How do you know when to say, “yes?” When to say, “no?”
Deciding yes or no?
For full disclosure, let me start by saying that I’ve spent most of my life really struggling to say no. In fact, I still distinctly remember being in first grade and my dad sitting me down at the kitchen table and having the first of what would become a lifelong conversation about overcommitting. In my defense then, and even now, some of my inability to say no has come from a genuine desire to constantly be challenged, to learn from new experiences, to keep stretching and growing. However, a life lived on that extreme ultimately forces a reckoning on the other. So, for decades I’ve tried to come to terms with learning what to say “yes” to and what to say “no” to. Here are some of the hard-fought lessons I’ve learned.
For a long time, I believed in the myth that if I said “no” the opportunity would be lost for good, that doors opened and then they closed. In reality, that’s not true at all. Saying yes and no isn’t about dichotomies as much as it is about pathways. It’s true, there are times we choose to walk through a doorway and that choice can create more options, but it’s also true that doorways emerge and appear in many ways we never could have predicted. So making decisions for me has become mostly about staying clear about the path I’m on. (Which is also to say there’s great beauty to be found in detours, but even those must be extensions of what’s most honest to us.) Because I still struggle to decide what to say yes and no to, here are the points on my compass, the questions I pose to myself, that most often keep me moving in authentic directions.
- Am I being true to myself in either saying yes or no? In other words, is this the most honest decision I can make for myself right now? Am I wanting to say yes because I’m genuinely committed to doing this work or because of a superficial reason?
- Am I able to learn and grow from this? Will there be a challenge? Will this be a match between my current skill set and my ability to grow from the work ahead? Can I add value to this endeavor for others?
- Can I explain the importance of this to my own children? There are times when my work takes me away from home and if I can’t sit down and tell my own kids why it’s important enough to be away from them, then I can’t in good faith go do it.
- Would this create an imbalance in my life that has detrimental consequences? Sometimes the answers to all the other questions are a resounding yes, but I know it would upset a balance I am committed to maintaining. I recognize that work-life balance comes in waves, but as long as there are other human beings in my life that I’m responsible to, then I have to keep struggling with the most honest response to this question and act accordingly.
When you do say “no” it can be tough. It can be tough because other people will be saying yes to what you didn’t and it’s dangerously easy to fall into comparisons. There’s the conference you didn’t go to that others enjoyed, the committee you didn’t serve on that others will be recognized for, the project you passed on that others will be celebrating. If you find yourself happy for your colleagues and at the same time a little envious, remember you have an entire career to say yes to these experiences, not a definitive, fleeting amount of time. Also, try not to think of saying “no” as a loss; rather, think of it as making space for what you most value.
Because the truth is: whenever we say yes to one thing, we say no to something else.