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Ready Fire Aim: The Art of Saying Yes to Your Life

Advice on saying yes to life from Danny Wallace, the author of "Yes Man."

“All you need is 20 seconds of insane courage and I promise you something great will come of it.” —Matt Damon, from the movie We Bought a Zoo

After being unceremoniously dumped by a girlfriend, Danny Wallace went into a slow spiral that became a lifestyle of staying in and avoiding the world. “Pottering about and tinkering with things, slouching, napping, channel hopping. And soon that was all I wanted to do.

"And so I became the man who could wriggle out of any prior engagement. Who could spot an invitation coming a mile away and head it off at the pass. The man who’d gladly swap a night down at the pub for just one whiff of an episode of EastEnders. The man who’d send an email instead of attend a birthday, text instead of call, and call instead of visit. I became the man who mastered the white lie. The man who always had an excuse. The man who always said no.”

One day, while riding a double-decker bus in London, he sat next to a man who, in reply to hearing Danny’s story about living in no-man’s land, simply said, “Say yes more.”

“The people without passion,” he’d said, “are the ones who always say no, but the happiest people are the ones who understand that good things occur when one allows them to.”

And that was it. That one remark from a stranger on a bus was the philosophical bombshell that changed Danny’s life and set him on the road to becoming a yes-man, and author of a book called Yes Man, the inspiration for a movie of the same name starring Jim Carrey. He made a commitment that night to say yes to everything and anything that came his way until the end of that year, three months away.

“I wanted to do all the things I’d missed out on. I wanted to turn the clock back and shout yes to all the things I’d mumbled no to. Not just the big nights or the main events or the frantic celebrations, but the little things. The normal things. The things that sometimes matter the most.

“I was angry at myself. I had wasted half a year. Half a year gone. Thrown away. Swapped for toast and evenings in front of the telly. It was all here—or, rather, it wasn’t—in black and white. Every dull non-entry was a sharp slap in the face.

“I would say yes more. Saying yes would get me out of this rut. It would rekindle my love for life. It would bring back the old me. The me that had died a little the day I’d been dumped. I just needed a little kick-start. A little fun. A chance to live in a completely different way. I could treat it like an experiment. A study in my own behavior. A study in positivity and opportunity and chance.”

A study which immediately revealed its ramifications when he got a telemarketing call later that same evening from someone wanting to sell him double-paned windows, and the next morning a spam email asking if he’d like a bigger penis, and if so “The new Penis Patch Technology now means that thousands of men just like you can...” He said yes to both.

But he also said yes to spontaneous and unexpected travels, meetings with remarkable people, experiences that were marvelously out of his box, a new job opportunity, folks who shared his newfound enthusiasm for life, even new love and a winning lottery ticket. He also learned the power of not just saying yes, but the power of the well-considered no, and that there are yeses that are really saying no to yourself—as when you say yes to something you really don’t want—and no’s that are really saying yes to yourself.

There are three possible answers to life's callings — yes, no and maybe (which sounds like a safe hedge, but is really an infernal indecision that can rob decades from your life). The willingness to say yes and take action is vital to the passionate life, as Danny Wallace discovered, because it keeps you on your growing edge, trying new things, taking initiative, and leaning into life rather than away from it.

Where there’s action, there’s movement and energy, kinetic and catalytic force. And though movement isn’t necessarily progress any more than noise is necessarily music, it’s still movement, and for anyone stuck in the doldrums, it offers at least a breeze.

And at best it offers you an experience of the "flow state," in which you’re so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter and all the troubling distractions of daily life and the usual discombobulations of mind—even, blessedly, preoccupation with yourself—are swept aside by the sheer structuring of attention that the activity demands.

The best moments of our lives are not typically the passive but the active. Not the times when we’re lounging on the beach with a good mystery novel, but the times when body and mind are stretched to the limit in an effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile. Not when the mountain comes to Mohammed, but when you strap on your climbing gear and head for the heights.

It’s the moments you make happen—the ones that give you the feeling of participation in determining the course and content of your life—which bring you as close to what is meant by happiness as anything you can imagine in a universe not designed with human happiness in mind.

A huge part of courage is just accepting—no, taking—responsibility for your life, understanding that you’re the mover and the shaker, the one who calls the shots. You’re the place where the buck stops. No-one is holding you back.

Certainly there are consequences in un-choosing the choices you’ve made in your career or partnerships or social life, or making the choices you’ve steadfastly refused to make. But those choices are yours to make or unmake, and you could do it today. You could give notice at your job today, could put a deposit on an apartment in the city and move out of your toxic marriage today, could start taking art lessons, begin a walkabout, buy a plane ticket to one of the Far Corners today.

The essence of living an improvisational life, says Nina Wise, performer and author of A Big New Free Happy Unusual Life—of not only going with the flow, but creating flow—is action. “We act in order to discover what comes next. For the improviser it is: ready, fire, aim. We begin before there’s a plan. What we do moves us forward and gives us more information about how to proceed.”

The author Seth Godin refers to this affirmative approach to life as “buzzer management.” When he was in high school, he was on a quiz team and realized that as soon as he knew he could probably identify the answer, he should hit the buzzer. But before he knew the answer, not after. And in the time between buzzing and having to speak, the answer would usually come to him.

It seems reckless and over-confident, but the penalty for being wrong is small compared to the payoff of being right. In other words, if you're facing a risk, an opportunity to say yes to what your life is calling-for from you, don't necessarily wait until you've got absolute clarity before taking action. Act in the absence of it.

Try an experiment, says Wise. For a period of time, say yes to everything. Accept all offers. Affirm other people. Go along with the plan. Practice acting on your passions and desires in a moment here and a moment there. If you feel a yearning, let yourself act on it, just a little, and look at the feedback your life gives you. Follow what you want to do, where you want to go, who you want to be with, what your intuition tells you, what you need to say, what you long to say, what you’re curious about, what moves you. Not as a five-year plan, but as a daily practice.

“And here’s the password,” says Wise. “Yes! Yes starts the juices rolling. Yes expands your world. Those who say yes are rewarded by the adventures they have. Those who say no are rewarded by the safety they attain.”