Getting to “Yes, and…”

Getting to "Yes, and..."

Eric Monheim
Director of College Counseling
St. Mark's School

I typically think of “Yes, and…” as a guideline for ordering food as in “Yes, I’ll have the steak and lobster.” Better yet, “Yes, I’ll have the brownie and the ice cream.”

In truth, “Yes, and…” has long served as a foundational principle of improvisational comedy.  Proponents of Design Thinking have more recently adopted the philosophy.  They argue that “Yes, and…” allows for more out-of-the-box thinking. 

I would like to suggest that adopting the “Yes, and…” mantra in the college counseling realm would do us all—students, counselors, and schools—a whale of good. 

To get us to the point of putting the mantra into practice, however, we have to reflect a bit about the traditional notion of how we evaluate success.  For far too many students, their gauge of success has been reduced to the wrong-headed notion that the “best” school on one’s list is the most selective one.  Using this paradigm, in an admissions world that gets more and more competitive every year, it is easy to understand the disenchantment and disillusionment felt by many.  It is also easy to understand the increase in stress and anxiety students feel when trying to land their plane on a runway that seems to be constantly narrowing.

For schools, when we allow ourselves to get too married to metrics, trying to quantify that which is really qualitative, we cloud more than we clarify.  When we focus too heavily on the success of a given class in gaining admission to a particular group of schools, we ignore important nuance and reduce the wonderful stories of our graduates to overly simplistic numbers.

The “and” of which I write requires work, including honest reflection on the part of students. It also requires that we as counselors re-think our notion of fit and success as more of a developmental arc.

Think about the decision about where to go to college as the “Yes.”  What’s the “and”?  The way one gets there. It’s part of an educational process that includes on-going reflection.  It also includes the intentional building of habits of mind that will lead to more progress.  The ultimate goal in college should be the diploma, not the acceptance letter.  

So what skills or attributes give us the best chance at the “and”?

  1. Self-awareness and confidence necessary to articulate a clear sense of personal identity.
  2. The capacity to listen and respond to criticism, coaching, and setbacks with appropriate goals, action steps, and follow through.
  3. The ability to ask questions, access appropriate resources (including people such as parents, counselors, peers, advisors, and coaches), and synthesize information (including data) to make the most informed decisions possible.
  4. The capacity to reflect upon and articulate a clear sense of your intellectual interests as well as a flexible plan for an academic and career focus and a sense of how you might impact the community you hope to join. 
  5. Openness and eagerness to explore ideas and a desire to be surrounded by new and different people.

If a student were to complete a survey drawn from the points above at the start of his or her process and then again at the end, they would have a valuable gauge of their readiness for the transition to college and beyond.  College counselors would have a more complete picture of an individual class’ level of preparation as well as our role in helping them get there.

Imagine the following:

Yes, I am proud of the fact that I am going to College X, and I am convinced I am ready to thrive there.”

Yes, we are proud of the fact that all of our graduates will attend colleges that are appropriate to their abilities and aspirations, and we are convinced that all of them are prepared to thrive.”

Properly understood, the college search is often the first significant decision-making process in a young adult’s life.  It will not be the last.  “Yes, and…” will help—and lead to some pretty good improvisational comedy, too.

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