Every time I turn around I read another article/ post/ self-help smoke signal telling people that they are saying yes to too much. Yet, I rarely see that as the case.
Now, before you throw the latest Tony Robbins meme at me let me explain: if you are overextending yourself and can’t find time to take care of your basic needs, you need to learn to set boundaries. This can include the practice of saying no. But if your first response to opportunity is to look at it as hardship, then you need to start the practice of saying "yes, and...".
Saying yes is hard. It opens you up to vulnerability and critique. Most people tend to say no, give the reasons why something is too hard or can’t be done and miss out on opportunities before they even begin.
Everyone should take an improv class. Yes, it will make your friends hate you when you invite them to your “performance”, you will suck, and it will be awkward for everyone involved. But you will learn some invaluable lessons.
Improv teaches you about reaching beyond your comfort zone, how to interact with others, and most importantly; always say yes.
There is a technique/ game in improv theater in which after every statement someone makes, the response is “yes, and…” or some variation thereof. The idea is to create continuity throughout the scene and allow for it to blossom among numerous participants. This opens up new realms of possibility with every statement instead of closing off with the negative.
What if the opposite were true with just one actor in this practice? What if one person decided not to play the game? The entire dynamic would change. Every single person in the group would have to alter their interactions to somehow account for this one contrarian. (Which is how every well intentioned post on Facebook tends to go)
Think about it. In order for an improv scene, or actually any theatrical scene, to work the audience must accept some forgone conclusions. The most important of these (especially in short scenes) is that everyone on stage has a prior relationship. We suspend our disbelief to allow for the scene on stage to develop. In this case our prejudices actually benefit us.
So what does this have to do with our real lives? How does an improv class relate?
Think about a time with of great change in your life. How did that change initiate? Regardless of the outcome, what was it about that moment that changed your life?
Sometimes we are forced into growth by circumstance. A layoff, a divorce, a death. Events that have finality often create the avenue for change by removing all other options from the table. But what about the times when you had options? When you had to make the choice to play it safe or to jump off the cliff? How did you respond?
One of the biggest life changing business decisions I have made in recent years was to strike out on my own and open The Forge Brooklyn. I had a pretty cushy deal set up at the time. I was training some personal clients out of my friend’s Crossfit gym and was able to keep 100% of my profits. In exchange I taught a few Crossfit classes per week. At first this situation was a great tradoff for all parties involved. I helped take up the slack when he opened by covering classes and I got invaluable experience working with large swaths of gen pop clients. I developed different ideologies, broke some of my stringent beliefs, and learned how to work with real people.
After a few years, however, I became stagnant. I had a steady income and could take care of my personal training clients when I needed. I used the fact that the gym was busy as an excuse to not grow. I knew that my next step would have to be offering semi-private training and group classes but it just wasn’t possible in that situation. I was allowing external forces to define my success. In addition, I was instructing in a methodology that did not fit with my values as a coach. Nothing will make a person more miserable than violating their personal values. Granted, it’s not like I was selling meth to Girl Scouts but even slight transgressions can mentally affect you. For a guy like me, watching people without the requisite strength to lift their own bodyweight perform kipping pullups was tantamount to the Pope renouncing God. My (nonexistent) soul was rotting. Okay, that is a bit melodramatic but you get the point.
One evening, in what seemed to be passing conversation with my Brazilian Jiu Jitsu Professor, I was venting my frustrations about the use of olympic lifting as a training modality for general population. He looked at me and said, “why don’t you train people here?”
My reasons no were many.
“I don’t want to be an imposition.”
“It will cost too much to start.”
“It will cut into my profit margins.”
“What if my clients don’t want to move somewhere new?”
These were all just fear. I was instinctively saying “no” before considering my options. Luckily, I went home and slept on it. I also consulted with my better half. She said to go for it. If I had not jumped at that opportunity a mere 6 months ago my life would be very different right now.
I have always understood the need to take calculated risks in order to succeed. But how do we increase the opportunities to take those risks?
The way to create opportunity is to be open to change. The way to be more open to change is to alter your mindset. Something as simple as “yes, and…” can completely change your view of the world and start you on a path to opportunity.
So how do you implement this?
The hardest part of saying “yes, and..” is developing the mindset. It has to be your first reaction. It has to become the default setting, at least for the time being.
Now, I am not saying you should react impulsively. In fact, this practice is action as opposed to reaction. I want you to think of “yes, and…” as actively opening yourself up to opportunity. Taking control of your situation, regardless of your response, is a form of action. Taking action is imperative to find opportunity.
To start, check out an improv class in your area. They are everywhere. Sign up. Show up. Like anything else worthwhile, it may be awkward at first. Just stick with it. The added benefit of putting yourself in a new and uncomfortable situation is invaluable. Too often we stay trapped in the familiar and resist a change mindset. Break that by shaking it up.
In your professional life I want you to begin to take the time to listen when a problem is presented. Instead of dismissing it as too difficult or time consuming or not the right fit try to think of all of the reasons it could work. Most of us have become experts at pointing out faults. That is what makes us good at what we do. I am one of the best at what I do because I can quickly assess a client’s movement in training and see where there are issues. In general movement I have become an expert at fixing their patterns rather quickly. That is a large part of why I have become successful in my field. However, there are limitations to what I am capable of and must send some clients to experts in corrective work (ie physical therapists) to further their progress. Even with these clients, though, I am tasked with finding ways to improve them outside of any injured areas. What if I had just thrown up my arms and said I can’t help? Where would they be as movers and where would I be as a Coach?
Being open to experience has been a huge boon to me as a fitness professional. It has granted me access to the top names in a variety of industries, has introduced me to amazing and interesting people, and has exposed me to a far greater audience than if I had stayed in my bubble of strength and conditioning in NYC. Fitness is, at times, a maddening place that makes me want to pull my (metaphorical) hair out. But I have met some amazing friends as well.
The same is true for you and your profession. No matter how annoying Jim in marketing might be, try to suspend your preconceived notions and listen, actually listen, to what he is presenting. Before you discount his ideas as stupid see how they might be of benefit. See how you can make it work before looking at the things that may make it impossible. There may be some small opportunity for you hidden in there.
Find your area of expertise and see what you can do to expand it just by saying “yes, and…” to a problem you face this month. It really can be that easy.
In relationships is where I think this practice can really benefit us. Sarah and I have been married over 11 years and we have been living together even longer. We know so much about each other that it becomes very easy to fall into a pattern of conversation that is just a rehashing of those we have had previous. I am as guilty as anyone at saying no before I even think about the question asked. It can be something as simple as going to see a movie. I think about all of the things I dislike about it (the lines, the crowds, the overpriced food, the lack of original storylines or well written dialogue in Hollywood fare) and immediately dismiss the idea. I completely glaze over the fact that it is something we do together, we always have fun, and it is a night out. I can become obsessed with work and it is easy for me to feel like I am too disconnected by turning work off for 2-3 hours. Yet this is precisely what I should be doing.
Now, my wife is much smarter than I am. She knows how to make me play the “yes, and…” game without me knowing. When she wanted a night out to go to a movie last year she simply said, “Hey, do you want to go see the new Blade Runner movie?” Uh, yeah.
Guess what? We had to wait in line, the theater was packed, I think I paid $6 for a Coke Zero, and we had a blast. Well, I had a blast. I think Sarah fell asleep. But we went for dinner after (it’s NYC so dinner at 10:30 pm is completely acceptable) and had a great evening. I unplugged for a night, spent quality time with my favorite person and was totally recharged for the day to come.
That night was a lesson for me that opportunities in my relationships were no different than opportunities in career or training. The little opportunities can snowball into greater moments and it is the combination of these great moments that define our relationship.
Think about the best times in your relationships. What are your favorite moments? For me there are the big ones; our wedding, meals in great restaurants, travelling to small towns abroad. But the greatest are those quiet times when I was just open to the moment. Open to experience. When we just said ‘fuck it’ and did something that was inconvenient or time consuming or out of the way.
Life is full of opportunity. Much of it is missed, ignored, or just denied. We are so conditioned to fear what is unknown that we tend to shut ourselves off. Think about what possibilities might open up for you if you said yes first?