Just Say Yes

There are people who prefer to say ‘Yes,’ and there are people who prefer to say ‘No.’ Those who say ‘Yes’ are rewarded by the adventures they have, and those who say ‘No’ are rewarded by the safety they attain. There are far more ‘No’ sayers than ‘Yes’ sayers, but you can train one type to behave like the other.
— Keith Johnstone

I recently veered off the path of my typical reading material, and picked up the book, Improv Wisdom: Don't Prepare, Just Show Up, by Patricia Ryan Madson, a retired Stanford professor who taught there for three decades and developed their improvisation program.

What a fantastic read. Improv Wisdom is not so much about improv, as it is a guidebook that equips the reader with set of life skills he or she can employ in virtually any situation. Madson lays out thirteen maxims central to the improv artist - ex. "Don't Prepare" , "Make Mistakes, Please,"  "Just Show Up" - and distills them into practical applications that anyone who wishes to "lighten up, look around, and live an unscripted life" would be wise to pay heed to.

I was hooked from the start with the very first maxim: Say Yes.

As our culture becomes increasingly individualistic and "stuff" becomes ever easier to obtain (you can now rent a movie and order razors without even leaving your couch), our partiality toward "no" is more prevalent than ever. We say no to inconvenient people or events. We say no to travel. We say no to other people's ideas.

I'm no exception to this. I'm a "No" sayer by heart. My background in mathematics and science biases me toward skepticism and scrutiny in nearly every area of life, and I don't mean this in a good way. And my introverted nature leads to me frequently saying "no" to offers to get together with people, especially if said get-together doesn't involve a purpose outside of "just catching up." Again, not (always) a good thing.

Now, this doesn't mean there's nothing to be said for learning to say no. Countless people suffer for the very reason of never saying no to things like toxic relationships, overwhelming requests, gossip, bitterness, abuse, envy, etc. Saying no can be a virtue, and a thing for which many often lack the courage to do.

But when one lives on either extreme of the yes or no spectrum - saying "yes" all the time or saying "no" all the time - the result is rarely a positive one. As usual, the answer lies somewhere in the middle.

Madson addresses this in the very beginning of the chapter, by bringing to light the delicate balance between a "bad yes" and a "good yes:"

Don’t confuse this with being a “yes-man,” implying mindless pandering. Saying yes is an act of courage and optimism; it allows you to share control. It is a way to make your partner happy. Yes expands your world.

Learning to say yes is especially freeing for those of us who love to be a pedant or control freak:

Saying yes (and following through with support) prevents you from committing a cardinal sin - blocking. Blocking comes in many forms; it is a way of trying to control the situation instead of accepting it. We block when we say no, when we have a better idea, when we change the subject, when we correct the speaker, when we fail to listen, or when we simply ignore the situation. The critic in us wakes up and runs the show. Saying no is the most common way we attempt to control the future. For many of us the habit is so ingrained that we don’t notice we are doing it......Blocking is often cleverly disguised as the critical or academic perspective. Finding fault is its hallmark. A sophisticated critic may even appear to be agreeing by offering the “yes BUT” response. Try substituting “yes AND” for “yes but” - this will get the ball rolling.

Think about the people you say no to, including yourself. Maybe you should say yes to the next spontaneous offer of going out for a walk or seeing a movie with somebody. Maybe you've been saying no to a moonshot goal you've had for a while in the back of your mind, or saying no to the dream of someone else. Perhaps its as simple as resisting the urge to correct someone's grammar, or choosing to actually listen to someone speak, rather than preemptively thinking about what you're going to respond with or add to the conversation.

If you're a strength coach or personal trainer, you probably have a client with a large goal. Deep down inside, are you thinking they can't do it? How might you be able to encourage them and help them succeed by changing your mindset about what the two of you can accomplish together?

I love my comfort zones just as much as the next person, but when I look back on my life, many of my best experiences happened as a result of me saying "yes." Take, for example, this canyoning adventure tour I did while backpacking Europe a few years ago. My good buddy Jason practically forced me to do it (there are few things I loathe more than heights), and my wife would have killed me had she known I was going to do it, but it easily ranks as one of the top adventures of my entire life.


As alluded to earlier, "saying yes" doesn't mean you live life with a blind optimism. After all, optimism without critical thinking is naivety. But odds are high we can all benefit from saying "yes" a little more frequently.

At the end of the chapter, Madson encourages the reader to "try this: for one day say yes to everything that's offered. Set your own preferences aside. Notice the results." I did this just this past Sunday and it was incredibly refreshing.