The creative power of "Yes, and..."
Updated: Mar 30, 2021
This morning, my three sons came downstairs, sat on the couch, and engaged in their commonplace routine of telling absurd stories.
It's not planned. Nobody picks a topic and then says, "start!" It's totally organic.
It usually starts out with something innocuous enough, like one of the brothers commenting on the length of another brother's fingernails.
Then comes something like, "What if my fingernails grew so long they went out the door and out into the lawn?"
The story begins there, and continues to grow as the boys take turns adding more and more absurd — and, dare I say, creative — additions to the story.
"...and then all the birds start living under your fingernails..."
"...and then the fingernails stretch all the way to the ocean so we can use them as sidewalks...
And on and on and on.
The more absurd the storylines, the more laughter ensues. And, yes, there are usually some fart references and other scatalogical jokes thrown in, for good measure.
Without realizing it, my boys are employing one of the basic principles of improv comedy: "Yes, and..."
If you've ever taken an improv class, been to an improv comedy club such as The Second City, or watched the TV program, "Whose Line is It, Anyway?" you've witnessed firsthand the power of "Yes, and..."
Here's how it goes:
The story begins with an innocuous statement.
The next person adds on to it with a statement that begins, "Yes, and..."
On and on it goes, the group continuing to add on to the story, all starting their additions with "Yes, and..."
If somebody's addition starts with a "no" or "that's dumb" or "that could never happen", then the story comes to an abrupt end.
In the HBO comedy, "Life's Too Short," there is a scene in which Liam Neeson sits down with fictional talent agents, played by Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant, and tells them he's interested in trying his hand at improv comedy. So they decide to role play.
Warwick Davis, the creator of and star of the series, gives them a scenario to start their improvisational story.
"You're a hypochondriac," Davis says, pointing to Neeson, "and Ricky is a doctor."
"Excellent," Neeson replies, taking a deep breath to prepare himself for the "scene."
"Knock-knock," says "hypochondriac" Neeson, knocking on the fictional doctor's door.
"Come in," says "Doctor" Gervais.
"Hello," replies Neeson, pretending to open the door.
"Oh, no, not you again," says Gervais.
"I've never been here before," replies Neeson stoically, effectively killing the story.
"Sorry," says Gervais, no longer in character, "I thought since you were a hypochondriac, you would've been to the doctor before."
"Don't presume," says Neeson, "that's a backstory we didn't agree on beforehand."
"No, I know," replies Gervais. "That's improv, though, isn't it? You sort of go with the flow."
The scene goes on to have the characters attempt other improv scenarios, each time Neeson killing the story with a deep, dark statement, instead of, "Yes, and..."
This scene, as well as the daily storytelling by my sons, exhibits the power of "Yes, and..." to having an abundance mindset that allows your creative power to flow.
In my book, I urge readers to start each day off with two simple questions:
What's awesome about today?
What will make today even more awesome?
The first question allows you to start your day with gratitude. Instead of thinking of all the things you don't want to do during the day ahead, you begin with the things that are awesome. Perhaps it's the fact that the sun rose again. Or maybe it's the fact that you're above ground, instead of "six feet underground". Perhaps it's the fact that you're waking up next to the love of your life. I assure you there's plenty of awesome. Start there.
The second question starts with awesome and then goes from there. By it's very nature, the question acknowledges that there are things that could be more awesome. That's different than starting off by listing all the things that are wrong with your day.
The second question becomes the equivalent of "yes, and..." instead of a "no" or dark statement that ends the creative storyline of your day.
"The weather sucks and I have two meetings with people I hate," certainly kills your day's creative storyline more than, say, "Waking up next to my wife and getting to kiss my kids this morning is awesome. Today will be even more awesome if I can keep my meetings short, and have family game night when I get home."
Creativity isn't just about improv comedy, or scriptwriting, or authoring a book, or painting, playing/conducting music.
Each and every day is a creation.
More to the point, each and every day is an improvisational storyline that we create as we go.
When we wake up, or insert "storyline killer" statements in our day, we end the creative process.
When we continually throw in "yes, and..." throughout our day, we keep the storyline moving forward by going with the flow.
How can we cultivate a mindset that allows us to get in this creative flow state?
First, try loosening up and looking at your day as play instead of struggle.
In the scene referenced above, Neeson plays himself as a gruff, tense, serious character. Deep breaths and tightened facial muscles get him "ready" for the scene. This hardened state leads to hardened statements that kill the creative flow of the story.
Second, try to enjoy the process of the storytelling, instead of striving for a predetermined end result.
When my kids engage in their daily storytelling "gibberish," they don't have an end goal in mind. It begins organically, and continues until it just runs out of steam. As long as there is no judgement, the story goes on and on. The end result is laughter and happiness.
The more we grasp for something, the more tense we become. The more tense we become, the more we create the stress hormone cortisol and forcing it through our body. When that happens, our body enters fight, flight, or freeze. Our subconscious mind takes over, shutting down our conscious mind, where our creative thought takes place.
Whether we fight, flight, or freeze, the "goal" of the subconscious mind at that point is to shut down the story.
If an attacker jumps out in front of us, our subconscious wants to end the story as quickly as possible — by running away, by fighting the attacker, or by freezing and letting the attacker end the story for us.
This is our inherent protective mode; vital for our survival.
But being in survival mode all the time isn't healthy.
And survival mode is not creative mode.
When we're young, like my sons, the absurdity of the creative storylines is applauded.
But as we grow, that type of behavior is frowned upon. Being an adult is serious business because we're dealing with serious work doing serious things.
Then some of us wonder why the flame of our creativity burned out long ago, relegating us to mere pedestrians on a moving walkway that we can neither stop nor control. The life we actually want to create is all around us, but we remain stuck on the walkway, staring straight ahead, propelled forward to accomplish all the things we've been taught to believe we're supposed to accomplish.
On the contrary, a creative life is an improvisational life.
This doesn't mean there aren't any rules or guardrails.
What it means is that we're not afraid to say "Yes, and..." to keep the storyline moving, even if we have no idea where the story will lead.