Writing Wednesdays

Writing Wednesdays

On Becoming More of a Pr#@k

By Steven Pressfield | Published: August 24, 2011

What we’re really talking about is learning how to say no. (Thanks to Fabian Pallares who suggested this topic in a Comment two weeks ago after our post, An Ask Too Far.)

Ming

The all-time champ: Ming the Merciless

When Gates of Fire was first optioned by Universal Studios in 1998, the director Michael Mann was attached. I sent him hand-written congratulations and a signed first edition. I never heard a peep. I thought, “What a prick!”

The same thing happened with Robert Redford on The Legend of Bagger Vance. Again I thought, “What a prick!”

But I gotta tell you, the more I’ve thought about it over the years, the more I see both Mann and Redford’s point of view.

They have to protect their time. Their assistants have to keep “asks” and potential “asks” at bay.  Surely both directors thought, if in fact they ever got my packages, “Uh-oh, this writer’s going to be a major pain in the ass; the last thing I need on the set is some hyper-possessive literary type peering over my shoulder saying, ‘I would’ve shot that scene differently.'”

(Whether a movie director should meet with the writer of a book he’s adapting is a whole other question. Don’t get me started on that one.)

The bottom line on saying no to “asks” is this: if it’s okay to ask (and it is), then it’s okay to blow off an ask. We’re not being pricks; we’re protecting our time.

The smartest take I’ve heard on this issue comes from Ken Glickman, in his CD “Time Management” (which I highly recommend from Joe Polish’s Genius Network—which I also highly recommend.)

The key point that Ken makes is that when we say yes to one person or activity, we’re simultaneously—whether we realize it or not—saying no to another person or activity.

The example Ken gives is if he says yes to a business associate who wants to meet on Tuesday afternoon, he’s saying no to his eight-year-daughter who has a soccer game at that time and really wants her Dad to be there to watch her play.

Is Ken being a prick for choosing his daughter over his business associate?

Let’s take the principle a step further. What if it’s ourselves we’re protecting? Is that “selfish?” What if we’re defending our time to work? Or our hour at the gym?  What if we just need a nap? What if we’re protecting our time to stare out the window and do nothing at all?

That hour counts too. You and I have every right to keep it sacred.

What makes it difficult to say no to many asks is that they come from good people inquiring in a good cause. Many asks are motivated by respect and appreciation. It’s an honor to receive such asks. You and I want to respond with respect and to honor the correspondent in return. Hopefully most of the time we can.

And many asks are opportunities as well. For friendship, for profit, for fun. The question, again, is priority. As Dan Glickman says, “If you say yes to X, you’re simultaneously saying no to Y.” (I can’t tell you how many invitations to play golf I’ve turned down, so I could stay home and write.) That’s my priority.

The elephant in the room is, of course, Resistance. Resistance loves “asks”—particularly legitimate, tempting or well-intentioned ones. Because when we say yes to our friend who wants us to do that benefit program, we’re saying no to a day’s work.

Am I a prick if I say no?

Which brings us to the elephant inside the elephant. The real question is: Do I care?

My problem, personally, is I do. I consider this a character flaw. I’m crazy to care. I like myself much better when I draw the line and say no. I hate myself for saying yes to something I don’t want to do, purely because I don’t want to be thought of as a bad guy. No one else is tyrannizing me. I’m tyrannizing myself by allowing myself to be manipulated by my own overconcern for the good opinion of others.

I’ve gotta work on that.

I gotta become more of a prick.

Posted in Writing Wednesdays

38 Responses to “On Becoming More of a Pr#@k”

  1. Thick
    August 24, 2011 at 1:18 am

    This new use of “ask” is hideous and irritating.

    • Tricia
      August 24, 2011 at 9:16 am

      I agree — it turns possible genuine human interaction into calculated transactions. Is that what we’ve become?

      I find it is always in our reactions to such interactions that we discover what our true motives are (ie., degree to which we are attached to the outcome, or not). That is the real question, it seems to me.

      • lee
        August 24, 2011 at 3:42 pm

        Don’t be such a “prick” -we “think” that we live in a world where sucesful people are too busy but in reality you became succesful in part because you were accessible and willing to listen–and/or because someone was willing to listen to your “ask”-(God I hate that word–almost as much as I hate the word “pimp” when used instead of “promote”). The 2 “stars” were indeed pricks–you were not just any nut job off the street–you were the writer of the book they were using–may have made for a better movie if they had listened–and you will be a better person every time you do.

        • Julie
          August 28, 2011 at 3:14 pm

          I absolutely agree with you, Lee.

          Not responding to a personalized gift from a legitimate source *and business contact) is NOT “saying no” – in fact, there was no response at all from these “stars” – and it shows a total lack of class, and a lack of respect for you, Steve – and you, as the writer of the book, absolutley deserve respect (if not honor).

          At the very least, an acknowledgement of the gift is the minimum (and if they don’t have time to respond personally, someone from their staff should still respond and thank you on that person’s behalf).

          A person of true character is never too busy or too “important” to show respect, or to see that common courtesy is shown to those who reach out to them.

          I trust you will always remain a person of true character, Steve.

  2. August 24, 2011 at 1:37 am

    I think this is such a thin line really. And in things like writing back the author of the book you are adapting vs. missing your kids soccer game is two different things.

    I agree with your original sentiment when you wrote to the directors of the movies: being annoyed that they didn’t write back. It would not have taken the any time to toss the letter to their assistant and say, “write him back and say thanks.” (And of course the assistant would toss it off to the assistants assistant and so on until the intern did it.) But you would have gotten it, felt happy, and life goes on. But to blow you off, well that just smacks of ego. They are too good to acknowledge the creator of the material?!

    We can’t block all new things and people out of our lives because we have pre-planned our whole day. Sometimes just acknowledging someone can have a huge impact on their life, or yours. You do need to be open to new experiences, and gifts life gives you.

    Of course, the trick is to not get overwhelmed. To know when to say no to a major time suck like a co-workers vs. your kid. That’s really prioritizing your time.

    You may not remember but I wrote an e-mail to you several months ago (or maybe a year ago), and had a question about resistance. You wrote me back and answered them. I was gobsmacked because honestly, I didn’t expect it. That night I told my husband what you had said to my questions and we had a long, thoughtful talk about resistance and being creative and all that. All because you took a few minutes to write a short e-mail.

    So please don’t become a prick! Just become a guy who prioritizes his time better! 😉

    • August 24, 2011 at 5:07 am

      Nice post, and great thoughts here, Becky. While it’s nice to be asked, what makes me wary is saying yes to good causes that end up being things we resent, because they aren’t exactly what we want to be doing with our time.

      But thinking of this as “prioritizing” makes this not feel so prick-like, as you say so well, Becky. When we’re able to explain our priorities and the reasons behind saying no, people respect them and it doesn’t seem like we’re a prick. But saying nothing at all? That leaves people no other option!

  3. skip
    August 24, 2011 at 3:48 am

    may you never see the day when no one asks you anything!

  4. Tina
    August 24, 2011 at 3:57 am

    What it boils down is a matter of priorities and then doing what is right — running your life and not let life run you!

    You know life would be all the more sweet if some of those P people in Hollywood would come to their senses and take some of your exciting stories and make them into movies! It is a bit silly to see what they do make into movies…which makes them not just P’s but stupid P’s

  5. August 24, 2011 at 4:38 am

    I like. I like it a lot. Your overall point, I mean, about learning to say no and become more of a prick when dealing with those so-called “asks.” I’ve been learning the wisdom of this myself in recent years and months.

    Of course, that still doesn’t change the fact that it would have been nice to hear that Redford and Mann did respond to your friendly overtures.

  6. Marie
    August 24, 2011 at 4:50 am

    I’m with Becky on this. Saying “no” is fine, as is not answering every e-mail you receive. But saying nothing is different. The Directors should have acknowledged you – both as a matter of common courtesy and good business (never burn bridges …). These days it is quite simple to set up you e-mail with an automated response expressing gratitude for the interest and explaining your inability to respond to every one you receive. Complaining about the “asks” from fans is a bit like celebrities who cultivate and thrive on media attention complaining about the media’s intrusion into their private lives. And while I would enjoy your books even if you were a prick, I think I enjoy them more because you are not.

    • Gray Hat
      August 24, 2011 at 9:47 am

      Exactly. To say “No” may disappoint, but it gives no grounds for offense. To not respond at all, however, is disrespectful. Especially since in the incidents Mr. Pressfield recalls, he was not (overtly) asking for anything!

  7. August 24, 2011 at 5:01 am

    I love your thoughts/advice here and I needed this post.

    However, never forget that all of your non-prick acts contributed to getting you where you are today.

    Of course, there’s nothing wrong with sitting back after all of your accomplishments and treating your time much more sacred than you used to.

  8. August 24, 2011 at 5:23 am

    Since when did our society became so sensitive? When I ask for something (and I do) I know that the answer will either be “no” or “yes” and MOST of the time it’s not personal.

    It’s a state of mind, just like you mentioned, the directors didn’t acknowledge your gift because they either didn’t want to deal with you, didn’t have time, didn’t get it or they were being pricks.

    It’s up to you to decide which one (because you’ll never find out). As my uncle always told me “getting insulted is a choice”!

    By the way, I met many people in the entertainment industry, while there are many words I can describe them, the word “nice” is usually not on the list.

    • September 13, 2011 at 6:37 am

      “Getting insulted is a choice” has got to be one of the best quotes I’ve heard this year. It’s dead on. We all actually do control how we deal with things like feedback, “asks”, advice, etc. We can take everything personally and get “insulted” or we can just make a conscious decision to carry on with our lives and work. I think a great deal of what this comes down to is expectations and motive. If you send a director an autographed copy of the book you wrote that they’re adapting and EXPECT a nice little note back thanking you, then you are setting yourself up for disappointment. In a lot of twelve step programs they advise you to “have no expectations,” I believe this is very sound advice for any instance when you are dealing with other people and not just addicts and alcoholics. Do something because you were motivated to out of kindness, enthusiasm, whatever and carry no expectations about what that act may bring to your life.

  9. August 24, 2011 at 6:07 am

    “when we say yes to one person or activity, we’re simultaneously—whether we realize it or not—saying no to another person or activity.”

    That pretty much sums up how I find myself in pickles quite often. Thanks for the posts. they’re helpin’ me become more of a “no” person.

    Also, I want eighty signed copies of Gates of Fire by Monday.

    • Marie
      August 24, 2011 at 3:53 pm

      I’m willing to bet that if you buy 80 copies, Steve will sign them!

  10. August 24, 2011 at 6:38 am

    It’s tough, and I tend to take it personally, too. I had a similar realization as a start-up executive. I hated the idea of firing anyone, even if they were clearly not up to their job, but then one day I realized something – by keeping a bad employee, every other person on the team suffered. By saying “yes” to them, I was saying “no” to not just 1 other person, but 10. That wasn’t fair, and I wasn’t avoiding hurting that 1 person – I was avoiding being the “bad guy”.

  11. August 24, 2011 at 7:17 am

    A couple of years ago, I read a book on decision-making. It really helped me overcome indecisiveness. Now I realize that, when I make a decision about anything, I am rejecting every other decision. If I decide to write, I’m deciding not to exercise, sleep, or hang out with my friends.

    So whether it’s someone asking you, or it’s just your own personal decision, you’ve got to be okay with rejecting 99% of your options in life. If you don’t, Resistance will step in and take over, because a decision to do nothing is still a decision.

  12. Tina
    August 24, 2011 at 7:57 am

    The greatest philosopher of the 20th Century?

    Nancy Reagan…”Just say no”

  13. August 24, 2011 at 8:16 am

    Just say no. Being a people-pleaser is a miserable way to live.

  14. Randy Stuart
    August 24, 2011 at 9:05 am

    There is a strange pull to say yes to every freelance project that shows up (I do graphic design). The gut reaction is to say “I better take this because another job may never show up” so I don’t risk offending the freelance gods or karma or some other nonsense.

    But what I’ve learned is, the more often I say Yes to what I REALLY want to do, and No to what I don’t, projects continue to flow in, and better ones at that.

    The Muse respects the diligent disciple.

  15. Walt
    August 24, 2011 at 11:22 am

    Hard to beat this:

    “It is easier to deal with a footpad than it is with the leech who wants “just a few minutes of your time, please–this won’t take long.” Time is your total capital, and the minutes of your life are painfully few. If you allow yourself to fall into the vice of agreeing to such requests, they quickly snowball to the point where these parasites will use up 100 percent of your time–and squawk for more! So learn to say No–and to be rude about it when necessary. Otherwise you will not have time to carry out your duty, or to do your own work, and certainly no time for love and happiness. The termites will nibble away your life and leave none of it for you. (This rule does not mean that you must not do a favor for a friend, or even a stranger. But let the choice be yours. Don’t do it because it is “expected” of you.)” – Robert Heinlein

    • August 25, 2011 at 3:04 pm

      Ah, Walt, that’s a great one. I’d never seen it before, thanks. “Footpads,” yeah … they’re a piece of cake.

  16. Scott Mitchell
    August 24, 2011 at 12:35 pm

    Well. . . that may be the new interface paradigm, or whatever. All I know is that a few years ago, when reading Steven Pressfield’s “Last of the Amazons” — which is one of the most lyrical and haunting historical fiction books you could ever read — I was so enthralled with one scene in particular that I sent Steven an e-mail just telling him so. It is where the Amazons on horseback are fleeing a grassland fire whipped by the wind behind them. It is written in such a way that you can feel the heat, and smell the crackling fire and the horses’ sweat, as the conflagration overtakes the riders. Well, a few days letter, I get a short e-mail from Steven responding to the comment. I didn’t try to extend that dialogue out of respect for a professional writer’s time, but his response was appreciated. Such small acts of grace–when taken in proportionality and balance– affirm that not everything can be measured in time-efficiency units. Reading that passage in “Amazons” could not be measured in time efficiency units.

  17. August 24, 2011 at 12:54 pm

    A Time to Talk

    When a friend calls to me from the road
    And slows his horse to a meaning walk,
    I don’t stand still and look around
    On all the hills I haven’t hoed,
    And shout from where I am, ‘What is it?’
    No, not as there is a time talk.
    I thrust my hoe in the mellow ground,
    Blade-end up and five feet tall,
    And plod: I go up to the stone wall
    For a friendly visit.

    Robert Frost

  18. August 24, 2011 at 2:27 pm

    Everything else being equal – those who care the most win. I don’t think you should beat yourself up for caring. It is not a character flaw – it is just being human.

  19. Sonja
    August 24, 2011 at 3:12 pm

    The thing I got out of this is that it’s OK to say no to protect your time, AND then not feel like a prick about it. In my opinion, the directors who didn’t respond were not trying to be pricks, they just simply might have been too busy, and as professionals figured people would get that. It’s never personal, I’ve learned. And it’s hard, but it’s important to let those things roll off of you since it’s such Resistance, in its insidious disguise, to keep you distracted from your work.

    I loved this post, Steven. And totally got what you were trying to say.

  20. August 24, 2011 at 3:14 pm

    I’ve read the Aladin Factor by Jack Canfield and MVH. I think it is always good to ask. On the other end, the person being asked has the right to say “no.”

    Good post Steven.

    yours,
    Danny.

  21. August 24, 2011 at 3:27 pm

    This is glorious–one of my favorites in this series to date. I have a hard time saying no to some people/activities because I don’t want to be a selfish prick, but when someone says no to me I never consider them to be one. Just the opposite–I usually have more respect for them and figure they’re dialed in to what they want. Good for them.

    And I agree with Man of la Book’s “getting insulted is a choice,” so why is it so hard to say “No” and let the asker choose if I’m a prick or honoring what is sacred to me? I need to give the asker more credit in handling a “No.”

    But it would help if they all read this post first.

  22. August 24, 2011 at 3:43 pm

    Sorry Steve,
    I love ya, and here comes the BUT, when professionalism or productivity trumps manners, well, maybe I’m now enlightened as to why I’m an unprofessional amateur.
    That was just an attempt at ‘cute. Truth is, any man or woman worth their salt does both. Come on a flippin email or I.M. from Redford would’ve taken less than 10 seconds for the guy who created the freaking story. I’ve always been a big fan of Redfords. I’ll give him the benefit of doubt. After all I wasn’t there. I just reject the whole too busy for courtesy thing. Life’s short, we all die soon enough. Nothing is more important than good manners.
    ****************************************************
    Learn young about hard work and manners – and you’ll be through the whole dirty mess and nicely dead again before you know it. ~F. Scott Fitzgerald

  23. August 24, 2011 at 6:28 pm

    Yup, and sometimes I gotta be a b***h, but I always smile or type a smiley face. You just have to say no, or, “This isn’t what I do,” or “You’re taking advantage.” Or my favorite – hit unfriend.

  24. August 24, 2011 at 8:26 pm

    Dear Stephen,

    What complex terrain. One thing I did not see mentioned is the fact that you and I and Robert Redford and Mr. Mann are also doing things that are a sheer waste of time or utter folly. We don’t just visit our kids soccer game or write Hamlet all the time. Example…one night Mr. Mann got drunk for a whole evening, and instead he could have written a letter to you thanking you for your book/gift/art…Whether one is a P or not is largely one of attitude. Years ago I remember wanting to interview the religion editor of the new york times. I managed to get a hold of him and, breathlessly and apolegetically, he said that he had no time, that I sounded like a well-meaning guy, but he was so under the gun that he couldn’t even say a proper well-paced No. Nice guy, no time.

    Around that same period, I also wanted to interview a famous family therapist whose work i had jsut devoured. When I got him on the phone, the arrogance and superiority in his voice dripped through every word. He sounded like he had time, but I was beneath him. It’s all about attitude.

    There’s a great saying by Jesus–let your yes be yes, and your no be no–but he also said “the first will be last and the last will be first” which I take to mean that we are all important. I wonder if you were Ernest Hemingway would Mr. Mann and Mr. Redford invited you for a drink, not just a note.

    Thanks for The War of Art. I’ll buy you a drink anytime.

    Bob Beverley

  25. August 25, 2011 at 7:41 am

    Love the post, Steve, but I can’t say that a signed copy of the book represents an ask, or even should be assumed to represent a potential ask. Nor would a simple acknowledgement of receipt be an invitation to an ask. I mean, if they really wanted to discourage that, they could have the executive assistant write the acknowledgement/thanks, which would very clearly indicate both the director’s desire to keep you at arms length and who your future point of contact should be if you prove too pen-pal-ie.

    That said, I can’t help but poke the hornets nest and ask for a post on your opinions regarding whether the director should meet with the author of a book he’s bringing to the big screen : )

  26. August 25, 2011 at 11:12 am

    Maybe Resistance whispered you the name of this life project to make you fail, Steve.

    I sense you do need to learn to say NO more often and/or to certain people. However, I think someone like YOU will have a hard time succeeding at this, if you call it “Becoming More of a Pr#@”.

    It’s great for the title of a blog post, though. 😉

  27. Stacy
    August 29, 2011 at 4:54 am

    A few people have pointed out that those directors could “pass off” the books and notes to their assistants with a direction to respond, but I think it’s more likely those directors never even saw the things Stephen sent. I doubt they made it past the layers of assistants each of those directors have. Whoever received those things probably didn’t even make the connection that they were related to the projects their bosses were working on. That sort of thing happens all the time, especially in Hollywood.

  28. Jason
    August 29, 2011 at 4:34 pm

    I agree with you on the willingness to say no when it’s warranted. I believe saying no at the appropriate time is part of maturing; when you’ve been around long enough to see the big picture and the implications of each action.

    I don’t agree with the lack of response from Redford or Mann. What they did lacked class. You aren’t a pain in the ass writer and your work is important. They should show you the same respect you’ve given them. They can rationalize their behavior and people in Hollywood usually do, but they should be held to the same standard as the rest of us.

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