by Ryan Strunk
From the Editor: Ryan Strunk works at Target, his job being to make the online shopping experience for blind people as good as it is for the sighted. In this work he not only helps a retail store, but the efforts of him and his team sets the bar for accessibility for the retail industry.
What Ryan reveals in this article is a personal story that contains a tremendous message, a tremendous epiphany, and a tremendous acceptance of the responsibility to be all that one can be while accepting that what we are is plenty good. How many times have we labored under the commonly held belief that what we do will reflect on all blind people whether that be negative or positive? Is there some truth in it? Probably so. Does it sell the public short in their ability to differentiate between one of us and other people who share our characteristics? It most certainly does. As a challenge, being all we can be is worthy. But the idea that we are constantly being judged and that the impression we make will harm all blind people is what people who work a twelve-step program would call stinking thinking. If it takes being perfect for us to be happy with ourselves, we will always be unhappy with the person to whom we have the greatest responsibility. The Braille Monitor is delighted to add Ryan’s thoughts to the real-life stories that will chronicle the history of blind people as we have moved from a lack of acceptance to a grudging acceptance to true acceptance, and, more important than any of these, to self-acceptance. Here is Ryan’s story:
Improvisational theater—or improv—is the art of stepping on stage armed with, at most, an audience suggestion and creating a full-length narrative or series of connected scenes out of whole cloth. There are no scripts, no props, and no stage directions. The scenes we create have never been seen before, and they will never be seen again.
In the midst of that creative space, with limitless possibilities in front of the actors, it can be easy to get lost. To help with this, over the years improvisers have developed a series of suggested rules to keep scenes on track and audiences entertained. These rules make improv fun and engaging, but after exploring them outside of the theater, I have found they have amazing use in our daily lives as well.
The first lesson in improvisational theater: Say “yes.” This is important because, as great improvisers will tell you, most people are far too good at saying “no.” We find ourselves in life situations that stretch the bounds of our comfort, and “no” quickly becomes a wall to hide behind, keeping us out of risky situations. Say “no” too much on stage, and a great scene can come to a screeching halt. “No” eliminates direction; it puts up roadblocks that only the most talented improvisers can get around. Brian, my first improv teacher, was quick to point out that there is a time and a place for “no” in life—particularly in situations that are dangerous—but in general we tend to say “yes” far less often than we should. Even after over four years of improv, I’m still learning this lesson.
A few months ago a coworker invited me to lunch with him and the rest of his team. I told him I had eaten a late breakfast that day, and I probably wouldn’t eat much for lunch. I thanked him for the invitation, politely declined, and immediately regretted saying no.
The people of Minnesota, contrary to what we might want you to think, don’t like cold much more than the average American. To deal with this, some enterprising architects built an impressive eight-mile-labyrinth of heated skyways in downtown Minneapolis, operating on the premise that staying warm in winter is awesome. Downtown Minneapolis is also home to tens of thousands of office workers, and even in the summer month—months if we’re lucky—the halls are jammed with people at lunchtime. In winter, it is a chaotic mass of humanity, rushing bodies juggling takeout containers, coffee cups, and cell phones, all bent on getting somewhere—often loudly and usually in a hurry.
I try to avoid the lunch rush when I go out, taking my lunch a few minutes early so I don’t have to deal with long lines and throngs of people. One reason for this is that I’m an introvert who doesn’t like crowds, but that wasn’t why I said no that day.
A second rule from the improv world: When exploring your character, get to the deepest why. If your character on stage wants something, why is that want important? Let’s pretend, for example, your character is raiding the communal candy dish and taking socially irresponsible fistfuls of chocolate. Why is he doing that? Because he’s hungry. Why is he hungry? Because he skipped lunch. Why? Because he feels incredibly pressured to finish a project at work, one that could make or break his career, and taking twenty minutes to get a sandwich could be the difference between a promotion and financial ruin. At that point, the desire for candy is much more compelling, leading to a much deeper scene. It’s not just that your character is hungry, but that your character wants candy to avoid losing everything. Knowing your character can make for more interesting scenes, and knowing yourself can make for a more interesting life.
The deepest why behind my saying no that day wasn’t that I was feeling introverted. The bigger truth was that I was afraid of screwing up in front of my coworkers and embarrassing myself. I worried that I might trip someone with my cane, get lost in the noise and chaos, or make a wrong turn somewhere, and I feared that whatever mistake I made would have far-reaching consequences. Part of eating lunch with colleagues, I tried to tell myself, is building relationships. But making silly mistakes in front of them, I thought, would damage those relationships. Better to eat alone at my desk than take a chance and screw up.
That regret, though, nagged at me after I said no. I like my coworkers, and I wanted to spend time with them. What’s more, a slice of New York-style pizza from Andréa—where they were going—is always awesome, and despite my reservations, I wanted one.
Tip number three: Never be afraid to jump into a scene. Even if you don’t have anything in your head, even if your mind is blank, jump. Something will almost always come to you, and even if it doesn’t, your scene partners will be there to support you. Instead of waiting for the perfect moment and quietly planning something out, which is contrary to improv in the first place, step off the back line, take a leap of faith, and trust that it will work out. You will never get the chance to act if you never step on stage.
I have, as a general rule, been risk-averse for most of my life, and while I am still cautious, improv has helped me to realize that often the rewards of jumping outweigh the costs of not doing so. I wanted to spend time with my coworkers, and I wanted pizza. I had the benefit of good cane travel training, and if I was worried I was going to lose the group in the crowd, I could always ask for someone’s elbow. With some trepidation, I told them I had changed my mind, and I said “yes.”
A fourth lesson from improv: Accept mistakes and move on. In a world of unlimited creative possibility, where information is constantly flowing, where actors have to pay attention to their own characters while listening to everyone around them, mistakes will happen. I might forget that my scene partner’s name is Nancy and call her Norma instead. My scene partner might forget that I built an imaginary bonfire in front of myself and accidentally walk right through the middle of it. Sometimes we draw attention to these mistakes in the interest of comedy—“Look out! You’re on fire!”—but more often, we just accept that they happen. If we stop the show to obsess over mistakes, we not only make it awkward for the audience, but more importantly, we make life harder on one another.
The trip to Andréa was uneventful. I navigated the crowd with no difficulties. The pizza was delicious—a huge, foldable slice of chicken, bacon, and ranch. We chatted about work gossip and current events, and everything went perfectly.
Then, as we were leaving, I tapped a person standing in front of me with my cane, and in trying to move around them, ended up walking behind the restaurant counter. I instantly felt mortified, especially when one of my coworkers asked, “Are you trying to get a free slice?” All my fears from earlier started to bubble up, and I felt like an idiot.
I stepped out from behind the counter, took a deep breath, embraced my mistake, and responded, “Yeah. It was going to be your birthday present, but you ruined the surprise.” He laughed, and that was the end of it. My accidental wrong turn was no big deal.
Since then, I’ve gone out to more lunches and happy hours with that group, and even though many of us have since moved on to new projects and teams, we still meet up from time to time for lunch or coffee. We’ve gone from being colleagues to being friends. If I hadn’t overcome my fear that day, that might never have happened.
Life, like improvisational theater, can be a vast, creative space full of possibilities. I will never get the chance to explore that space, though, if I don’t embrace the lessons I have learned. I need to say yes to new opportunities and jump even when I’m uncomfortable. I need to understand the why behind my gut reactions to figure out if the fear I’m feeling is justified. I need to accept that mistakes will happen, embrace them, and move on. Most importantly, I just need to relax and have a good time.