If there’s a soundtrack to our lives, I favor Broadway hits. And one of the songs that I grew up singing was “I’m Just a Girl Who Cain’t Say No” from the musical “Oklahoma!” With its charming twang and its double entrendres, this is a song that seems to summarize the plight of us card-carrying people-pleasers. When we’re invited to volunteer, participate or contribute, our first instinct is to say, “Yes!” And before we know it we’re committed, which is a hop, skip and a jump to being over-committed.
Recently while scrolling through my Twitter feed I read a quote someone posted, the gospel according to Warren Buffett. “The difference between successful people and REALLY successful people…” the tweet fairly sang at me, “is that [the latter] say ‘no’ to almost everything.”
I reeled back in my chair, and had to go back and re-read the quote. At first glance it seemed counter-intuitive. You’d think that one of the richest men in the world would say “yes, yes, YES!” to everything–opportunity, advancement, connections, experience. I had assumed that that kind of wealth is the result of seeing and seizing the moment. I took this quote kind of hard, carrying it with me through the week, trying it on for size and sharing it with others to see what they thought. I typed it up and printed it out in 24-point font and tucked it at the front of my journal as a daily reminder.
Then, as part of my “Biz Books Review” series I host at the Wheaton Public Library, I read Greg McKeown‘s book Essentialism: the Disciplined Pursuit of Less. My friend Joy Meredith had recommended the book to me and sang its praises on her own blog, claiming it changed her life. [Visit Joy’s website to learn more about how her “Me-Mapping” process can help with determining what’s essential.] Between Mr. Buffett’s quote and Mr. McKeown’s book, which provides inspiration and systems for discerning what is absolutely essential, I began to see the light. Less is more, as the famous architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe once said.
Whether it’s clutter in our homes or commitments on our calendars that no longer align with our missions, we need to do a fearless inventory of all that’s consuming our time and, ultimately, our lives. “Tell me,” wrote the poet Mary Oliver, “what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?’ One. Precious. Life. How did it get so filled with flotsam and jetsam, consumed by the superfluous? How did the tyranny of the urgent manage to supercede what’s really important? When did our calendars get hijacked by the “shoulds” of our lives?
This isn’t to say that we should be in selfish pursuit of whatever we want without a thought for others. Service is an important component of any well-lived life. But pulling back, discerning and weighing what the economists call the “opportunity cost” of every invitation and opportunity can keep the path clear for things we say we hold most dear. In his book Essentialism, Mr. McKeown is suggesting that we slow down and weigh those costs before committing. He even provides a handy guide, “The ‘No’ Repertoire,” to help us say no with grace. A few of his recommended responses are:
- The awkward pause
- The soft “no” or the “no but,” as in “I’d love to get together, but I have this deadline…”
- “Let me check my calendar and get back to you” (LOVE this one)
- E-mail auto-reply (sneaky but effective)
- Say it with humor (“Hell, no!” comes to mind)
- “I can’t do it but Ms. XYZ might be interested”
That last one is a kicker. So often we think that the world will stop rotating on its axis if we say no, or that no one else possibly could do it as well. Our egos get involved, we lose sight of our own agendas, and subsequently lose ground. Move over and give the Ms. XYZs a chance to shine.
Bob Mankoff, cartoon editor of The New Yorker, is famous for his cartoon that depicts a business man standing at his desk with the New York skyline in the background. He’s talking on the phone and leafing through his desk calendar. The caption reads: “No, Thursday’s out. How about never–is never good for you?”
I believe it was Anne Lamott who is credited with saying that “‘No’ is a complete sentence.” Whether it’s an emphatic no, “No, thank you” with a smile or a deft deflection and recommending a sub, the word “No” is a powerful option. It creates a space that’s wide enough and deep enough to fulfill our wildest dreams in this one wild and precious life. If saying no is good enough for Warren Buffett, it’s good enough for you and me.
[Photo: Sculpture garden at the Louvre, Paris, 2007.]