Discover more from Adventures In "Journalism" by Sari Botton
How to Say "No."
I really should have this down by now.
Recently a friend and colleague invited me to join her and some other women writers in tracking the times we’ve had the courage to decline requests—for free or poorly paid labor; for assignments that either weren’t quite right for us, or for which we lacked the time or bandwidth; for anything we just didn’t feel like doing.
It’s been an eye-opening and validating exercise to engage in this among other women in my field—to know that I’m hardly the only one who struggles with articulating the world’s shortest sentence, “No,” and to support one another each time we manage to do it, defying our worst conditioning. Yet despite my participation in this informal quasi-support group, not to mention my advanced age, a couple of weeks ago I made a serious rookie error:
An editor from a publication I respect came to me with an assignment for a reported long-form article, due in three weeks, and instead of thanking her but declining because I’m currently too busy, I hastily said an enthusiastic, “Yes!” Once I dug in and realized I was in over my head, I panicked and asked for an extension, which she kindly granted me. Then, after interviewing five subjects and three experts, I realized: 1) I was still way too busy for the amount of work required, 2) that it was more work than the pay warranted, and 3) that there was no original angle in the piece as it was assigned, and that it would be incredibly inefficient for me to try and unearth a compelling angle through my reporting, then do more reporting to support that angle.
Finally I bowed out, as graciously as I could, which is better than over-working as I am wont to do, but hardly optimal. I could have just said no from the get-go—the correct answer to that particular yes-no question—and not risked permanently damaging my relationship with an editor.
So, what tripped me up? Why did I say “yes” when even at the exact moment I received the offer, I knew the correct answer was “no”? Even though I recently spent the better part of six months in mononucleosis jail for overloading myself and running myself down? There are many answers to this question:
Because freelance life is precarious—more so in this godforsaken pandemic than ever before—and many freelancers are afraid that if they pass up work it will never be offered to them again…
Because I have wanted to shift my editing/writing balance back in the direction of writing…
Because I haven’t felt like a “journalist” in a while, and I’ve missed it a bit, and I was flattered to be treated as someone still in the game…
Because it’s really fucking hard to break old patterns…
Because I’m an incorrigible people-pleasing Libra…?…
Because, regardless of astrological sign, I’m one of those women who generally defaults to “yes” instead of “no,” and it’s a problem, in every quadrant of my life.
Not all women are this way. I know because I have long been fascinated by those who, unlike me, default to “no.” I’m acquainted with several of them, and admire them immensely. (I’m frankly also terrified of them.) I study them closely. The women who default to “no” hold all the power. In starting with “no,” sometimes even in the face of a perfectly good offer, they are saying, “Try harder. Make a better offer and I’ll see if I’m interested. I have plenty of other offers to consider.” By contrast, the subtext of every knee-jerk “yes” I issue is, “THANK YOU SO MUCH FOR ASKING ME…I AM NOT WORTHY!”
No matter how much attention I pay to the women who default to “no,” I struggle to emulate them. I want to believe I can break my habit of defaulting to “yes,” but I regret to inform you that before this recent debacle, I made an almost identical error about four months ago, with a different editor.
Hope springs eternal, nonetheless. The “no” club I recently joined is helping me pay attention to this tendency. It’s also already helped me say “no” to less consequential requests, like that old saw: “Hey, you don’t know me, but can I have an hour of your time to PICK YOUR BRAIN (← god, I hate that term) and try to glean everything about your field that it’s taken you decades to figure out on your own?” I’m not going to lie; before I turn down those requests, I waste a few precious moments considering when I might find the time to comply and have my overworked, over-extended brain picked over for free. But the gap between thinking “yes” then saying “no” has been steadily decreasing.
I doubt I’ll ever become one of those women who defaults to “no.” I’d probably have to have all my DNA swapped out to make that happen. But maybe with enough practice, over time, I’ll learn to think things through before desperately grabbing hold of assignments and other offers that don’t make sense for me.