Jeff Katzman M.D.

Getting Unstuck


We can bring energy into our lives by embracing unexpected moments.

Posted Aug 30, 2018

I have long been a fan of improvisational theater though am not a star at it myself by any means. My passion has become to understand what the world of improvisational theater can teach us about ourselves and how it can ultimately enrich our lives. In this pursuit, I have worked with medical providers, patients, medical students, psychiatry residents, psychotherapists and scientists learning together from improvisers. With my co-author and long time friend and teacher, Dan O’Connor, I have come to embrace an idea that is quite helpful in life. Put simply, it is to unscript.

Dan spends much of his time engaged in the pursuit of Unscripted Theater—a long form of improvisational theater in which an entire two hour show rooted in a particular genre is created using an audience suggestion—such as Shakespeare Unscripted, Jane Austin Unscripted, Twilight Zone Unscripted. It’s a sophisticated process that takes years of training to be great at—and that’s certainly not me. But I’ve learned from years of improvisation that it is critical to be able to “unscript" in real life. My family now recognizes these moments, and it has become a family adjective and verb. Something like “That was an unscripted move.” I know I’m on the right path if each day has a few of these. And I feel, in those moments, a sense of being hyper-alive.

So what is it to unscript? First, let’s realize how much we are scripted. Many of us embrace a career by passing through certain hoops and becoming professionalized in a particular way. We develop an idea of what we should or shouldn’t do in the workplace, and this may or may not be true. This professionalizing process may limit us from bringing our more spontaneous selves to moments at work. It may come to limit such behaviors as how we say hello in a hallway, and to whom, and may come to clamp down on our spontaneous ideas and imagination.

Perhaps a mid-life crisis could be considered a massive need to unscript the various components of a life, through a new car, a new wardrobe, a new job. I sometimes wonder if the need to unscript in such a dramatic way is due to the lack of unscripting a bit each day. Dan and I have considered it a simple symbol of unscripting to intentionally drive a different way to work, even if it takes a little longer. But driving a different way to work one day won’t in and of itself do much to prevent a mid-life crisis or to bring a sense of play and spirit into life. It’s a symbol, though, of the process, and perhaps an indication that the adventure has begun without the need to make massive life changes.

I had a friend in medical school who taught me a few important life lessons. One of those was to tell me that at least once a month, I should call someone who wasn’t expecting it. Someone I hadn’t spoken to in a long time. That’s back when people called each other on the telephone, of course. I think my friend was teaching me, amidst our struggles in a highly scripted medical education, to unscript a bit. And how important that was to retain a sense of being alive.

Drive a different way to work. Reach out to someone who isn’t expecting it. Say hello in a new way to someone in the hallways at work. These are all like a ribbon coming off the package. A mild ripping up of the script that has come to pattern our lives.  

Do something a little unexpected today. What is the thing you’ve wanted to try that falls to the bottom of your “to do” list? How can you interact differently with a waiter? A co-worker? Who can you get curious about in a new way? What is one thing you can do in your life that would involve going just slightly “off script”? How can you be your own character in this lifetime and move beyond the script you are playing—that you may have never even written yourself?

Even approaching the idea of unscripting in life is not necessarily easy for many of us. Life for all of us is filled with ups and downs, and moments when we can be exquisitely hurt and harmed. We can build up a psychological armor to hide. We can try to be in control of every moment with a sharpened focus and tight musculature, and hope that nothing will catch us off guard. In his famous text, Neurotic Styles, David Shapiro talks about this process and underscores how difficult it can be when we have developed this way of being, particularly to rigid extremes. “The fact is that the unexpected, the surprising, the unusual, or even the new is no friend of the rigid person ... to a rigid person, the unusual or unexpected is threatening simply because it is unusual or unexpected." (p.62)

This is why experimenting with small unscripted moments can be both challenging yet transformative. Unscripting doesn’t need to involve major life moves with major life consequences. First, try small micro-moves. This is about adding sources of energy to our lives and developing our sense of curiosity.  We can move beyond the expected and touch, if even for a moment, the energy supply that is waiting for us if we say “yes” and enter into even brief, unexpected and unpatterned moments. For more, take a look at our book, Life Unscripted, and maybe even go watch a show at your local improvisation theater. And if you really feel like going for it, maybe even take an improv class. If enough of us can learn to go off script in our lives—who knows? Maybe we can even make it a new word.


Shapiro, David. Neurotic Styles, Basic Books, 1965

Katzman, J & O'Connor, D Life Unscripted.  2018. Berkeley, CA: North Atlantic Books.