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.
The next time you sit down with a child, imagine the child is your teacher. Let her tell you about the drawing or the toy, or where the story goes next. Let her show you her view of the world, in her own words. Follow her lead. Be willing to be silly, and let go of trying to direct the kid. You ask the “Whys?” and discover the world as she directs the kid in you.
Try using this phrase wherever you work or meet in groups. Invite people to share their wildest ideas up front and encourage the group to take each one for a spin, accepting and building on it. The filtering and editing down can happen later, but this first crucial step creates an open environment of collaboration that sparks innovation. In your personal life, “Yes, and” will help foster a more adventurous, creative approach as well. Your mate wants to take a class, see a film, reboot a hobby, or take a spontaneous trip with you? In all cases, before you fall into the list of logical reasons why it may not make sense, try taking the open road of “Yes, and…I could join you. Let’s take an art or cooking class together!” instead. Let it breathe, expand on it, and enjoy that ride.
Get out and see the world! We’re not necessarily talking adventure travel (Olga all over if you can!) or long road trips (highly recommended as well). “If you don’t go, you don’t see” can also apply to your neighbor’s home, a live show, a place you’ve been meaning to volunteer, or the contemporary art exhibit you’re not quite sure is for you. Changing up your routine and physical surroundings will help open up your mind to fresh perspectives.
Of course, travel doesn’t have to be physical. The imagination is a spaceship, and travel of the mind is free. Try reading books and watching films outside your go-to genre. Ask a music-loving friend or tap your favorite streaming service to refresh your personal playlist. Write your own outrageous story about the adventures that lie ahead for you and your loved ones. The bottom line is, it takes a conscious effort to step outside of your comfort zone to experience new things. Whenever you take that step, you’re good to grow.
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.