How I Learned To Say No The Hard Way

I am all about saying no. It’s the price for being able to say yes to really wonderful things. It is the way to give attention to what matters most. It is a glorious word. So gorgeous one can almost fall in love with it. The trouble is, it doesn’t look so attractive at first glance.

It’s a bit like Elizabeth Bennet’s first impression of Mr. Darcy in Pride and Prejudice: at first it looks rude, selfish and uninterested in the feelings of others. But the word grows on you. If you flirt with it, you will start to see what I mean. Then you will start to date it. Eventually when you discover it’s true nature you will fall in love with it.

I remember well the day I discovered enough about the word to want it with me forever. On a bright, winter day in California I visited my wife, Anna, in the hospital. Even in the hospital, Anna was radiant. But I also knew she was exhausted. It was the day after our precious daughter was born, healthy and happy at 7 pounds, 3 ounces.

Yet what should have been one of the happiest, most serene days of my life was actually filled with tension. Even as my beautiful new baby lay in my wife’s tired arms, I was on the phone and on e-mail with work, and I was feeling pressure to go to a client meeting. My colleague had written, “Friday between 1–2 would be a bad time to have a baby because I need you to come be at this meeting with X.”

It was now Friday and though I was pretty certain (or at least I hoped) the e-mail had been written in jest, I still felt pressure to attend. Instinctively, I knew what to do. It was clearly a time to be there for my wife and newborn child. So when asked whether I planned to attend the meeting, I said with all the conviction I could muster … “Yes.”

To my shame, while my wife lay in the hospital with our hours-old baby, I went to the meeting. Afterward, my colleague said, “The client will respect you for making the decision to be here.” But the look on the clients’ faces did not evince respect. Instead, they mirrored how I felt. What was I doing there? I had said yes simply to please, and in doing so I had hurt my family, my integrity, and even the client relationship.

As it turned out, exactly nothing came of the client meeting. But even if it had, surely I would have made a fool’s bargain. In trying to keep everyone happy, I had sacrificed what mattered most. On reflection, I discovered this important lesson:

If you don’t prioritize your life, someone else will.

That experience gave me renewed interest — read, inexhaustible obsession — in understanding why otherwise intelligent people make the choices they make in their personal and professional lives. “Why is it,” I wonder, “that we have so much more ability inside of us than we often choose to utilize?” And “How can we make the choices that allow us to tap into more of the potential inside ourselves, and in people everywhere?”

One important answer is we have shifted from an era of information overload to an era of opinion overload. We experience the stress and strain of it individually but there has been a collective change. Never in the history of the world have women and men been more aware of what others were doing and, as a result, felt more pressure to do it all.

Coming back to Pride and Prejudice, the source of all wisdom, saying yes to everything is equivalent to dating Mr. Wickham. It sounds and looks so good at first. We are taken in with the promise and charm of the idea. It is all easy and delightful in the beginning.

But overtime it starts to feel shallow and unsatisfying. In the long run, if not checked, it can have the power to leave you with a life of regrets.

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