If you can find a good piece of advice, take it. That applies to time-honoured wisdom from a parent, a blunt truth from your child or even one of those aphorisms in your friend’s Facebook feed, most often featuring a cute kitten.
One bit of advice I’ve learned comes from improv comedy. I have to be clear about one thing: I am no performer. I’ve never done standup, I’ve never been in an improv sketch and I find the very thought of going out on a stage with no script, no props and no idea what the other person is going to say utterly terrifying.
Still, I like reading about how people make their career from comedy, and recently I came across some useful advice from none other than Tina Fey, the brains and face behind “30 Rock” and head writer (and “Weekend Update” cohost), before that, on “Saturday Night Live.”
Fey has parlayed her nerdy charm into solid success, including a bestseller. Her book “Bossypants” appeared two years ago, and readers will find a lovely memoir tucked inside the laugh-laced chapters as Fey expounds on growing up, getting a career started and keeping a home life together.
I learned something important from Fey in the chapter she wrote about improv and the rules which govern its practice. There is, in fact, quite a bit you can take away to help you lead your own life.
“The first rule of improvisation is agree,” she writes — meaning that, if you’re starting a sketch, you automatically agree to agree with the person with whom you’re sharing a tightrope. If you reject their opening premise, the idea dies instantly.
Then things get more interesting. “The second rule of improvisation is to not only say yes, but yes, and. …”
In other words, you accept what the person has offered, and then you build on it. The process continues, and a scene takes place.
Those two words are the direct opposite, I would say, of what I often hear at meetings: “Yes, but …” or even worse, just plain, “No,” or something like, “We tried that already and it flopped,” or even, “That’s not going to work.”
No one would argue that the rules of improv always work in life. Any parent will know that “no” is not only frequently necessary, but a healthy thing for children to learn; that there are limits on everything, from endless scoops of ice cream to spending the day without shoes.
The improv ethic, though, is really about looking at things differently. It’s about embracing the unknown rather than fearing it, of wanting to explore a situation rather than shut the door on it, of being open to collaboration and the development of others rather than limiting things.
I heard a similar point of view from Fey’s frequent collaborator, Amy Poehler, when she appeared a while back on the TV show “Inside the Actor’s Studio.” Poehler became remarkably serious when she described how life-changing it can be to take on that worldview, of being willing to accept a possibility rather than take the other route of preferring to say no.
How many times have you been in a meeting, and you can just tell from the body language of people in the room that things are heading straight into a brick wall?
Folded arms, leaning back, downturned mouths, staring at the table … I’ve seen them all, and sometimes felt like being in that position myself.
Here’s where a different strategy can come into play. The value of thinking “Yes, and” is that you build trust, value what others can contribute and, perhaps most important of all, listen closely.
You also see the accountability and possibility within yourself. It’s easy to be negative and shut down a line of inquiry. However, when you think “yes, and,” you open yourself up to being part of the solution, and you see the opportunities that can come from building something up, rather than tearing it down.
Martha Muzychka is a writer and communications
consultant living in St. John’s.