July 14, 2021 • Work-Life Balance

The Power of No

Maybe success isn’t about saying “yes”

Photo by Daniel Herron on Unsplash

This summer, I am saying “no.” No to interviews. No to podcast requests. No to freelance assignments that seem amazing and the ones that don’t but would be for prestigious publications. I’m saying “no” to zoom readings and informational coffee where people want to pick my brain. I’m saying “no” to everything.

For so long, I’ve said “yes.” I’ve been ruthless in my pursuit of my goals and dreams. And I’ve eagerly grabbed anything that came my way. As a working writer, I’ve felt like it was necessary to take everything I could get, even the low-paying jobs, because everything felt like an opportunity. 

We live in a culture of fear. People have fear of missing out. Fear of lost opportunities. But after over a year of sitting at home, I’ve learned that what I’m missing is my own time.

In 2017, I sold two books to two different publishers. I got very small advances for both books. Not enough combined to live on for six months, much less the years it would take to write them. On paper, it looked like a success, but I was struggling and broke. I’d said “yes” to my dream, two of them at once, but I had to juggle the work of writing a book with my other work — ghostwriting op-eds, writing marketing copy, freelance journalism, and editing a literary magazine.

It all reached a crisis point when I sat down to write the second book. I didn’t know if I could do it. I emailed the editor and panicked. Maybe I could buy my way out of the contract? She and I discussed changing the book’s focus and structure. She extended my deadlines. And I wrote between the hours of 9 pm and 2 am. I’d put my kids to bed, make coffee, sit down and write.

I don’t know how I did it. I am so proud of the work I did. I love my books. But by the time my second book came out in August of 2020, I was burnt out and I had nothing left to give.

I don’t think it has to be this way. I don’t think work has to break us. I don’t think we should say “yes” to things just for the whisper of a chance of an opportunity in a world so willing to exploit us. I think of all the blog posts I wrote at all my different jobs. All the frantic pitching and midnight writing just to earn $100 for an 800-word reported piece. Maybe, I wouldn’t be here if I hadn’t said “yes” so many times. Life has seasons. “Yes” works for a time. But only for a time. And “no” works for a time, and maybe one day it will stop working.  But for now, it’s what I need.

When I went to sell my third book, my agent, a different agent this time, was strategic about the approach, about the price point, and about my ability to write it. Watching her advocate for me and ruthlessly say “no” on my behalf with no explanation, no justification, just “no” and “no thank you”, that has been a lesson in boundaries and limits and knowing my worth. 

There is power in “no.” There is power in holding back and there is power in silence and reflection. I sometimes wonder if “no” in our capitalist society is an earned word. Can I say “no” now because I’ve achieved some small measure of success? But I don’t feel that way. I still have anxiety that if I don’t write one viral take a week, I’ll fade into obscurity. But I also know what that hustle is like, and I don’t want it anymore.

I want to read books and read the writing of other people. I want to marinate in my own work and my own words. I want to draw lines around my time and thoughts and feelings. I want to take my kids to the pool and take long walks with my dog while I listen to audiobooks. I want to sit by the fire with my friends. I want to log off the internet and go to sleep. I don’t want to publicly air everything just for a small measure of promised success.

So for now, the answer is “no.”