Another year of graduation ceremonies is coming to a close. Members of the Class of 2013 at colleges, universities and high schools throughout Maine have spent their final moments together listening to words of advice and inspiration from peers and poets. Speakers have summoned passages from writers as diverse as Shakespeare and Dr. Seuss to frame the new graduates’ prospects for the future.
One of the best suggestions offered to new graduates in recent years comes from an unexpected source, satirist Stephen Colbert. In a 2006 commencement address at Knox College in Illinois, Colbert urged graduates to apply to their lives the “yes-and” rule he learned during his days with improvisational theater troupes in Chicago.
“In this case, ‘yes-and’ is a verb,” Colbert explained. “And yes-anding means that when you go onstage to improvise a scene with no script, you have no idea what’s going to happen, maybe with someone you’ve never met before.”
Life unfolds without a script, and as Maine’s workforce skills gap makes painfully clear, an evolving global economy requires rapid and frequent adaption. That’s why Colbert’s positive, improvisational approach makes sense for many reasons.
It recognizes that collaboration adds value to most undertakings. As improvisors build scenes by saying “yes and” to each other, they make the overall work better by bringing each individual’s ideas to the process. “It’s more of a mutual discovery than a solo adventure,” Colbert said.
Newly minted graduates who bring that emphasis on teamwork to the workforce, educational reform and, especially, government could help push Maine beyond the “silo” mentality that allows partisan splits to bog down state government and paranoia about competitive threats or market changes to thwart innovation that would benefit the economy.
Colbert’s “yes-and” approach also acknowledges that development — of human beings, businesses or public institutions — occurs incrementally. It rarely makes sense to blow things up and start over completely. Instead, extracting elements of value from an experience, then reworking them in an effort to learn usually enhances the situation.
This philosophy also encourages openness and a positive approach to problem-solving, two things Maine could use in greater supply. Being prepared to find a way to say “yes” to a proposal before its details are fully known makes “can do” the foundation of problem-solving strategies. It also helps guard against cynicism, which Colbert correctly describes as an impediment to success.
“Cynicism masquerades as wisdom, but it is the farthest thing from it. Because cynics don’t learn anything. Because cynicism is a self-imposed blindness, a rejection of the world because we are afraid it will hurt us or disappoint us,” he said.
A fourth reason to embrace Colbert’s logic is that it promotes flexibility and celebrates innovation. As individuals and as a state, planning for the future by assuming that a diverse set of responses to both opportunities and setbacks will be required makes more sense than waiting for circumstances to unfold before deciding how to react.
As Maine tries to cultivate a culture that aims to be attractive to creative young workers and reinvigorate an economy that’s fallen behind regional and global competitors, the state’s residents — not just this year’s graduates — need to recognize that saying “yes and” can spur positive change. That’s better than waiting for new ideas to arrive before deciding to accept them because it fosters a sense of shared responsibility.
“Saying ‘yes’ begins things,” Colbert said. “Saying ‘yes’ is how things grow. Saying ‘yes’ leads to knowledge.”
Isn’t that what should be celebrated at graduations?
Yes and …