Alan Alda On How Improv Taught Him There’s No Such Thing as Failure

The Emmy Award-winning actor, author and professor on his casual relationship with his phone and the moment he knew he wanted to be a writer.



When you have the opportunity to ask some of the most interesting people in the world about their lives, sometimes the most fascinating answers come from the simplest questions. The Thrive Questionnaire is an ongoing series that gives an intimate look inside the lives of some of the world’s most successful people.

Thrive Global: What’s the first thing you do when you get out of bed?
Alan Alda: I start thinking about the crunch and burst of the cereal and blueberries I’m going to have in a few minutes.

TG: What gives you energy?
AA: Being obsessed with something I care about.

TG: What’s your secret life hack?
AA: Finding the right thing to be obsessed about.

TG: Name a book that changed your life. 
AA: I was eight and read a book called “Top Horse at Crescent Ranch.” I knew from that moment that I wanted to be a writer. So I started working on a story that I decided would be completely different. I called it “Not the Top Horse at Crescent Ranch.” In a way it was a different story, because it was about the underdog, not the big cheese.

TG: Tell us about your relationship with your phone. Does it sleep with you?
AA: No, we’re just dating.

TG; How do you deal with email?
AA: Often, I flag it, and then a few months later a good deal of it is too old to answer. I always have about a hundred flags. My laptop looks like the United Nations.

TG: You unexpectedly find 15 minutes in your day, what do you do with it?
AA: I reward myself with a game of Spite and Malice on my iPad. I love those little reward hormones every time I win. Seems to clear my head.

TG: When was the last time you felt burned out and why?
AA: Obsession may not be all it’s cracked up to be.

TG: When was the last time you felt you failed and how did you overcome it? 
AA: I’ve been an improviser since I was in my twenties. There’s really no failing in improv. You just go on to the next thing.

TG: Share a quote that you love and that gives you strength or peace.
AA: “Reality is our friend.” In other words, things aren’t what they ought to be, they’re simply what they are. That saying gives me a lot of peace. It’s a good thing, too, because I made it up.


ALAN ALDA will publish his third book in June, 2017. On the subject of communication, it’s called “If I Understood You, Would I Have This Look on My Face?”

Alda has earned international recognition as an actor, writer and director. In addition to The Aviator, for which he was nominated for an Academy Award, Alda’s films include Crimes and Misdemeanors, Everyone Says I Love You, Flirting With Disaster, Manhattan Murder Mystery, Same Time, Next Year and California Suite, as well as The Seduction of Joe Tynan, which he wrote, and The Four Seasons, Sweet Liberty, A New Life and Betsy’s Wedding, all of which he wrote and directed. In 2011–2012 his film appearances included Tower Heist and Wanderlust.

He has the distinction of being nominated for an Oscar, a Tony, and an Emmy — as well as publishing a bestselling book — all in the same year (2005). His Emmy nomination that year was for his role on The West Wing. The Tony nomination (his third) was for his role in the Broadway revival of David Mamet’s Glengarry Glen Ross. In addition to receiving an Academy Award nomination for his appearance in Martin Scorsese’s The Aviator that year, he was also nominated for a British Academy Award.

In all, he has received 7 EMMYs.

Alda played Hawkeye Pierce on the classic television series M*A*S*H, and wrote and directed many of the episodes. His 33 Emmy nominations include performances in 2009 for 30 Rock, in 2006 for West Wing (winning his 6th Emmy), and in 1999 for ER. In 2014, he played the nefarious Alan Fitch on The Blacklist. In 2016, he was the hard to like Uncle Pete in Louis C.K.’s Horace and Pete.

In 1994 he was inducted into the Television Hall of Fame. He hosted the award-winning series Scientific American Frontiers on PBS for eleven years, interviewing leading scientists from around the world. He has also hosted the PBS science series The Human Spark, and the miniseries Brains on Trial.

Other television performances include Truman Capote’s The Glass House and Kill Me If You Can, for which he received an Emmy nomination for his portrayal of Caryl Chessman, an inmate who spent 12 years on death row.

On Broadway, he has appeared in the 2014 revival of Love Letters — and as the physicist Richard Feynman in the play QED. He starred in the first American production of the international hit play ART. In addition to his nomination for Glengarry, he was also nominated for the Tony Award for his performances in Neil Simon’s Jake’s Women and the musical The Apple Tree. Other appearances on Broadway include The Owl and the Pussycat, Purlie Victorious and Fair Game for Lovers for which he received a Theatre World Award.

He was presented with the National Science Board’s Public Service Award in 2006 for his efforts in helping to broaden the public’s understanding of science. He has also received the Scientific American Lifetime Achievement Award and the American Chemical Society Award for Public Service. In 2014, he was named a fellow of the American Physical Society for his work in helping scientists improve their communication skills. Since 2008, he has worked with physicist Brian Greene in presenting the annual World Science Festival in New York City, attended by over a million people. He helped found the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science at Stony Brook University, where he is a a Visiting Professor.

His first memoir Never Have Your Dog Stuffed, and Other Things I’ve Learned became a New York Times bestseller, as did his second: Things I Overheard While Talking to Myself.

Originally published at journal.thriveglobal.com

Self Improvement, Life Lessons, Inspiration, Thrive Questionnaire

The Thrive Global Community welcomes voices from many spheres. We publish pieces written by outside contributors with a wide range of opinions, which don’t necessarily reflect our own. Learn more or join us as a community member!