May 12, 2015

“Yes, and…”: Improv Comedian Steve Waltien encourages Humility at the 40th CreativeMornings in Chicago

Comedian Steve Waltien promoted the power of “Yes” in his April address to Chicago’s CreativeMornings chapter. He focused his talk on “Humility”—CreativeMornings’ global theme for April 2015. When performing, he hones his practice using the words “Yes, and…” to help engage his collaborators and their audience. This practice, used in improvisational comedy, is composed of:
Yes = Encouragement
And = Participation with new information
To elaborate, Charlie Todd, founder of Improv Everywhere, and who held a workshop at 99u Conference 2013, wrote in his article for 99U:
“‘Yes, and…’ is a protocol that allows for anything to happen, and it goes like this: No matter what your fellow actors present to you, instead of negating it, belittling it, or disagreeing with it, your job is to say, ‘Yes, and…’ Accept the scenario as it’s presented to you (regardless of where you wanted it to go), and then to add to it. Volley back with something your fellow players can respond to.”
The “Yes, and…” method cultivates an environment that compels things to positively unfold. It’s done in a “theater of the heart,” expressed by Charna Halpern, founder of the iO Theater (formerly known as the “ImprovOlympic” Theater) in 1981, who spoke at Chicago-based Cusp Conference 2014. Counter to closing one’s heart—through impatience, ignorance, or indifference, keeping one’s heart open demands an entirely different attitude. Halpern has been called to participate in situations where the perspective of “Yes, and…” would benefit in smoothing human relations, including those between factions of nations. The “Yes, and…” tool has been repurposed for applying to other worlds: corporate, political, and social. The rationale and aspiration of this tool applies surely to the world of design, where imagination, iteration, and building are advertised.

Have heart, will open it for human-to-human communication.

Life can be perceived as a theater of the heart, and the heart is an organ of collaboration—the essence of “Yes, and…” Empowered by the toolkit of improvisational comedy, Chalpern encouraged people to collaborate. Aligned with Chalpern, Waltien promoted “humility in the face of your collaborators.” In order for collaboration to happen, conscious self-centeredness is contained to make room for, as Waltien put it, “conscious humility.”

Adjacent to improvisational comedy, other disciplines iterate the “Yes, and…” approach, notably jazz. From jazz saxophonist Charlie Parker, “Don’t be afraid, just play the music.” From jazz pianist Thelonious Monk, “The piano ain’t got no wrong notes.” Improvisation is also stressed in the martial arts. From Bruce Lee, “Be like water making its way through cracks. Do not be assertive, but adjust to the object, and you shall find a way around or through it. If nothing within you stays rigid, outward things will disclose themselves.”

As Waltien gave his talk, I recalled the 2nd CreativeMornings/Chicago with Jason Fried, co-founder of what was then 37signals, now Basecamp. He and his company work by this tenet: “Say no by default”—part of the chapter “Evolution” in his co-written book “REWORK”, where it’s elaborated:
“It’s so easy to say yes. Yes to another feature, yes to an overly optimistic deadline, yes to a mediocre design. Soon, the stack of things you’ve said yes to grows so tall you can’t even see the things you should really be doing. 
Start getting into the habit of saying no—even to many of your best ideas. Use the power of no to get your priorities straight. You rarely regret saying no. But you often wind up regretting saying yes.”
In the same written piece, it was urged:
“Don’t be a jerk about saying no, though. Just be honest.”
“Yes, and…” can be complemented by “No, and…” or “Yes, and…” can behave as a “No, and…” Both rely on the fundamental skill of listening. Waltien pointed to three opportunities when listening can prove energetic: your collaborators, your audience, and yourself.

Improvisational pianist Keith Jarrett, who turned 70 on May 8, said, in a recent interview with National Public Radio:
“My main job is listening. If you’re improvising and you’re not listening, the next second that comes up, you have nothing to say.”
Waltien’s talk provoked me to keep working on issues that are ever-residual: to really pay attention, to really listen, to really collaborate—to really trust.

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Big thanks: to BraintreeThreadless (Host), Artisan TalentRazorfishGreen Sheep Water, for being Partners of Chicago CreativeMornings #40; to organizer Kim Knoll and operations manager Kyle Eertmoed of Knoed Creative, who spoke at Chicago CreativeMornings #7; to the team of volunteers for greatly helping to make CreativeMornings happen monthly in Chicago.

Especially big thanks: to Tina Roth Eisenberg—Swissmiss—for inventing CreativeMornings in 2008. The fifth chapter was launched in Chicago, June 2011—my write-up and photos.

Read more about the people who make the Chicago chapter of CreativeMornings possible.
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2011 was Chicago CreativeMornings’ debut year. Download the entire collection of selected insights.

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