A different type of brave - how improv helped Jenni Lilledahl realize her true role in serving others.


Jenni Lilledahl makes success look easy. But that’s only half the story.

As co-owner of the Brave New Workshop and President of Brave New Institute, she, her husband John Sweeney and her team have inspired thousands with their personal and professional growth. In 2007, she co-founded Gilda’s Club Twin Cities after her sister’s journey with cancer highlighted an opportunity to serve others.

However, Jenni almost didn’t take (or rather, make) this path. With nearly 30 years of career growth, entrepreneurial adventure, deep self-reflection and trials, Jenni has forged her way and come out the other side.

We caught up with Jenni to learn more about her journey, the power of community, and what we can learn from listening to your heart.

In my nearly 30 years of teaching, I have not yet encountered a student who admits they already have enough joy and fun in their lives!

Jenni, you are known as an accomplished business owner, teacher, and leader in the community. We'd certainly class that as a "success"! How has your definition of "success" shifted over the years?
It's shifted drastically, even to my surprise. Earlier in my career, I thought it was all about the stereotypical trappings - a job that demonstrated importance, money, and accomplishments that proved my worthiness.  My first two jobs were in marketing, one corporate and one non-profit. I soon achieved that stereotypical success; however, I knew pretty quickly that my success definitions were off.  

Back then, I was driven by the impression I might make on others rather than what would be purposeful or fulfilling. I wanted to make an impact, but I thought about it in a very narrow and selfish way - I'm almost embarrassed to admit that now. Yet, I learned about myself in those jobs, such as how I was motivated by serving others and that I wanted to have fun, joy, and connection with others in an authentic way. 

I lived that corporate life for eight years and eventually made the leap to purse my passion of comedy and improv at Chicago’s Second City. That ultimately led me to Brave New Workshop back in Minneapolis.

Over the next 20 years, I flipped my definition of success from the job title and achievement, to whether I was using my unique talents to help others. While I still feel like I'm a work in progress, I now know my most successful moments are when I am serving in a way that fuels me.

You seem to have reached quite a peaceful place with this - how do you handle doubt?

There are days when I still allow myself to walk down the dangerous path of comparison. It's a constant practice to make the healthiest choices about which part of my brain/body/soul/heart I will listen to on a given day.  

When I'm paying attention, I see two of me. There's one part of me that says I should play it safe; that I shouldn't get too excited or visionary (mostly thoughts like "who do you think you are?" or "everyone else is doing more than you"). Then, there's the other part of me that is calm, in the moment, trusting and egoless. This can feel like "everything is going as it should be, and you are doing what you were born to do." At the Brave New Workshop, we call this the "mindset of fear" and the "mindset of discovery."

As I get older, it's getting easier to care less what others think of me, and I see my truthful positives (and negatives) more honestly and less painfully. In the end, we can choose and practice our mindset and what we pay attention to. That is the work that fuels me now.

We may love to watch Saturday Night Live, but the thought of actually doing improv can be terrifying to newbies! How does it work, and why should people try it?

When done in a safe and honest environment, practicing improvisation allows people to truly be themselves in all of their vulnerable, beautiful, and creative glory, without judgment and fear. In improvisation, we play, create, try, fail, laugh, jump in, begin again, fall, rise, collaborate, open up, bust through, and experiment.  

We all know that for growth to occur, we need to stretch, take risks, fail, get uncomfortable, and continue opening our minds. 

To do that, and allow everyone to bring their hidden selves, we establish a space and agree that safety and support are paramount.  Everyone practicing together must take care of that safe space. Within that safety zone of undeniable support, individuals can practice skills, try on new ideas, and explore their most creative secret thoughts in a way that they can do nowhere else in life.  

We all know that for growth to occur, we need to stretch, take risks, fail, get uncomfortable, and continue opening our minds.  Practicing improv allows us to do that in a space where there is no failure. The 'play' element is critical - science tells us that our brains (and souls) retain new pathways more quickly and permanently when we practice behaviors playfully. And beyond the science, improvisation is simply joyful and fun. In my nearly 30 years of teaching, I have not yet encountered a student who admits they already have enough joy and fun in their lives!

The terrifying part is real, and it makes sense.  The part of our brain that is meant to protect us often screams louder than the part of our brain that loves meandering, improvisational, creative expression.  

I always tell people a few things about this fear: 

  • It's natural, real and our brains are doing their jobs. Try to avoid judging the fear. There is nothing wrong with you, and the judgment will only serve the fear, not you.

  • We are ALL born improvisers. Sometimes people think that they will fail at the improvisational endeavor (or worse, look like a fool).  In teaching thousands of students, I have never had anyone fail. I've had students who don't jump in or play, but anyone who has ever done the work has found success (which we define as "getting closer to your true, most creative self.")

  • Some fear that they will be exposed as “un-creative”, “un-funny”, or "less than" in some way. This makes sense, as most people have experienced improv as performance art.  A good, human-focused improv program is the opposite of being judged. It helps individuals reconnect with their most positive, creative mindset and behaviors; it's about accepting, going WITH the flow and finding usefulness in every single idea and person. 

Improv helped your life in an unexpected way when your sister passed away from cancer in her mid-30s. During her treatment, you learned of the cancer support organization Gilda's Club. In 2007, you decided to start Gilda's Club Twin Cities with no formal experience in that category. Seven years later, you and dozens of like-minded volunteers had raised $5 million and officially opened the doors. Since then, Gilda's Club Twin Cities has seen more than 30,000 visits and serves more than 3,000 members and 600 volunteers. 

Gilda Radner

Gilda Radner

Even for an improv expert like yourself, this was a whole new level of pragmatism! How did you navigate this new world of non-profit cancer support? What help did you need to ask for along the way?

We often described our journey to open this Gilda's Club as "riding a bike, while building the bike, while paving the road." We didn't always know what we were doing, we hit lots of bumps and detours, none of us had done anything like it before, but we knew we had to keep moving forward.  I called upon my improvisation skills constantly. My practice of moving through the world in an improvisational way (no script, not knowing what might happen next, and having to find a positive solution no matter what), was paramount to getting the doors open.  

We often called it "Gilda's Magic." Gilda Radner was an improviser and original cast member of Saturday Night Live. Her joyful, determined spirit was part of everything we did.  And knowing our work would help people touched by cancer was the secret sauce that kept us going when we felt like quitting. We knew people needed what we would provide because we had needed it at one time ourselves.

We constantly asked for help! Improv teaches you to be humble, that you cannot do it alone. By its nature, improvisation is collaborative, so we were never bashful declaring that. We received the generous support of donations, labor, advice, fast mistakes, last-minute saves, construction support, and passion, and are blessed by the kindness and dedication of our volunteers. 

jenni with an improv group getting into the swing of things…

jenni with an improv group getting into the swing of things…

Our next Buzz Session "Brave New You" is a partnership with your Brave New Workshop team - can you tell the Passionados what to expect? And also what NOT to be scared of!

We can promise you that it will be fun, engaging, and much easier than your "fear brain" is telling you it will be. No one will be put on the spot, made fun of or asked to do anything risky. All of our exercises are group focused, and remember that safe environment we talked about? Nothing happens until we all agree to support each other undeniably. Our job is to inspire, support, and champion YOU.  Yes, you'll stretch a bit out of your comfort zone, and so that nugget of fear in your stomach is right on! AND we'll help you connect with your happiest, best self.