Tapping into the power of “Yes, and…"

What if you started saying “Yes”? How might things be different if you started saying “yes” much more than “no” to those opportunities, challenges, risks, and requests you face every day and either refuse directly or by avoidance?


… So, say "yes." In fact, say "yes" as often as you can. When I was starting out in Chicago, doing improvisational theatre with Second City and other places, there was really only one rule I was taught about Improv. That was, "yes-and." In this case, "yes-and" is a verb. To "yes-and." I yes-and, you yes-and, he, she or it yes-ands. And “yes-anding” means that when you go onstage to improvise a scene with no script, you have no idea what's going to happen, maybe with someone you've never met before. To build a scene, you have to accept. To build anything onstage, you have to accept what the other improviser initiates on stage. They say you're doctors -- you're doctors. And then, you add to that: “We're doctors and we're trapped in an ice cave.” That's the "-and." And then hopefully they "yes-and" you back. You have to keep your eyes open when you do this. You have to be aware of what the other performer is offering you, so that you can agree and add to it. And through these agreements, you can improvise a scene or a one-act play. And because, by following each other's lead, neither of you are really in control. It's more of a mutual discovery than a solo adventure. What happens in a scene is often as much a surprise to you as it is to the audience.

-       Stephen Colbert, from his 2006 Knox College commencement address

I had heard about Colbert’s now-classic commencement address for some time but only recently tracked it down and read it in its entirety.  It was truly unlike most college commencement addresses – you know the kind; rather dry, if carefully and lovingly constructed by the honored speech giver struggling to break through the collective hangover to impart years of accumulated wisdom onto the eager graduates stepping out into the “real world,” only to be instantly filed away in that section of the brain labeled “Stuff To Never Think About Again… Ever.”

Colbert’s was different.  It was excellent.  Fun, funny, and for all but the final minutes, anything but deep.  And then he offered his profoundly simple advice:  Say, “YES.”

When given the chance to do something new or different, “outside the box,” or that will challenge or stretch your abilities, how often do you say, “Yes”?  How often when the opportunity is something you never imagined yourself doing, or is far removed from anything you normally are interested in?  Ever?  How about when saying “yes” almost certainly guarantees some level of discomfort despite the promise of a possibly greater payoff?  

For many of us, “No” becomes an easy default.  Weary, wary, with too much responsibility and too little time, we retreat from new challenges and decide it’s just easier and safer to “go with what (we) know.”  Other folks might consider themselves fully formed; they know what they like, what they’re comfortable with, how they do things and why, and the idea of learning or doing something new and outside those carefully defined parameters is viewed with suspicion or disdain.  There’s almost a pride in the rigidity. 

It sometimes seems we in the law enforcement world are particularly susceptible to the lure of just saying “NO” to those things that may be challenging or difficult or “different.”  We tend to embrace a deeper wariness of the world, and weariness from policing its darker corners.  For a lot of cops that pride in rigidity is a trademark.  Not all, but enough that you probably recognize it in some of the people you work with.  Or maybe even in yourself.  We also know that saying “yes” to the wrong things or in the wrong situations gets people in oodles of trouble and in the interest of self-preservation, we opt for safety.  Obviously, however, those outright dangerous choices aren’t the things or situations we’re talking about here.

The problem with choosing “no” too often is the danger that it poses to potentially rewarding experiences and opportunities.

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