I walked into my local improvisational comedy theater a few years ago and started taking classes to escape burnout and have some fun. It was so freaking difficult. Here I was, a frazzled, tightly-wound mid-career pediatrician, surrounded by all these creative, quirky folks from all walks of life who were just so funny. I kept hearing, “We don’t want to hear you on stage, Wendy,” meaning they wanted me to drop the character of being a professional, mom, and pediatrician.
When we were playing a game called “Hitler’s Baby” (look, it wasn’t my choice), I hit a wall. We had a chance to go back in time and rewrite history. The “baby” was placed in my arms. Here was my chance: Now what?
Nope. Hell no. There is no way that I am going to hurt a baby. Solid line was drawn.
I do believe I bored the baby to death.
That was the time when I decided my pediatrician character was everything. I didn’t return to the theater for about five years.
After the dust settled from COVID, my son and I returned to the theater together. Hey, they no longer play Hitler’s Baby (thank goodness), and I had changed a lot in the ensuing years. I was exhausted from all the roles I had been playing in my real life. Burnout had jumped up and bitten me in the ass multiple times.
I got on stage. I messed up, repeatedly. And yet, I would say, “Yes, and,” with my partners, and we would build new worlds together. I found that I, too, am one of the creative, quirky folks. In fact, when I am being creative and quirky, that’s when the real me is present.
Improv is helping me break the rules of my life, what I think it needs to look like to be successful or doing it right. Heck, there’s even a game called “World’s Worst,” where we get to play the worst of any role we are given. Game on.
I am now on a house team for the theater. It’s truly a privilege and a huge step for me repeatedly signing up to fail. Because if I don’t risk failure, I will never know what I can really do.
That is the antithesis of the way that I had been taught medicine. I was taught to mold, perfect, dial in to identify the pattern, the problem, and fix it.
I hit another wall last night during practice. My partner and I were given a character and a location. We were nuns in New York City. Now what?
I made praying hands, always looking up, and we wound up in the Empire State Building, you know, to be closer to God.
My mentors said, “Wendy, we want to see the person who is the nun. No one goes around living their life as that profession. OK, perhaps nuns are an exception. But I’m a shipbuilder, and you probably don’t know that because it doesn’t influence how I show up here. That’s not the way that we introduce ourselves.”
Nuns are not the only exception. Physicians. Professionals. Moms. “No one goes around living their life as their profession. No one introduces themselves as what they do.”
Actually, everyone I know does. We are all trying to live as the “World’s Best.”
They wanted to know about the person who was the nun, the emotions, what is important to her. Who is this human that happens to be a nun?
It hit me like a ton of bricks. No, the nun isn’t the exception. I’ve been living my life with a set character: wife, mom, pediatrician, military officer. I let the role define me. It stifled what is really important—the person who happens to be in this profession.
I am not alone.
For years, I walked into a room and introduced myself as a physician, including outside of the medical office. I had worked so freaking hard to become a physician; it was who I was. And also as a mother, I would ask myself, “What does a good mother do?” and let that drive my decisions.
Those decisions were not reflective of me, Wendy, the human who just happens to be a mother and a pediatrician. Those decisions did not honor the imperfect human who was being stifled in the roles she was playing.
Last night, my mentor told me, “I don’t care if you ever mention anything about being a nun. I want to know what is important to you. In fact, who are you, Wendy? What is important to you?”
I responded quickly, “Connection.”
“OK, so that’s how you go through life, with connection being the most important thing.”
“Absolutely,” I said.
My mentor asked, “So what about your nun?”
My partner and I were off. We were looking for patterns of emotion, building outward instead of looking for unifying patterns inward, which had been my diagnostic approach in medicine. I wasn’t looking for the right way to play a role. In fact, I leaned into all the quirks of the human who happens to be a nun.
Improv is giving me the opportunity to fail repeatedly. But I don’t see it as failing. I see it as unlearning. I am unlearning the lessons that I thought were so important in medicine: perfectionism, role-playing, finding a singular “right answer,” and fixing it. Instead, I’m becoming more human, imperfect, feeling, and connecting.
Because that is who I am.
Wendy Schofer is a pediatrician.