A Happy Birthday and Thank You Card in One

What Improv (and my son) Can Teach Us About Gratitude

This is the front of the best birthday card I have ever received. Two years ago, I turned 50 and our 10-year-old son made this card for me. I’ve never laughed so hard in my life. I literally fell on the floor and it was my purely physical, squeaking, uncontrollable, guttural, laugh (not my polite, obligatory laugh).

There are so many reasons I love this card and I can explain none of them properly with words on paper. That’s part of what is so magical about pure gratitude; it’s something that just overtakes you physically and emotionally. In this case, I was overtaken by laughter, joy and thankfulness. And maybe a bit of self-consciousness too, because of all the things a son might be grateful to his mother for, I had never thought of this one?! Should I be offended or read something negative into this card?  No way. I said thank you and that allowed me to enjoy this very goofy and unexpected gift. (Truth be told, I DO have those dark circles under my eyes most days . . . I just hide them with a cheap concealer from Target. Don’t tell anyone).

One of the tenets of improvisation is that ALL ideas are gifts. We really mean ALL ideas. Not just the refined ideas, or the ideas that are funny, or the ideas that make sense. In improvisation all ideas have value. All ideas are useful. All ideas give something to the moment.  

One of my favorite improv exercises that we practice at the BNW Student Union is “What’s in the Box?”. There are dozens of variations, but the basic premise is that you turn to your partner and hand them an imaginary package containing an imaginary gift. Your partner asks, “What’s in the box?” You respond by telling them what is in the box. It can be anything. For example, I might respond saying “It’s a 1-week old black lab puppy.” Your partner responds, “Thank you for this 1-week old black lab puppy.” and then proceeds to tell you why it’s the perfect gift and how they will use the gift in their life. For example, “We just moved to a farm and need something to keep the coyotes away from our chickens.” or “I’m an empty nester and it’s too quiet around the house. Now we have a puppy!” Or any reason at all really, as long as your partner RECEIVES the gift with GRATITUDE first, and finds some USEFULNESS in the gift.

When we first introduce this exercise it’s usually taught as a way to practice the improv concept of “yes, and.” YES, I hear and see and accept that you are giving me a puppy, AND I am going to receive this puppy and use it to advance this story we are creating together. You can substitute the word idea for puppy, and you get the point: THANK YOU for your idea, AND I’m going to accept your idea and build upon your idea to discover the next moment in this story we are improvising together.

This is really the basic premise behind improvisation; we share ideas and agree to accept and build upon each other’s ideas. That’s why we treat all ideas as gifts. Because if you really think about what we’re doing ‒ creating a story out of nothing in the present moment ‒ any idea that is tossed out truly IS a gift. We had nothing, now we have something. Good improvisers are skilled at making something out of that nothing, NO MATTER what that first nugget of an idea is because good improvisers gratefully accept that first nugget.

One of the more nuanced bits of wisdom in this game is the moment of thank you. When I introduce the exercise, I instruct students to say thank you first. I usually say something like, “Reach out your hands and receive the imaginary gift, make eye contact and say thank you. You might be get excited and want to rush ahead to talking about how you are going to use the gift, or you might get stuck in your head in fear, wondering how you are going to use the gift, but try not to skip ahead. Please take the moment to first say thank you no matter what.”

Even with the gentle direction and warning, invariably half of the students forget the thank you in the first go around. They really aren’t trying to forget. They are simply falling into the habit that our brains are most practiced at: assess first, then solve the problem. Part of our brains are hardwired to keep us safe, and thus are constantly looking for ways to protect, resist, analyze, judge and pause. Our brains (the intellect part specifically) will always want to determine whether the idea (or information or event) coming at us is safe. This is not a bad thing. We need judgement at times during our life.

However, since our brains naturally go there, and we are creatures of pattern, if we don’t practice the non-automatic responses, our logical brain will take over. We’ll instinctually and more frequently assess and resist ideas, gifts, and information before we have a chance to even consider their possibility. Another way to say this: if we let this part of our brain run an improv scene, the scene would stall into analysis paralysis after the first declaration. Our brain would STOP the flow instead of GO WITH the flow.

That’s why the practice of saying thank you first tricks our brain out of its pattern of judgment (closed, resistant) and into the mindset of gratitude (open, accepting). Thank you makes your brain say, “Oh, I just said thank you. I must have just received something useful and wonderful. I better get a bit more curious and understand what that usefulness is.” And here’s what feels like the magical part to me: when we use this thank you trick in perceived undesirable situations, our minds open to more possibilities, instead of close or shut down in fear. When our logical brain might normally say, “No, I can’t listen to this person with completely opposing political views.” adding a moment of thank you tricks our brain into being curious and open to discovering something new or interesting. Another term we use for this in improv is reframing.

A shorter way to say all of this now that I’ve blabbed and blabbed is simply: You can physically practice gratitude and improvisation is a way to do that. And here’s what happens when you practice:  

  1. You will be able to find more solutions to problems in your life, and do so more quickly;  
  2. Your creativity will increase;  
  3. You will feel more calm in unexpected situations or situations of change and will be able to make decisions more effectively in those moments;
  4. You will have more ah-has! in your life;
  5. You will notice people love being around you and sharing with you;
  6. You will get really good and making lemonade out of lemons; and
  7. You will have way more fun in your life!


And one more way to say it? You can train your brain to be more open and curious by accepting information and ideas with a pause of gratitude first. By doing this you’ll find more usefulness and magic in every moment of your life, even the unexpected or tough ones. And by the way, this is not always easy and sometimes we slip into old patterns. That’s why practice is key and why we love playing “What’s in the Box?”

Five years-ago our other son was in 4th grade and his school had a tradition of the 4th grade classroom adopting a pair of rats for a few months as part of their nutrition unit in science class. They feed one rat a poor diet and the other a healthy diet. (You can guess where this goes for the rats.)

On weekends families sign up to bring the rats home so they are cared for during the break from school. It was May and my son forgot to tell me when he signed up to take a turn. On Friday, May 11 he came home with a cage. This was a surprise to me and my logical brain response was, “Yuck. No thank you on the rats!” But my improv practice kicked in and I said, “Well this is the most unusual Mother’s Day gift I’ve ever gotten.”  My son said, “What do you mean?” I said, “Well Mother’s Day is this Sunday and you just brought home a cage of rats for the weekend. Happy Mother’s Day to me.” We laughed and still love sharing this story. By finding the gratitude in the moment, we made rat-ade out of rats (Okay. Sorry, that’s gross).

Here’s a fun Brave New Workshop (BNW) gratitude tidbit. In 2018 we will celebrate 60 years of the Brave New Workshop. We are thrilled and truly grateful to be hitting this milestone and so we’ve decided to make 2018 the Year of Gratitude at the BNW.

BNW is founding the first ever Gratitude Bank and we’re looking for investors! Save your cash because this bank’s currency is your stories: what are you grateful for? Learn more and make a contribution to our Gratitude Bank!

And always you are welcome to join us in one of our improv classes as we tear up the town in laughter and practice improv at the BNW Student Union.


– Jenni Lilledahl is the co-owner of the Brave New Workshop Theatre (along with her husband and co-improviser John Sweeney), president of the BNW’s Student Union (school of improvisation) and co-founder of Gilda’s Club Twin Cities.

Be Brave. Do Improv