Yes Man? No thanks

Danny Wallace’s popular cod-philosophy that it’s good to say yes is more conservative than it sounds.

Stephen Bremner

Topics Books

Do you ever feel that life is passing you by? That golden opportunities are going begging? If so, then Danny Wallace’s book, Yes Man, might provide you with the inspiration you need to seize the day. Its credo is simple: you should say ‘yes’ to every invitation that comes your way. And it’s a credo that has struck a chord. In the new TV advertising campaign for its credit cards, Virgin shows all the fun and games that will arise from just saying ‘yes’. And Yes Man has apparently been optioned by Warner Brothers and may end up as a movie starring Jack Black.

Wallace’s book describes how, having split up with a girlfriend, he found himself in a personal slump – rarely leaving the house, avoiding invitations to socialise, and generally opting for a quiet life. He says he was shaken from this sloth by a brief encounter with a stranger on a bus who told him: ‘Say yes more.’ Wallace decided to take the advice literally, and committed himself to saying yes to any and all invitations that could be answered in the affirmative. The story of the year that followed his decision is retold in Yes Man. If it all sounds a little stunt-like, that may not be surprising. This is the same Danny Wallace, after all, who also launched the apolitical movement ‘Join Me’, when he invited members of the public to join him in doing not very much and started an internet cult in the process.

Saying ‘yes’ to everything made Wallace’s life both complex and challenging. For example, the rigid set of rules he imposes on himself means that he had to go on an excruciatingly embarrassing date with his ex-girlfriend and her new boyfriend after they asked him, purely out of politeness, whether he wanted to come to dinner. He won £25,000 when he said yes to the invitation to complete a tabloid newspaper’s lottery scratch card (but lost it again having failed to read the rules), and he landed a new and better job as a result of accepting tasks that his co-workers were refusing. Ultimately, in the climax to the book, grand romantic gestures lead him to a new relationship – which neatly allows him to put the personal problems he had at the start behind him – and so concludes his tale.

There are antecedents to such game playing. Some have pointed to the great similarity between the approach adopted by Wallace and that of the fictional protagonist in Luke Rhinehart’s novel The Dice Man, where the roll of a dice, rather than the invitations of strangers, decides the course of action. The appeal of both these stories – Rhinehart’s fiction and Wallace’s factual account – is that they seem to offer a method for making life more exciting and unpredictable.

What’s interesting about Wallace’s story is that it runs refreshingly against the ‘just say no’, risk-averse culture that dominates today. His approach seems to blow out of the water the precautionary principle, which, when applied to personal relations, boils down to ‘don’t trust anybody’. Wallace had to say ‘yes’ to complete strangers on numerous occasions, and embrace the consequences. At one stage, he ends up getting involved in what is clearly an internet scam, but approaches even these invitations with the assumption that the scammers are genuine people who need his help. This seems refreshing in an era of ‘stranger danger’.

And yet, although it would be good if society did embrace both taking risks and trusting our fellow citizens more, there are considerable limitations in Wallace’s philosophy. He presents his approach as one that allows him to kickstart his life with a bracing dose of positivity. This is not really the whole truth – and furthermore, it’s an approach that actually places severe limits on our ability to act with real decisiveness.

The limits to Wallace’s life theory are clear in his own story. Consider how much trivial activity he involves himself in. By refusing to discriminate between invitations, he opens himself up to spending a huge amount of time engaging in essentially eccentric behaviour, whether it’s spending time talking to high-street clipboard jockeys or sending in pictures of his neighbour’s pets to a ‘Pets Personality of the Year’ competition. You get the distinct impression that Wallace never really embraced every invitation offered to him, but rather selected those that would be most entertaining, both for him and a potential readership….

Worse than that, what is presented as an outgoing and positive embracing of experience is actually a very passive endeavour, which leads Wallace into a highly superficial existence. His approach makes him a victim of fate and puts him at the mercy of others’ whimsies. By accepting everyone’s (well, almost everyone’s) invitations, he makes other people the unwitting authors of his destiny. He rattles about in an aimless fashion from one social encounter to another and, because he’s always open to new invitations, he rarely remains committed to any one activity for a sustained period of time. In short, he becomes rather parasitical on the life of others. For example, he dabbles in the work of a group of peace campaigners, but before long is seduced, of course, by the invitations of others. His impact on the wider world is as fleeting and transient as the time it takes to move from one invitation to another.

In this sense, the book reflects something of its times. Like many people today, Wallace seems unable to commit to any activity for a sustained period of time and is unable genuinely to engage with other people in developing a shared vision. Nothing he encounters really grabs him enough to make him want to explore it in a meaningful way. This isn’t surprising when even the groups he does encounter, such as the peace activists, also seem to see themselves as dabblers and eccentrics rather than as committed individuals. Wallace uses experiences not to be really active in the world, but as a form of self-help or therapy for his own personal problems.

If life today can be mundane and lack challenge, then accepting the invitations and parameters on offer is also likely to be unsatisfying. Even in Wallace’s book, the risks that he does take are, fundamentally, not that risky; indeed, many of the things he says ‘yes’ to are as mundane as getting a new haircut or else involve everyday decisions such as buying a car, getting a new job or starting a new relationship. Wallace’s experiences are limited by a lack of independence and vision; instead, he remains dependent on the invitations offered to him.

For the rest of us, the hard business of making our own decisions – saying both yes and no and avoiding becoming victims of fate – goes on. For those who want to go beyond that, and make a real impact in the world, there’s no escaping the fact that to do so requires trying to initiate action and dialogue with others pro-actively, rather than simply waiting for someone else to initiate it for us.

Yes Man by Danny Wallace is published in the UK by Ebury Press. (Buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)).

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Topics Books


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