Originally published on my Patreon in June 2022. Become a Patron!
My 2nd-favorite convention button* reads, “Oh, no, not another learning experience!”***
One lesson I still have not mastered is this one: “When in doubt, say no. If you aren’t bedrock-solidly sure you should say yes, say no. In fact, default to saying no, and you’ll rarely go wrong.”
I say yes more than is good for me. Good intentions are listed among my many reasons, plus a high capacity for rationalizing my way into corners. I tell myself writing outside my own worlds will hone my writing skills and build self-discipline. (It does) Taking on creative work other than writing will recharge my energy for my own writing. (True) Sharing and collaborating are personally affirming and help build community. Etcetera and so on.
Saying yes always makes sense when I agree to it, but roughly 50% of the times I’ve taken on extra projects since I became a professional writer, saying no would’ve been the wiser choice.
Great stats for a baseball player. Not so great for, say, bridge engineering. I don’t know if it’s good or bad for a writer.
Some projects turn out to be a bad fit emotionally, some became outrageous time-sinks of scope creep, and others bogged down in the mire of “great concept, not-so-great organization.” Some managed to be all three things at once. Even projects that were wholly enjoyable came with a high cost. Time and energy are my most limited resources.
Being a champion overthinker, I routinely revisit all the disastrous, exhausting, costly yes-es in my past and question my judgment. Was saying yes worth it when things worked out so badly, so often?
The answer, in a word, is Yes. (I bet you saw that coming.)
No matter how much wiser saying no would’ve been, I never regret having done things. I’ve benefitted in some way from even the most frustrating & joy-sucking “shoulda said no” experience. Each one taught me a new life trick or two, most taught me new writing or writing-adjacent skills–or refreshed & polished my existing ones.
I don’t make the same mistakes. Every time, I find new ones.
All that said, here’s the latest incarnation of my ever-evolving list of Important Things To Do If You Must Say Yes.
1. Decide your limits & engrave them like stone in your own mind.
2. Write down everything you’ll be expected to do. Go over this information up front with the person or people you’re saying yes to.
2.5. Make absolutely everyone understands this is the absolute limit of what you expect to be asked to do.
This is not quite the same as “get it in writing.” This isn’t about contractual obligations. It’s about the fallibility of memory & the inevitability of misaligned expectations. It’s about making sure you have a record of your own expectations for yourselfbefore you become entangled & invested in the project.
3. Pull out your written list & consult it whenever you’re asked to do more things, other things, or feel like you’re being pressured to renegotiate your role.
4. If you have to remind someone of the agreement more than twice, it’s 3-strikes-and-out, DTMFA, walk away time. Sunk-cost fallacy will be hard to fight (really, REALLY hard) but seriously? If someone creeps across the line twice, they’ll just keep asking until they wear you down or you bite their head off.
I’m good at the snap & bite part. Doesn’t make it fun.
My final words in this Say No 101 refresher course: remember that small favors turn into big problems if you don’t protect your boundaries like a mama mockingbird defending her nest–and sometimes even if you do.
You can keep your shields on full, charge up your orbital lasers and your asteroid cannons, have all your best spells locked & loaded & ready to cast–and still get ambushed by a bad situation.
It still won’t be a total loss as long as you find something worthwhile to learn from it.
That’s it until next time I feel like ranting, venting, or musing.
And here is a random image of carp in the Chicago Botanic Garden lagoon, photo taken on a recent visit.
***Oh-ho, you’ve found the footnote!
My favorite button reads, “There are very few personal problems that cannot be solved by a suitable application of high explosives.” It appeals to me for complicated reasons and remains my fave despite the quote coming from Scott Adams, whose sociopolitical stance proves he’s more like Pointy-haired Boss than nerdy Dilbert. I would’ve included a photo of both buttons on this post but I can’t find my button collection at the moment.