This article is a part of the Improv Challenge — an initiative meant to build resilience and self-awareness through the use of improvisation principles in everyday life. The challenge follows a series of exercises outlined in Patricia Ryan Madson’s book, “Improv Wisdom.”
Exercise 2: For one day, say yes to everything. Set your own preferences aside. Notice the results. See how often it may not be convenient or easy to do this. Obviously use common sense in executing this rule. If you are diabetic and offered a big piece of pie, you will need to find a way to protect your health. Perhaps you can say boldly, “Yes, I’d like to have this pie to take home to my son who adores cherries.”
I don’t think we realize how often we utilize the word no in our day to day lives until we try an exercise like this one:
“Come over tonight!”
“No, I’ve got some work I’ve got to finish up.”
“Are you coming out with us?”
“I can’t — I’m catching up on a few errands.”
“We’re going to watch this new movie in theaters on Sunday — are you down?”
“I’d love to, but I have work early the next morning.”
After embracing this exercise, I can’t help but wonder how many can’ts and buts keep us from truly living — from completely experiencing the world around us. The most unfortunate part is that we do it all in the name of responsibility and we often choose to be irresponsible in the least exciting, most introverted ways. Rather than going to a movie with friends, we realize sleeping at 8 PM is a disappointing sign of age and proceed to Netflix a few old movies over tortilla chips and microwave popcorn alone. The end result: we end up sleeping later than we would have had we gone out and enjoyed the shared experience of watching a movie in theaters.
Yes, sometimes we just want time alone — but we often also respond with no to satisfy a fear of commitment prompting us to keep our options and schedules open should a more interesting opportunity comes along. And sometimes, our no is a way to appear important and busy to the outside world. There was a seminar I attended in college, where we discussed just how much of a status symbol busyness has become.
The more scarce a person’s time seems, the more it seems others are vying for it. By appealing to our competitive impulses, busyness makes the busy seem important.
Whatever our reasons, saying no has an opportunity cost that we don’t always consider. This became painfully apparent to me when I picked a day in my third year of college to try this exercise out. Although I generally have more trouble saying no than yes, I found this exercise put every negative I use in the spotlight. I discovered that, instead of explicitly saying no, I tended to use work or an extracurricular activity as an excuse to avoid being spontaneous with my time. I also realized how valuable my alone-time was for me to recharge — so valuable that I instinctively built a time cushion into my activities to protect it.
However, saying yes all day and throwing caution into the wind taught me much more than I would have learned sitting in my apartment alone watching YouTube movie trailers (yes, this was a thing I did before medical school). Instead of wishing my life had the excitement I saw in videos, I was swept up in a whirlwind of activity that would have simply blown over me had I said no. By the end of the day, I had observed a law enforcement drill, sat in on a meeting about some of the inner city kids I tutored, and promised a friend I’d spend my Saturday at a Greek Festival with her.
Adding these activities to my regular workday rewarded me with intellectual and cultural enrichment in areas I would not have otherwise sought out.
Without saying yes, I wouldn’t have seen how law enforcement deals with hostile situations. The drill I observed was about approaching a domestic violence call and now, in medical school, I see the next step in that process when survivors of domestic violence are brought into the emergency department for treatment. Sure, the argument can be made that it isn’t necessary for me to understand law enforcement’s role in my patient’s experience before entering the hospital. But that knowledge, though extraneous to my career, helps me empathize better with my patients and the police officers bringing them in.
Sitting in on the meeting about my inner city students gave me insight into the personal challenges some of the students I worked with face. Better understanding their academic and financial difficulties guided how I modified my tutoring style to benefit the students that needed more individual attention.
I distinctly remember how that meeting enabled me to do my job better and inspire my students to love their education, rather than just live with it.
My invitation to the Los Angeles Greek Festival came out of nowhere: I was in a graduate level class with my new friend Zara when our professor, who was of Greek heritage, mentioned there would be a music and food-filled festival that weekend. We both loved music. We both loved food. And we were both pursuing a masters degree in Global Medicine in one of the most culturally diverse cities in the US. It was a no-brainer that we signed up.
Zara and I had known each other for just a couple of weeks — we got along but never really had a chance to get to know each other outside of class until the Greek Festival. Enthralled by the intricacy of the Saint Sophia Cathedral towering over us in the middle of the city, we joined other festival-goers in leaving our marks on a finger-painted mural in the church as we developed a greater appreciation for Greek Orthodox architecture.
I remember staring at the mosaics and murals adorning the domed ceiling — Ahh-ing and ooh-ing at the gold-plated moldings coating the arches that tapered down to chandeliers showering the cathedral in a heavenly glow. I’ll never forget the intricate stained-glass mosaics illuminated by the natural light soaking through them into the hall. Before I exited that Church, I lit a candle and buried its base deep into the sand coating a candle-holder. I buried it as deep as the cathedral’s beauty buried itself in my heart.
Culturally, Zara and I learned we loved Greek music and even learned a few Greek dance steps. We exclaimed “opa” more times than we could count and, by the end of the day, our feet hurt from stepping forward, back, and to the side as quickly as we could to keep up with the vibrant live band. Any calories I lost were regained quickly thereafter when I grew attached to the traditional honey-laden Greek donut holes, or Loukoumades, they sold at the festival.
It was when we wandered indoors to shop around the, thankfully air-conditioned, Greek marketplace that I had my first Los Angeles star sighting off my school’s campus. I ended up talking to the celebrity for some time and got to hear more about what got him into acting in the first place before getting a picture with him. After the festival, I wondered if I would have just seen him on my computer’s screen had I chosen to run some errands and relax at home instead of trying something just a bit different.
Years later, the Greek Festival is still one of the highlights of my college experience. As I scroll through INSIDER videos in my spare time building a wanderlust for what I want to see and experience next, I think back on the festival fondly, remembering that it may as well be a featured highlight on a travel or experience vlog. And I had really just shown up to it by accident.
My yes — my desire to seize the day and the opportunities that came with it — brought to life what I otherwise would have only dreamed about.
It’s impossible to say yes to everything; rather, it’s impractical. With so many commitments, we’d stretch ourselves too thin and stop enjoying the experiences we’re so painstakingly seeking out. As the exercise also alludes to, it’s also not always safe to say yes — it’s a word that needs to be used with caution. By the same token, if we simply change a few of our no’s into yes’s every day, we’d learn and experience so much more. A book or movie can stimulate our intellectual curiosities, but when our imaginations are surpassed by the realities around us, the feeling that arises is so much more gratifying than the feeling of purpose we may get from being too busy.
Amidst a long list of school, work, and extracurricular commitments, this exercise taught me the importance of planned spontaneity. In medical school, I’ve always tried to schedule my work into fewer hours than I actually had available so that I had a realistic idea of what I could accomplish in a week while still dedicating some time to the things I couldn’t expect. I can’t say I was always successful, but I was certainly happier and more socially aware for trying. That habit is one that really came from my experience with this improv challenge.
I realized that, if death is the destination, life is the journey — and what good is a journey without a few detours…
Pavitra Krishnamani is a medical student with a background in global health interested in innovating how we deliver healthcare to our patients at home and abroad. To learn more about her and her work, check out her website.