The Case For the Enthusiastic No

Jackie Battenfield, Ginko, 2018 48 x 210in.  Laminated Glass MTA Arts & Transit, Avenue P, Brooklyn, New York Permanent installation

I recently received a wedding invitation in which the bride and groom had taken the opportunity to have a little fun with the RSVP card. In addition to being able to reply with the usual “enthusiastically attend” or “regretfully decline,” options to “regretfully attend” and “enthusiastically decline” had also been listed. I checked off the first box, opting to save my bad behavior for the main event.

Weddings are meant to be joyous affairs and most of us give our acceptance to join in the festivities heartily, but attendance comes with a to-do list. Even when money is not a concern, securing time off, booking travel accommodations, choosing an outfit and procuring a gift all present a burden on one’s time. There is an alarming amount of photographic evidence attesting to the fact that I enjoy weddings, perhaps because I only choose to go to ones where I’m invested in the couple’s happiness. When the planning and sorting of minutiae isn’t born from an eager desire to celebrate with the happy couple, it’s easy to see how some might harbor resentment toward a task they themselves took on.

The bride and groom’s cheeky acknowledgment of the sense of obligation that can accompany a trivial choice like whether or not to attend a party feels fitting in an age when even our flaccid consumption of Netflix is an activity worthy of scheduling. We lead increasingly busy lives. An incessant level of output is still romanticized throughout the business world. Though we may understand how detrimental the demands we place upon ourselves are to our well-being, it can be harder to recognize how aggressively saying yes to the things we don’t want to do is a short-sighted plan to professional success which ultimately does us a disservice.

People Pleasers Are Suckers

Resigning yourself to making an appearance at the out-of-state ceremony of a second cousin you haven’t seen in a decade can feel like the easiest way to keep the peace – a weekend traded for a free meal and the hope that your mother’s disapproval will be aimed elsewhere during Thanksgiving dinner. People who concern themselves with pleasing others often feel that taking one for the team is a sign of their generosity and pride themselves on their ability to navigate polite society.

This benevolence is undermined when acknowledgment is craved. Generosity is meant to be selfless, without any intention of receiving something in return. Altruism is negated when it’s coupled with martyrdom and having a gift for pacifying others isn’t the same thing as being cooperative.

The truth is nobody likes a people pleaser. They may like that you are easily manipulated or that they can shift their load to your shoulders, but we don’t respect people who allow us to take advantage of them and we don’t befriend people who we do not view as our equals. Any amicable feelings will dry up the moment you begin thwarting their agenda.

Pleasing others is both presumptuously vain and ineffective. Saying no will disappoint people, especially at first, but you won’t disappoint yourself and you’re the one you have to live with. That couple will find some way to get over not having to spend $100 a plate for you and the girlfriend they’ve never met, perhaps by distracting themselves with the fact that they are getting married. Your mother will inevitably find something else to complain about.

Accommodating Is Enabling  

I first learned the importance of saying no from working in restaurants where catering to what may seem like a benign request can have disastrous potential.

For example, a guest may see eggplant parmesan on a menu and request a side of sauteed eggplant as a substitute for french fries. However, running a restaurant is a tricky business and margins are low. Clearly, there is sliced eggplant that has been battered in egg and covered in breadcrumbs, but there’s no guarantee raw items will be available at the time one chooses to dine.

Should raw eggplant be available, it will probably not be anywhere near the person who will be preparing it. The chefs working on hot dishes perform a delicate dance to ensure food comes out promptly, hot, and in unison. They rarely even take the time to use the bathroom during a dinner rush. Running to get an item from a basement cooler, then preparing it a la minute comes at the sacrifice of all the orders of items that are actually listed on the restaurant’s provided menu.

The adage about the customer always being right presumes that people will be satisfied when they receive everything that they want, when in fact, people are satisfied when their expectations are met. It’s a delicate differentiation.

A restaurant that puts out a thoughtful, noteworthy eggplant parmesan may put out a truly lackluster sauteed eggplant. There is no time to marinate the vegetable, it is being prepared hastily and the diner will end up paying more for it to cover the increased cost of the dish. The cook’s attention is removed from the other dishes he is assembling, the server’s time is spent away from their tables so that they can explain the request to both the kitchen and their manager, who now must take time to modify the bill. Accommodating this request has the potential to worsen the experience for every diner.

Saying yes indiscriminately can translate to real consequences for our businesses and can set a precedent that we may not always be able to meet. Pleasing the customer demands that we do right by them, even when they don’t know what that is for themselves. People utilize a business’s services with the understanding that the business possesses more knowledge in that field than they do. If a design flaw is detected that will slow progress, misappropriate resources or otherwise deliver a subpar product, it’s up to us to use our skills to show people how they can be better served.

Bills, Bills, Bills

The struggle to keep money coming in is a constant concern once one has ditched their employee status and the security of a steady paycheck. This anxiety may become magnified when others are dependent on you for their livelihoods. Nobody wants to be the failed entrepreneur, and dread for that outcome can allow one to justify actions that can end up hurting business in the long run.

Consciously, we know allowing fear to guide our decisions will rarely work out in our favor but that fear can compel us to act illogically. Turning down any money when you’re new or struggling or still trying to position yourself as an authority in your field can feel reckless. Everyone knows entrepreneurs hustle. You can’t just wait around for the perfect job for the right client at the right pay to come to you.

The irony is that taking on jobs that you are capable but dispassionate about often hinders growth. Clients who don’t agree with your vision will end up costing you countless hours of adjustments. Even if they choose to use your services again, their disproportionate consumption of your time will hinder your business’s ability to scale. Projects that are menial and don’t utilize your skillset will never excite, encourage conversation or drive traffic. Poorly paying jobs won’t elicit your best work because it’s hard to want to give your all when you don’t feel appropriately compensated. Worse still, is that cheap clients aren’t loyal. They are attracted to your services based on their low cost and will move on to someone else once rates are increased.

Your mediocre output may pay a bill, but it won’t inspire people to seek you out. If you’re trying to define your place in the market than you need to do work that defines you. When something you create resonates with others, they will naturally want to share it. We’re all victims of overstimulation. Word-of-mouth recommendations cut through the noise.

Trying to be all things to everyone leaves your business without a clear vision. Undervaluing your work broadcasts it as being worthless. Focus on building the trust of those with who your why reverberates and they will be willing to pay you what you are worth.

“People think focus means saying yes to the thing you’ve got to focus on. But that’s not what it means at all. It means saying no to the hundred other good ideas that there are. You have to pick carefully. I’m actually as proud of the things we haven’t done as the things I have done. Innovation is saying no to 1,000 things.” – Steve Jobs

As the line between work and free time continues to blur, it is ever more important to be able to set boundaries that uphold our integrity and serve our physical, mental, and emotional well-being. Accepting any project at any hour for any pay will, at best, only bring short-term success, and is a sure road to burnout. In a world of limitless possibilities, our time is our most valuable resource. When we use it in service of tasks that resonate with us, we free ourselves from resentment and view our obligations as opportunities. Say yes to the things that you can’t be ambivalent about and your time will always feel well spent, even when it’s just being used to binge Netflix and chill.


Artwork © Jackie Battenfield

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