The power of yes: A simple way to get more out of life

For much of my adult life I've been shackled by fear. I've been afraid to try new things, afraid to meet new people, afraid of doing anything that might lead to failure. This fear confined me to a narrow comfort zone. Recently, however, I made a single small change that has helped me to overcome my fear, and allowed me to get more out of life.

Last fall somebody at Ask Metafilter posted a question looking for books about self-confidence. One person recommended Impro by Keith Johnstone. Intrigued, I borrowed it from the public library. It blew my mind. Though it's a book about stage-acting, several of the techniques it describes are applicable to everyday life.

I was particularly struck by the need for improvisational actors to accept whatever is offered to them on stage. In order for a scene to flow, an actor must take whatever situation arises and just go with it. (Watch old episodes of Whose Line is It Anyway to see this principle in action.) Johnstone writes:

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.

[…]

These ‘offer-block-accept' games have a use quite apart from actor training. People with dull lives often think that their lives are dull by chance. In reality everyone chooses more or less what kind of events will happen to them by their conscious patterns of blocking and yielding.

That passage had a profound effect on me. I thought about it for days. “What if I did this in real life?” I wondered. “Is there a way I could adapt this to help me overcome my fear?” I began to note the things that I blocked and accepted. To my surprise, I blocked things constantly — I made excuses not to do things because I was afraid of what might happen if I accepted.

I made a resolution. I decided that instead of saying “no” to things because I was afraid of them, I would “just say yes”. That became my working motto: “Just say yes”. Any time anyone asked me to do something, I agreed to do it (as long as it wasn't illegal and didn't violate my own personal code of conduct). In the past six months, I've put this philosophy into practice in scores of little ways. But the power of “yes” has made larger changes to my life, too, has exposed me to things I never would have done before.

  • Soon after I started saying “yes”, a GRS reader offered to provide free wellness coaching. My gut reaction was to say “no”. But I caught my negative thinking. “Just say yes,” I said to myself. So I did. Working with Lauren, my wellness coach, has been an amazingly positive experience.
  • Ramit at I Will Teach You to Be Rich asked me to contribute to his eBook. I had all kinds of reasons for saying “no” — none of them good — but I forced myself to say “yes”. As a result, this site gained new readers, and I got to correspond with Ramit about how to produce a PDF book.
  • Last winter, Sally shared a guest article about eating vegetarian on the cheap. A few weeks later she wrote that she and her husband would be in town, and asked if Kris and I would like to have dinner. In the past I would have said “no” out of fear of meeting a stranger. I said yes, and I'm glad I did.
  • One of my friends works as a career counselor at a nearby university. Recently he asked me to present a talk to graduating seniors about the basics of personal finance. Normally I would refuse out of hand, but only because I am afraid. I said yes. Though the presentation fell through, the copious notes I made will serve as the basis for many future articles.
  • A close friend asked me to go see a band I'd never even heard of. On a Thursday. At midnight. This was totally outside my comfort zone, but I said yes. The experience was fantastic. We had a great conversation, and then I got to discover The Black Angels and their wall of sound.
  • I don't know anything about table tennis, but when my former soccer coach stopped by to recruit me for a local club, I agreed to join. It's been fun learning the sport, and getting re-acquainted with his family. (I was once good friends with his son.)

These things will seem minor to the extroverts here. But for me, these were big steps. These experiences were new, and I wouldn't have had them if I hadn't forced myself to just say yes.

Most of my experiences from my “just say yes” campaign have been positive, but not all of them. I've had some failures, too. Surprisingly, I've learned more from the bad experiences than I have from the good.

In February, for example, a Seattle radio station asked me to do a telephone interview about retirement savings. “I'm not a retirement expert,” I told the woman who contacted me, but then I realized I was making excuses. I was blocking because I was scared. “But I'll do it,” I said. Ultimately my radio appearance was a disaster. I got stage-fright and became tongue-tied. But you know what? I don't care. I failed, but at least I tried. After the interview, I e-mailed the woman to apologize and to ask for advice. She was sympathetic, and gave me some great pointers. Next time somebody asks for a radio interview, I'll do better.

For too long, fear of failure held me back. Failure itself didn't hold me back — the fear of it did. When I actually try something and fail, I generally get right back up and do it again, but better the second time. I pursue it until I succeed. But often I convince myself that I can't do something because I'm going to fail at it, so I don't even bother to try.

Since I've learned the power of yes, I've begun to act as if I'm not afraid. Whenever I feel fear creep upon me, I act as if I'm somebody else. I act as if I'm somebody stronger and braver. Motivational speaker Brian Tracy says:

If you want to develop courage, then simply act courageously when it's called for. If you do something over and over again, you develop a habit. Some people develop the habit of courage. Some people develop the habit of non-courage.

Tracy recommends that any time you encounter the fear of failure, you simply tell yourself, “I can do it.” Say it again and again and then do it. What's more, he says, tell others that they can do the things they're frightened of. How many times have you seen somebody excited about a new project become totally deflated when others tell them why it won't work. Don't be like that. Tell the person, “You can do it.” Be supportive.

Tracy is famous for asking the question: What would you dare to dream if you knew you wouldn't fail? This is a powerful concept. What could you do if you stopped telling yourself “no” and simply tapped into the power of yes?

Aside from learning the power of yes, there are other ways to fight fear and develop a more courageous attitude.

  • Start small. Many people are afraid to make phone calls, or to approach a clerk in a store. Begin by practicing these little habits. A clerk in a book store answers hundreds of questions a month. There's no reason to be frightened of asking yours.
  • Try one new thing each week. It doesn't have to be big. Learn a new skill, have lunch with an acquaintance, do something for a friend. Once every week, say “yes” where you might have said “no” before.
  • Exercise mindfulness. When fear creeps into your head, name it for what it is, and let it pass by. I know this sounds new age and hokey, but it works. When somebody asks you to do something and your gut reaction is “no”, pause to examine that “no” and ask yourself, “Am I saying this simply out of fear? What would happen if I said yes?”
  • Act like you're somebody else. Do you have a friend who is a great negotiator? The next time you negotiate, pretend you're this person. This is more effective than you probably think!
  • Ask yourself, “What is the worst thing that could happen?” Then ask yourself, “What is the best thing that could happen?” Most of the time when I make this comparison, the upside far outweighs the downside.
  • Recognize that failures and mistakes are not the end. Often they're the beginning. If you can pick yourself up after you do something wrong, and then learn from the experience, you'll be a better person because of it.

Read more about conquering fear and worry:

  • The Instigator Blog offers five reasons to say yes.
  • How to Stop Worrying and Start Living by Dale Carnegie has a five-star rating on 107 reviews at Amazon, and rightly so. This is a classic book about courage in everyday life. Here's a summary. (From the author of How to Win Friends and Influence People.)
  • Yes Man is a book by Danny Wallace that chronicles his adventures as he says “yes” to everything for an entire year. I haven't read this, but I'd like to.
  • Impro by Keith Johnstone is a book about improvisational acting. Sharp readers will find ways to apply these techniques to everyday life, to boost self-confidence and to overcome fear of failure.

We all have dreams, but most of us make excuses for not pursuing them. Often these excuses aren't overt. It's more a matter of inertia, of just ignoring the dreams, of maintaining the comfortable status quo. But you can break out of your comfort zone to get more out of life through the simple power of yes.

More about...Psychology

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J.R.
J.R.
13 years ago

I found your website from Ramit’s. I now check yours a few times every day for updates. I’m very glad you said yes, because I enjoy your site very much.

Tell Ramit he should update as often as you do. 🙂

Amberlynn
Amberlynn
13 years ago

Thanks for this post, J.D. I’ve been using the “What’s the worst that could happen/What’s the best that could happen” mind trick for years, and when honest with the answers I’ve always found that the worst that could happen is not so bad, and often worth experiencing.

J.D.
J.D.
13 years ago

An addendum: It’s often possible to derive life-lessons from unexpected sources. I don’t want anyone to be misled into believing Improv is anything other than a book about acting. But a careful reader can extrapolate the acting lessons to make generalizations about how to deal with real-life situations. The same same is true with many other books. For example, there’s a section in Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink in which he describes how the food packaging is designed to get consumers to buy more. Gladwell’s point is that we make unconscious decisions. But a person looking to save money can take this… Read more »

Taylor
Taylor
13 years ago

I’m a big improviser, and I’ve read the book (as well as others), and I think something to understand with the concept of “accept” in improv is also the concept of “Yes, and”. By making a yes offer, and then offering something yourself, you are adding to the collective. Try saying yes, then raise the stakes by adding something else.

“Yes, I will do that, and I will contribute to that offer with something of my own.”

“Yes, but” doesn’t not work, because it’s not an accept. It’s a rejection.

Nathania Johnson
Nathania Johnson
13 years ago

I’m so glad you read a book about improv and applied the techniques to daily life! I’ve been studying improv for years and there are many concepts that will make you think about life differently.

Improv in and of itself can be a confidence builder (with the right instructor) because it forces you to explore many different sides of yourself.

Saying “yes” is only the beginning. A real “yes” is in the follow-through.

Holli Jo
Holli Jo
13 years ago

J.D., I just love this post. You have exactly captured the way I am trying to live my life. Up until recently my life was guided by fear — avoiding the things I was afraid of.

But recently, blogs like yours have helped me to start realizing my dreams. My goal is to be a writer, and I am in the process of creating a blog of my own.

Thanks for being an inspiration!

Covert7
Covert7
13 years ago

Very nice article JD. It really makes me think more seriously about my freelance computer work, which I enjoy immensely & do very well at.

I’ve constantly thought about trying to seek out more work, possibly leading up to full time stuff, but I’m so afraid of being rejected by potential clients. Sounds crazy when you write it down, but emotions of fear make us do dumb things.

Anyway, thanks for another great article!

A Tentative Personal Finance Blog
A Tentative Personal Finance Blog
13 years ago

Great post JD. I think I’ve been crippled by fear these last few years. It’s only been this past year that I started not fearing the possibility of failures that I started seeing real growth in my life. Things like volunteering to lead discussion groups even though I’m deathfully fearful of public speaking… and my biggest venture… blogging.

Ryan
Ryan
13 years ago

Fantastic post. You should send a link to Jay at Dumb Little Man. This is right up his alley.

Great work on the post and everything leading up to the post. Sometimes, even when our lives are relatively happy, we find out that we really don’t know what we’re missing by shutting out everything out of our comfort zone. I know I’m a victim of this, and the advice in this post is completely applicable. Thanks!

Scott
Scott
13 years ago

Great post, Ever since I read about Steve Pavlina doing improv, I have thought about trying it.

One question I ask is what’s your method of determining that fear is causing your answering No rather than other circumstances.

Thanks for writing this article.

David
David
13 years ago

Excellent post!

I’ve been trying to do this myself — I’ve been terrified by a variety of things — and recently told myself to stop being so timid and get out and do things to build my self-confidence.

So, I took up swing dancing. It’s been a blast so far, it’s great exercise, and it’s a confidence builder when attractive ladies approach you wanting to dance.

I’m definitely going to check out a few of these books.

60 in 3
60 in 3
13 years ago

I used to have the worst case of stage fright when I was younger. I was afraid of anything that might cause me embarrassment. I couldn’t give a speech in front of a class, I had a hard time speaking up at work, I couldn’t even say hi to girls 🙂 A lot of it was solved when I realized “well, the worst that can happen is I fail”. It’s amazing to realize the the consequences of failure are minuscule and the consequences of success are tremendous. So you fail, so what? What’s the worst that can happen? Certain there… Read more »

Tim
Tim
13 years ago

Great post! I definitely struggle with the blocking thing; I justify it by telling myself I’m being cautious and wise, but at heart I know I’m missing out on lots of opportunities and that I need to step out and take risks if I really desire the possibility of great rewards.

J.D.
J.D.
13 years ago

One question I ask is what’s your method of determining that fear is causing your answering No rather than other circumstances. This is a great question. I don’t have a great answer. I basically think it’s a gut response. If you take even five seconds to think about what you are doing and why, it’s usually clear when you’re refusing something out of fear. When I decline to have lunch with an internet acquaintance, it’s out of fear of rejection. When I procrastinate writing a weblog entry about “the power of yes” for three months, it’s out of fear of… Read more »

Lissa@Life'sBeenGood
13 years ago

I used the “negotiate like you’re someone else” tactic recently in a small claims mediation. I was SO nervous that I was ready to just give in when I thought “How would my mother handle this?” Mom was the toughest gal I ever knew and never seemed to have a moment of doubt that she was right, even when she was dead wrong. I “channeled” her in that mediation room and ended up winning! Your post reminded me of another saying I’ve read somewhere “Fake it till ya make it”. As a small business owner, I’m doing a lot of… Read more »

MaryBeth
MaryBeth
13 years ago

I think I need to read this book. Thanks for another excellent post.

JSand
JSand
13 years ago

Fantasic post, this really strikes home. I have a fear I am saying no to this was an inspiration. Just say ‘YES’, what a motto.

ClickerTrainer
ClickerTrainer
13 years ago

I think it’s important to maintain a C average. What I mean by that is, if you try new things, and succeed/enjoy about 70% of them, well great, that’s a passing grade in Life.

I recently joined a gym. Not a ladies gym, oh no, this 5’2″ middle aged lady picked World Gym. Why? Because it’s the real deal, I’m into results, and walking in there the first day was scary.

A deep breath, shoulders back, wiggle your toes, and go for it.

Rich Minx
Rich Minx
13 years ago

This is a very inspiring post, thanks for writing it. I’ve given it a Digg.

Sam
Sam
13 years ago

Another great book on improvisational living is Patricia Ryan Madson’s “Improv Wisdom.” She also has a chapter on saying “Yes.” http://www.improvwisdom.com/

Demi Raven
Demi Raven
13 years ago

I really appreciated the article. It reminds me a time, back around 1989, when I picked up a book entitled “F**k Yes!: A guide To The Happy Acceptance Of Everything” – a small press fiction book about a person who says yes to everything and omits no from his vocabulary, becomes a self-help guru, and all sort of wackiness comes of it. Odd book, not terribly well-written, but very entertaining. Despite the strangeness of the book, I recall being very inspired (strangely) by it, and tried to say “yes” to everything as well. Life became very enjoyable and educational, very… Read more »

chris
chris
13 years ago

I was reading this on another blog a few months ago: http://www.newsfromme.com/archives/2007_04_15.html#013279 Stephen colbert gave a commencment speech where he discussed the power of yes and. Here’s the portion of the speech copied from the other blog: But you seem nice enough, so I’ll try to give you some advice. First of all, when you go to apply for your first job, don’t wear these robes. Medieval garb does not instill confidence in future employers – unless you’re applying to be a scrivener. And if someone does offer you a job, say yes. You can always quit later. Then at… Read more »

ongrowthtrack
ongrowthtrack
13 years ago

Excellent article.

brad
brad
13 years ago

Of course common sense dictates that you have to strike a balance here. I used to have a friend who said “yes” to everything and her life was a mess because of it: she was always overcommitted, rarely followed through on her promises (because she was overcommitted), and just generally overextended and exhausted herself. On the one hand it was endearing because she was so open to everything and her life was very rich and full, but on the other hand her behavior was incredibly frustrating to everyone around her, and definitely to those who depended on her to follow… Read more »

Lauren Muney
Lauren Muney
13 years ago

I am so proud of you, my son… you have started your first steps into adulthood by mentioning IMPROV… the good improv, not the evil (faked) improv… YES, your life is about saying “YES, AND…”

I know how people can abuse this (see Brad’s comment above) but life isn’t about being ‘unwise’ with decisions. It’s about being careful and making mature choices.

Thanks alos for referencing the Impro book. It’s on my bookshelf, has been for years, and is a staple of all people who have to live ‘from the hip’ in business. Or show business. Or even coaching 😉

Michelle
Michelle
13 years ago

Another great thing to learn is that fear is often the manipulating tool of EGO. We don’t want to look like failures. We don’t want to look stupid. It’s not like you were going to be physically hurt by anything you’ve dared to do. You just were being manipulated by your ego.

You know well how ego leads people to financial ruin. Now, you’re learning to recognize how ego can lead to a very dull, fearful, and lonely life that ultimately will be full of regret.

Face down your ego, and your fear disappears.

Brodie
Brodie
13 years ago

I’ve been doing this for the past nine months or so. I’m an Australian high school student, and I think what started me doing this was that, while my grades were (and are) very good, I wasn’t doing any extracurricular activities. I wasn’t doing anything, while it seemed that everyone else was doing something, such as sport. I wanted to start doing stuff not only because it’s good to have some things to show on a résumé, but because I’d enjoy it and get a lot out of it. I reckoned that I should take advantage of any opportunity that… Read more »

Hifzur
Hifzur
13 years ago

Not sure, who wrote this, or a variant of this, but it’s powerful enough, that I have this printed out and pinned on my wall. To laugh is to risk appearing a fool To weep is to risk being called sentimental To reach out to another is to risk involvement To expose feelings is to risk showing your true self To place your ideas and dreams before the crowd is to risk being called naive To love is to risk not being loved in return To live is to risk dying To hope is to risk despair To try is… Read more »

plonkee
plonkee
13 years ago

I got all the way to the end of the post thinking that this sounds like ‘Yes Man’ by Danny Wallace and then you mentioned it. Its a great book by the way (as is ‘Join Me’) and although he might have taken it to extremes, it does make him happier overall.

Darren
Darren
13 years ago

What a great idea! Thanks.

I think this complements the idea of giving “solutions not problems”, which I try to apply when faced with difficult situations.

Venkat
Venkat
13 years ago

Wonderfully motivating post. I dare say that this is better than reading the book simply because it has pointers on what to do under the circumstances.

I would like to point out a type to you, though.

“Act like your somebody else.” should read “Act like you are somebody else”, right? Sometimes, the software misinterprets and corrects our words.

Venkat

J.D.
J.D.
13 years ago

“Act like your somebody else.” should read “Act like you are somebody else”, right? Sometimes, the software misinterprets and corrects our words.

And sometimes I have a problem with proofreading! Argh. How embarrassing. I hate typos (and other mistakes).

Laura
Laura
13 years ago

Those who have never fallen, know nothing of heights.

Christy
Christy
13 years ago

Thanks J.D.
I am often paralyzed with fear of rejection and failure. Even blogging and commenting has me concerned that I will be rejected. I have had many great experiences in my life that are just the opposite but I still live in the fear.
Thanks for a great post!
Chisty

Tom
Tom
13 years ago

Hey J.D., can you lend me 20 bucks? 🙂

Dan
Dan
13 years ago

In the past, I would have been scared to meet a stranger for dinner in a city across the country, but I’m also glad we were able to meet up! It was a lot of fun!

Michelle
Michelle
13 years ago

“It is not the critic that counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, and comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; who knows the great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement. And at worst,… Read more »

Patricia Ryan Madson
Patricia Ryan Madson
13 years ago

Great blog! You and your readers, who found IMPRO by Johnstone inspiring might well find value in a book that takes the lessons of improv and applies them to our daily life. The book is IMPROV WISDOM: Don’t Prepare, Just Show Up by Patricia Ryan Madson. Check it out on Amazon.com

Sean
Sean
13 years ago

Great post. I did some improv in college (and read the book Impro, which is excellent despite the wacky bits), but it never occured to me to apply yes-and to everyday life. Nice idea. One thing I did take from improv was using high status markers. I believe this is mentioned in the book. When doing improv in which you are assigned characters (“Sean, you’re the butler, JD, you’re the Duke”), there are certain characteristics that you can take on as markers of status. Some high status markers include making and holding direct eye contact, standing in an open stance,… Read more »

Allen
Allen
13 years ago

I can’t imagine what your life was like before you began saying yes. Did you just sit in a corner, in the fetal position, rocking back and forth? These things that you talk about “overcoming” sound like typical everyday activites. Good think you’re now on the right track.

J.D.
J.D.
13 years ago

I can’t imagine what your life was like before you began saying yes. Did you just sit in a corner, in the fetal position, rocking back and forth? No, no. Not at all. Within my comfort zone, I’m a perfectly sociable guy. In fact, most people would probably consider me an extrovert rather than an introvert. The thing is, though, I don’t like to leave my comfort zone. I hate new situations. I hate meeting new people. Another example I forgot to include on my list is trying new food. Why should I try new food? I like the stuff… Read more »

MillionDollarJourney.com
MillionDollarJourney.com
13 years ago

Congrats on the big DIGG!

FT

gyrfalcon
gyrfalcon
13 years ago

Hi J.D.
Can you loan me some money? 🙂

mk
mk
13 years ago

I think your story is perfect example of how “Law of Attraction” works if you allow it to happen. If you’re not familiar with the subject, check out movie called “the secret”

mapgirl
mapgirl
13 years ago

I concur with Brad’s warning. I was a professional Yes-man when I worked in technical support. It spilled over into everything I did and ultimately burned me out and drained me of everything. Be judicious in saying yes, but saying yes more often when you can’t see an obvious upside for you can be a wonderful thing. It’s kind of like saying that you’ll try anything at least twice. Once to try it and a second time to make sure you really don’t like it. I’ve found that has also helped me out a lot in having new experiences and… Read more »

Debbie
Debbie
13 years ago

My senior year in high school I did a smaller but similar thing. Whenever someone asked me to do something, and I didn’t know whether I wanted to do it or not, I used to always say no. So my last year, my best friend and I started saying yes instead. We played flag football, advised Girl Scouts on a camping trip (and also got lost), ushered at the senior play, participated in math and spelling tournaments, and made way too many cookies. We never regretted a single one of these yeses; every one of them turned out to be… Read more »

Liz
Liz
13 years ago

i have to keep reminding myself every once in a while about this concept. i do it all the time when i’m travelling, but for some reason when i start putting down roots, I get more fearful and less easy going.

when i’m travelling around, i definitely use my gut instincts, but i also say yes a lot more.

🙂

Poor Yorick
Poor Yorick
13 years ago

I really appreciate this post. Like you, I had created a small comfort zone for myself and had been growing increasingly fearful of things in my adult life. My outgoing wife died in November of 2005 and, finding myself suddenly and completely alone several states away from my friends and family, I realized that I had to make some positive changes in my life. One was to say yes to every opportunity. Since then I’ve learned kayaking, snowboarding, created a scholarship, and become a worship leader at a Unitarian church, which involves routine speaking in front of my congregation.

Mike Cane
Mike Cane
13 years ago

>>>Tracy is famous for asking the question: What would you dare to dream if you knew you wouldn’t fail?

That reminds me of Robert Schuller’s “What would you do tomorrow if you knew you could not fail?”

Who came first? Do you know?

Cynthia
Cynthia
13 years ago

I loved this and need to save it to reread. When I was in my late 20’s and early 30’s I noticed I had developed a pattern of saying, ‘I don’t like that’ or ‘I’m afraid to do that’. I’ve worked on it quite a bit but as an introvert I’ve found myself reluctant (to say the least) to initiate contact with people other than my closest friends. Some great advice here. Thank you!

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