The Power of Yes

27 January 2014 · 13 comments

For a long time, I was afraid to try new things, to meet new people, to do anything that might lead to failure. These fears confined me to a narrow comfort zone. I spent most of my time at home, reading books or playing videogames. When opportunities came to try new things, I usually ignored them. I made excuses. I wasn’t happy, but I was complacent. I was safe.

Then I read a book called Impro by Keith Johnstone. It changed my life.

Impro is a book about stage-acting, about improvisational theater, the kind of stuff you used to see on the TV show Whose Line Is It Anyway? I’m not an actor, nor do I want to become one, but several of the techniques described in the book were applicable to my everyday life.

In one section, for example, Johnstone explains that in order for a scene to flow, an actor has to take whatever situation arises and work with it. She needs to accept and build upon the actions of her fellow actors.

Once you learn to accept offers, then accidents can no longer interrupt the action. […] This attitude makes for something really amazing in the theater. The actor who will accept anything that happens seems supernatural; it’s the most marvelous thing about improvisation: you are suddenly in contact with people who are unbounded, whose imagination seems to function without limit.

I thought about this passage for days. “What if I did this in real life?” I wondered. “What if I accepted offers and stopped blocking them?” I began to note the things I blocked and accepted. To my surprise, I blocked things constantly – I made excuses to not do things because I was afraid of what might happen if I accepted.

  • When online acquaintances asked to meet for lunch. I’d refuse. I was scared they might think I was fat or stupid. (Or that they might be an axe murderer!)
  • When a local television station asked me to appear on their morning show as a financial expert, I was afraid of looking like a fool, so I refused.
  • When a friend wanted me to join him to watch live music at a local pub, I declined. I’d never been in a bar (yes, I’d led a sheltered life) and was nervous about what might happen.
  • When another friend asked me to bike with him from Portland to the Oregon Coast, I said no. It was a long way. It seemed difficult and dangerous.

These are only a handful of examples. In reality, I blocked things every day. I refused to try new foods. I didn’t like to go new places. And I didn’t want to try new things. Or, more precisely, I wanted to do all of this, but was afraid to try. Because I focused more on the possible negative outcomes than the potential rewards, I avoided taking even tiny risks.

After reading Impro, I made a resolution. Instead of saying “no” to the things that scared me, I’d say “yes” instead.

Whenever somebody asked me to do something, I agreed (as long as it wasn’t illegal and didn’t violate my personal code of conduct). I put this new philosophy into practice in lots of ways, both big and small.

  • When people asked me to lunch, I said yes.
  • When people contacted me to make media appearances or do public speaking gigs, I said yes.
  • When friends asked me to go see their favorite bands or to spend the evening chatting at a bar, I said yes.

As a result of my campaign to “just say yes”, I’ve met hundreds of interesting people and done lots of amazing things. I’ve eaten guinea pig in Perú and grubs in Zimbabwe. I’ve climbed mountains in Bolivia and snorkeled in Ecuador. I’ve learned to love both coffee and beer, two beverages I thought that I hated. I’ve learned to ride a motorcycle. I’ve shot a gun. I’ve gone skydiving and bungie-jumping. I wrote and published a book. I sold my website. I took a monthly column in a major monthly magazine.

These things might seem minor to natural extroverts, but I’m not a natural extrovert. I’m an introvert. These were big steps for me. These experiences were new and scary, and I wouldn’t have had them if I hadn’t forced myself to say yes.

Note: Long-time readers are well aware that I first wrote about the power of yes nearly seven years ago. As we continue this year-long exploration of fear, happiness, and freedom, we’ll inevitably retrace some familiar territory. That’s okay. It’s good to see how these old insights fit into a larger whole.

{ 13 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Tyler Karaszewski 27 January 2014 at 09:51

Hey J.D., how’d you like to come out on a racing sailboat?

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2 S. E. 27 January 2014 at 12:42

Good one Tyler! He forgot to mention he was raised as a Mormon. They live a very, very very sheltered life. Beyond that, my time is valuable to me to where it would make no sense to say yes to everything.

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3 PawPrint 27 January 2014 at 21:27

Having lived in Boise for 14 years, I just have to object to the number of “verys” you use in your stereotypical view of Mormons. Mormons send their kids to public school, participate in community activities, and some even march in Gay Pride parades as allies.

JD, glad you got out of your comfort zone. I’d miss those great posts about your travel experiences. Definitely looking forward to your post on your sailboat adventure with Tyler.

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4 jdroth 27 January 2014 at 14:53

I would love it. Kim and I will be in your neck of the woods during May. ;)

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5 Tyler Karaszewski 28 January 2014 at 09:30

Let me know when you’ll be down here.

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6 Colleen Kyle 27 January 2014 at 10:20

Hey J.D.!!

I’m going to have to get back in the habit of checking your website more often again. Every time I drop in you’ve got a new post! I love being reminded of the power of yes!

I miss you and all the Ecuador group.

I still haven’t found anyone in my town who can replace all of you guys. Maybe we need a reunion!

I’m still heading to Portland this summer. I hope you’ll be able to fit me in. (No public pressure intended… Honest!)

Colleen

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7 Madhan 27 January 2014 at 22:56

Your blog is simply amazing. Love reading it!!

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8 Chris G 28 January 2014 at 06:05

This is the exact plot to the movie “Yes Man”

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9 jdroth 28 January 2014 at 07:51

So I’ve heard. I’ve had the book on my shelf ever since somebody pointed this out in 2007, but I still haven’t read it. I’ve leafed through it, and it seems sort of silly. Is it?

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10 chacha1 28 January 2014 at 15:00

It’s a little silly but I thought it was worth reading. :-) The movie is also entertaining.

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11 bethh 28 January 2014 at 17:04

When my brother graduated from college I had a few pieces of advice, one of which was to accept any and all social invitations the first few months he was in his new location. It’s served him brilliantly well, including letting him meet his future wife at a house party in Tennessee (both of them lived many states away from there).

I’ve been finding some of your new content kinda dry; figures this oldie but goodie is the one I’ve enjoyed most of your recent posts!

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12 Jonathan 29 January 2014 at 10:07

Your blog is a gift…thank you!

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13 martin 29 January 2014 at 15:23

Sometimes you have to snap and just say yes. I started wrestling training. I wasn’t ready for it all. Then I found out I had a match last weekend. I wasn’t ready. I went out there and stole the show. All I did was say yes to the match.

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