It occurs to me, perhaps belatedly, that I may have a dysfunctional relationship with the word “no”.
The topic came up this week as I was tasked to some new projects at work and while, on the one hand, I don’t mind (I like it when other people ask me to help and the tasks are useful, just not interesting), on the other hand, some of the tasks that I was asked to do aren’t things that make me feel zippy inside. Some of them feel more like a weighty ton of bricks.
There’s a part of me that wonders if perhaps I shouldn’t have said no.
This state of self-inquiry is particularly acute because I have been reading Greg McKeown’s book Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less, and it’s been really useful for crystallizing a lot of the ideas about priorities that I’ve been toying with for a while.
The basic tenant of his book is that we should do “less, but better” — i.e. say “no” to more things in order to focus on that which is essential. It’s a great idea, a great theory; I found myself nodding along with something on nearly every page as I read.
And yet this week I didn’t think to say no when asked to do things that I already know will not be my highest contribution.
There’s a lot packed up in this idea. On the one hand, I think saying no is just hard: it is an act of rebellion, a distancing of oneself from the rest of the tribe.
On the other hand, I think there’s a lot of my personal baggage wrapped up in it, too.
I wouldn’t bother to share my baggage, except that I’m beginning to learn that it’s all the same baggage — we use different words and have different reasons, but our issues are usually the same: at the end of the day we’re generally insecure, worried that there’s something wrong with us, and that the rest of the world might find out. We therefore conclude that our wrongness means we’re not worthy of whatever good the universe offers to us.
For me personally, this means I’m often overly-eager to play the drudge. I operate from a place of “it’s dirty work but someone’s got to do it” and because of my feelings of unspecialness (my own particular flavor of unworthiness), I feel like that person might as well be me.
The consequence of which is that I wind up working on projects I don’t love and feeling like everyone else gets to solve problems that are cooler than mine.
My rational brain knows that to some extent “the grass is always greener”, and other people’s problems probably aren’t any more exciting than mine. But then I wonder — is that true? Or do I just think that’s true because I believe that important work is often unpleasant and has to be done anyways?
Our thoughts get slippery when we try to work our way around them.
I don’t know my answers yet. I know that it’s easier to agree than to say no when I’m at work. And I know that it’s easier to say no than to agree when someone invites me to a social outing (even if there is a part of me that wants to go).
And I know that, as Greg McKeown writes in Essentialism, “When we surrender our ability to choose, something or someone else will step in to choose for us… We often think of a choice as a thing. But a choice is not a thing. Our options may be things, but a choice — a choice is an action. It is not just something we have but something we do.”
This week I felt myself not-choosing, rather than sincerely saying yes.
The point of this blog is not for me to whinge on about my inability to set boundaries around my time at work. The point of this blog is to perhaps help you think a little more critically about what it is you are or aren’t saying “no” to in your life.
My hope is that by shining a small light into my dark and nebulous corners, you might find the shadows a shade lighter in yours.
Where could you do “less, but better” in your life right now? What would you need to say “no” to to make your highest contribution — whether at work or at home? Let me know in the comments below!