“Say yes, and you’ll figure it out later.”
~ Tina Fey
Life has a funny way of reminding us that we are not in control. Take for instance the 2016 Chicago Cubs World Series win or the U.S. Presidential election. Loyal Cubs fans familiar with the phrase, “there’s always next year” waited 108 years for another World Series win. Political pundits, opinionated news anchors, and detailed analytic data never predicted the President-elect’s win. However, if there is one lesson from 2016, it is that given enough time and failed attempts even a blind squirrel finds a nut every now and again.
So why are these events so shocking? We often find ourselves rooting for the underdog because deep down that is who we relate to the most. We relate to the feeling of inadequacy that we often attribute to the underdog and while that feeling might be accurate, it is not what causes the underdog to win. The underdog wins for the same reason that improvisation makes us laugh. The underdog approaches solutions from a place of yes.
There are four rules of improvisation that Tina Fey describes in her book, Bossypants which provide insights into why so many industries, including higher education, struggle when times get tough.
Rule One – Agree (or Say Yes): to make improvisation work, “you are required to agree with whatever your partner has created.” This doesn’t mean that you will necessarily agree with every idea presented, but the point behind this rule is respect. It is a reminder to approach new ideas and possibilities with an open mind. This is easier said than done. People want their opinions to be heard. Whether it is in a classroom, the workplace, or in government, we want people to listen to and respect our ideas. So often people raise concerns or present suggestions that are met with immediate disapproval or negative feedback. In higher education, we hear the word no a lot. What could happen if students’ challenges and struggles were met with solutions that ended in yes?
Rule Two – Yes, And: So while we may not always agree with the first idea presented, it is our responsibility to respect the idea and contribute to it. In improv, if an idea is presented and your partner follows up with a simple “yeah”, the scene ends there because there is nothing further to build on. The rule of “yes and, means don’t be afraid to contribute. It is your responsibility to contribute. Always make sure you are adding something to the discussion.” Not every idea is always the best solution and this is also why there is no “I” in team. Well-thought out solutions require input from others who are not afraid to say yes.
Rule Three – Make Statements: Have you ever come across that one individual in the meeting who outwardly appears to be on the same side, but spends most of the time throwing out no’s disguised as thought-provoking questions? Rule three is a “positive way of saying—don’t ask questions all the time.” It can sometimes be a natural tendency to figure out all the reasons why a specific solution will not work which is why we ask the questions. The hard part is avoiding putting pressure on everyone else to answer the questions and instead make statements that support a solution of yes.
Rule Four – There Are No Mistakes: One of the best parts of improv is when the audience sees a mistake turned into a hilarious opportunity. It reminds us that we are all imperfect humans. “In improv there are no mistakes, only beautiful happy accidents. And many of the world’s greatest discoveries have been by accident.” We sometimes are too quick to throw away ideas. True, there are some that are just not very good, for instance, Reece’s Pieces stuffed in a Reece’s Peanut Butter Cup, I mean why? But then there are those happy accidents such as the Post-It Note. Dr. Spencer Silver in his quest to create a super-strong adhesive instead gave the world a “low-tack, reusable, pressure-sensitive adhesive” at least according to Wikipedia.
There are plenty of issues in the world looking for solutions. As our world evolves, we continue to face challenges. Higher education needs to figure out how to adapt to shifts in student population and changes in funding sources. The Chicago Cubs need to figure out how to avoid another 108 years between World Series wins. The President-elect needs to figure out how to unite a nation deeply divided. We as individuals need to approach each part of our life not necessarily from a place of complete agreement, but from a place of respect for other opinions and perspectives. We need to approach solutions from a place of yes.
“Whatever the problem, be part of the solution.
Don’t just sit around raising questions and pointing out obstacles.”
~ Tina Fey