Prioritize your health, always. At the end of the day, that’s the most important thing we need.
As a part of our series about the women in wellness, I had the pleasure of interviewing Mary Lemmer.
Mary brings the worlds of wellness and humor together, to empower individuals and teams to improve their lives. She is the founder of Improve, a company that improves peoples’ lives using improv comedy techniques designed to improve wellbeing, joy, connection, creativity, collaboration, adaptability, belonging, and more. In her TED talk “How improv can improve your leadership and life” she shares the fundamental principles that underlie this work.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Our readers would love to “get to know you” better. Can you share your “backstory” with us?
I was a slave to my calendar. If something didn’t go as I planned it would throw me off into a tailspin of anxiety and anger. Though my obsessive scheduling made me an incredibly productive robot, it made me a miserable human.
Soon after graduating college, after one too many attacks of anxiety, I found an improv class in Ann Arbor, Michigan and signed up for 8 weeks of getting comfortable with uncertainty. After my first class, I was in love. I was hooked. It felt so good to not have plans. To not know what was coming next. To not know what I was going to say. To just be, and react, and create something wonderful with other people.
From there I went to the Mecca of improv, The Second City in Chicago. I participated in a weekend improv workshop.
After I left The Second City I was definitely on an improv high. I wanted more of it, so I started incorporating improv philosophy and games into my life and work. Yes, I became the family member who would force the family to play One Word Story and Zip Zap Zop at the dinner table. (Pro tip if you want to enjoy fun times with your family, play improv games).
I also found improv incredibly useful in my work life as an entrepreneur and, at the time, venture capitalist. I became better able to handle uncertainty, communicate, and connect with my colleagues.
Since starting to practice improv 11 years ago, I’ve improved my own leadership skills and wellbeing. My chronic illness symptoms have lessened. I faint less. I experience less anxiety-inspired ailments.
I have better relationships. My work is more satisfying. My sleep is more restful. Life is just better.
In addition to improving my own life from practicing improv with intention, I’ve developed and taught ways to use improv comedy techniques to improve leadership, teams, and wellbeing to others. Along the way I’ve had the opportunity to improv’e with tens of thousands of people with organizations including Lyft, TED, Pinterest, KPMG, R/GA, Silicon Valley Bank (if bankers can laugh, anyone can) and countless others.
I am grateful to have studied improv with some of the most talented people (and probably some future SNL cast members) at The Second City, The Groundlings, Upright Citizens Brigade, among others. They’ll go on to grace the screens of NBC. You’ll find me in the boardroom making engineers act like space creatures.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career? What were the main lessons or takeaways from that story?
Just one?! Ha!
Years ago I had a job offer from a well-funded agtech company based in the Bay Area. I had been chatting with the CMO there for months about a part-time consulting gig with them, so it was a bit unexpected that instead they insisted on hiring me for a full-time role. I wasn’t that interested in a full-time role at the time, and if I was to take a full-time role, I wanted to be sure that the executive leadership cared about and prioritized people. “We care about people here,” the CEO insisted as I asked him about the culture of the company. I had been burnt in cultures toxic to me before and I didn’t want to repeat that story again. The HR person called me and read me the job offer as if it was an automated recording set to play as soon as I said ‘hello’. As she read it, I teared up. She paused and asked if I was okay, proving it wasn’t an automated recording, and I contributed my tears to my surprise and unfamiliarity with receiving job offers over the phone.
Really, these tears were trying to tell me something. This job was not a fit for me.
Still, I persisted, and I arranged to negotiate my job offer at their office one afternoon. That morning, I was leading an improv session for a team offsite and on my way out I stepped on a rusty nail, barefoot. If you’re wondering why I was barefoot at this team offsite, it’s because why not be barefoot at a team offsite?! (And it was outside on turf grass and seemingly harmless, until the rusty nail situation). After stepping on the nail I passed out multiple times in a row and the company I was there with called 911 which sent EMTs who despite my pleading to put me in an Uber (fun fact, Ubers are way cheaper than ambulance rides) eventually took me to the hospital because of my alarming vitals. In the ambulance on the way to the hospital I sent an email to the company I had arranged to negotiate my offer with, informing them that I was on my way to the hospital and wouldn’t be able to make it to meet them that day.
Another sign that maybe this job wasn’t right for me.
Still, I persisted, pushed through my intuition and my body sending me clear signs to back off from this job.
I accepted a job offer and planned to start on September 11. Maybe not a great start date.
My first day was mostly logistics and administrative. Setting up my laptop and email address, meeting people on the team. The next two days I was at a conference. One morning of the conference I got a call from my new boss, the CMO. With a really weird feeling in my stomach, I picked up the phone. Something about his energy made my stomach drop even more. “I don’t know how to tell you this,” he said, “I was fired.” Three days into this job and the guy who recruited me and a significant reason I joined was let go, unexpectedly, knees chopped off from underneath him. I had to brace myself against a wall upon hearing this news, as my body felt too weak to hold itself up.
The months that followed were miserable for me. I’d go for runs and workout every morning before my hour and a half commute, so as to pump myself up for the day ahead. On the ride back, I cried my eyes out on the train. I was miserable. I told myself I’d give it three months to see if it got any better. It didn’t, and I left the job and instantly felt a sigh of relief when I did what I should’ve done in the first place…never taken this job.
The lessons learned from this experience:
- Trust your intuition. When your body talks, listen. Tears, injuries, illnesses, sometimes those can tell us some hard truths that we ought to listen to. In improv we practice “taking everything as a gift,” even if it doesn’t seem like a gift from the onset. Gifts come in all shapes and sizes and bumps and bruises.
- Not everyone interprets “care about people” (and many other goodhearted beliefs) the same way. Ask specific questions about a company’s culture versus broad questions. Everyone will say “I care about people,” but how they show it might differ from how you see “caring about people.” Trust and kindness, to you, might mean direct honesty. To someone else it might mean omitting hard truths to share.
- Always wear shoes when walking across wooden decks.
Can you share a story about the biggest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
In improv there is a saying “there are no mistakes, only gifts and opportunities,” and I’ve learned to embody this philosophy, as I do believe that every mistake opens up a door of insight, inspiration, learning, or otherwise gets us closer to lightness. Probably my biggest mistake was not realizing this earlier in my career. I used to take everything very seriously and be really hard on myself for “making mistakes”. This answer may seem really meta, but it’s true that I think the biggest mistake I’ve ever made is believing mistakes were a “bad” thing.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
There have been SO many people that have helped me along the way. I’ll share three, quickly.
First, my mom and dad. I mean, without them I wouldn’t be here, right?
My mom, in particular, was so observant about my involvement in improv over the years. I invited her to one of my engagements with a company in Pittsburgh, where I’d be improv’ing with dozens of executives. After she saw me in my element, improv’ing with these leaders, and also saw me sweating buckets on a basic phone interview for a tech company job, she looked at me candidly and said something along the lines of “do you see what’s going on here? You were cool as a cucumber leading a session for dozens of executives, and you were amazing! You didn’t seem stressed, anxious, and you were filled with so much joy. And you really helped them, I saw it! But on this phone interview where you’re literally only just talking about yourself, you’re an anxious wreck. Doesn’t this tell you what you should be doing?” She said it without saying it. She made an observation, which was all I needed to inspire reflection on my “ikigai”, my purpose. Using improv comedy to help people improve their leadership and lives was something I enjoyed doing, I was good at, the world needs, and I could get paid for. Thanks, Mom 🙂
Then, Cynthia, a woman I met at an improv class in New York City, who quickly became one of my closest friends and family. Cynthia, through her actions and unconditional love and support, taught me about love and friendship and what it means to be a true friend. Early in my friendship with Cynthia she would call me, just to say “hi”, see how I was doing, and talk. At first I was a bit perplexed by this. I didn’t have any other friends who just called to see how I was feeling. It was weird to me. In improv there’s also a saying, “if it feels weird, do it”, and I did. I’d call her, just to see how she was doing. And I answered her calls when she called me. Sometimes we’d only talk for 5 minutes, and sometimes hours. I loved it. I love her. And I love myself more because of her. And I’m a better friend now too.
Ok perfect. Now let’s jump to our main focus. When it comes to health and wellness, how is the work you are doing helping to make a bigger impact in the world?
More than ever before, people are lonely. There’s a lot of loneliness, fear, anxiety, stress, and health challenges (that often result from that stress) in the world right now, and it’s increasing.
We’re combining the best of improv comedy, neuroscience, behavioral science, high performance coaching techniques, and other research-backed wellness techniques to design fun and playful ways to improve life, leadership, health and wellbeing. What we do is fun AND it works. It’s like eating M&Ms that are packed with vitamins — they taste good and they’re good for you. Practicing improv with intention, which is what we do at Improve, is like yoga for social skills, as we’re connecting with ourselves and others. We practice being present, connecting with ourselves and others, expressing ourselves, expanding our capabilities as leaders and people, and handling stressful situations with ease and grace.
More people than ever are meditating, which is great. But people are still angry, easily triggered, and struggle to communicate. Improv is that missing piece. Because when we improvise with intention we’re deepening self-awareness, social awareness, empathy and compassion towards others, and creativity to handle whatever life brings our way. With improv we get to actually practice handling the things that set us off. We get to practice the hard stuff in a psychologically safe environment, so that when we get into the “real world” we’re prepared to handle the hard stuff. When people practice improvising with intention their relationships improve, their personal health improves, and their joy and satisfaction in life improves.
Can you share your top five “lifestyle tweaks” that you believe will help support people’s journey towards better wellbeing? Please give an example or story for each.
- I love food puns and every day I use three specific food puns to ground me in gratitude, brighten my day, and celebrate things small and big. At the top of my planner I write “I YAM….” followed by three columns, “GRAPEful for….”, “EGGScited for…”, and “CELERYbrating” (except I draw grapes, eggs, and celery to replace the words). Then, each day throughout the week, in the morning I write 3 things I’m grateful for, 3 things I’m excited about in my forthcoming day, and in the evening 3 things I’m celebrating from the day. I started doing this because I wanted a fun and illustrative way to shower myself with gratitude and appreciation each day. It takes a typical “gratitude journal” and adds a flavor of fun!
- At 11:11 am each day I have an alarm set and when it goes off I pause whatever I am doing, close my eyes, and take 11 deep breaths. I started doing this to add a moment of mindfulness into the middle of my day, and it is so grounding and calming after what sometimes is an action-packed morning. The 11:11 / 11 is magical to me (and easy to remember 🙂
- “Crazy Eights” is an exercise we use to warm up in improv. It involves shaking our right arm eight times, then left arm eight times, then right leg, left leg, entire body eight times. Then, doing it all seven times, six times, five times, and so on, until reaching the end of the countdown and yelling “crazy eights!” When done in a group it’s energizing and fun and silly, connecting us with people around us. When done solo it’s more energizing than caffeine, I think. I use this when I need to boost my energy and smile and remind myself to not take myself too seriously.
- Oftentimes people start thinking about what they’re going to say before the other person talking even finishes talking. This type of behavior isn’t conducive to deep listening and connecting with others. In improv we practice “first word, last word” conversations where we use someone’s last word as our first word. For example, if you said “Today I ate cereal for breakfast,” I need to start my sentence with “breakfast” and might say “Breakfast is the most important meal of the day, I think.” And so forth. Practicing conversations like this trains us to really listen to what people have to say, and all of what people have to say, and be incredibly present, which contributes towards our connection with others.
- And finally, smile. I smile when I do things, especially things I don’t really enjoy doing all that much. It makes a big difference.
If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of wellness to the most amount of people, what would that be?
Everyone takes our improv classes at Improve! It brings about self-wellness and social wellness. Improvising with intention is so great at improving personal and group mindfulness.
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why?
- Recently, Adam Grant shared on LinkedIn the advice to before taking a job offer, ask “do I want to become more like the people here?” He continues to say “You can aspire to change the culture of a group, but don’t overlook how the culture will change you. Few of us are immune to the values of the people around us.” I wish someone told me this before I started my career, as early in my career I typically went into environments that I thought I could change, to make the cultures more accepting, creative, and compassionate toward one another. And I underestimated those cultures’ impact on me (and didn’t predict the therapy I’d need to help process some of my experiences in those cultures).
- No one knows what they’re doing. Everything is figuring it out as they go along. I used to put a lot of pressure on myself to have answers and know what to do. As soon as I was honest with myself, I could be honest with others, and realize that we’re all figuring it out and figuring it out together can be more effective than just trying to do everything ourselves.
- Just like there’s no right way to eat a Reeses, there’s no one right way to build a business or create something. There are so many different ways to solve problems and create opportunity. Just because the ways you think of aren’t the same as someone else’s doesn’t make you wrong…it just means you both have different ideas for how to solve something. I think it’s important for people to recognize that different people have different approaches to work, problem-solving, creating something. Both can work. There isn’t always a clear singular winner when it comes to ideas, creativity, and problem-solving.
- Don’t just think about career design, think about lifestyle design. Think about the kind of life you want to lead, and figure out which jobs support that. It seems like so often we’re a career-focused society, and consider what profession we want before we think about what kind of life we want. What if we did the reverse and thought about the life we want, and then figured out which careers are best considering the life we want to lead?
- Prioritize your health, always. At the end of the day, that’s the most important thing we need.
Sustainability, veganism, mental health and environmental changes are big topics at the moment. Which one of these causes is dearest to you, and why?
They’re all near and dear to me! Out of the four I am most focused on mental health because I’ve personally experienced such a transformation with my own mental health and want to share what I’ve learned with others. I also believe that mental health is at the root of so many other societal challenges, and that, if we start taking care of ourselves, we are better prepared to take care of others and take care of the world, sustainability, environmental challenges, animals, etc.
What is the best way our readers can follow you on social media?
@maryimproves and @chooseimprove on Instagram
@maryimproves on Twitter
Thank you for these fantastic insights!