Knowing No

I have a sometimes-debilitating affliction:  sayno

I hate to say no.

I know it’s a fairly common issue, judging by some of the efforts out there to help others say no. For me, the latest example came at work, where the problem is sometimes acute. As a freelancer, how do you say no to a client?

Since starting this gig more than 14 years ago, I have found it very hard to turn down a job. Of course, in the beginning, always desperate for work, I never did say no. That meant taking assignments I might not have felt good about for moral reasons (make U.S. Special Forces sound like the coolest thing on Earth, with details on how they kill? OK!), or agreeing to three or four things at once, with no clue how I would get them all done.

The problem is even worse with first-time clients. If you say no, who’s to say they’ll ever come back to you again after they find someone who can do the job? And a few would-be clients have tendered that first offer, heard me beg off, then disappeared. Of course, saying yes doesn’t guarantee anything either. For several clients, I’ve done two or three jobs, had every indication they were happy with my work, then they stopped calling, despite my friendly holiday greeting cards (subtext: “Remember me? Aren’t I thoughtful for sending this? Please give me some fucking work!”).

Saying no, though, has become more important the older I get. I don’t want that sense of overwhelming agita that comes from juggling multiple projects at once, along with the unexpected revisions from older assignments. Better to make less money and feel semi-sane than try to make everyone else happy. Then there is the gut factor: After doing this job for so long, I know which projects/clients will be a bear and are not worth the hassle. (More thoughts on this here.) This lesson came only after ignoring the gut warning, taking a job, and getting that flushed, hateful feeling I get when I’m doing something I feel inadequate to do. Or just don’t want to do.

(Work flashback: The first time I got that feeling, I was 19 and working delivering patio furniture. I was hating the work  – not so bad in the warehouse, but the driving and delivering – ugh. So I’m out with another guy one day, realizing I’m at my breaking point when something went wrong – we went to the wrong address, or I got lost, or something. And as the flush crept through my body I said, “That’s it.” The other guy sat stunned as I turned around, went back to the warehouse, and told the foreman I could not do it. Suffice to say, I was not delivering furniture much longer.)

To put it another way...

To put it another way...

So, lately, I’ve found it easier to turn down jobs that don’t seem right. At times it’s easy because I can truthfully say I have too much to do. But not today. And yet I still said no. To one of my oldest clients. He called me yesterday, wanted me to help him out with a difficult project two other writers had struggled with. I’ve been his pinch-hittting job-salvager before, and it flatters me that he calls on me in these tough situations. I never want to let him, or any client, down. But this time, after reviewing all the details and hearing my gut-alert go off, I had to say no. He was disappointed, I think, but he understood. And luckily, he found another writer within in hour.

I realize that my being self-employed has given me the luxury to say no, especially as time has gone by and I’ve built up a regular pool of clients. People who aren’t 19 and who work for others and need their paychecks don’t have that option so often. But, they do have the option to take another job if the internal no’s they can’t shout at a lout of a boss begin to build up like intestinal blockage. It might not be easy to deliver that ultimate no, step into that “Take this job and shove it” moment, but sometimes it is the only thing to do. Assuming long-term sanity outweighs this week’s salary. And again, I know that’s easier for me to say than for most folks to do.

Thinking about this, I started extrapolating to my personal life. It’s hard to say no there, too. I want to please people. I want them to think I’m a good, dependable guy. I fear losing people’s love if I speak truthfully about what I do or don’t want to do. At least I did. I have learned with friends and loved ones, just as with clients, to say no on issues that really matter. When my gut rebels. This comes, unfortunately, after saying yes twice to marriages that I knew in my heart were not right. I guess there is a learning curve, in both life and work, in developing respect for your intuition and not feeling selfish or guilty about saying no.

The movie Yes Man, from what I gather (I will not see it – Jim Carrey gives me the heebie jeebies, and has ever since his days on In Living Color), trumpets the value of saying yes to everything, especially new opportunities. I can see the appeal in that, as I have probably turned down events or missed meeting great new people because fear or apathy or something else led me to decline. But “no” has its place, too. In trying to construct a meaningful life, we sometimes have to set limits on what we let others take from us, expect from us. I probably should have said no more times in my life, thus avoiding many embarrassing predicaments. But I don’t regret the dumb yeses or nos. Every decision good or bad, I hope, has helped me grow. Yet there’s nothing like one smart no – giving up that crazy mate, turning down that job that just doesn’t feel right – to make that next big decision even easier to make.


~ by mburgan on January 5, 2009.

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