One of the most valuable lessons of my professional life was first delivered to me in my high school improv class: Always Say Yes. If you've ever taken an improv class -- or read the chapter in Tina Fey's memoir that talks about her application of "Always Say Yes" into her own work life -- then you know that this rule is designed to keep an improv scene going. Actors are not allowed to say "no" to their scene-mates, or the entire scene dies. As Fey says, "The fun is always on the other side of a yes."
I was reminded of this lesson from my long-ago improv class right out of college, when I worked for someone who routinely demanded the impossible. Very quickly, I realized that as long as I greeted his every new proposal with a "yes," then work moved forward relatively peacefully.
Of course, that didn't mean that his every proposal worked. In fact, many, many times, it fell flat. And eventually, I learned how to avoid his crazier demands by saying "yes"...and then telling him exactly what needed to happen in order to accomplish his request.
To this day, I say "yes" to almost every unreasonable demand that crosses my desk -- not out of a misguided sense of people-pleasing, or a secret masochistic streak. But because I know saying "yes" is the quickest way to get to the fun, to the part of a project where the words are flowing, the creativity is happening and things are getting done.
I am always taken aback when I work with someone who tells me "no." How can you ever get to the good stuff if you refuse to even try?
Sure, it might not work. I've pitched many an idea that did not work -- either because they were under-developed, or because I didn't understand something crucial about the project, or because they just ultimately weren't doable.
But those failed efforts almost always led me to successes. And, perhaps more importantly, they taught me to take a joy in my work that I could never have found if I'd let myself say "no."