We all need Yeah-Yeah energy to break out of creative ruts

Even with the sugared margarita numbing my body, I could feel the sting on the shin of my right leg.

My friend had just kicked me under the table of the restaurant where we were hanging out. Hard.

Our husbands sat with us, mute and munching on chips and salsa, each crunch louder and more awkward.

Emboldened by the tequila, I had just told her how many front-page stories I had clocked at my newspaper job, the one where she and I were colleagues. And it was a lot. In my early 20s, it was a delicious marker of success and impact. I poured all of my focus into this single metric. I made friends with the decision-makers at the paper. I studied the topics and styles of the articles that got that placement. And then I swung the bat, hard, hoping for home runs at least three times a week.

Things didn’t always go my way. Some days, my snake-headed editors buried my brilliant prose in the back sections. In secret, I cried after work, my head on my husband’s shoulder where we sat on our tattered red couch, with the newspaper’s A-section crumbled on the coffee table, right next to my glass of grocery-store Merlot.

Through clenched teeth, she repeated what I had just said and kicked a little harder, with each word, a new kick. “So. Many. Front. Pages.”

I laughed it off, but I never forgot that moment. It sealed a new belief in my mind: My friends resent my creative work. Shortly after the kicking, things got a lot worse at the newspaper. Corporate managers began laying off journalists, a forced exodus that started in the early 2000s and continues on to this day. How did they make the decisions about who stays and who goes? I wondered this and it deepened my concern that I needed to look out for myself above all else.

An undated picture of the author, Lisa Rossi, at her intern desk at the Iowa City Gazette.

It was a rotten margarita that left me feeling empty inside, often doubting my ideas, and stuck with the concern that if my ideas didn’t work and the metrics showed it, I might get fired, and if they did work, I’d lose friends. Every day, I was on a tight rope, doomed to fall off one side or the other.

I left the business. In my journey since, I find myself building a brand new career to get creative thinkers off the tightrope.

Nearly a decade after my friend bruised me with her sharp-toed boots, I found myself in an airy, open room in Chicago’s historic Old Town neighborhood. I was in a training at The Second City to learn the art of improvisation theater, the discipline of building unscripted comedy shows. I noticed a young man almost immediately. He wore thick-rimmed hipster glasses, a tee-shirt with a ironic phrase on it, something like “Math is Hard,” and shiny purple snow pants. Our teacher led us in exercises designed to teach us to act on our instincts and build on the ideas of others. Some of those had us running around the room, others, rolling on the floor. We made animal noises, told stories with no notes. And when we performed scenes, our teacher forced us to make eye contact. Sustained eye contact.

The exercises made him uncomfortable. I know this because he said it. And in saying that, he made me uncomfortable. I tried to avoid doing scenes with him but he kept appearing in front of me and we had to build together. I made eye contact. I responded to exactly what he said and nothing more. I smiled and thanked him and wished my time with him was over.

At the end of the day, our instructor asked us to say good-bye to each other by placing a hand on another person’s back, making eye contact and saying, “I’ve got your back.” I did the exercise, which had to be done with everyone in the room before we left. I avoided the guy in the purple snow pants until he was almost my last good-bye of the day. “I’ve got your back,’ I said. (My brain screamed, “NO, I DON’T!)

“I’ve got your back,” he said.

I kept that mantra in my mind the next day and decided to give it a try and take it seriously. I sought him out for exercises. When he needed a partner, I stepped up. I saw him get more comfortable and I felt myself get more comfortable supporting his success. I was acting as someone who had his back at first. But that acting morphed into something real. I wanted to create comedy with him. He could be strangely and darkly funny when he wasn’t second guessing himself.

I left Chicago and went back home to Des Moines, Iowa. I learned a lot, but I wasn’t completely detoxed from my old ways. I sat on many ideas, letting them rot in a trash-heap in my brain. I struggled with the double bind I built for myself in the newsroom days: Bad ideas mean “you’re out,” good ideas mean your friends hate you.

The other day, I told my business partner, Nathan Groepper, about a new comedy class I was taking, the delightful weirdness of it.

“I won’t bore you with all the details,” I said.

“Please INDULGE me with the details,” he said.

He was over the top. I LOVE this. WRITE about it. PEOPLE WILL LOVE IT.

Well ok then. I banged out 1,500 words in 24 hours and heard his voice urging me on. PEOPLE WILL WANT TO READ THIS.

The next night, I logged onto zoom for my improvisational theater class with the Groundlings Theatre & School.

Our instructor asked us to get in pairs of two. The first person was coached to name an object. The next person must say, “YEAH, YEAH, YEAH, … And they must add a detail to the object. One-by-one, using the Yeah-Yeah prompt, we imagined objects together, rich in details, old books with insignias to lost lovers, Christian Louboutin pumps with peeling insides and broken heels and tree-houses with secret passageways to the sky.

The key to the exercise is to be over-the-top supportive and enthusiastic when you say “YEAH. YEAH. YEAH.” His advice to us was to “heighten emotionally without knowing why and we will discover why. It’s not a bad state to be in when generating details.”

I repeated the last part in my head. I thought about how breakable I feel when I develop a new idea. I thought about how I never supported my friend — (the kicking woman) — how I was so absorbed in my own quest to get front-page glory that I failed to pay attention to her writing, which early in her career, was gaining strength and clarity. I thought about how I acted to support the snow-pants guy and that acting turned into something real — and that made us both better. And I thought about my business partner, believing in me before he even knew what I was going to do.

Having over-the-top-support is a good state to be in when you are generating new ideas.

From here on out, I’m calling that Yeah-Yeah energy.

Rachel Secretario Hill, MJ Hoag, Mark Hoag, Lisa Rossi, Andrew Tatge, Dustin Carey and Ashley Parker, during a practice before March of 2020 for the Alley Cat improvisational theater troupe.

In improv, we take turns providing that support to each other. We can do that in our business and home relationships too. Sometimes you are the Yeah-Yeah person. Sometimes you are getting the yeah-yeahs.

We have so many reasons to doubt ourselves during the first moment of creation, including worrying about the support of our friends and employers. The best improvisers I’ve met build new worlds on stage. And they build supportive worlds offstage to enable their acts of brave creativity.

If I could boil this all down into three pieces of advice for professionals building breakthrough ideas, whether it’s in the conference room or on stage, it would be:

1. Tell people you’ve got their back. This is a great exercise to incorporate into post-COVID team meetings as a send off. Everybody must place a hand on someone else’s shoulder, make eye contact and say, “I’ve got your back.” We can be acting it at first. But acting can become real with good intentions

2. Bring Yeah-Yeah energy to people working to build something new. Designate a group of “yeah-yeah” people and pair them up with “idea-people.” The yeah-yeahs must provide over-the-top support to build on the thoughts of the idea people generating solutions to problems. Coach them to act the part and don’t let up.

3. Visualize your teammates as brilliant people. In corporate environments, we are often thrust into high-stakes competition for promotions, awards and various accolades like the golden anniversary watch for 30 years of service. This can be toxic juice in the cocktail of creativity if it’s not put into perspective. Truly break-through ideas are built, brick-by-brick, with people who trust each other and think the other is amazing, rather than someone they want to take out so they can get the next Cheesecake Factory gift card. You can always edit ideas later — — but for the first draft, you must believe. I love this quote from Del Close, a famed actor and improviser, “If we treat each other as if we are geniuses, poets and artists, we have a better chance of becoming that on stage.”

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Lisa Rossi

Rossi is the cofounder of Bonfire Strategy, a company that offers training on empathy and innovation.