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How do you feel about saying no?

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!


Is it really a good idea to keep your options open?

Confession: I have too much on my plate again.

It’s a problem that occurs every month or two as I struggle (usually unsuccessfully) to fit all the things I really want to do into a finite number of post-work hours.

I try to do this because in theory I want to do it all. But the reality (which I have a hard time remembering) is that when I’m busy trying to do it all I invariably end up exhausted and unhappy.

Instead of cramming more and more into my already-busy schedule, I find that I make the most progress when I have wide open space and only a few tasks competing for my attention. Into this wide open space my creative endeavors unfold gracefully, effortlessly.

But as soon as my schedule starts to get cluttered again, I find myself feeling overwhelmed. And once I’m overwhelmed I stop getting things done.

Learning this lesson has been hard for me because I taught myself to manage the opposite when I was at MIT. And so I know that the opposite is also true.

You can motivate yourself to achieve impossible tasks when your schedule is so cluttered it is beyond overwhelming and begins to induce panic.

Martha Beck would say that when the to-do list get to panic-inducing levels of overwhelm we shift into the place beyond fear (an idea from her book, Steering by Starlight: The Science and Magic of Finding Your Destiny) and from this place we can act with calm and clear precision, taking highly effective action toward our goals.

As a student at MIT I usually completed my work from the place beyond fear. The amount of work was so extreme that I had to stop worrying about if I could do it at all because every drop of my energy was focused into getting as much done as I could. I didn’t need to prioritize or schedule — I just started with the assignment that was most pressing and worked until I was too tired to press on.

In this way I accomplished impressive, impossible tasks as a student at MIT. But most of the time I was miserable.

Because this place-beyond-fear ridiculousness isn’t a healthy way to get things done in our day-to-day lives, but as a student it became the only way I knew. I didn’t know the steady effort of healthy progress — I knew the reckless, careening drama of a panic-stricken dash to meet a looming deadline.

And so I’ve struggled with finding a model for getting things done that works for me out in the real world, and especially one that works for me in my own personal life.
Because my personal projects don’t have deadlines really, and if they do have deadlines those deadlines were usually arbitrary goals I set for myself.

I’m not good at keeping myself accountable to my own deadlines. I expect to disappoint myself and so I usually do — partly because my deadlines often assume a willingness to pursue the kinds of herculean efforts I invested as a student, and partly because I find it hard to feel motivated when the only person my failure is disappointing is myself.

All of which is to say that I have a history of feeling ineffective when it comes to achieving my personal goals and it’s taken me a lot of experimentation and observation and practice to start to figure out why I struggle with this and what to do differently.

But I’m starting to get a handle on the answer. I’m slowly, grudgingly coming to the conclusion that I can’t do it all. I’m finding I can’t have more than one or two personal projects I’m focused on at a time.

Which brings me back to the title of this post, because i’ve lived most of my life in an attempt to keep my options open. When I didn’t want to get my PhD after finishing undergrad I got my Master’s degree instead because that seemed to “keep my options open”. When I didn’t know what I wanted to do after I graduated with my Master’s degree I accepted the first job that came along (a job that happened to be in science) because that felt like “keeping my options open”.

In some ways, the whole story of my life since I was a student at MIT has been a tale of keeping my options open about having a career in science.

And I apply the same principle in my personal life. I hesitate to cross projects off my list because leaving them on feels like “keeping my options open”.

Crossing off a project means saying I’m not going to work on this right now and making that decision can be scary.

What if I’m making a mistake? What if I decide something isn’t a priority and then find myself wanting to spend my time on it?

These sort of nonsensical concerns weigh on my heart and I think the real problem is that I still think it’s best to keep my options open.

But, increasingly, I believe that keeping one’s options open is a fool’s journey. Instead I think it might be better to slam doors shut early and often — after all, we rarely close a door that can’t be opened again.

The more I spend my energy keeping all the doors open, the more paralyzed I feel.

When all my energy is spent holding doors open, I don’t have anything left to make progress toward reaching the goals that lie through those very doors I’m so busy holding open.


I’d love for this to be a conversation, and not a monologue! How do you feel about keeping your options open? Do you need white space to get things done? Do you struggle to prioritize? Let me know in the comments below.


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Two kinds of truth

As a scientist, I’ve regularly been taught that there is only one kind of truth: the truth of facts and scientific proof. I don’t want to pretend that this kind of truth isn’t powerful, because it absolutely is. To my mind, scientific truth has contributed to innumerable discoveries and inventions that make my life easier and the world a better place.

But I don’t believe that scientific proof is the only kind of truth. I believe there’s a second kind of truth, a truth that has little to do with logic and reason and facts. I believe that we call this truth “wisdom” and we don’t need proof to know it’s true; when something is wise we can feel it is true without needing proof.

Sometimes, as a scientist, I find that this second kind of truth fills me with what Martha Beck calls “Yeah-buts”. “Yeah, but you don’t really know that.” “Yeah, but you have no proof!” And yet, the larger (perhaps the wiser) part of me usually can’t be bothered to care. At the end of the day the truth that really matters to me is that which I feel to be true.

Which is why I’ve decided on a new standard for truth in my life, and it’s not “can I prove this scientifically”. Instead, it’s simpler and usually more elegant: “does this help me?”

The elegance of “does this help me?” is that it allows for a much richer experience of the world. Science, for all that it has generated many discoveries that taught us the universe is wilder and more beautiful than we could have dared to imagine, cannot reliably probe the mysteries of the human experience.

It is why disciplines like psychology remain “soft” sciences and though there is hope that someday neuroscience may explain the vagaries of the human mind, I remain unsure that a scientific theory can ever really capture the full breadth and complexity of the human experience (indeed, a part of me hopes it cannot).

In biology, we are taught that living systems achieve “emergent properties” — we are more than the strict sum of our parts. My body at it’s most basic level is a loosely aggregated bundle of cells and molecules and yet I experience a sensation of being that no single molecule or cell could likely achieve.

And I cannot help but think that though science may be able to explain why and how we acquire these emergent properties (though the study of anatomy, neurobiology, physiology, etc.), I’m not sure that science can ever fully account for the felt experience of a human being.

This is why we require wisdom: because there are elements of human existence that seem to escape logic and reason. I can be aware of my own vagaries, my own irrationalities, my own inconsistencies — but this knowledge doesn’t make them any less real. And, ultimately, it is not science that gives me my answers or devises strategies that help me live with my own inconsistencies.

There is no way in which science can help me accept (or even relish) the fact that I am irrational and falliable and blind to “truth”. Instead, science teaches me that these things are my faults — that I should be more rational, that I should be more perfect, that insignificant things should not bother me so unreasonably, that when I say something that is scientifically untrue this makes me a bad person, a victim to sloppy reasoning, rather than a person with an unalienable right to her own opinion.

My conclusion is that unadulterated scientific truth teaches me to be unkind to myself. It teaches me to hold myself to a standard of being and existence that falls not an iota short of rational, robotic perfection because to be anything less would be to fall short of the ideal.

And yet, what kind of life is this really? To my mind this belief only makes living life more painful. I can do little to change my irrationalities except to honor them with the fullest depth of my compassion.

I can do nothing to better understand my own existence than to learn the wisdom of the world’s traditions, hold each idea up against myself, and ask “does this help me understand myself? does this help me understand my experience in the world?”

I would like to invite you to do the same (but, of course, only if you find it helpful!).


I’d love for this to be a conversation, not a dialogue! Tell me how you define truth in the comments below.