Saturday, April 14, 2012

The Power of Yes and...

I was walking in the park the other day when I happened across a golden retriever who was having the best time in the stream.   She was trying to get a stick.   Well, it wasn't exactly a stick, it was a log, about twenty feet long and maybe 20 inches in circumference.   You could tell by the cheerful expression in her face that she was convinced that she could get it and drag it to the bank.  She would then proudly bring it to her masters who were watching from the bridge.   This dog tried everything she could to get that log:  she chewed chunks off of it, she tried to push it with her blond paws and her nose.  Each time she failed, she kept on going - undeterred by the obvious.    She did succeed in getting one side of the log onto the bank.    Her human parents watched in amusement and finally called her to come to them.   She obeyed immediately and trotted up the bank quite happy that she had gotten the log that far.   Those of us who were watching her caper unfold admired her enthusiasm applauded as she came up to the bridge soaking wet but very proud of what she had been able to accomplish.    She was a dog on a mission and the idea that it was impossible never entered her K-9 brain.   She just had fun and did the best she could with what she had.  That's all she really needed.    

I walked away from the bridge and that soggy retriever and thought about how powerful positive thinking is.   It can be so hard to have that sort of boundless optimism in our society.  We live in a world where snarky comments rule Twitter.  Reality shows reward the bad seeds who yell the loudest and push their own agenda while the people that come up with new and innovative ideas are either ignored or their ideas are stolen by the head bully.    Being positive and thinking outside of the box doesn't get you very far on shows like the Real Housewives or Celebrity Apprentice because to succeed you have to be willing to stomp on anyone - a buddy or colleague to get ahead.   The worst thing about these sorts of shows is that they kill creativity and the importance of true collaboration.  In reality, these shows don't show reality.  In fact Mark Burnett, creator of Survivor and countless other shows refers to them as "unscripted dramas."   Those meltdowns aren't authentic  - they are staged because in the real world you'd be out on your ass for speaking to your boss, coworker, friend, or lover like that.  But  those train wreck moments get ratings and plenty of views on YouTube.  

I like to look at the ways a simple affirmation can change how you live.  In the movie Yes Man, Jim Carrey's mundane life is turned upside down when a self help guru challenges him to say "yes" to the opportunities that come his way.   He goes from being a heartbroken self-imposed shut-in to the fun guy that everyone wants to hang out with.   He saves a man from jumping off a ledge by using the guitar lessons he's started taking to sing Jumper by Third Eye Blind.  He gets his best friend's fiancee to like him when he throws them an engagement party.  He suddenly goes on spur of the moment trips on flights to anywhere.    He finds love because he breaks out of his comfort zone and meets a woman that on the surface would probably not be his type - a singer in an avant garte band whose quirkiness inspires him to be a different man.   By saying yes to all sorts of possibilities, he turns into a self realized human being who is willing to meet life head on rather than running away from it. 

I teach and perform improvisation and one of the first rules I give to my students and new OTC company members is to never block offers - it's important to say "Yes, and..."   For instance if I start a scene with "Hey, it's great that we're finally married and on our honeymoon in Paris," and my scene partner comes back with "We're not married and we live in New Jersey!", the scene crashes and burns in the first few seconds before it can even get off the ground.  The best improvisors will accept the "offer" and build on it - for instance -  "Yes, and I'm so glad that my mother wanted to come with us!"  Now in those first few lines we're in agreement about our relationship, location and now that person has added another level of the meddling mother-in-law which is always comedy gold.   Not blocking offers is key to doing good improvisation but it's also vital in taking your life to the next level. 

One of my comedy goddesses Tina Fey explores this further in her book Bossy Pants.   "Now, obviously in real life you're not always going to agree with everything that everyone says.   But the Rule of Agreement reminds you to 'respect what your partner has created' and at least start from an open-minded place.  Start with YES and see where that takes you."   She goes on to explain that freeing your mind from negativity helps you find some new discoveries if you allow yourself to take that chance.  "There are no mistakes, only opportunities...And many of the world's greatest discoveries have been by accident.  I mean look at the Reese's Peanut Butter Cup or Botox."  

We've all worked with people who have the mentality of "No, we can't do that," "No, that's not in our budget," or  "That's the way we've always done it."   I don't take to that sort of thinking very well.   If you want to keep the status quo and not grow, don't bring new people in with new ideas.   Stay the way you are and stagnate and eventually it will do you in.   I once worked at an international organization where the program staff wanted to take trips overseas for any event they could.   It was eating holes in their budget but they insisted that the frequent trips were necessary to keep up communication with their clients even if it was not specifically to do a training.  In order to minimize the trips in between the trainings,  I suggested doing teleconferences or Skype from the office in Atlanta so that the overseas clients would actually get direct contact more often but the cost would be minimal and the program staff could spend more time at home with their families.   The Director of Finance was on-board with it, but the Program Director threw such a fit that the idea was scrapped and eventually the program itself had to be eliminated because the cost of even doing the twice a year face to face trainings overseas was prohibitive.  If the Program Director had been on board with Skype and teleconferencing, we probably would have saved her program and increased the number of people she could train.  But she was so hard wired to not accept anyone's ideas but hers that eventually the end result was losing her job.   

Recently, I was working with a business group and we worked on the Yes and... game.   The Yes and ... is a good group activity to get everyone to brainstorm and many advertising agencies use it.   We wanted to figure out how to get the arts out there to more people in the local business community.    One of the other facilitators, Sally Corbett, suggested we do an example which was "How do we change the shape of the Dorito?"  My next suggestion was to make it flower shaped like a daisy.   Her next suggestion was to offer dips.   My next idea was to have the dips with plant based colors that were bright and fun.   She then suggested that you could break off the petals and dip them.   I added that if it was sold with a snack plate like a palette than you could paint on it and the proceeds could go towards arts organizations.  We did it with the group and they got the idea: that being open to other people's imaginations and building on it is good for business.   Think what the brainstorming session for the Chick-Fil-a cows must have been like:  "Yeah, we could have cows that encourage people to eat chicken because burgers are made from beef."  "Yes, and" another colleague would add, "they could be slightly mysterious, a little threatening and have really, really bad grammar!"  Boom, one of the most successful advertising campaigns ever was born. 

So don't be afraid to say yes if someone invites you out to somewhere you've never been.   Give it a try, you might just like it.   There have been times that I literally went to places or events kicking and screaming and once I got over myself and relaxed, I was really glad that I went.  You can sit on the couch anytime with the pets or kids and watch a movie, but don't turn down an offer that you know you should take advantage of because it takes you out of your routine.   Take a chance, it might just change your life.  One of my favorite lines from the movie We Bought a Zoo, is when Matt Damon says: "You know, sometimes all you need is twenty seconds of insane courage. Just literally twenty seconds of just embarrassing bravery. And I promise you, something great will come of it."  Yes, and... I couldn't agree more.  

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