On Saying No


officesupplies_moma_lowres {Illustration of office supplies & phones from the MoMA Design Collection, commissioned by the MoMA, 2012}

Recently I wrote a piece on overwhelm. In it, I suggested that while I may be super busy, I made choices that led to my busi-ness. I worked hard for the opportunities I now experience. In other words, I chose the life I live now, no matter how stressful it sometimes feels.

Last month at Alt, during the Q&A after my keynote address, a woman asked me about saying no. She correctly surmised that, because I am a busy entrepreneur, I must have to say no a lot. After all, I am only one person & I can’t possibly do it all or do it all myself. She wanted to know — how do I deal with that?

This is a question I get a lot. We fear having to let people down, and yet we don’t talk very much about how to handle saying no or how necessary it is.  So I told the woman in so many words that saying no was something I have to do a lot — that the word “no” is becoming the most common word in my vocabulary. I also told her that I was getting more comfortable with saying no. I have no choice but to say no. I also talked about working with entrepreneur coach Tiffany Han a few years back when my career first started to get busy, and how we came up with criteria for saying yes and saying no which have helped me for the past five years to determine if an opportunity is a good one. We developed criteria around things like resonance (does the opportunity get me excited?), money (does it pay well?) and time (do I have time to meet the deadline?).  I wrote more extensively about developing criteria for saying yes & saying no to opportunities in Art Inc.

In the last few years saying no has been more pragmatic. What it really comes down to is time in many cases — even if an illustration job resonates, I often have to say no because I simple don’t have time to execute. And yesterday I read a short article sent to me by my friend Molly that made me think about saying no in a whole new way. I’d previously thought about saying yes or no to a project or opportunity only as a practical matter — in other words, can I squeeze it into whatever time I have or does it pay well for the time I’ll be committing to it. What the author of this article argues, however, is that saying no is actually essential for creativity.

This has to do with time, of course, but it goes deeper than that. “Saying no”, argues the author Kevin Ashton, “has more creative power than ideas, insights and talent combined. No guards time, the thread from which we weave our creations. The math of time is simple: you have less than you think and need more than you know.”

Saying no is/protects creative power.

Aha! Time is essential for creativity! Creativity cannot exist without time for ideas to percolate or the opportunity to think. We must say no in order to thrive in our businesses! Saying no is essential to the core of our pursuits: our ideas! This slightly new shift in my thinking made me excited.

So why do we have so much trouble saying no then? In the words of Kevin Ashton, “We are not taught to say ‘no.’ We are taught not to say ‘no.’ ‘No’ is rude. ‘No’ is a rebuff, a rebuttal, a minor act of verbal violence. ‘No’ is for drugs and strangers with candy.”

I apologize profusely (and genuinely, I might add), when an opportunity comes my way that I need to say no to or when I have to say no to a request (can I interview you for my project?). In some ways I feel like I owe the stranger my gratitude for their interest. Indeed, the interest of other people in working with me or writing about my work is precisely what keeps my career afloat! So saying no feels painful sometimes. In some ways I never want to be so jaded that I can say no easily. I want to continue to feel the gratitude for what I have. I want to stay humble.

And yet, if I said yes to every opportunity that came my way I could not possibly generate the good work the askers are looking for me to make, And that’s because really good creative endeavors, the kind that generate conversation, are thoughtful, are well-executed, have depth, or have the potential to leave a legacy take time. And for many of us, time feels like a luxury we cannot afford. We ask: what am I giving up by saying no, rather than, more appropriately, what am I gaining by saying no?

The equation is simple for creative people: time = creativity. And the equation begs the question posed by Ashton: How much less will I create unless I say “no?”

Revelations about time and creativity aside, I am not sure much will change for me. I will probably still feel badly when I have to say no, which will happen today, inevitably, or I’ll say: “I’m free after June 16th! Can the project wait?” My heart will ache a little as I hit “send” to an email that only a six or seven years ago I would have died to receive. Indeed, I try to remember that there was a time when I checked my email box several times a day just praying for opportunities. And, furthermore, that saying yes to almost everything that came my way in the beginning of my career, is, indeed, what led to the long client list & thriving career I have today.

Maybe this is just the reminder I needed: that even though I dislike saying no to well meaning askers, saying no is saying yes to continuing to be a good, thoughtful and truly productive artist (and not just someone who mindlessly churns out work) — not to mention a better, more present, more thoughtful wife, friend, sister, aunt & daughter. In the great panorama of my life, what matters most?

Have a good weekend, friends.

CATEGORIES: Art Inc | Personal Essays