Otherwise, it’s a waste of time. Viola Spolin basically invented improv, and it’s the method that Second City sticks with.

        1. Richard

          Thanks- ill look it up.

    2. Dave Pinsen

      Up to a point, Lord Copper.

      1. Kirsten Lambertsen

        Ha! I haven’t read any Waugh. I may have to do that.

        1. Dave Pinsen

          Scoop is a great place to start.

    3. tgodin

      Dan Pink devotes a whole chapter to improvisation in his latest book “To Sell is Human.” Your comment made me think back to that. He quotes the “three essential rules of improvisational theater”: (1) Hear Offers, (2) Say “Yes”, and (3) Make your partner look good.

  4. Richard

    Wow, Dick is a gifted leader/innovator and communicator. No surprise, as there are similar traits in the comic and and the innovator and sImilar traits in the actor and the CEO.

  5. William Mougayar

    Best part was his pre-speech tweet & pic:Commencement @umich My view

  6. pointsnfigures

    I took a short class in improv via Was about being in the moment. If you take a yoga class, they tell you the same thing. Interesting to think about since in this day and age electronically we are in several moments at once, or trying to think three steps ahead.I think he was doing a little improv during the speech!

  7. jason wright

    why do we tend to the opposite of Dick’s convictions on how to live life?

  8. jason wright

    he chose to mirror the mainstream media’s mantra of Syria, Iran, and North Korea.

  9. romeee

    Love improvisation

  10. jimmystone

    Really great stuff.

  11. howardlindzon

    most excellent.

  12. Patrick Campi

    That was awesome. Thanks for putting light on it!

  13. howardlindzon

    i gave that speech to max last night. he was indifferent.

    1. fredwilson


    2. Aaron Klein


  14. ShanaC

    Things I still regret – never trying out for the U of C’s improve group – I was asked to…

  15. Andrew Dumas

    Great video, thanks for sharing

  16. Rohan

    This was really nice, Fred. Thanks a lot – I loved both your videos this weekend.My favorite part was Twitter being down when Medvedev was in the office! I’ve always wondered why all my IT disasters happen right when I’m about to do a Real Leader interview or during an interview… haha. And coincidentally, i just bought an improv book as I’ve been hearing nice things about it from many sources.Some cliff notes from the chat with Arrington yesterday in case it helps..A few of the things I remember- Great companies, more often than not, start outas hobbies done on weekends. You don’t sit together and say “let’s think of agreat idea and build a company”.. – Founders are often a little crazy.. crazy enoughto believe they know what’s right and to go with their gut- The best founders listen to their investors butdon’t take orders- The best pitches are when you are deep in dialogwith your audience and when you do a demo of your product right upfront- Best practice – Hook your audience in and engagein a conversation by substantiating it- A common theme is to focus on build a greatproduct first and then worry about building a business (twitter, facebook,google, etc.)–This video deserves a blog post. Hopefully tomorrow.

    1. Donna Brewington White

      Thanks for the cliff notes Rohan. I haven’t gotten around to yesterday’s video and this is a great “trailer.”

  17. maxillya

    great speech….improv is great, living here and now, is the only way for the past and the future depends on the here and now.

  18. Ross Andrews

    Nice vid fred!Side note…heading to nyc on honeymoon next week and forcing my new wife to go to union square with me cos of this blog. Any tips from a vc readers for local coffee joint much appreciated 🙂

    1. fredwilson

      sadly, there isn’t a really cool coffee shop right on union square. there should be. taralucci et vino is nearby and is an italian coffee shop. you can sit outside but it gets crowded at lunch.

      1. Ross Andrews

        Thanks, we shall check it out.

  19. aseoconnor

    You are no longer meeting and exceeding expectations. There are no expectations. There is no script.

  20. Youssef Rahoui

    Great thanks!

  21. AMT Editorial Staff

    Could not have come at a better time: Our managing editor just signed up for an Improv class — beginner — that starts Thursday! Why?? Mix it up. Be present. Do something different….Etc.

  22. btrautsc

    watched/ listened while covering morning coffee + emails = Much more pumped up morning… Thanks Fred/ DickC

  23. Mark Guay

    Perfect speech to share with my seniors. We just spent a class infusing Priya Parker’s FOMO TEDx talk and now this is a perfect segway. Thanks!

  24. Peter Fleckenstein

    Thanks so much for that vid Fred. Much needed. Also thanks for the Arrington video. Both have huge value for me.

  25. Brad Lindenberg

    I liked the analogy about the Russian president. When the president of Russia was about to write his first Tweet, the server was down. That was what Dick remembered about that moment, not the significance of the accomplishment.It is so relevant to startups. When your head is in the sand, all you can see is sand, even if you are at the very top of the sand dune.

    1. fredwilson

      yeah, i really liked that part too.

      1. Brad Lindenberg

        Awesome, thanks 🙂

      2. AndrewsProject

        Great comment @bradlind:disqus.

  26. Nik Souris

    FINALLY got a chance to listen to @dickc’s commencement speech at Michigan last weekend. Funny, Thoughtful, and Inspiring. Great messages for all!

  27. Lew

    Go Blue!

  28. LE

    You’re right.But I don’t believe that any product that they have done has copied someone with such a huge PR blitz or is being taken as seriously as google. So I think that stands apart. Same with itunes and the music store downloads are nothing new.So I think it’s more like saying that Apple popularized certain things in the way that someone might actually be the dejure inventor of something as opposed to commonly being given the defacto “inventor” crown. So if I was rewriting this I would say “commonly recognized as popularizing” as opposed to “following” where others have blazed a strong trail.I guess it’s all where you draw the line. Is it “first” or “first” where it matters?As far as glass goes I’m with the school of thought that is summed up by that photo of Scoble in the shower.…My feeling is the utility of it doesn’t overcome the drawbacks of having to wear it vs. using your phone. Otoh if they morph it to a pair of glasses (which they most certainly will) the game then changes. I think the reason for the dorkiness to start is obviously because of the attention and all the discussion that occurs while they simultaneously work out the finer points of a less dorky interface. I’m also guessing (as a contact lens wearer) that they could figure out a way to do this with lens potentially.