Last year Shonda Rhimes, the Hollywood power maven behind hit TV shows Scandal, Grey’s Anatomy, and How To Get Away With Murder, came out with a book called Year of Yes. The premise was pretty straightforward. For a year Rhimes committed herself to saying “yes” to all kinds of opportunities and experiences she might have otherwise declined.
My experience learning improv comedy has taught me a lot about the power of “yes.” Agreement is the foundation for scene work. When your scene partner says “I’m too sick to go to work today,” you’re taught to accept the reality they establish and build. “It’s a good thing I’m a doctor,” you might say. “You’re not sick! Aliens from the planet Bleep-Blorp don’t get sick!” is something you could say if you want to massacre the scene and bring everyone’s good time to a screeching, grinding halt, which is also another way of saying “No” to whatever was just created. “Yes” will take you many wonderful, beautiful, and mildly terrifying places if you let it.
I listened to an NPR interview with Rhimes where she described being a class-A workaholic and fierce introvert who lived in fear of the many ways even a simple cocktail party could send her into a panic attack. Her sister encouraged her to crack open her shell a bit more and to see what shifts would take place if she said “yes” more than she said “no thanks.” When you’re Shonda Rhimes you’re not exactly saying “yes” to going on a hot air balloon ride or taking a cooking class. One of her “yesses” included finally giving in and accepting an invite to appear on Jimmy Kimmel Live. In another “sure thing” moment, she agreed to give the commencement address at Dartmouth College. Not entirely horrible things to have to drag yourself to, I thought. But the fact remains that when you convince yourself of limitation, when you give fear free reign to rule the road, and when you swaddle yourself in what always feels safe then the risk factor is always at an eleven—whether that risk involves starting a book club, applying for a job, or slipping the cute thing at the coffee shop your digits (does that still happen or do we just scan a bar code and get an email telling us if we’re date-worthy?)
I don’t always cop to the same “yes” rule in real life that I learned from improv. In fact, aside from the celebrity status and enormous bank account, I’m not that much different from Shonda Rhimes in the many ways I say “Nah,” “no thanks,” “hey, maybe next time,” and “sorry, not my thing.” And no one really calls me on it, but I know. I feel myself shrinking into a cocoon that is not there to protect or house me, it’s there to dull me. Not great.
On stage we discover that some of the most wonderful moments unfold when we lift our mental censors long enough to offer something incredibly real and honest. When instead of reaching for the line we know will get a laugh, we simply say or do something almost instinctively magic happens. That’s another kind of “yes” gift we give to ourselves. It’s a “yes” to committing to the present moment, it’s “yes” without doing the mental calculations around anxiety and insecurity. It’s a “yes” that chooses you because its driven by the instinct that this opportunity is exactly what will serve you best in this instance. The Universe hands us our broccoli and brussel sprouts in many forms.
A couple of friends stayed with me while they were traveling through the area on business not long ago.
“You wanna go for a run with us?” my friend asked. No, said my brain. We don’t run, said my legs. We go to the gym where machines do a lot of the work, and we feel just fine about it, said my lungs.
“Yeah, sure!” said my stupid mouth enthusiastically. I was moving and grabbing a sweatshirt and water bottle before I had much time to think about what I was doing. Images of pulling myself around the outdoor track during seventh grade gym class in something best described as the shuffle of a 75-year old woman flashed behind my eyes. The “yes” had no manual override.
We ran. I ran. I did not die. I did not suddenly realize my hidden yen to become a marathon champion. I did get out of my comfort zone. I did put myself in a situation to experience something new without poisoning the mental well with false ideas that don’t really serve me or my growth.
Sometimes you need that no-kill-switch so that your head can step aside and your gut can take over even when you wish it would stifle itself because you don’t feel like evolving today, especially when that involves punishing exercise instead of, say, chocolate cake and ice cream.
We think we know what we need at all times, but that’s usually because we confuse what we need with what we want. We don’t always want to say “yes,” but when we do something happens that’s even more amazing than doing the thing that freaked you out: You realize you’re actually saying “yes” to you.