Saying Yes by Saying No
When I was a kid, my feminist mom made sure that I heard the words, “you can be anything you want to be,” often. I took her at her word and invested my future plans in this fundamental truth. When people would ask me what I wanted to be when I grew up, I would say, “a bird,” and look at them incredulously when they smiled or laughed as if they knew something I didn’t. “They must not know what I’m capable of,” I told myself.
When I figured out that I couldn’t actually grow wings, I was crushed. Quite possibly my first moment of real heartbreak. I believed. In response, I began to behave as though I could do everything. I found comfort and satisfaction in pushing myself harder, faster, building up accomplishments as armor against the intolerable vulnerability that I felt in that moment of heartbreak. Whenever life served up something that felt too difficult to overcome emotionally, I’d turn to academics, sports, and eventually, my career. I chase challenge because the satisfaction of overcoming challenge was always affirming and held disappointment at bay. “Pressure is a privilege,’’ said Billie Jean King.
For a long time, this looked like saying yes to everything. All work is cumulative, and I saw every challenge as an opportunity. I have always been ambitious and I let my ambitions crash into my people pleasing tendencies and mix with my fear of heartbreak and vulnerability, and I found myself awash in opportunity. I was in my late 20s, leading strategy for a leading global digital agency, pitching new business, opening an office, onboarding new clients and managing teams in San Francisco and Chicago. I was doing it all, and I loved every minute. My colleagues also loved this because it meant less work for them. I gained incredible experience and in short order, I found myself spread thin and burned out. It was the middle of the night on a Wednesday and I was rewriting a new business presentation for the third time. I knew I had all the answers and I had a vision for what needed to be done, but I finally hit my limit and I crumbled. The deck was due the next day, I couldn’t see a way out, and I didn’t want to let anyone down but I couldn’t go one more minute. I collapsed into my bed in a pile of tears. The next day, I went into the office and sheepishly shared with my CEO my discovery that I was not, in fact, Superwoman and that I was very overwhelmed and needed help identifying how and where to say no.
He looked at me and said, “you know, when you say no to one thing, you’re actually saying yes to something else.” This was so liberating for me — I could get more comfortable with saying no when I could also articulate the things I was saying yes to instead. When I articulated both at once, my priorities and trade offs were all on the table. If those were misaligned, the conversation became about priorities and tradeoffs as opposed to my limited capacity (a fact I’m still not excited about admitting). Life is all about positioning.
This remains a practice for me, not something I’m sure I’ll ever really master. But, the more I practice, the more comfortable I get coming to the table with my priorities and tradeoffs, and also my boundaries. I’m learning to lean into the things that matter to me, in addition to the things that matter to the businesses and projects I’m involved in. Just because you can do something doesn’t mean you should.
One of my mentors suggested I shouldn’t say yes to anything unless it was a full body yes. The idea is to tune into the things that really light you up, as opposed to doing something because you can or because you feel like you should. It’s easier said than done, but little by little, I’m working my way out of blind ambition and toward purposeful, meditated no and yes. And with every ‘no,’ I get clearer on and closer to the full body yeses.