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The Power of “And.”


By Kelly Leonard – Executive Director, Insights and Applied Improvisation

A friend of mine who does fantastic work in storytelling – both as an artist and as a consultant to major brands – forwarded a piece to me that he saw on Yahoo Finance.

A professor at Stanford, Bernard Roth, has a new book called The Achievement of Habit in which he posits that a change in linguistics can have a significant effect on changes in behavior.

My friend thought that I would be intrigued by one of the word changes that Professor Roth was recommending.

The article, by Shana Lebowitz, gives as its first example, the following: Swap ‘but’ for ‘and’. You might be tempted to say, “I want to go to the movies, but I have work to do.”  Instead, Roth suggests saying, “I want to go to the movies, and I have work to do.”

He writes: “When you use the word but, you create a conflict (and sometimes a reason) for yourself that does not really exist.” In other words, it’s possible to go to the movies as well as do your work — you just need to find a solution.  Meanwhile, when you use the word and, “your brain gets to consider how it can deal with both parts of the sentence,” Roth writes. Maybe you’ll see a shorter movie; maybe you’ll delegate some of your work.

When we were conceiving of the idea for our book, Tom Yorton (former head of Second City Works) and I pitched our publisher, Harper Collins, on the title: “The Revolution Will Be Improvised.” This spoke to both our belief in the transformative power of improvisation and it contained a reference to Gil Scott Heron which made two nerdy, middle-aged white guys feel pretty cool about themselves.

After one of our key facilitators, Andy Eninger, led the Harper Collins sales team through an improv workshop, the resounding response was that we were missing the stickiest term in our improvisational arsenal, “Yes, And.” So we changed the name of the book.

The thing I love about what Roth is pointing out is that in focusing on “and” rather than “but,” we are making our brains recognize duality. It is rather amazing to me that so much of our daily life – at work, in politics, at school – is consumed by “either, or” scenarios. We can’t support Bernie and Hillary or Donald and Ted; we’re either on the bus or off the bus; our answers are right or wrong. When, in fact, the world is constantly teaching us that things are almost always more complex than that. All the great plays, the classic books – the important spiritual teachings – show and tell us that there is duality inside and outside of us. Of course, it would be easier in a world of absolutes. But it would also be singularly uninteresting.

It not only requires mental agility to understand the complexity of our choices, it demands empathy.

Saying “And,” rather than “But,” opens us to a world of possibility rather than closing us off to something new;  it creates opportunity and exploration; it is the place where creativity and innovation begins.

When a fire destroyed our offices at Second City, I lost all but a few items. Our colleague, Steve Johnson, had given Tom and I bookends upon the publication of our book – one said “Yes” and the other said “And.” I wasn’t sure if it was a cruel joke, irony or randomness that only my “Yes” bookend survived the fire. Thinking about it, it was probably all those things.

business value,  learning and development,  talent development,  why improv


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