Just Say No

Teachers, TV, and well-meaning volunteers: “Just say no to drugs!”

Smart-Alecky 6-Year-Old Susie: “My daddy’s an anesthesiologist, and he says to say yes to drugs, when delivered at the right time in the right dosage by doctors.” (Sorry for putting words in your mouth, Dad!)

This was more or less my quippy response to the Just Say No campaign spearheaded by Nancy Reagan in the 1980s and early 1990s, when I was in elementary school. Sometimes I was an insufferable kid who thought she was a lot more clever than she actually was; forgive me!

Just Say No isn’t only for drugs, people. #truth

I accompanied my mom, who volunteered for another anti-drug program called DARE. I passed out papers and pencils during her visits to 5th and 6th grade classrooms and felt very proud of this contribution. I was in awe of her presentations and the older kids.

Though opinions vary on whether the Just Say No and DARE campaigns were successful in lowering recreational drug abuse, my personal opinion is that they worked on me. I was trained to say no to drugs. Though in middle and high school I was way too busy for anyone to even offer drugs to me, I had my first opportunity when studying abroad in Greece sophomore year. Someone finally offered me pot! Despite recognizing this was a really low-stakes moment when it would probably be fine and a sneaking suspicion it would be fun, DARE and Just Say No training from 15+ years ago came back to me.

I said no thanks.

Even then, it was hard. I beat myself up on the subway train ride back to our hostel.

But it’s not why you might think. It wasn’t the peer pressure that made me doubt my decision. I wasn’t worried about whether they’d still like me. Rory and Lakshmi were great friends, and I knew our friendship was built on other shared experiences beyond this. I knew we’d continue to travel together and laugh and share life while we explored Greece. And we did for the rest of that Fall 2007 semester.

What I feared was missing out on the experience.

Maybe this term is already dated now, but FOMO was popularized a few years ago: Fear Of Missing Out. This encapsulates why I find it hard to say no.

For years I’ve been conditioned to take opportunities. Authority figures in my life encouraged me to take on new things whenever possible. When I did, typically I learned something, had fun, made new friends, and made others around me happy because of my participation. And I felt good about myself for trying something new and figuring it out. And at work, I learned that when I say yes to taking on new projects, I’m going to learn something new. I become better, even if it’s a struggle in the beginning.

Is it any surprise? When you’ve been rewarded for saying yes, when being a good helper is positively reinforced daily in personal life and work, and when you feel good about yourself for knowing your actions helped someone else and you contributed, is it any wonder you could become addicted to saying yes?

For these reasons and more, I’ve said yes to some pretty crazy things that in retrospect I really wasn’t prepared for. Here’s a brief list of some standouts:

  • Running a marathon after training for 2.5 weeks (incidentally, the original marathon route from the town of Marathon to Athens, where Pheidippides made his run and breathed his last–so awesome!). I had a literal “dawning realization” around 6am in the blue fog of the morning when the bus drove away and I realized my phone and money were waiting for me 26.2 miles away at the finish line. I couldn’t speak a word of Greek to get help from anyone on the way. It was just me in running shoes and socks, a tank top and some soffe shorts. The fact that I finished in 4 hours and 30 minutes without stopping and had a fantastic time chatting with people on the way is pure testament to the strength of a 20 year old body! I knew this was a major physical effort that some people train for months to accomplish; why did I think I could just jump in?
  • Translating a German book into English. Never mind that my German vocabulary then and now includes just gutentag and 1-10 and ya/nein. I saw no reason I couldn’t accept a contract to do this for a client. I scanned in the physical copy of the book he provided to me, used OCR in Adobe Acrobat to recognize the text, used Google Translate to copy it over, and then painstakingly went through to use my actual skills as a copyeditor/proofreader to improve it. I am certain that this was not the most accurate translation, but the client was pleased by my rate and rapidity! He spoke German, Indonesian, and English, and he verified it was good enough. But still, why did I think I could do that?
  • Having a baby while writing a dissertation while working full-time (as the breadwinner) while my husband was full-time in his doctoral program. Yeah. Whoa. (But even knowing how hard it was, I would do this all again in a heartbeat.)

Forgive me if listing these stunts comes across as prideful; it’s not my intent. I’m sitting here genuinely shaking my head at why I thought these things were doable and praising God that He got me through them. Yes, there were real consequences for taking on too much. But thanks to God, and a lot of family and friend support, I discovered that I was capable of more than I thought, and these experiences enriched my life and hopefully others’ as well. Today, reflecting on things that once seemed insurmountable or crazy shows me that I can take on new things, which is good.

What are crazy things you’ve said yes to?

But how should I set limits on saying yes and learn to just say no? Across fields others warn there are costs to saying yes. Here are some I’ve encountered:

  • One of the core tenets of Malcolm Knowles’ andragogy, or the study of how adults learn, is that adult learners want to know WHY something matters to them before they take it on. Unlike children, adults have been around the block and have responsibilities now, so before they jump into learning they usually want to know why this is important. Because adults get that once you know something, you’ve a responsibility to act on it. So adults aren’t necessarily fearful of learning new things, but they’re cautious about taking new things on. One possible reason for this is we realize life isn’t unlimited; we’re more aware of the passage of time, and that as we age we aren’t guaranteed more time. So we want to focus our time on learning what matters most. This is finally starting to hit me now, as I commit to prioritizing my writing and recognizing I cannot do all things well.
  • In college I read about the Hedgehog Concept in Jim Collins’ book Good to Great. Simplified, it’s about identifying what you’re passionate about, what you do well, and what can result in income, and investing in the intersection in that Venn diagram rather than being scattered. I fought against this notion, railing against the idea that my whole life could be distilled down to a few core things. Now I’m more open to this idea, hard as it is to accept.
  • Another topic from my macroeconomics class infuriated me: opportunity cost, or the cost of choosing to do something is all the other things I now don’t get to do. To someone with a serious case of FOMO, this is a nightmare concept. The idea that the benefit of all the things I could be doing will inevitably outweigh the one thing I’ve chosen to do is overwhelming.

Though I’ve learned to say no, it still feels like swallowing broken glass to get the words “No” out of me, whether on paper or in writing. I can always come up with more reasons to say yes to a project than no.

(Doesn’t really relate to the point of this blog post except for a passing reference to the Hedgehog Principle, but let’s use any excuse to put a cute hedgehog somewhere, right? So cute…)

The Virtue Trap

As you know, I’m participating in 12 weeks of “The Artist’s Way,” by Julia Cameron, by reading a chapter a week, writing 3 “morning pages” of internal dialogue a day (well, I try to), and going on an artist date per week (this weekend I’m in Bethesda, MD, touring coffee shops and parks and museums!). Some points from her chapter covering “The Virtue Trap” hit me hard this week:

  • “An artist must have downtime, time to do nothing. Defending our right to such time takes courage, conviction, and resiliency.”
  • “We strive to be good, to be nice, to be helpful, to be unselfish. We want to be generous, of service, of the world….When we can’t get others to leave us alone, we eventually abandon ourselves. To others, we may look like we’re there. We may act like we’re there. But our true self has gone to ground.”

Cameron goes so far as to describe this behavior as self-destructive. Rather than be viewed as selfish and face others’ disapproval, I and others ditch creative work for the ever-pressing needs of others, at the expense of what we really want and need to be doing.

For me, there is a balance here, as there so often is. Some middle ground of devoting time to writing and others and not letting the pendulum swing too far either way. It is beautiful and right to serve others and in so doing honor God. But perhaps there is a balance to be found.

In Closing

I’m wondering if I can trick myself into realizing that my writing isn’t just for me. If I can believe that others do need me to do this, to use the talents God gave me, then maybe it won’t feel so selfish. When I am writing and crafting stories, other areas of my life benefit, too: I am a more caring mom, wife, leader, friend, and worker. So, I’ve got to learn to Just Say No to things on occasion.

Cameron shared these gems which really struck me; what do you think of these thoughts?

“Nobody objects to a woman being a good writer or sculptor or geneticist if at the same time she manages to be a good wife, good mother, good-looking, good-tempered, well-groomed, and unaggressive.”

– Leslie M. McIntyre

“It is within my power either to serve God or not to serve Him. Serving Him, I add to my own good and the good of the whole world. Not serving Him, I forfeit my own good and deprive the world of that good, which was in my power to create.”

– Leo Tolstoy


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