Matthew Zakreski With Improv Games for Introverts | Episode 348

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Matthew “Dr. Matt” Zakreski, PsyD is a high-energy, creative clinical psychologist and professional speaker who utilizes an eclectic approach to meet the specific needs of his neurodivergent clients. He is proud to serve the Gifted community as a consultant, a professor, an author, and a researcher. He has spoken hundreds of times all over the world about supporting neurodivergent kids. Dr. Zakreski is a member of Supporting the Emotional Needs of the Gifted (SENG), the National Association for Gifted Children (NAGC), the New Jersey Association for Gifted Children (NJAGC), and the Pennsylvania Association for Gifted Education (PAGE). Dr. Zakreski graduated from Widener University’s Institute for Graduate Clinical Psychology (IGCP) in 2016. He is the co-founder of The Neurodiversity Collective.

 

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Full episode transcription (AI Generated)

Rob:
Hey, engagers, and welcome to another episode of the Professor Game podcast. And we have Doctor Matthew Zakresky with us today. But Matt, can you let us know if you’re prepared to engage?

Matt:
Oh, I am prepared to engage.

Rob:
Amazing. So Doctor Matt is a PSID, is a high energy, creative clinical psychologist and professional speaker who utilizes an eclectic approach to meet the specific needs of his neurodivergent clients. He’s brought to serve the gifted community as a consultant, professor, author and researcher, and has spoken hundreds of times all over the world supporting neurodivergent kids. He’s a member of the supporting emotional needs of the Gifted, the National association for Gifted Children, the New Jersey association for Gifted Children, and the Pennsylvania association for Gifted Education. He has graduated from Widener Universities Institute for Graduate Clinical Psychology in 2016 and he is the co founder of the Neurodiversity Collective.

Rob:
Doctor Matt, is there anything that we’re missing in that intro that we should know?

Matt:
I mean, gosh, that’s. I wrote that intro and I’m so like, there’s a lot of things in there. No, that’s who I am.

Rob:
Amazing. Amazing. So, talking about who you are, how about you let us into your days? What is a regular day or week or month? We especially.

Rob:
We want to feel, you know, we want to be in your shoes for a little bit and know what it feels like to be you.

Matt:
Well, what it feels like to be me is I often describe myself as a professional nerd, which is something that I never thought I would be able to say growing up, as very much a closeted nerd. Right? Yeah. I watched sports and professional wrestling, but I was really reading comic books, right. And comic books went super mainstream.

Matt:
So I get to be a professional nerd, and I do that in two full time jobs. The first is a full time psychologist, and I specialize in working with neurodivergent people. And a lot of the people I work with, our therapy are coaching. The work that we do together is based around and sent through the lens of their interests. So I spent a lot of my day talking about deep Star wars canon, or fan theories about Harry Potter or which version of Star Trek would you want to be on?

Matt:
And there’s. Clearly the right answer is deep space nine. And I won’t be taking any questions. And because it’s a place for us to be our most authentic selves, and that’s really awesome because the world kind of forces us to mask. Right.

Matt:
To hide that version of ourselves. And therapy is a place where you can just relax and let your hair down and be whoever it is you want to be.

Rob:
Sounds very cool. Thank you for that. Definitely, Doctor Matt. And talking about the things that you’ve done sounds like you’re doing pretty amazing work. But how about we go for a time where you’re doing amazing work still?

Rob:
But things did not go your way. A fail or a first attempt in learning, especially if it has anything to do with using gamification games or anything of that nerd fandom that you were discussing before in your work or personal life. Whatever you want to go, take us.

Matt:
Oh my gosh. Well, I mean, I often use that phrase as well, first attempt in learning, because therapy is also a place to practice failing. So that’s a thing that really is helpful to me. But one of the games that I use a lot is I use improv games to teach social skills. So the gamification aspect of that is really helpful.

Matt:
It helps kids practice things, it gives them real life reps. It’s much more organic than like, the next time you’re in this situation, try to be cool. But there was a kid that I’m thinking of that we worked at a school for neurodivergent learners, and he was what you would describe as a close talker and, you know, like, he would talk maybe two, three inches from your face at all times, which, I gotta tell you, at eight in the morning, was a lot. And we had spent most of the year trying to get him to have an appropriate social distance and understand that you have to modulate the tone of your voice. But every time we told him, it just seemed like he doubled down on his less adaptive behaviors.

Matt:
And we were so frustrated. And then one day I decided to do a unit in our social emotional learning class on improv games. And we were playing the classic improv game, Park Bench. So if you’re not familiar, Park Bench is an improv game where you’ve got a person sitting on a bench, the next actor comes in and they have one line that would get that stranger to move, right. If you were sitting in a park bench and a stranger came up to you and said something, you know, off at a left field, you’d be like, what?

Matt:
And you get up and leave the bench. So we did a couple of rounds of this and it’s this kid’s turn and he says his line, and the line was, it’s faded from my memory at this point, but the way he delivered it once again, about three inches from this kid’s nose, got that kid to leave the bench and all of a sudden, he stopped and he looked at us and he was like, guys, I talk way too close to people. That’s brand new information to us. Tell us more about that, Brian. And, you know, that’s not his real name, but it’s.

Matt:
And so it’s like we struggled so much because sometimes we can’t just tell people what to do. We have to show them what to do. I think that’s what gamification is really helpful for.

Rob:
Yeah, totally, totally. I like that story because it has, you know, all the difficulties and all the stuff that did not work, and it actually worked using your improv game. So I love that. Love that, for sure. And Matt, how about a time of a success, a time where you set out to do something using, whether that’s that improv game that you were mentioning before or any other thing, and it just went well.

Rob:
There was no, no first attempt at learning, but actually. Or there were. But we want to go for the side of the actual success, and we want to see those success factors, or whatever we want to call them.

Matt:
Well, that very first. So I’ve given over 650 talks all over the world, and so my other full time job is being a professional speaker. And I know you’re a TEDx person. I’m giving my first TEDx talk tomorrow, so I’m very excited.

Rob:
Nice.

Matt:
Yes. And so the very first professional talk I ever gave was at the supporting the emotional needs of the gifted conference. And this was in 2017 in Chicago. And so I get up early, I have my laptop all set up. I bring it down there.

Matt:
And the staff at the hotel had cleared all the AV out of the room. So there’s no HDMI cable, there’s no projector, there’s no microphone. I’ve got a laptop and 85 people in the room, and they’re trying to find someone who can fix the problem. But it’s a Sunday morning. There’s just not the support staff there.

Matt:
So somebody looked at me and said, well, do you want to cancel? And I had this moment where I said, no, this is a talk about improv. If I can’t lean into those skills, then who the heck am I, right? So I explained the situation. I was like, I’ve got my laptop up here.

Matt:
I can do most of this talk off the top of my head. I’m going to refer to my screen a few times. And I did the presentation, and we had them rolling in the aisles. A lot of laughs, a lot of good times. We got really high ratings.

Matt:
And I was so in the zone that I didn’t notice. About 20 minutes into the session, somebody from AV came into the room, pulled down the screen, hooked up my laptop, got it ready to project, and then they left the room. I was so in the zone, I didn’t even notice. It wasn’t towards the end of the session where I was ready to take questions, where I’m like, where did this screen come from? And everybody thought I was making a joke, but I literally hadn’t noticed.

Matt:
So it’s this idea that like, if I had a rigid script in my head, I probably would have failed that particular event, but instead I was able to embrace the unpredictability of it, lean into that and also trust my own instincts and skills that got me there to carry me through, and it did it very successfully.

Rob:
Nice. Sounds like a pretty good one. A difficult time, you know, technical stuff can give us a hard time more often than we’d like. And that’s why either having the disposition and the ability to do the improv as you were just describing, or have a plan b, which is also. It’s also welcome in many cases, is very important.

Rob:
Especially when you have these live events or live things that happen. You know, you see all the things happening in live. So good one. Very, very interesting way. And I like especially the way it leans into you, those strengths and that message that you’re actually carrying through.

Rob:
So thank you for that story, Doctor Matt. And how about, you know, you’ve talked about how you use these strategies in therapy. You’ve leaned into your abilities and to that muscle that you’ve been building on improv. If we set out to solve a problem within your realm, of course, and you’re an expert on what your realm is, which you haven’t solved before, do you have a process, how do you decide which game are you going to use? Or how are you going to gamify it?

Rob:
Can you let us into your head in that sense to see how that works in your case?

Matt:
I love that question. And I practice a lot of metacommunication, right? I talk about talking. I talk about what I’m going to do, what I’m thinking about. When I’m in the therapy space.

Matt:
I want my clients to have an idea of what I’m considering because I think therapy is best when it’s collaborative. It isn’t like therapist is God. And you will listen to me because I don’t think that actually works, especially not for kids. And I tend to work with kids, but a lot of times they’ll bring up a situation, and they’ll say, like, for neurodivergent people, a common occurrence is small talk. I can’t do small talk, Doctor Matt.

Matt:
I don’t know how to talk to people. I never know what to say. And that’s usually where I’ll key up a game. And I’ll say, all right. So the way small talk works is it’s very organic.

Matt:
It flows. You can’t plan out a script for it. So all you can do is practice the skills that allow you to be flexible and respond in that space, rather than saying, if they say a, I’ll say b, but if they say b, I’ll say c, and if they say c, I’ll say d, because you’ll drown in all of the permutations in your head. So one game that I work a lot with, the kids I work with who struggle with small talk, is we play the improv game. But then, so, but then as a storytelling game.

Matt:
So I might say, after therapy session, I decide to take you for a coffee at Starbucks. But. And then I kick the story over to my client. Now, they have to make up a sentence that goes along with the story in real time. So they might say, but we realize you forgot your wallet.

Matt:
And then they kick it back to me. And I say, then I decided to rob a liquor store so he would have some money. Now, they did not expect me to say that, right? And they’re like, wait, what? No.

Matt:
They’re like, hey, that’s where the story’s going. You got to figure out how to. How to deal with it. So they might say, but I talked you out of it. Or, but the cops arrested us.

Matt:
Or, but the liquor store was closed. Every different answer gives me another sliding door to walk through. And that’s what small talk is. You might ask somebody like, oh, how was your day? And they might say, I know, it’s fine.

Matt:
Or they might say, I just found out my wife of 445 years has been cheating on me with the pool boy. Like, you’re gonna have to be ready to respond to whatever. The only consistency of life is its inconsistency. And so when we wrap up the game, I’ll say, now, people aren’t gonna cue you up in real life like I did in this game, but the fact that you listened, thought on your feet, responded, and kept reacting. Those are the skills I want you to focus on, because that’s what’s going to generalize for you.

Matt:
Whether you’re talking to your boss, trying to solve your kids math homework, trying to ask somebody to prom, whatever the thing is, those are the skills that will carry you through.

Rob:
Very, very interesting. I love it. I love the way you sort of spin it around and use the situation itself to help you build on top of that, so to speak. So I definitely love that. And it sounds like the system is pretty well honed in.

Rob:
I love it. I love, you know, especially when things seem to be going the way they should be in that way. Love it, love it. Good stuff, good stuff. Keep up that great work that you’re doing and talking about the great work that you’re doing in your experience.

Rob:
How about you tell us about a time when actually, instead of a time, a recommendation, right. You say, well, you know, when you do this, when you’re thinking of doing these strategies, using games or using improv for, you know, in your case, for therapy, how about, you know, you do this thing or that thing, and that will definitely make your end product your solution, whatever it looks like, look a lot better.

Matt:
Well, and I think better is the key word there because a lot of people come to me and they say, I want to be great at this. I want to be perfect at this. You know, like, I watch a lot of tv and they always have a witty one liner. I’m like, well, yeah, they have writers and rehearsal, and we don’t have the benefit of either of those things. Sometimes all we can ask for is better.

Matt:
And sometimes better means less bad. Sometimes better means charming and suave and sophisticated, but sometimes means this is a situation where I would normally put my foot in my mouth and I did that less this time. And that’s okay. Right? Progress is progress regardless of where it starts.

Matt:
So I think that a lot of this is communicating to people that you have to give yourself permission to be a beginner at something that if you’re someone who struggles with small talk or social etiquette, you want to be good at it and who wouldn’t? But you are functionally a beginner. If you give yourself permission to be a beginner at something, you’re giving yourself permission to suck at it for a little while. But knowing on the other side of that struggle is a far better product. The discipline comes in when we are saying, okay, this is the process I must go through to get as good as I want to get nice.

Rob:
So having that sort of beginner’s mindset in a way, and knowing that you might not get perfect, but you’ll get better, or you can, at least there’s a good chance that you can do it. If you follow through, right?

Matt:
Mm hmm.

Rob:
Totally love it. And now that you’ve heard many of these questions, you have a feel for the vibe of the podcast. Is there anybody that you would like to be on your side of the microphone answering these questions that you would be curious about? A featured guest for the podcast?

Matt:
Oh, man, there’s so many. One of the comedians that I just adore and I just think he’s so brave and he’s so flexible and nimble is Fred Armiston from Portlandia and Shmega, Dune and Saturday Night Live. I mean, he’s just the most fearless comedian. And I just like, how do you have that level of bravery and courage? That would be super cool.

Matt:
Also, because I am a nerd, I would think that somebody like Terry Crews, who is both a tremendous actor and also, you know, like a, makes Warhammer characters in his spare time. And I’m just like, how do you keep all of those multitudes that you contain contained? Right? Like, how is it you are Terry crews, former NFL athlete, giant, muscular, human, and also hilariously funny? And also you’re like, look at this really cool painting I did.

Matt:
And also, like, I’m a level 24 dungeon master. Like, how do you reconcile all those parts?

Rob:
They both sound like amazing potential guests to go around different avenues that we could explore. In that sense, that sounds very interesting. Thank you for those recommendations. How about a book? Is there a book that you recommend?

Rob:
The engagers. And why would you recommend that book?

Matt:
Oh, man. Can I give two?

Rob:
Sure thing.

Matt:
So the first book is a book that, like, quite my copy of this book absolutely changed my life. And it’s very dog eared and highlighted and tagged and all that stuff. So the book is how to be everything by Emily Wapnick. And it is absolutely a guidebook to being neurodivergent and trying to have career or careers that feed your soul, not drain your soul. And she lays out in this book, like, here’s how to make money off the thing you love doing, right?

Matt:
Because if you’re a larper, and I love my larping community. Right. You know, it’s hard to be a professional Larper. But are there ways you can make money via that community? Like, are there ways to monetize that?

Matt:
Or can you build a business that’s ancillary to that? Or how do you set up your life that you work your nine to five job to give your money to fuel your interests and passions? How do you have both? And I think about that a lot because early in my career, I worked in travel sales, and people like, oh, you’re so personable. You must be a great salesman.

Matt:
And I’m like, the only reason I was good at sales is that I love travel. I couldn’t sell computers or cars or magazines, right? I wouldn’t be good at those things. But I love travel so that authenticity comes through, so you can reorganize how you see your professional role in your own life through that lens. And then the second one is the artist’s way by Julia Cameron.

Matt:
And that’s how I feed the creative part of my life. The actor who does improv, but also the artist who likes to draw cartoons. The writer who’s trying his best to finish his book. Like, just every time I have a question that I feel like I can’t answer, Julia Cameron has anticipated that question and written several pages of really insightful reflection on that thing. So it’s always a place where I can go to.

Matt:
To say to myself, like, huh? All right, then. I have just been editing my book. I’ve not actually been writing it. That’s a good reminder that I should actually just start putting some more words on the page and not fiddle with verb tense in chapter four, paragraph 17.

Rob:
Cool. Sounds like very good. A couple of recommendations, that is for sure. And how about we talk about your superpower? What’s that thing that you do at least better than most other people in this world that you’re at?

Matt:
I think my superpower is connecting with other people, and I know where that comes from. My dad’s dad, my grandpa Chet, he was the mayor of everything he had ever been in, from his army brigade to the university where he worked to his small town in New Jersey. Even when he was in a nursing home later in life. I mean, he was absolutely mayor of the nursing home. And he had a gift to connect with people, and I have honed that even further.

Matt:
And you can put me in basically any situation with any person, and I will find something for us to connect on organically and authentically. And people leave most interactions with me thinking, like, how does Doctor Matt know so much about so many things? It’s not even that. I have some, like, encyclopedic knowledge of all things that humans do, though I guess I’ve done a lot of different things. It’s more that I’m genuinely interested and have a talent for asking really good follow up questions.

Rob:
Cool. Sounds like a very useful one, for sure, especially for connecting with other people, which is essential to your profession, at least from my non knowledgeable side. At least that’s what it sounds like for sure. And how about your favorite game, Doctor Matt? I know that’s a difficult one, but here you cannot choose two.

Rob:
Here’s only one. If you hear that question, which game comes to your mind?

Matt:
Well, I mean, I of course thought about this a lot and scratched out many different answers. But for me, you gotta go with the classics, you gotta go dungeons and dragons. I mean, it’s a game that’s never the same thing twice. And that appeals to my curiosity and my intellectual nature, but also it appeals to the fact that there’s a lot of entry points. So you might do the same raid with a bunch of experienced players, a mixed group and a group of beginners, and you’re going to experience that same quest three very different ways.

Matt:
Because the intersection of the players and the content always gives this alchemy on the other side that is both interesting, but also just beautiful that it’s always something different.

Rob:
I definitely owe myself a session of dungeons and dragons. It’s been a long time coming and I know I’ve said it on the podcast way too many times. There might be a chance, and I’ll definitely talk about this on the podcast if I get to do it. Some students actually said that they will be inviting me to a one session thing. I’m very, very much looking forward to that.

Rob:
They were going to invite me and other faculty for this, that we were interested and excited about that. I hope to get my first experience coming in pretty soon to be able to discuss and completely agree with you, because I’m sure it’s going to be super exciting. So thank you for that answer as well, Doctor Matt. And before we take off, before we say it’s game over. Doctor Matt, any final message you want to tell the engagers, anywhere you want to lead us to look more of your work, where can we find out more about you on the world of the Internet?

Rob:
Or again, it’s your time. The microphone is yours.

Matt:
I’m very on the Internet. I have a very unique name, so if you punch Doctor Matt Sikreski into Google, I think I’m the whole first page of Google, which was a source of great pride for me. Like I said, I have two primary jobs. I have my therapy practice and I am a professional speaker. And a lot of times people will hear me on podcasts and say like, wow, that message of authenticity and being yourself really tracks with our organization.

Matt:
You should come and talk to us about that thing, and that’s always an honor, but I think that dovetails nicely with the message I would leave you with is that the things that make you happiest reflect the best parts of yourself. So if you’re happiest at cosplays, or you’re happiest playing speedrunning Mario three, or playing magic the gathering, or whatever that thing is, those are your communities and those are your people, and those are the skills that are going to bring out the best parts of yourself. So I know that a lot of the messaging we get from broader society is that games are not for grownups or games are to be used sparingly. Games are for whatever time is left after your quote unquote real life. I don’t think it’s that way.

Matt:
I think that this stuff is foundational and your communities and activities that bring real joy to your face. You want to center that in your life as much as possible. And that might mean that you carve out an hour a week to listen to this podcast and reflect on how important games are to you in your life. Or it’s that you find a way to work remotely and you can travel along to different dragon cons. The options are endless, but they all start with giving yourself permission to center that stuff in your own life.

Rob:
Nice. Thank you very much for that recommendation, for that inspiration I think is an appropriate word in this case. Thank you very much for that, Doctor Matt. And coming from you, an expert on the field in many ways, on getting people to be lead better lives, not perfect lives, those I think don’t exist. But it’s definitely something to take to heart.

Rob:
So engagers, listen to the advice. Hopefully everybody who comes on the podcast as well. But Doctor Matt certainly sounds like he’s an expert on that field as well. And Doctor Matt Engagers, as you know, at least for now and for today, after saying thank you very much once again to Doctor Matt, it is now time to say that it’s game over. Engagers thank you for listening to the professor game podcast and if you want more interviews with incredible guests, please go to professorgame.com subscribe and get started on our email list for free.

Rob:
We’ll be in contact. You’ll be the first to know of any of our opportunities that arise or that are already existing, and we will have them available just for you. Please remember before you go on to your next mission, before you click continue, continue. Remember to follow or subscribe whatever that looks like on your favorite podcast app and listen to the next episode of Professor Game. See you there.

End of transcription

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