One step at a time


November 21st, 2009

I’ve been musing on the differences between offering advice, making an offer and saying no – inspired by a recent conversation with a good friend. I just picked up the Saturday paper and was scanning the employment articles. Lots of fairly pedestrian stuff about writing resumes and so on. There’s also the inevitable ‘advice’ column – with lots of questions about what’s the best or right thing to do. This expectation that there really is a best way, exacerbated sometimes by an education system that rewards correct answers over creative responses, is ingrained and often emerges in groups and individuals when a decision is needed.

I noticed this in myself while on holidays in the United States recently. Will we do this or that? If we do this, will it be better than that? What might I miss out on if I choose one thing over another? The problem with this thinking is that there’s no resolution. You end up doing nothing, or putting off the decision until it’s too late, and missing out on both!

Improv performers face this dilemma constantly and train themselves to accept offers and to do something – anything as long as it moves the action forward. Trying to work out, in advance, the consequences of a particular action would be, well, insane. That’s not to say we should completely ignore consequences – no, no, no. There’s plenty of times we need to slow down and consider the impacts, on ourselves and others, of a decision we’re about to make. See – it’s not so easy. In the one breath I’m saying, ‘Do something!’ and in the other, ‘Slow down and consider the consequences.’ I guess the trick is knowing when to do what, and in recognising being stuck. When stuck, I try and do a little something just to move on.

Here’s a story I wrote recently about being stuck in Myanmar.

We returned to the hotel for a bit of a rest – and for Andrew, my colleague, to do more work on his handouts – agreeing to meet later to visit the spectacular Shwe Dagon Pagoda. At 5.30 I was waiting in the lobby. Andrew turned up and said he had too much work still to do and wouldn’t be coming out. It shouldn’t stop me though.

IMG_0447And so began my inner dialogue. One part of me – the rational part – was saying, yes, go to the temple. It was my only chance. Imagine coming to Myanmar and NOT going to the temple? Unthinkable. The other part – the emotional part – was screaming ‘but I don’t want to go on my own! I’m scared’. And so I sat on the couch in the lobby having this to-and-fro conversation in my head. Rational. Scared. Wanting to. Not wanting to. Maybe I could go during the week? Yes, that’s it. I’d go then. You’re crazy! Go now! What’s stopping you? It’s getting dark. How will I get back? What if I get lost? I don’t have enough local money. Oh, the excuses. I was STUCK. Stuck on a couch in the lobby of a hotel in a country I may never visit again.

And I thought of my patterns, accepting offers, of doing something.

So I walked over to the tourist desk and very tentatively asked about visiting the temple. Was it easy to get to? Yes! Only a 5-minute taxi ride. How would I get back? Taxi’s would be everywhere, and anyway here’s a little card with all the information I needed written in English AND Burmese. It’s all I needed. That little card. That talisman which meant I could find my way back to my temporary home.

Minutes later I was standing barefoot at the entrance to the temple, an English-speaking guide by my side, the most amazing, stunning Buddhist temple I’ve ever seen, all my senses alive with the sights, the incense, the marble underfoot, the feel of the jade and the carvings, the chanting. OMG, in that moment I felt utter relief that I’d taken the opportunity handed to me. I was reminded then of my favourite Keith Johnstone quote: Those who say yes are rewarded with the adventures they have; those who say no are rewarded with the safety they enjoy (or something like that).

I’ve never been more grateful for saying Yes!

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