How to Be a Yes-Man (and Why You Should)

June 6, 2011

“The beautiful souls are they that are universal, open, and ready for all things.”  –Michel de Montaigne

“I do not believe in a fate that falls on men however they act; but I do believe in a fate that falls on them unless they act.” –Buddha

Due to some recent personal events that I won’t get into (as they include people’s business besides my own), I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about the difference between pessimism and cynicism.  They’re often regarded as synonyms, but I don’t think that they are.  After all, cynicism doesn’t actually preclude belief in a positive outcome; at most, it questions how that positive outcome will be created.  Cynicism (and its more appropriate antonyms, sentimentality and naivete) has more to do with your beliefs about why people do what they do, where pessimism and optimism have to do with your belief in the possibility of a beneficial end to a situation.

In trying to pin down what it is that defines my world view, I’ve realized that I am, at heart, an optimist.  Fundamentally, I believe that things can be made to work out well.  I’m cynical, too, don’t get me wrong – I don’t believe that a good outcome is by any means assured, or that I can count on a positive outcome without getting myself involved, but pretty much any situation can be resolved positively, and that is where the title of this post comes in.  Positivity is about saying “yes,” and thereby opening yourself up to possibility, whereas negativity is about saying “no” and narrowing everything down to one certainty.  For many people,  the idea of an open-ended world of possibilities can seem daunting, even scary, and so they opt for the certainty of “no.”  The big question, then, is this: how do you cultivate a “yes” mentality?  How do you create positivity and possibility?

On the surface, the answer is obvious – just start saying “yes” to things.  Of course, in practice, it’s not always that easy, so here are some steps you can take to cultivate positivity:

1.  Get cynical.  This will sound counterintuitive to some, but it’s easier to accept risk when you rely on yourself, rather than on others.  A reasonable amount of cynicism encourages self-reliance.

2.  Put things in perspective.  This is something I picked up from my days in cognitive therapy.  Stop asking yourself “what’s the worst that could happen?” and start asking yourself “what’s the worst that could REASONABLY BE EXPECTED to happen?”  This will help separate acceptable from unacceptable risks.  Yes, it’s possible that switching to a new brand of socks might cause you to slip on a hardwood floor, fall, break your neck, and die, but it’s not particularly likely.  Your brain is creative enough to draw a line from any potential decision to any potential horrible outcome, so don’t give it the opportunity.

3.  Don’t assume you know everything.  The minute you assume that there’s only way to do something, you’re closed to possibility – you’ve started saying “no.”  Make a list of things you take for granted (this can be difficult, since they probably aren’t at the forefront of your thoughts, but really put some effort in and it’ll work wonders), and evaluate them for different approaches, different ways to get them done.  At first, don’t worry about whether or not the alternate ways are better/more effective/faster or whatever.  Just worry about finding different ways to do things; it’ll help train your brain to think laterally, and to prioritize evaluation and problem-solving.  The goal is for the act of scanning for every method and every outcome to become something your brain does automatically.  Then, you can choose what’s appropriate for your current situation.

4.  Start small.  This is standard advice for developing any new habit or skill.  If you wanted to learn to drive a car, you wouldn’t start with a Formula 1 speed machine or a Ferrari with 1000 hp, so don’t try to jump right in to taking huge risks or making tremendous changes if you’re uncomfortable with them.  Start with daily tasks like the route you take to work.  You might have started taking that route not because it’s the fastest, but because you moved to a new city for the job, and you ended up taking big streets, even though they take longer, because you were new to town and didn’t know the side streets yet.  Small steps will help you acclimate to the notion of changing your routine without really threatening the significant things that give you security, and as you get more comfortable with change and risk, bigger projects will feel manageable, because you will learn that you have the power to make things turn out well.

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Feedback: What daily tasks do you take for granted?

One Response to “How to Be a Yes-Man (and Why You Should)”

  1. Kymber Says:

    Very insightful. I think about the “yes” factor frequently. It’s something I tell myself when I’m uncertain and a little scared . Just say yes! Another big one: do one thing every day that scares you. Practicing on little scary things helps you to embrace change.

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