If you want to become more creative, the answer may lie in becoming more courageous. A new class at USC Annenberg called Improvisational Leadership is encouraging students to step outside of their comfort zones and explore new experiences.
“Students fear finding the perfect job the day they graduate,” says Fred Cook, director of the USC Center for Public Relations and professor of professional practice. “They’re under pressure to perform because of student loans and their parents. They’ve taken the classes and done the internships, but they’re often short on life experience.”
The Improvisational Leadership class is designed to expose students to new experiences, making them more creative by expanding their frames of reference. The class is 100% experiential, with no tests, textbook, or papers. Creativity can be learned, but not through lectures or reading, says Cook. “It has to be learned through doing,” he says.
And that can take a nudge. Each week, Cook, chairman of the global PR firm Golin and author of Improvise: Unorthodox Career Advice from an Unlikely CEO, challenges students to push their personal limits by trying new things.
Forcing Yourself Out Of Your Comfort Zone
“The experiences are totally at their discretion and documented in a private Facebook group with pictures,” says Cook. “They explain what they did, how they felt, and what they learned.”
One student, who was working as an intern at a company, mustered up the courage to ask for full-time job, and got it. Another student entered a contest for USC scholars and won. Another got a tattoo, while others went on a digital detox.
“Trying new things gives you the courage you need to experiment with your life and not be worried about whether or not you fail,” says Cook.
In addition to weekly activities, students are given specific assignments that help them take risks. For example, each student has to select a senior executive at a company they admire and learn everything they can about them. Then they use that information to track them down for a call or a meeting. “They’re learning that in the real world, it can be hard to reach people, and you have to improvise and employ new tactics,” says Cook. “Some are successful and some are not, but they all learn from the process.”
Students also have to listen to something they don’t understand. “One [journalism] student went to a chemistry class,” says Cook. “Another listened to an NRA podcast, and another watched Korean television.”
In another exercise, students pulled a topic out of a hat and were given five minutes to prepare a presentation that positions them as an expert. “The idea is that you’re sometimes not given much time to prepare for something, and you have to sound knowledgeable and confident,” says Cook. “These real-life skills and experiences help you think on your feet.”
And in another, students must negotiate something. “They’re often very nervous about asking for something, but people respect you for negotiating,” says Cook. “They expect and respect it, especially when you’re standing up for your values.”
The Value Of Fear
Cook’s exercises are working, says Cynthia Blondeel-Timmerman, an undergraduate public relations major enrolled in Cook’s class. “Fear can stop you from accomplishing incredible things,” she says. “I am someone who is afraid of failure, so learning about the different ways to conquer my fears was very enlightening.”
Blondeel-Timmerman’s new experiences included taking a pole dancing class, trying Korean barbecue, traveling to New York for the first time, and singing a choir solo. The excitement prompted her to start trying two new things a week. “What surprised me most was how much life opens up when you’re willing to get out of your comfort zone,” she says. “You never know where a door leads, and you can only find out if you go through it,” she says.
Ian Hurley, a graduate PR student, says the class taught him that it’s important to never get complacent. “Once you settle in and stop trying and experiencing new things, you limit your capacity to grow and think differently,” he says. “That’s not something that people look for in leadership, and from this class, I’m going to constantly reflect on how I can continue to seek out new experiences in order to continue to widen my world view.”
He also learned that he shouldn’t fear failure. “To some extent, everyone in the class has admitted to not trying something or speaking up in a meeting or reaching out to a higher-level executive out of the fear that they will fail, and be shunned or criticized for their incompetency,” he says. “Through this class, we have all figured out that limiting ourselves because of fear is something that can put far more of a strain on our career growth than trying something earnestly and failing.”
An Ongoing Process
Becoming courageous and creative doesn’t happen overnight, says Cook. “It builds up a little at a time by doing new things and trying things you’ve never done before,” he says. “Every little step pushes you out of your comfort zone. I’ve seen students do things they never thought they could do before. They’re nervous, but they do it because it’s an assignment. The next time is easier. The goal is to become more creative, courageous leaders.”