“Yes, and …”

How often do we say, “Yes, but …?” Sometimes, it’s how we decline unwanted advice, but it’s also what we say when we’d like to do something but automatically think we can’t. I heard Bob Harris, travel writer, microfinance lending enthusiast and author of The International Bank of Bob, as a convocation speaker at my college. He described how he came to embrace microfinance through some of the adventurous jobs he’s taken, experiences that broadened his world view.

The attitude of “Yes and…” got him there. It’s an approach he learned when doing improv comedy. Suppose a fellow actor suggests, “We’re in Spain.” If you say, “Yes but,” the scene is dead. If you say, “Yes and,” you can build on it. One of his examples was how he responded to a job offer asking if would write for a telenovela in Mexico. “Yes, but I don’t speak Spanish” would have closed the door. Instead, he dared to walk through it, answering: “Yes, and I can learn the language fast.”

A travel writing job reviewing the world’s top fifty luxury hotels brought Harris face to face with painfully glaring income inequality in a way that made him deeply uncomfortable. The contrast between the lifestyles of the guests and owners of these resorts and the lives of the people who built and maintained them led to his interest in micro-lending. Later, he visited microfinance recipients around the world, to see the impacts of the small no-interest loans he and others had made through Kiva, a microlending nonprofit. It took hard work on the part of the people who received the loans to grow their businesses—a chicken farm in Bosnia, a little shop in Rwanda, a barbershop in Beirut, and others—and little risk or effort on the part of people who each loaned them around $25.00. All it took was a “yes, and…”

I’m thinking of the various yes buts and yes ands in my life, such as letting new love or friendship in, or getting involved in a good cause. Turning it down would be a yes but. Yes and is more rewarding and yet it can be mentally difficult. It’s not just negative events that can be disruptive. Positive adjustments are disruptive, too.

In some ways, the world appears to be taking a dark turn right now. A backwards turn away from compassion, away from stewardship of the earth. When I look at the work to be done, it’s huge, overwhelming, urgent and complex. Can my small efforts make any difference? The answer is “yes, and…”