THE BLOG
11/05/2012 02:45 pm ET | Updated Jan 23, 2014

Election 2012: Ayn Rand vs Viola Spolin

Ayn Rand, you say? Is that what you say?

When it comes to productive avenues for innovation and growth, especially in the current economic climate, the Rand approach is a recipe for personal and organizational chaos and aimlessness. Here's why:

What Ayn Rand created was, and still is, fiction. It never existed and it never will. Objectivism is nothing but a chimera.

Rand built her objectivist heroes, Howard Roark and John Galt, out of what she perceived to be the failings of men. Her father lost his pharmacy to the Bolsheviks when she was young and it left a lifelong impression on her. For Rand, individuals were forever doomed by the whims of the collective, just like her father was. Period. Done. She had it all figured out when she was 12.

She spent her life inventing all the reasons that held men back from their greatness, and describing the forces of mediocrity (i.e. the City Halls and the Tooheys and the second-handers of the world) allied against great men. Objectivism became a mask for her own disappointment. She created a philosophy to accommodate this disappointment, depicted in fictional worlds where reason and the work of the mind constitute perfection. This has nothing to do with the truth, with the way the world really works.

The truth is that individual fate and human destiny are shaped far more by emotion and the environment than by reason. That's just the way it is, biologically speaking. This gets to the the flaw in Rand's world view. Our emotions and our responses to the situations in which we find ourselves are far more important to our growth and evolution than what's in our heads.

When you boil it down, objectivism is just Ayn Rand compensating for reality's shortcomings by making up something that doesn't exist. Howard Roark never existed. Nothing he designed ever got built (nor should it have, it was ugly stuff, architecturally speaking). Who is John Galt? He's a fiction living in a disappointed woman's head. Believing in Ayn Rand is mistaking fiction for fact. It's like having Keanu Reeves as your role model. You become an empty vessel waiting to be filled by the fictions of others.

Me? I'm voting for Viola Spolin.

It was Ayn Rand's contemporary, Viola Spolin, who created a living philosophy that is not only real, it's more relevant today than it has ever been. She called it theater games. The name it goes by today is improvisation

Spolin was a loving, nurturing woman and mother, an educational pioneer who never stopped teaching and sharing her knowledge, primarily with children, through her work with theater games. and improvisation. Her work deals in experiential learning, multi-culturalism and assimilation. It is rooted in direct experience, hands-on and heads-up. She believes in learning through the playing of games that solve problems, which is exactly in tune with the concept of of collaborative learning that is super relevant in 2012. Spolin created a body of work that has lasted, not as fiction, but as a real living modus operandum.

The 'Spolin approach' provides a way for people of different cultures, with different life experiences, to work together collaboratively to achieve productive outcomes. The Group Mind of Spolin's art is not Ayn Rand's dreaded collectivism. It is not the same as the Bolshevistic mob mentality of Group Think that terrified Rand. Rather, it is a way for individuals to participate fully and authentically in the solving of problems. It is a path to innovation and inspiration and personal commitment. That's how Spolin conceived of improvisation, and that's what it remains to this day.

Interestingly, "the objective" is an important element of Spolin's teaching. And it means almost the opposite of Rand's objectivism. To Spolin, it means giving yourself over to the problem at hand, setting aside ego and letting the environment and the scene you're in determine the best course of action (knowing all the while that one's choices will be informed by but not determined by intellect.)

Ayn Rand is all about flexing one's ego and intellect. About the dominant narrative. Viola Spolin, by contrast, sees ego and intellect as preventing people from being in the moment and achieving the ego-less state where the magic happens, when you give yourself over to something larger than you.

Ego is the Self. As such, it is a subjective lens. It gives no credence to context. It is reality warped by reason and, as such, is counter-productive to any process but the process of attempting to inflict one's own script or point of view on the world. Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan epitomize this way of behaving. It doesn't matter what the script is, as long as its their script. The idea is dominance. The concept that you are always right and others are always wrong. And not only are others wrong, they are looking to feed off, and second-hand your individual right-ness. To live in this world, as Romney and Ryan do, is to obsess over Me vs. You, Us-vs.-Them and zero-sum narratives. In this dreadfully binary existence, Romney must disown a health care plan he authored, because he only knows games where Himself must be right and Thatself must be wrong. Ergo, any health care plan endorsed by his opponent must be wrong, even if the health care plan was his idea in the first place! In improvisation, we call this Denying. It is completely counter-productive. One of the worst things you can do to any scene you're in.

Viola Spolin, by contrast, is all about sharing the narrative. About reaching agreement. It almost doesn't matter what the initial agreement is, the point is to find one. You like corn? So do I. And from that we build. At first, we don't have to know what we're building, just that we are building. The story of the building will be revealed in our process, our focus, and our intentionality. We trust that if our process is good, the product will follow.

The principles Spolin established have been studied and practiced by tens of millions of people over the past 50 years.

People have actualized her teaching as ways of behaving that can be carried out of the theater and into the world, as a ways of living. Ayn Rand's fictions, by comparison, live in the ego. In what we desire and imagine the world to be. Anything less is a disappointment. After all, whose world is everything he or she can imagine it to be? No one's. Ever. And so we live in a continually diminished environment, a world that is always less than what we can imagine--because the ego can always imagine more than what is. It is a selfish, immature, way of being. It figures that spoiled individuals like Mitt Romney, who have gotten "their way" for almost the entire time of their existence on the planet, would behave like this.

The inheritors and advocates of Viola Spolin's work, on the other hand (not the second hand the other hand) have learned ways to be more of what they are, not less of what they fear. They understand that if we appreciate the gifts of others, and are creative in how we express our gratitude for those gifts, life will continue to surprise us in gratifying ways. As Spolin said, "act on environment and environment will act on you." Improvisers have learned ways to do this. Ways to expand the worlds they live in, not diminish them. Ways of creating more they they consume. Ways of doing a lot with a little.

This is more important in 2012 than it has been in a long, long time.

Improvisation is not a story someone, probably paid to do it, tells you, like Mitt Romney, Savior of the 2002 Winter Olympics, or The Barack Obama I Voted For is Not the Barack Obama I Got. It's real, because it is behavior, not a story someone wants you to believe, or a way they want you to behave--their script for you. Improvisation is reality. This post is improvisation. I had planned to write something else, and then a saved draft of this caught my eye, and I responded to it. And now you're reading it. Neither of us could have scripted this. The next unscheduled phone call you get or conversation you have will probably involve improvisation. Every first date ever required improvisation--if it was a good date.

The constant outcomes of improvisation, as Spolin explained, are communication, learning and transformation. What is more vital to our growth and well-being, as a society and as individuals, than those constants? What is more needed today than the ability to collaborate and problem solve, not despite our different points of view, but because of them? This is how I see Barack Obama behaving, consistently. From the first time I ever heard his name, or his voice, which was on NPR's Wait Wait Don't Tell Me radio show in the early 2000s, I understood him to be a master improviser, the type of person we call gamechanger. It was simple, really. Here was a politician who was playing a silly radio game, and he was completely and remarkably at ease with the play. He wasn't afraid of looking stupid, and he wasn't trying to look smart. He wasn't forcing outcomes. He let the game be bigger than himself. He was there for the rest of the team. And the team fed off what he contributed. That's how gamechangers play. Nothing he has said or done since has been inconsistent with, or diminished, this initial impression. I have only grown more impressed, and my appreciation for how much "game" the President has, has grown.

Because I see Barack Obama as a gamechanger--a team player and a sharer of narratives--and, conversely, I see the Republican ticket aligning with Rand's chimerical "great man with a dominant narrative" stories (when in reality we are all great men and women, on the quest to discover our greatness), my vote is completely clear to me. Barack Obama has the skills to be of better service to his country. And by Barack Obama, I mean Viola Spolin.