One of the downsides of being a creative person is you’ll often have more ideas than time to execute them. When I talked to my friend Chris Durston the other day, this came up. He also had a stack of ideas and ventures he wanted to pursue. We’re both still quite baby authors with not a lot of experience and so much enthusiasm and excitement. How do you pick what to work on and when to say no?
I want to highlight this first since a lot of people, not just creatives, have a problem with saying ‘no’ to a request. I used to be a people pleaser and did everything in my power to make the people around me happy. Until I got sick. One of the doctors told me I had to do more for myself and less for other people. And that meant learning to say ‘no’. I rarely said no until then, but for my health, I had to.
It’s not a skill (yes, it’s a skill) you can master easily. While the act of saying ‘no’ is not that impressive, it’s the mental process where it gets difficult. You have to make a decision, and in my case as prime people pleasure, I don’t want to disappoint the other person. So saying ‘no’ made me feel guilty. And guilt is not an emotion we like to feel. We want to avoid it as much as possible, and that’s why I always said ‘yes’ to requests.
Only after a few years, I started feeling less guilty about saying ‘no’ and was able to do it more frequently. To make it easier for me, I tried to turn my complete rejection into a ‘no, but’. I helped the other person to find an alternative. Either delegate it to someone else who had more time or better skills, or a piece of information they needed to do it on their own. It would still cost me some time, but much less than it would if I had accepted. And I could live with that.
Ultimately, saying ‘no’ is an act of self-care. You’re looking out for you and not someone else. You might feel guilty while you say it, but in the end, you have more time to do the things that are important to you. The things that make you happy. And there is nothing wrong with that.
When To Say Yes
If we turn it around and make ‘no’ the default answer, we’re looking at our dilemma from a different perspective. The ‘request’ I spoke about earlier can come in many shapes and forms. It might be a friend who needs help. It could be work related, or one of your passions. It might even be a self imposed challenge, like NaNoWriMo. But you can’t say ‘yes’ to everything. You still have limited time and money has to come in as well. Saying ‘yes’ is so much easier, especially when the project proposed sounds incredible. So when do you say yes? When it brings you closer to your mountain.
I believe it was in an interview with Neil Gaiman where I heard it first. He wanted to be a writer since he was young, that was his goal. And he did everything to get closer to that goal. Being a writer was his mountain. He took a job as a journalist because that allowed him to practice writing and well, write. It might not be what he wanted to do eventually, but this job was a step closer to the top of the mountain. Most other jobs would hold him back or even make him step backwards.
And that’s how you should make the decision to say yes. Think about your mountain. Will that request bring you closer to your mountain? If I write a short story for this charity project, will it get me closer to the mountain? For me, at this time in my writing career, yes, it would. I would have another published piece out for people to read, even though I won’t get any money out of it. The charity will, and I’m all for that. It might not be the right thing for me to do later. Not because I don’t like charities, but because my priorities have shifted. I might have other deadlines which are more important. There are so many reasons why you could say ‘no’, all of them valid. So why should the default answer be ‘yes’?
Only by saying ‘no’ more regularly, and saying ‘yes’ to the right opportunities, will you get closer to your mountain. And the path you take will be different from everyone else, as is your mountain. That’s why you shouldn’t look at others and compare your journeys. It’s just too different. Take your journey one step at the time and think carefully about all the opportunities coming your way. Will this bring you closer to your mountain? If yes, then say yes. If not, say no.
Reaching Your Mountain Summit
The mountain you’re imagining is your success. What’s your definition of success? For me, it’s not about literary awards. If I can pay the bills and keep writing books, I’d be more than happy. As an indie, you absolutely can, as long as you work hard and willing to learn. That’s my mountain. For someone else it might be winning a Hugo award. They would have a very different journey than me, probably not even considering the indie author life. Find your mountain, define what success means to you. You can even define different mountains for the different parts in your life. But having a clear goal you can focus on will make it easier for you. Know when to say ‘yes’ and make ‘no’ your default.
For some people, reaching the summit of their mountain might come quicker than anticipated. What do you do then? Find another mountain to climb.