Today I want to talk about what it means to say YES. What does it mean to commit to something and what does it mean to say NO. If you are anything like me, you have probably had to deal with the catch 22 of creative life. Getting experience in something without having experience to get started. How do I get hired to be a film composer if I have never scored a movie? How do I get hired as a screenwriter the very first time? How do I ship a video game for the first time? How can I say YES to something that I can’t even get started with, because I’ve never done it before???
And by the same token, how do I get past saying YES to things that I really want to say NO to? Is something really better than nothing?
I’m not going to pretend that I have the true answers to all of these, because my answers to those questions, may not be YOUR answers. Because we are all different people, we need different solutions. But I do want to offer some thoughts on this as I think about this topic on my own journey.
PART 1: What does YES mean
Saying YES is a commitment. Saying YES is more than an agreement to complete something that a client is asking of you. Saying YES is about being enrolled in the journey. And when I say enrollment, I mean something far deeper than the simple: call the roll are you here or not enrollment.
No, a commitment to the journey. A YES is the acknowledgment that you are on the journey to complete this task, whatever it is. You are engaged with the process.
What is tricky is when we say YES to something that we aren’t enrolled in, where we don’t actually care about how it turns out.
I think an easy example of this for many of us might be: group projects that you did in high school. You probably found yourself on side of the coin or the other. On one side, you completed the project, usually without much collaboration with everyone. You did all the work, and the others were just kind of there. Or you did collaborate and rode on the coattails of other members of the group. I’m not here to shame anyone about that. I’ve been on both sides of that isle. I know that I was definitely in the latter category more than a few times myself, if I am being truly honest.
But what that type of project shows us is the power of ENROLLMENT. The real way of saying YES. Those who wanted to see the work done contributed to it mightily, without the others who were not really enrolled in the outcome of the work.
This is why teaching can be such an incredibly hard and often thankless job. Because in one seat you may have a student who is DYING to answer the questions, who not only has a good answer, but has some insight to share, or better yet a “lightbulb moment” to share. But in the next seat might sit someone who is there because they required to be. That for them they are there to check off a box on the list of required courses and this is not where they want to be.
And so this where we can find ourselves when we say YES to something.
There are two main sides of the coin when we say YES. (Actually, there is a lot of nuance here, which I’ll get to in a second)
The real YES,the project I’m ecstatic to do and have waited for a long time.
And the YES, I’ll do it, even though I don’t really want to.
Art people are all too familiar with the difference.
I know that I am not alone when I say that I haven definitely signed up for a project, even though I really did not want to do it. It was something I felt I needed to do to further my career. Play a gig for free? Sure, let’s get some exposure.
Ringing some bells?
Now, if YES can bring us both to the place that we really want to go and also to where we don’t want to actually be, then where does NO fit in?
PART 2: What does NO mean?
It is easy to think about NO being the end of the equation. NO thanks, I’m good. I’m out. The buck stops here.
NO can be seen as a way of clearing out the garbage and getting what is undesirable out of your way. And to a certain extent that is right.
NO might even have a negative connotation for some of us. Being a creative worker means that rejection is inevitable.
And that sucks. It is never fun. Even when it turns out years later to have been the perfect thing for us to NOT do, the rejection or the NO, can really sting in the moment.
NO is not a binary, neither is YES. There are shades and levels to NO and YES.
But I like to think about NO in a different way. A teacher of mine at Boston Conservatory, a composer named John Murphree once me told me: When you say YES to everything, you are really saying NO to everything.
That was a hard lesson to learn. And I hated that he said that. I hated it, because he was right.
Because at that period of time, my habit was to say YES to everything. Because I did not appreciate what saying YES meant.
And maybe you are familiar with the feeling.
I used to confuse being BUSY with being PRODUCTIVE.
I thought that being BUSY was the way forward, that you just do thousands of millions of things and it all works out somehow.
But what got lost in the shuffle was the IDEA of YES.
How powerful a notion this is.
And look, don’t get me wrong, I don’t want you to hear this and think: alright I guess I’ll abandon everything and focus on one thing for the rest of my life.
Not at all.
Because even if I tell you my thoughts about saying YES, it might take time for them to sink in.
When Professor Murphree told me that saying YES to everything meant saying NO to everything, I didn’t want to believe him and I resisted.
In high school, when I was busy learning how to play the tuba for band, the electric bass for the praise team at church, the saxophone at home for my own enjoyment, and while playing the flute and piano in an improv group, I decided it was a great time to learn the trombone.
The music director at my church, a man named David Thayer, very generously let me borrow his trombone. And I had a lot of fun. Little did I know that it was going to be the tuba that would be my perfect instrument.
But as high school came and went and it was time for me to go college, even though I was going to major in tuba performance, I still had plans on playing all of the various instruments that I had learned. I really thought that was something special.
And it really hit me hard when Mr. Thayer had (what I now see as a very generous chat with me about being a music major). Basically he laid it out for me, just like Professor Murphree would a few years later. Doing all kinds of different stuff is great, but being really committed to something and doing it truly well, is a very special way to live your life.
Saying NO is a generous way of protecting your YES time.
Part of the human condition is that each day is only 24 hours. That time, whether we like it or not is always moving forward.
When we say NO to something, it is always polite, and in a way a really generous way of respecting the clients wish. Because yes, they asked you, but it is better for them to get someone who is wholly invested in what it is that they are building, than someone who is there But really isn’t.
NO can be a rejection, it can hurt, and it can also protect the things that you really care about.
PART 3: Different shades of YES
The nuance of saying YES comes in layers. Saying YES to doing this podcast means I am committed to doing work in multiple layers. Because a podcast isn’t just a podcast. Yes I gotta write my script, yes I need to record it, yes, I need edit that recording, yes I need to the housekeeping, yes I need to update social media, yes I need to update the buymeacoffee page, yes I need to consider advertising, and yes I need to ship it all on time.
Those are all different things, I only have a great skill set at two of them (maybe). The rest I’m a newbie. And for NOW, its okay, I’m still going to say YES to them, even though in the future I may need to outsource.
YES has different shades because the work we do is complex and each level has nuance. YES has different shades because we are different human beings in time. I could not have written what I am telling you now because I am a different person than I was a few years ago, even thought the stories that I have shared today happened years ago.
The stories are not any different now, than they will be when it is 2050, or when it is 2100. What is different is: me. The stories didn’t change, I changed.
So what you say YES to today, may very well be something that you don’t say YES. To tomorrow. And that is okay. In fact it is ideal.
If I hadn’t said YES to playing all of the those different instruments in High School, I probably wouldn’t understand orchestration the way I do now.
If I hadn’t said YES to learning the tuba, I would not have the job that I have today as a professor, because I was hired to teach the tuba.
You never know what a YES yesterday means for you TODAY. And beyond that, what it will mean for you tomorrow.
If you had asked me last year what have I said YES to, I would have given you a very different answer.
Today I have 4 YESSES that I think about. My first YES is my family. My others are my work at BSU, my YES to this podcast, and my YES to making my music.
It will probably change. Even as early as next year. I don’t know.
But what I do know, is that when it is time for me to SAY YES, I want to be there, I want to be wholly present and engaged.
I hate the feeling of being stuck in many different places all at once.
And I feel like that a lot, especially because I bounce around a few different part time jobs to make the ends meet. And some of those jobs I know that I am invested in, like BSU, and there are others that I’m not. That I’m just there, That I said YES to, even though I’m not really in it to win it.
PART 3: I’m still learning to Say YES to the Practice
I am being cheeky here when I say the Practice, because I mean it to be both the practice of showing up and delivering thee creative work that only you can do, but I also mean to speak about Seth Godin’s book The Practice. I just recently finished this book and the insight it has is amazing. I’m not affiliated at all with Mr. Godin, but wow I can’t recommend that book enough.
What I take from it is something that I would like to share.
When we say YES to our Practice, and by Practice I mean the very individual work that you do. If you are a composer, your practice is the delivery of new music music. If you are podcaster, your practice is the delivery of new podcasts. Actors, filmmakers, playwrights, it is all the same.
When we say YES to them, day after day, we are able to break through and ship our most personal and best work. That without our beginning work, the rest and the best is simply not possible. Especially when there is failure involved.
Sergei Rachmaninoff’s 2nd Piano Concerto has become one of the staples of the piano concerto repertoire. It a daunting piece to play and it catapulted Rachmaninoff into the western cannon.
But most people probably don’t think about Rachmaninoff almost quit after the disasterous premiere of his First symphony, largely due to the fact that the conductor was DRUNK that it almost caused him to quit. He took a few years off before regrouping and become the composer he is today.
Most people don’t appreciate that a young man down in Eastern NC Carolina failed to make his varsity basketball team. That he would need to practice and get better to make the high school team. He would later go on to be known as Michael Jordan, one of the greatest basketball players of all time.
But in all off these stories, you can find the commitment to thee Practice. To the daily ritual of making, creating and shipping the work. To saying YES over and over again to the real work.
Yeah, the greats get remembered for their best work, the footnotes version. Yet each and every artist out there who is known for something, had to do a hell of a lot of work and skill building to get known for one thing.
We don’t get to make the best work that we will ever make without saying YES. Making the work that we can today. That’s why today is the most important day of your life. Because saying YES today, and showing up reach and every time, means that you are saying YES to the tomorrow that you want to live in.
Because today leads in to tomorrow, but tomorrow, is really a yesterday that you will look back on one day. They are all one in the same. Only the point of view changes. Regardless of the POV, say YES to what you care about.
PART 4: Seeing YESSES in everyday life
We can find inspiration in the everyday if we chose to see what is around us. I love writing. I love writing scripts for this show and I love writing music for the world and for this show.
As I am writing this story to share with the world, I’m using a computer. Now truthfully, I don’t really know how this thing works. I know how to USE it, but if it broke I could not fix it. It would take me a long time to know how to assemble and build one from scratch. And while that is a noble thing to do, it doesn’t interest me. That isn’t why I am here.
But the person who made this computer, the computer is someone’s YES. That all the things that I can do with it are a gift, given to me by someone who said YES to the idea of this computer and brought it into being.
I am sitting in a chair that I love sitting in. Write my most personal stuff here, I read here, and I listen to music here. It is chair that I got from my great-grandmother when she passed a way.
I have no idea how to build one. If it broke I couldn’t fix it. Nor do I want to know how to do that. Because that isn’t my YES, but it is someone else’s YES. Someone generously made this. They had no idea what they would be enabling if they did. They could not imagine me, or any other person who owned one of their chairs. But, their YES is the chair.
And through the CHAIR and the COMPUTER, I am able to bring you my YES to the Podcast, my YES to sharing, my YES to teaching. Who knows what you will do with what I have said.
And so on and so forth. And the great human conversation happens. Generation to generation.
When you say YES, you are contributing to that great conversation.
So say YES, and say it OFTEN.
PART 5: YES today vs. YES tomorrow
At the beginning of the episode, I talked about how we have all, at one time or another been in an uncertain place. That we can feel directionless and we want to know what is next. That we are looking for a map to give us the answers, and there is no map in sight
That I’m searching for certainty where I can’t find any.
And the answer to all of that is YES.
YES because uncertainty is part of the human condition, we simply don’t know what is going to happen to us tomorrow. We don’t where we are going to be taken.
That we may have many goals and dreams that may never come to fruition.
And it can be sad to think that way.
It can be tough and it can really suck.
But the answer still remains YES
YES because while we may not get to everything our dreams want us to do, we can still do the work of TODAY.
TODAY is always the most important day, because we have some level of agency today, some level of choice. To say YES.
That by affirming our YESSES to TODAY, we are committing to all of the stuff that comes after, all the work, all of the failure, and all of the success.
We can’t know what will happen, and that is why chasing certainty is a fool’s errand. It will never come.
But, by saying YES to our work today, we are trusting the process. Showing up everyday. Saying YES to things you believe in. Even if they are small and the competition is ever bigger and stronger and better funded and more ahead of you and also younger than you and more talented than you and more connected than you.
Despite all of that noise, you can still say YES. YES to today. YES to the process.
And it will lead you somewhere.
Probably not where you expected.
But probably somewhere you need to go.
And you might not know that you need to go there in the moment.
You might not know that you needed to go there for a few years, who knows.
The only thing you can know is, did you show up today?
Did you put yourself in the work today?
As I have mentioned a few times on the show, I am super lucky to be teaching at BSU. I get to teach students how to write their own music, and I do some other classes here as well.
I usually, at some point in the semester, have a conversation in each class, or with each private student about the power of words.
Usually, we talk about the power of the word YET.
YET is one of my favorite words in the English language.
YET is a word of possibility.
And YET is an easy word to forget.
Often times, beginner composition students tell me that they can’t do something. I don’t know how to write harmony like that. I don’t know how to write a good melody. I can’t orchestrate.
And eventually we get to a place where I have to remind they that they need to add the word yet.
There is a big difference between: I can’t write good music. And. I can’t write good music yet.
Just one word. But we go from a statement that reinforces our inadequacy, that tells us that we can’t do something. That without paying attention, we can be talking ourselves out of doing the work or growing the way we want to.
But just by adding yet, it changes everything. I can’t do this YET. The possibility and the PROMISE is there.
Saying YES doesn’t mean that we are going to perfectly do the work. We aren’t going to be in a Rocky montage, time isn’t going to speed up and get us to the final destination in a three minute pop-song.
Part of the YES is the failure, and the falling down, the learning, and they are just as much an important part of the whole journey as the successes and the victories are.
So when we feel that everything is spinning out of control, or we feel stuck, no wind in our sails, we can always remember our YESSES and our YET.
SO TO RECAP:
Saying YES can be a way of being generous and invested in the craft or project you are working on.
But, sometimes saying YES when aren’t fully focused or enrolled, is really a way of saying NO to ourselves and what we actually want.
Saying NO is a generous way of protecting the things you have said YES to.
There shades to every YES, and the more specific and sharper we can get with our definition, the closer we get to doing our best, most personal work.
We are surrounded by other’s YESSES, and from them we can gain inspiration.
We are part of a long and winding human conversation. By saying YES, we contribute to that conversation.
You can never be certain of the future. But, that doesn’t matter. Say YES to your work today and it will lead you where you need to go.
When you can’t do something, remember the word YET.
Keep searching everyone, keeping find those shades of YES. Share your story where you can. I promise to keep sharing mine.