Thursday, September 22, 2011

Yes, and: Enablers and the people who love them

As a freshman in college, I was easily pursuaded. Free food! Bright t-shirts! People! Nowhere did this manifest itself more -- in an activity that I had absolutely no interest pursuing -- than the improv groups on campus.

I was intrigued, of course, by their gregarious attitudes, and their implicit promise that they could make anybody funny. And it was free! Free shows in WLH, free workshops on Cross Campus, myriad opportunities to laugh and learn how to make other people laugh. I was intrigued -- but I was also pretty terrified. 

Figures: I never tried out for sketch comedy or improv. I did go to their shows – until, um, I realized they weren't funny (to me). As another enclave in the Yale creative scene, improv was just another form of art I couldn't quite appreciate. So, after attending three shows freshman year, I didn't attend another one ever again. My most significant interactions with the troupes were figuring out how best to avoid their glances, their hands, those flimsy pieces of paper shaped like purple crayons.

I'd like to think I was funnier than average in college -- though, of course, that means absolutely nothing. I'd like to think that during my best days, I could be wry, sardonic, and completely whimsical. I'd like to think I surprised people with my sense of humor. But really, I'm pretty sure that only my roommate thought I was funny, and even now, I still can't be sure he wasn't faking it. It wasn't until graduation that I realized what a loose, unleveraged place college was: it gave me consequence-free opportunities to fail. I should have failed at learning improv; college had been my best chance. 

This thought became blatantly clear when I read Tina Fey’s Bossypants. She talks about the golden rule of improv: “Yes, and.” Always agree, no matter what. If I tell you there’s an alligator in my boots, and you say, “No there isn’t,” our conversation has just ground to a halt. If you tell me, “Yes, and there’s a snake in mine,” we're moving. That's progress. It's a simple and powerful idea.

And yet, for its Occam’s razor-like quality, “Yes and” is so neglected in our everyday lives. Our friendly neighborhood John Song describes it this way: There are two types of people in this world – enablers and blockades.

It’s a Friday night, and you’re with three friends, ready to hit Roosevelt Bar. Then it starts raining. Jesse looks at the group and says, “Should we still go?” Here are three responses:

  •  “Yes! And I have an extra umbrella I can lend someone.”
  •  “I don’t care…I’ll go if everyone else goes.”
  •  “Nah, I don’t like getting wet. And I’m kind of tired.”

There’s nothing wrong with any of these statements; each one could be a truthful representation of what you're feeling. But in terms of social momentum, only the first response – the enthusiastic one – builds good standing among your peers. Say yes, and people will come to you, because they want to hear it again. Say no, and people will stop bothering you, because they wouldn't rather not be turned away again.

Another way to say it: The more you enable others, the more changes you'll have to enable others. It's a positive feedback loop that will just keep giving. And really, being a "Yes, and" kind of guy (or gal) is the way to go if you want to maintain your optionality. The blockade who says no will never get invited to anything again. The enabler who says yes will always get invited -- but he can also choose not to go. If you say yes, your options proliferate.

I realize this isn't a jaw-dropping thought. But it's a thought I too often find myself not remembering until it's too late. We can all do a better job of enabling each other in our lives. 

My final thought: being an enabler isn’t analogous to being positive. It’s not just saying, “Yes.” It’s saying, “Yes, and.” Encouragement is only effective insofar as you seed future potential. It's not just "Good job" – it's "Good job! Have you ever thought about this, too?" Add value by being positive; go above and beyond by offering a space for that positivity to grow. Be an enabler, in as many contexts as possible. Broaden and build, because in the long run, you’ll be paid back 10 times over.

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