It was really in my first job out of grad school when I learned what has become the most important and most difficult lesson for modern life. I think it was in one of my first performance reviews there at 1Sky. The review was positive overall, though my manager, our digital director, identified some instances when I missed deadlines. Fortunately, he diagnosed that not from laziness, but that I was overloading myself.
I had been in the fortunate position of working for an organization I believed in and with people I like to this day. We were also a small staff and I was in a support role. With all that, along with my being early in my career and aiming to please, I wanted to help as much as I could. My manager’s advice was simple: I needed to say “no” more.
I began doing that and have always remembered that advice with every job I’ve had. I’ve also been in a managerial position with a team of young professionals who I tried to pass that lesson along to as well. Of course, that doesn’t mean I’ve mastered the skill in any sense.
Saying “no” is most definitely a skill. I think most of us like to help our co-workers. Especially at smaller organizations and start-ups, we have neither the comfort of institutional permanence nor any kind of excess of professional capacity. And when trying to grow, it can feel like taking on more (as opposed to focusing on “better”) is the right thing to do. That is pretty ripe breeding ground for overcommitment. I can think of a few times in the last six months when I’ve given into the knee-jerk reaction to say “yes.”
I guess my point in writing this is to remind myself of practicing this skill more regularly. Saying “no” isn’t about shirking your responsibilities. Really the opposite, since overcommitting and committing to work without thinking leads to having less time to focus on true priorities.
For my clients, my employers, and myself, I want to do really high quality work. I want to stand behind everything I’ve done with a smile and a thought of how to raise the bar even higher next time. To do that, though, I’ll need to remember to say “no.”