By Matt Gordon
Yesterday I wrote a post about saying “yes.” And we should. Especially to new opportunities to serve and love and experience. We should invite, connect, travel; we should dream, make, and do.
But we should also know ourselves well enough to recognize that there are things to which we need to say “no.”
Heroin is one of these. Honestly, I don’t know much about it, but I do that the program I had in grade school focused on drugs like this and urged students “to just say no.”
The alluring drugs of adult life are much more subtle, and that is because, unlike harmful, costly drugs, they are considered good. Teach this class, serve on this board, attend this meeting, write this post, give to this cause, join this group, and on and on and on. A guy stopped me today to ask why I wasn’t helping with something. Something good. Something I should be doing. Something else. Things call to us constantly that are admirable. Saying yes to them will increase our value, our reputation, maybe even our bank account. But should we?
Well, like just about everything, there is a bundle of nuance that needs to be sorted through and tested. But there is one unique overlap between the need to be more generous with our yes and wisely wield our no. It is this question: How central does this opportunity put me?
For most of us, survival comes first. It is wired within us: seek my own good and avoid all harm. What will this cost my survival? That is why we are so quick to turn down that barbecue invite that is all the way across town or skip the wedding for which we’ll have to go buy a gift and get dressed up. We know our time is extremely limited—at least deep in our core we do—and so we try to avoid anything that lays claim to that precious time. But we also don’t want to appear as selfish as we are so we couch our “no” in selflessness: That won’t work for my family. Or in policy: My job won’t allow that. Or My doctor/spouse/boss/church/HOA/cult leader wouldn’t approve. Saying no in this way allows us to continue life as close as possible to our meager desires without feeling as much guilt. We live cozily uninterrupted.
And we do a similar dance with our limited yeses. We measure the luminosity of the spotlight of the opportunity rather than gauging the opportunity itself. How will this enhance my survival? Will it bring more fame, acclaim, reputational gains? Of course, these questions are cloaked. We don’t come right out and say, “Will being part of X allow my boss to see me and could conjure respect doled out through monetary gain later?” But the truth is, that is the mental math that shapes many of our decisions. We care way more about looking good than doing good. And the audience matters. So we say yes to things we don’t really care about because the thing we care about most: ourselves. And we say no to the rest.
The meta-flaw in this is how we value survival. Survival may be get rich or die trying. It probably is achieving popularity and increasing celebrity. But is that the same as flourishing? Is it stewarding life well? Does it lead to an inner peace and steady joy? Is it, as Thoreau dramatically states it, “sucking the marrow out of life”? I think one way to test the two ideas, survival and flourishing, is simply by thinking of the most joyous person you know. Is that person the richest? The most famous? When we line up the richest people in our purview, are they truly happier than those who lack wealth? Are our celebrities ringing the bell of contentment? I would suggest that wealth and fame impact our being far less than our striving for them would indicate. The behavioral economics of our lives are based on the way we dole out our yes and our no. And most of us base those decisions on massive untruths. Somehow we dupe ourselves into believing our castle made of sand will somehow avoid the unwavering tides of fate. We will be the great outlier. The sea neither laughs nor cries at this shoddy reasoning; unfeeling, it steadily approaches.
What I would prescribe, just as I did some healthful yeses yesterday, are some protective denials to the everyday drug of self. If the only reason you are signing up is because the boss is too, say no. If it is to look good in front of people who matter, even very “good” people, kindly refrain from these spotlight-seeking, people-pleasing tendencies. Because in truth you will be saying a valuable no to yourself, to striving, to living for self through manipulating others. You’ll be saying a no to feeling the recurring guilt of imposter syndrome. You’ll be discarding weighty fool’s gold in pursuit of the real thing.
Saying a no to yourself will allow you to save a yes for another. And it may just allow you to engage in more things that actually grow and benefit you, rather than ones that make you a billboard for optics. Instead of giving the appearance of being a kind-hearted servant, you’ll actually get to be a kind-hearted servant. You won’t be bound to playing a role, but be freed to be an integral part. Living this way keeps you from gazing at all the mirrors to see who is around and witnessing your progress, and permits you to focus out a windshield instead, actually progressing toward a more beautiful destination.
Just say no to drugs. The drugs of performance, of optics, of people-pleasing perfection, of commitment signaling, of crowd control and audience management. Heroin too—say no to that.
Say yes to a different thing altogether—to putting your gifts and talents and desires at the service of another.
Yes and no are tiny little words. Yet they shape our lives—what we do and, hence, who we become . . . who we are. Yesterday I challenged you to say a few yeses this summer that would inconvenience you—ones that would stretch you outside your precious structure. Today, I offer the opposite challenge, and yet the same one—just say no to something where self-serving obligation lurks. It will inconvenience you and stretch you beyond the precious structure of this world. It is a costly no that will close some doors. But it just may free you up to enter boundless better ones.