Start with a YES and see where it takes you

There’s a sudden rash of news coverage about things private girls’ schools are doing to make their pupils more confident and resilient. Oxford High School has a bafflingly named initiative called “The Death of Little Miss Perfect” to encourage girls to realise that “being perfect is the enemy of learning” and Putney High School is giving girls comedy lessons to “improve their resiliency and become greater risk takers”.

Meanwhile, Professor Athene Donald has written about women turning down invitations to speak, and how this contributes to the relatively small overall number of women speaking at conferences:

Although the number of women invited was more or less in line with the numbers of fairly senior women in the field, about half had declined; this was a noticeably higher proportion than amongst the male invitees. Thus the actual number of women who spoke in these prestigious slots was far below any appropriate benchmark.

As far as I know, there’s not any conclusive research about the reason more women turn down invitations to speak at conferences. The lack of childcare provision is often given as a reason, but it seems unlikely that every woman who has turned down an invitation either has children or a problem getting her childcare to fit around her commitments. There are probably as many reasons as there are women, but confidence and resilience almost certainly come into the mix as frequently as questions of childcare or time management.

The coincidence of these stories reminded me of Tina Fey’s “Rules of Improvisation” from her memoir Bossypants. Here’s a slightly edited extract from pages 84 and 85. I’ve added some bold to the bits that seem most important:

The first rule of improvisation is AGREE. Always agree and SAY YES. When you’re improvising, this means you are required to agree with whatever your partner has created… Now, obviously in real life you’re not always going to agree with everything everyone says. But the Rule of Agreement reminds you to “respect what your partner has created” and to at least start from an open-minded place. Start with a YES and see where it takes you. 

The second rule of improvisation is not only to say yes, but YES, AND. You are are supposed to agree and then add something of your own. … To me, YES, AND means don’t be afraid to contribute. It’s your responsibility to contribute. Always make sure you’re adding something to the discussion. Your initiations are worthwhile.

The next rule is MAKE STATEMENTS. This is a positive way of saying, “Don’t ask questions all the time.” If we’re in a scene and I say, “Who are you? Where are we? What are we doing here? What’s in that box?” I’m putting pressure on you to come up with all the answers.

In other words, whatever the problem, be part of the solution. Don’t just sit around raising questions and pointing out obstacles. … MAKE STATEMENTS also applies to us women: Speak in statements instead of apologetic questions. No one wants to go to a doctor who says, “I’m going to be your surgeon? I’m here to talk to you about your procedure? I was first in my class at Johns Hopkins, so?” Make statements with your actions and your voice. 

… this leads us to the best rule:

THERE ARE NO MISTAKES, only opportunities. … In improv, there are no mistakes, only beautiful happy accidents.

This seems like as good a manifesto as any.


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