The Power of “No, But”

Improvisers are notorious for saying yes. How could we not be? Ask any layperson about improv and they’ll immediately say something about the rule of  YES AND.

It’s drilled into us from day one of our classes. We’re reminded of it as we find new, subtle, more creative ways to deny our scene partners. It becomes a way of life touted by comedy idiots, like me, and comedy superstars, like Tina Fey.

Raise your hand if this sounds familiar.

Level 1: Hey, do you want to practice outside of classes every week or two? Yes

Level 2: Hey, do you want to get a coach and do a show? Yes

Level 3: Hey, do you want to join this other indie team? Yes

Level 4: Hey, do you want to be on this one-off Cagematch team? Yes

Level 5: Hey, be on this house team. Yes

Vet: Hey, come do this sketch team. Yes

Vet: Hey, you’re really good, come be on this other indie team. Yes

When I signed up for my first improv class, I was ready to say yes to anything, including giving $200 to a guy I had never met, on a whim.

I was looking for a distraction to cope with a shitty breakup and I was looking for new friends as I graduated from college. When I found a community of kind, likeminded people, I just started saying “yes, and” to anything and everything, filling my schedule with new friends and new distractions.

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In Level 2, I joined an independent team. Then I graduated and joined a Harold team. I joined a second independent team. I joined a few pick-up teams that never practice but play ad-hoc shows. I go to Open Court. I started coaching. I started a blog that posts twice a week. I was cast in a sketch show. I even blasphemously joined a short-form team.

And that’s just improv.

Over the past two years, I’ve changed jobs twice. I made new friends. I got a cat. I made more new friends. I got a girlfriend. I started going back to the gym. I burnt bridges. I built bridges. (Those last two are metaphors, not literal things I did, if any cops are reading). I joined a kickball league.

If your hand’s still up from before, then allow me to join you. I am in YES AND hell (or heaven, depending on how you want to look at it) with you.

And from this veritable YES AND Dante’s Inferno, I’ve learned one thing the hard way. Sometimes, in life, you have to NO BUT to get to a better YES AND.

But what does it mean to YES, AND?

  • Yes: Accept the reality. Accept the offer you are given.
  • And: Do your part to make it better. Do your part to add value to what has been offered and accepted.

YES-ing is easy.

  • “Yes, I will join your team.”
  • “Yes, I will perform next week.”
  • “Yes, I will be your coach.”
  • “Yes, I will accept that promotion.”
  • “Yes, I will film a sketch.”
  •  “Yes, I will cook dinner tonight.”

AND-ing is hard.

Time is a finite resource. Your creativity energy is a finite resource. Your focus is a finite resource.

When you YES a third independent team, your ability to AND any of those three teams is diminished. Your ability to AND your partner, your kid(s), and your friends is diminished.

My rampant YES AND-ing finally caught up with me. Recently, I promised a friend I’d write a play for his upcoming showcase. That was back in August, and since the due date wasn’t until the end of September, I threw it on the backburner. On Monday, I had to tell him there just wasn’t going to be time for me to write a quality piece between all of the other commitments I had already YES-ed.

I had to send him an email and bail, which feels pretty crummy. A lot crummier than if I had just said. “Thanks for the offer, I really appreciate it, but I am just too busy right now. Is there another opportunity in the future where I can help?”

Thus, the power of NO, BUT.

The next time you know you’re too busy, when you know you cannot take on a new project or relationship without sacrificing the quality and dedication to any of your other commitments or obligations, try NO BUT.

Let’s break it down.

No: Politely decline the offer. Politely explain that your time is limited and you have other important commitments that require your attention.

But: Add value by suggesting an alternative. Add value by exchanging support in another way.

NO-ing is hard. BUT-ing is easy.

  • “No, I cannot commit to a third indie team, but I will come to your shows.”
  • “No, I cannot film a sketch with you, but I will share it once you publish it.”
  • “No, I cannot perform in Cagematch with you, but I will come vote for you, even if you totally suck.”

Life is a gigantic balancing act. That information isn’t surprising anyone or sparking any debates in the comments section. But in improv, it’s easy to YES AND everything. It’s hardwired into our brains.

NO BUT-ing feels wrong. But, NO BUT doesn’t have to be a denial. It can still add value when done in the right way.

Will you miss out on something? Probably.

If I had written that play, is it possible that someone would have seen it and through a series of events, I would somehow ended up writing for Conan? I guess. Unlikely, but life is weird.

But if I had written the play, maybe my work in the upcoming sketch show would have suffered. Maybe the quality of this blog would have been reduced. Maybe saying YES to writing the play would have meant that I missed another opportunity with one of my current projects because I couldn’t give it as much effort or time as it deserved. As much effort or time as I had already promised it.

Just like any good improv scene, we want to YES AND up front. We want to find the game (whether that’s a relationship or a game of the scene), and then we want to play that game to its highest apex. We don’t want to keep YES AND-ing after we’ve found our thing. That results in a lower quality scene than if we had just invested in one or two things up front.

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Your improv career should follow that formula. Your creative projects should follow that formula. Your relationships should follow that formula. At the beginning, say yes. Find the fun along the way. Build. Heighten. But once you’ve found that thing, invest. Invest hard. Stop YES AND-ing. Play that thing to the best of your ability. And when you’re done with that thing, cut the scene. Start at the beginning. Commit to something new.

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