Children possess an abundance of the superpower we call openness. They inspire us with their active imaginations and their eagerness to greet the new, the strange, and the unfamiliar. Children can also show us how to express ourselves more freely, if we let them. And they can show us how to explore the world with open arms again, and embrace new experiences, and unrestrained joy.
If you’ve ever marveled at the lightning-quick, nimble minds of comedians like Tina Fey, Bill Murray, Amy Poehler or Stephen Colbert — all who were mentored at one time by legendary improv pioneer Del Close — there is a method to their collective madness. And that method is something we can all learn from.
Rule number one of improv comedy is the principle of “Yes, and.” When they’re collaborating onstage, improv actors never reject each other’s ideas. They say “Yes, and…” to accept and build upon each new contribution. There’s no time to negate or judge an idea if the shared goal is to propel a scene forward and make something new. So you roll with whatever is served. It’s about letting ideas breathe, trusting each other, and going on a journey of the unknown together.
Have you ever tried to brainstorm with someone who “brain-stomps” on every idea without giving it a chance? It’s easier to knock something than it is to build it up. But remember: the people who knock everything down never build anything. A quick “No” stops the flow. “Yes, and” lets you build and grow. This principle applies well beyond theater and comedy.
In 1980, we were in ninth and sixth grades when an NBA rookie named Larry Bird (aka The Hick from French Lick) breathed new life into an ailing Boston Celtics franchise. As his rivalry with LA Lakers great Earvin “Magic” Johnson took shape, it was a special time to be sports-crazed teenagers in Boston. For us, Bird’s nightly miracles on the court ignited a burning desire to have a basketball hoop in our own driveway.
We pitched the idea hard to our mom, but she brought up some legitimate hurdles. – For one, the driveway was too small and also made of gravel so the ball wouldn’t bounce well. As she dished out some oatmeal, she also emphasized that we had no money to pay for a new hoop. All good points.
Our brother Ed managed to flip the switch. “You’re right about the gravel, mom”, Ed replied calmly. “That’s why we want to set up the hoop in the street where it’s smooth and there’s plenty of space.” John took it from there: “And there’s already a telephone pole out there — we’ll just use that.” Bert chimed in that the pole had a streetlight on it to boot, so we could play at night.
With Ed leading, our little three-man weave drill was working. He explained that he could build an adjustable hoop out of some angle iron from the basement, and we knew we could find a discarded rim and backboard somewhere. Before we knew it, even Mom was joining in: “And I guess this way it could be for the whole neighborhood, right?”
Momentum is a powerful thing. Ed was always pretty handy with mechanical things, so two weeks later, our hoop dream was realized. Our collective “Yes, and” mindset would translate to countless hours of practice and good times with friends in the decade to come. Yes, and … Bird and Magic’s legendary battles and team-first attitudes throughout the ‘80s played a major role in reviving America’s passion for pro basketball.
This article is excerpted and adapted from the book Life is Good by Bert and John Jacobs, published by National Geographic on September 1, 2015. Copyright © 2015 The Life is Good Company.