Monday, September 21, 2015

The Zen of Improv: The Power of "No"

by Pam Victor

[The Zen of Improv is a series of articles about 

the place where improvisation and Zen thinking meet

Comedian and improviser Jane Lynch spoke to the graduating seniors at Smith College in 2012:
“As you travel through life, in these many years ahead, I guarantee that you will come upon countless times in which the last thing you’re gonna want to say is “YES AND.” You will experience loss, heartache, the death of a loved one, you’ll probably have to say goodbye to a lover, you’ll experience rejection, maybe have to deal with a bad diagnosis. You’ll age.
Jane Lynch, Smith College commencement 2012 
The trick isn’t to avoid these times or pretend they’re not happening; you can’t. What you’ll need to do is step up to them courageously and embrace them. Allow these experiences to permeate your being and weave them all into the fabric of your life. They will not only soften you and strengthen you, and you will open your heart to compassion. You will not be powerless in this. If you embrace what is happening, instead of denying it, you can make it your own. If life gives you lemons, grab it by the horns and drive.”

Scratch a comedian and you’re sure to come up with a quote about living life according to the testament of “Yes, and…” A guidepost I also believe in deeply and thoroughly and down to the very marrow in my bones and the glitter in my soul. But why doesn’t anybody talk about the power of “No”?

I can’t love “Yes, and…” without having some healthy respect for “No.” It’s such an effective weapon for putting the ultimate brakes on life. “No” is a powerful beastie, because the person who plays the “No” card automatically wins. Or at least forces the other player to concede defeat; it’s a mere formality whether the poor schlub decides to go down swinging and spitting or just instantly put their cards on the table with a firm, “I’m out.” In any case, the power of “No” is a profound game ender. 

I suppose that’s why it’s so hard to let go of “No” for us improvisers and human beings. To do so would be to relinquish control of the situation. To let go of “No” is to hand over the wheel to another driver - to fate, to the moment, to the group. To switch over to another vehicular metaphor, “Yes, and…” helps us pull the oars into the canoe and allow the scene/moment to take us where it’s going already. Whereas “No” grabs the mother of all bigass oars, shoves it deep into the water where it anchors us in the muck below, effectively arresting the canoe dead in the water. In fact, “No” makes the canoe altogether un-canoe-ish, as the it transforms from its float-down-the-stream job and instead becomes more like a boulder resolutely moored to the floor of the stream ever since prehistoric times and well beyond all our lifetimes and our children’s children’s children’s lifetimes. There is no joyride on that boulder. But it is undeniably potent. “No” is definite and immovable and, yes, a very powerful way for the No-er to hold total control.

Lately (as in, for the last 48 years of my life,) I’ve been seeking the answer to, “How to let go?” with extra special bonus points awarded for the answer to, “How to let go gracefully?” How to let go of the power of “No”? How to let go of the need to control? How to let go of the fear of the unknown? How to let go of the boulder and instead float ease-fully along with the current of the moment?

As I understand it, improvisation encourages us to let go and allow the scene/moment to take us along its path. In order to be a good improviser, we need to let go of where we WANT the scene/moment to go, and allow the scene/moment to take us where it’s going already. It's that act of pulling the oars into the canoe and saying "Yes, and ..." to the stream, where the scene is going already. This actions requires a tremendous amount of letting go, especially the two big, bad Leroy Brown’s of letting go: letting go of control and letting go of fear. We allow ourselves to feel the big, bad feels, and we let go anyway as we say, “Yes, and…” to the scene and to the moment. 

Let’s scratch a few more comedians:

"’Say yes, and you'll figure it out afterward’ has helped me to be more adventurous. It has definitely helped me be less afraid.”

- Tina Fey, Bossypants

 “I love saying ‘yes’ and I love saying ‘please.’ Saying ‘yes’ doesn’t mean I don’t know how to say no, and saying ‘please’ doesn’t mean I am waiting for permission. ‘Yes please’ sounds powerful and concise. It’s a response and a request. It is not about being a good girl; it is about being a real woman. It’s also a title I can tell my kids. I like when they say ‘Yes please’ because most people are rude and nice manners are the secret keys to the universe.” 

― Amy Poehler, Yes Please

“… you are not in control. So say ‘yes.’ And if you're lucky, you'll find people who will say "yes" back. Now will saying "yes" get you in trouble at times? Will saying ‘yes’ lead you to doing some foolish things? Yes it will. But don't be afraid to be a fool.” 

- Stephen Colbert, Commencement address at Knox College (2006)

But what happens when a “Yes, and…” joyrider meets a bigass boulder of “No”? 

The answer can be found in the splinters of canoe shrapnel floating down the stream. “No” wins. Game over. End of joyride. 

“No” is so fucking powerful, you guys! “No” not only hoards all the oars but also overtakes the power of the stream’s current, gravity itself. “No” says, “Try to move me, motherfucker. I dare you.” And you can’t because “No” is Arnold Schwarzenegger in a no good, very bad “Go ahead, make my day” mood, and even if you could deal with that shit, it’s just not worth it, man. It's just not worth it.

(Yes, I know that Arnold Schwarzenegger didn’t say “Go ahead, make my day,” but you get my drift.)

What would it be like to let go of the Power of No? What would it be like to let go of our fear of what’s ahead? What would it be like to let go of our need to plan? To let go of the whole self-delusion of planning? What would it be like to let go and give in to where the scene and the moment is taking us?

Back to Ms. Lynch at that Smith College commencement for this one,
“To this I say: you can always trust that when you’re coming from your highest self and from your heart, you’ll know when you should say YES AND,’ and when to engage the awesome power of ‘NO WAY’ …. Your job is to honestly discern for yourself if you’re saying ‘no’ to an opportunity out of fear, or are you simply exercising good judgment.”
And I would add that we should take a magnifying glass to our definition of “good judgment” while we’re examining these intersections of life. Aside from those classic “bad judgment” red flags – like heroin, murder, kitten torture – defining “bad judgment” is not always a no-brainer. That’s the bitch of it, people. Because there are moments when Fear colors everything to make it seem like a bad decision. Quitting your paying job in order to fulfill your non-paying dream? That logically seems like a bad decision. Saying yes to an opportunity to leave all your friends and family and move to another country? That logically seems like a bad decision. Being with a person who you desire even though it would mean posting on Facebook that “It’s complicated”? That logically seems like a bad decision. All those moments logically certainly seem like good times to wield the great Power of No.

And yet …

What would happen if we allowed ourselves a bubble outside of life, a bit of time in a life vacuum outside of the exertions of the “shoulds” and “musts” of life? What would happen if you were scared but tried it anyway, even if it doesn’t make sense and you don’t know why you’re doing it? What would happen if you take a tiny break from life to listen to your heart? What would happen if you pull the oars out of the water and allowed the moment to carry you, just for a moment or two or three or four? Where would you go? How does that feel in your heart? Can your head possibly catch up for just a second to consider those moments in this lovely bubble before stopping the journey dead in its tracks with “No”?

On the other hand, should the lovely bubble experiment fail, what would it be like to say “Yes, and …” to that new reality, whether we like it or not? What would it be like to say "Yes, and ..." to the "No"? This “No” might be the new normal, the (maybe) unhappy reality of this moment. What would it be like to allow that moment of “No” to take us to the next step along the way? Because, as my co-authors of Improvisation at the Speed of Life taught me, the principle behind “Yes, and …” does not require us to say yes. The spirit of “Yes, and …” suggests that we “merely” accept the present reality of the scene/moment. Bonus points for doing so without out judgment. Daily double bonus points for doing it gracefully.

“No” is a powerful weapon that requires we use it ever so wisely and judiciously. Maybe the secret is to follow the heart rather than the head? For sure, the secret is to consciously, rather than reflexively, choose to say no.

This seems to be a good time to return to our seats in the beautiful quad in Northampton, Massachusetts on a sunny day in 2012 to turn our attention toward a very funny woman:
“It turns out I just had to be willing to take chances, look at what’s right in front of me and greet everything with a big ’YES AND,’ putting all of my heart into everything I do. My counsel to you, women of Smith College? Let life surprise you. Don’t have a plan. Plans are for wusses.”


A teeny tiny, one-minute webseries that 
tries to answer the questions of life 
according to the tenets of improvisation.
In this episode, we explore the question, 
"How do I let go?"

If you are interested in exploring some 
more Zen of Improv pieces, 
you might enjoy reading about the other side of the "No" coin:

Or how about some of these "Geeking Out with..." interviews with some of the biggest minds in improv?


Pam Victor is an improv comedian, author, teacher, consultant, and nice person. She is the founder and Head of Happiness of Happier Valley Comedy, the epicenter of improv in Western Mass, where Pam teaches The Zen of Improv to the best students in the world as well as bringing the power of improvisation to the workplace in her "Through Laughter" program.  TJ Jagodowski,  David Pasquesi, and Pam are the co-authors of "Improvisation at the Speed of Life: The TJ and Dave Book."   She lives online at

Unless you're a meanie, Pam would probably like you.

1 comment:

  1. Wow, this is such juicy stuff, and I think especially true for men, who learn early on to wield the power of "No". The angry "No", the powerful, manly "No". The "No" that keeps us from anything that threatens our sense of being in control. The "No that keeps us from being playful adults. And so on and so on.... On the larger scale, it may be the driving force behind war, corporate greed, police brutality, climate-change denial, etc. Imagine our foreign policy, our Congressional debates, our approach to income inequality, all being driven by "Yes, And..." And then, bringing all that back to our individual lives. Men saying, "Yes, And..." to our spouses, our children, and everyone else in our lives. The mind boggles. And then perhaps it says, however tentatively, "Yes, And...."