3 Jazz Living Skills

When the unexpected happens, get fully present in your body to get creative. Respond with an improvisational approach to life and equip yourself to navigate change.

Three skills of improvisational jazz living can help us be more agile, flexible, and creative during times of uncertainty: Pivoting, Curiosity, Both/And.


Jazz musicians have skillfully practiced and learned structures that give them freedom to pivot and improvise a new creative response to the other players’ musical tones. We can do the same in our lives.

Improvisational jazz living includes a partly planned structure, and partly spontaneous response to life situations. In life, we can make all the plans we want, but sometimes we need to pivot when the unexpected happens.

My husband and I chose to unexpectedly pivot on our wedding day. We had planned a beautiful outdoor wedding. On the morning of the wedding, we determined it was too cold and windy for our guests and we moved indoors next to a roaring fireplace. We were disappointed, but our flexible response and ability to pivot saved the day.

Happily, our trio of jazz musicians continued to play at the wedding reception.

Are you a jazz fan? You don’t have to be. We can borrow life lessons from principles of improvisational jazz. Like some jazz musicians doing an improvisational solo, sometimes we fall back on repeating standard old patterns.

For example, when the unexpected throws you off your game, your standard stress response might be to binge watch Netflix while eating comfort food. Pivot. Choose instead to improvise a new pattern response. Try reducing stress by taking a walk, practicing mindfulness, or finding a creative activity.

When someone throws you an old standard, can you improvise a new creative response? For example, a co-worker asks you to handle a particular task because you have done it many times. You choose to pivot to a new pattern response. Instead of taking on the task yourself, maybe you delegate the task to someone else who could benefit from the experience.

How can you pivot gracefully when the unexpected happens? When the meal on the stove burns, what other meal can you create with what you’ve got? When staying home with a sick kid, how can you strengthen your parent/child relationship? When recovering from an accident or illness, what new skill or hobby can you learn?


We humans are storytellers and meaning makers. What happens when we tell a different story line and assign a different meaning?

I misinterpreted the meaning of a text message- which happens often to people these days. I assigned a meaning to a series of confusing text messages. I finally texted back, “This is my understanding of where and when we can meet.” My friend texted back a definitive, No! My understanding was totally off base from what she intended to communicate. If I had gotten curious and called her, we could have cleared up the miscommunication in a 5-minute phone call.

In another texting incident, (are you noticing a pattern here?) I texted a friend to request that she help serve food at my daughter’s wedding. She opened the text message but did not respond. I could have created a story. I might have assigned the meaning that my request was an imposition, and she didn’t want to spend her day off serving food at someone’s wedding.

Instead, I got curious and waited before assigning meaning to her lack of response. The following week, my friend let me know her medical appointment was on the wedding day, and she was not available to help.

My takeaway lesson from the texting situation: It’s instinctive to dive into old patterns for security. I was grateful I didn’t dive into an old pattern of assigning blame and guilt. Instead, I improvised a new pattern of meaning through curiosity.


Imagine a Venn diagram of two overlapping circles represents the creative space of BOTH-AND. The red circle represents the emotions of doubt, angst, and worry. The yellow circle represents the space of possibility and potential for something new to exist.

The orange overlap between the two circles is the BOTH-AND where both challenging emotions and creative potential coexist. Is there a way to experience BOTH an emotion (doubt, angst, and worry) AND allow for the possibility of something else to emerge?

In life, sometimes we get caught up in emotions and we can’t see or feel open to possibility. However, in the land of BOTH-AND we can experience both emotion and possibility at the same time. What wants to emerge from this space of possibility? It requires the space of not knowing.

  • First, accept that these challenging emotions are present. We don’t have to like them. Acceptance does not mean giving up or giving in. Acceptance means, I see you Doubt, Angst, Fear. I acknowledge your message.
  • Second, allow the creative space of possibility and potential to co-exist with Doubt, Angst, and Fear. Getting comfortable with uncertainty and the unknown can create space for unexpected solutions.
  • Third, the uncomfortable space of uncertainty and the unknown creates sacred space for growth and new opportunities to emerge.

Step into the creative space of BOTH-AND. Standing in the space of overlap, ask yourself:

  • What wants to emerge from this space of possibility?
  • What new perspectives might be available?
  • What creative solutions could develop?
  • What resilience can grow in this environment?
  • What transformation is seeking expression?

By standing in the overlap of both difficult emotions and raw possibilities, you create a rich environment for transformation and innovation to emerge. This space of openness and curiosity allows for unexpected and positive outcomes to emerge from the intersection of challenge and opportunity.

During these transformative times of uncertainty, we can continue to learn, grow, and triumph. We can lessen the impact of stress when we embrace the improvisational skills of pivoting, curiosity, and Both-And. As we individuals step into this fertile space, we can allow new innovative solutions to emerge that benefit all.

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