Saying “No” might be our greatest creative act—but the art is in how we say it.
Over the last few months, as I’ve come into new levels of creative power and understanding from within, I’ve had to get cozy with a word I previously considered my least favorite to utter:
In fact, I’d wager that I say “no” more than I say “yes” these days. I’m not everyone’s favorite Right Hand Girl anymore . . . but I’m a lot more honest. A lot more sane. And a lot more productive on projects I believe have been entrusted to me.
I used to dread saying “no.” As a consequence, I found myself roped into things that, while noble and good, drained my time and resources away from where I knew deep inside they needed to be. Sometimes I even projected my frustration onto the other person: “If they just hadn’t asked me to [insert task], I’d have more time for art and writing.”
I thought they were the problem for needing me so desperately.
In reality, I was the one who had created the problem.
I couldn’t muster up courage to share my honest answer and, in the process, protect the work that I’d been called to do.
This cycle of “Yes-No” continued for a very long time. Precious hours and days passed away, all while my stack of creative projects—work I felt deeply called to—sat untouched, dusty. I was ever resolved to start afresh “next week,” unencumbered by demands on my time.
“Next week” devolved into a fantasy.
I things had to change, but they couldn’t—wouldn’t, really—until I had accepted three basic, life-saving ideas behind the word “no.” Once I understood these, I was able to speak the word “no” in a gracious way and get going on the work I most needed to tackle.
Idea #1: My work does matter.
One day, after failing to say “no” yet again to an opportunity that had come along, only to find myself wallowing in self-loathing hours later, I realized that that by saying “yes” I had devalued my own creative calling. My “yes” to yet another event was essentially saying, “My work doesn’t matter enough to protect the time I need to do it.”
By continually putting everyone else’s project ahead of the ones I had been called to, I deflected my true responsibilities. In a sense, I was running away from Resistance, as Stephen Pressfield calls it, every time I approached my most sacred tasks. Volunteerism was an excuse to procrastinate on the work that scares me most: mine.
Idea #2: Success is individual.
After realizing that I de-valued my own work by giving all my time away to others’, I realized a second fallacy I had fallen for, especially in those heated moments when a “yes” was desired by a person across the table. I had assumed that the weight of the world hung on my answer.
Somehow, in my head, I had imagined that the fate of my colleague’s or friend’s project rested on me. Perhaps they even believed (or insinuated) that it did! But by trying to “save” them, I had actually allowed their true source of success (themselves) to be lost.
Now, when I’m faced with a pleading pair of eyes and an urgent entreaty to accept, I step back and assess what’s really happening inside me. If I can’t help, I try to share a resource for someone who might be the perfect partner for the ask.
Idea #3: Truth is the kindest choice.
Based on the two ideas above, I came to a new conclusion. If my heart’s answer to a request is “no,” then the kindest, most noble thing I can do is to say it with as much grace as possible.
How many times have performed the duty I promised to, but not with real joy or gladness? How much bad energy and tension entered relationships because I felt “put upon” when my response had been taken, as it should have been, at face value?
I’ll never know the answers to these questions, but I know now that my answer to the questions of others truly matters. It has long-term consequences for both parties. Truth, no matter how hard to utter, is always kinder than falsehood.
All this does not mean, of course, that I might not be called to be part of someone else’s sacred work at various points. I can and have been part of wonderful group partnerships for artistry, mission and a host of other callings. But now I undertake them as part of, not a distraction from, my own work.
I’ve also come to realize that the way we say “no” is part and parcel of how the answer is received. “No” can be harsh, judgmental or scornful. It can sear the other person’s heart like a carelessly swung iron fresh from the forge.
We tend to think of “No” always in this light. Even whispering it feels strange, almost cruel.
But No can be wielded in other ways, too. It can be said with a “thank you, but …” and a “here’s why” that let the other person know you greatly value what they’ve asked you to do. And that your refusal is not out of mere selfishness or disinterest.
Above all, when we begin saying “no” purposefully, we liberate our creative souls to fully enter work we have been called to.
I’ve noticed lately that the more often I’ve said “no,” the more present, joyful and useful I am when I do say, “Yes.” And the more creative I become, as my days, hours and minutes are freed from emotional clutter and bad energy to create from a space of true inner direction and calm.
Which is why I’d submit that “No” is the most creative word in the English language.
Because it’s the word that most often unfetters our true joy and playfulness. It’s a word that sets boundaries around our time, so our souls can fly. It’s a word that protects our vision from dissonant outside voices.
“No” is a beautiful word, if properly used.
Embrace its power.