Writing Wednesdays

Writing Wednesdays

Saying Yes and Saying No

By Steven Pressfield | Published: August 31, 2011

A friend of mine said something to me a couple of years ago that, the more I think about it, the more profound it becomes. Let’s call her Jane. She’s a happily married woman with a couple of almost-grown kids and an all-around fine and healthy life; she was talking about the evening before she married her husband.

thelma

Susan Sarandon said yes to playing Louise

“The night before I married Mark was the worst night of my life. I tossed and turned all night, crying. I was literally sobbing. Because I realized that now I was never going to marry Steve McQueen or Paul Newman. It sounds ridiculous, I know, but the feeling was overwhelmingly sad. But here’s the point:

“When you go through one door—in this case for me, the door of marrying Mark—the act simultaneously closes all other related doors. When you say yes to one life, you say no to all others. As I walked through that door with Mark, it meant I would never walk through it with any other man.”

This truth is so obvious that sometimes we can’t even see it. I know that, when Jane put this into words, it hit me like a two-by-four between the eyes. I had never thought about it like that.

“Of course, the act of walking through that door with Mark made my entire life. It gave me the husband I love, the children I adore; it created the totality of the world that our family shares now and will share forever.”

What’s interesting to me about this dynamic is that, before we say yes and walk through that one door, all the doors standing before us are dreams. When we pick one door and walk through it, what’s on the other side becomes reality. To get to Reality A, we have to give up related Dreams B through Z. That’s hard. That takes guts.

But if we don’t do it, we’re left standing before Dream Doors A through Z and we’ve got no reality.

The movie business is like this. In the old days of the studio system, the so-called creative people—actors, directors, writers, etc.—were all under contract to the various studios. (Either that, or they were unemployed.) They did what the studios told them to. They were assigned to specific films. There was no arguing. The demise of the studio system changed that. Overnight everyone became a free agent.

What this meant in practical terms was that, now, each individual had to find work on his or her own. Each director, actor or writer was looking for that door to walk through, that project that would make them say yes. What they did—and still do—is to keep all options open until the absolute last minute. They said no no no no. Each individual stood before a gallery of doors, waiting for the Magic One that compelled him to walk through it.

To me, this is a form of self-created hell. I’ve been there. Have you? It’s paralysis. In the name of keeping our options open, we exile ourselves to a psychological purgatory.

Have you seen His Way on HBO about the producer Jerry Weintraub? There’s a funny (and excruciatingly true) moment where George Clooney and Brad Pitt in separate interviews are talking about how Jerry Weintraub got each of them to commit to a project by swearing that the other had already signed on. An old trick in Tinseltown. It worked because it made each actor scared that he’d miss the boat if he didn’t say yes right away.

Artists and entrepreneurs today often live their lives like studio heads used to. Each one has a skein of projects “in development.” Each project is a door. Which one will we say yes to? We stall and postpone because we’re terrified of the moment when we have to actually say yes—and thereby say no to all the other doors, which might turn out to be the Golden Ones if we’d only held out a little longer.

We do that with mates and with jobs and with presidential candidates.

I have a theory that people who succeed in life—in relationships as well as art or business or service—are the ones who, for whatever reasons, are more able to say yes and walk through a door. Sometimes, I think, it’s better to be dumb than smart, if smart means you see so many sides to the alternative future that you’re paralyzed to act in the now. Almost every time in my own life that I’ve held off and hesitated, I’ve regretted it.

(I know this discussion of Yes and No is not in a direct line of logic from our previous two posts, An Ask Too Far and On Becoming More of a Prick). What’s the connection? That saying no, while it’s absolutely necessary in instances where our time or integrity are potentially being violated, is not always such a great idea in spheres where multiple competing opportunities stand open before us.

Sometimes yes is the answer. Which brings us back to our ancient nemesis, Resistance. Resistance loves to make us hesitate. Resistance gloats diabolically when we overthink or hang back. As my friend Jane said, walking through that one door made her entire life.

It’s always chilling to hear Hollywood horror stories about actors who’ve turned down parts that went on to make a rival into a superstar. Ronald Reagan, so legend has it, was offered the part of Rick in Casablanca that went to Humphrey Bogart. James Caan turned down the Jack Nicholson role in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. So did Marlon Brando and Gene Hackman. Sigourney Weaver and Angelica Huston both spurned the part that went to Susan Sarandon in Thelma and Louise.

Sometimes the act of saying yes produces, in its mysterious way, the very conditions of success. “L’audace, l’audace, toujours l’audace!” said Georges Danton (or was it Frederick the Great? Or Napoleon?)

Sometimes the answer is, simply, yes.

Posted in Writing Wednesdays

21 Responses to “Saying Yes and Saying No”

  1. August 31, 2011 at 4:32 am

    A great post! The “no” – or hesitation – you talk about is also a manifestation of the “absolute syndrome” – the mistake of all or nothing. (Perfection as resistance, as you so ably discuss.) We live with a mistaken creed: “you can do anything you want, if you set your mind/heart to it.” No, we can’t. I can’t play professional football. Never could. All those open doors and multitude of projects “in development” – most of them are probably a form of resistance. Like Alice in Wonderland, we’re too big or too small to go through this door or that. But I do have a question: if “Resistance loves to make us hesitate,” then isn’t saying “no” to X in order to say yes to Y also a way of overcoming Resistance? In other words, hesitation – resistance – wins when we think all doors are open, or that the few that really are will remain open, “always.”

    Thanks for giving us so much to think about – and the push to say yes.

  2. skip
    August 31, 2011 at 5:21 am

    how about–> he who hesitates is lost.

  3. David Strom
    August 31, 2011 at 6:11 am

    Yes!

  4. Michael Kelberer
    August 31, 2011 at 6:42 am

    And here’s a sort-of flip side: Parker Palmer in “Listen to your life speak” said that he’s found in his life that he’s learned as much from the doors that close behind him as from the ones that open in front of him.

  5. Bill P
    August 31, 2011 at 6:54 am

    Oh if were only that easy. What if Jane’s Mark were Mr Wrong rather than Mr Right. She may have spent years in a soul destroying marriage. I understand that sometimes can happen.

    But I know the problem of not saying “Yes” only too well. For a number of years I have stood before many doors and never walked through any of them. I look through each one and there’s always something wrong with what I see. So it’s not that I don’t have the fear of turning down doors B through Z – it’s that I don’t like the look of any of them. It certainly is an exile of psychological purgatory.

    I’ve seen this described many times as paralysis by analysis, and I’ve got it bad.

  6. August 31, 2011 at 9:02 am

    Thank you for this, and for The War of Art. I have just finished reading it for the 4th time… each time I read it, a new message strikes me. The latest message was about the professional vs. the amateur. I guess what resonates dependson where I am in my artistic journey these days. I always find inspiration from your writing… SPEAKING of which, I could go on and on, but it perhaps may be a wee bit of resistance- I have work to do and lines to learn! Thank you again! 😉

  7. Mike
    August 31, 2011 at 11:13 am

    I am in this current situation right now. I have a great job with a good company with great pay but currently a new opportunity has just opened with better pay but it would be away from family for another year. I am torn between staying home with the family but then again better pay and better opportunities when I return from overseas… so my answer was “YES”

  8. August 31, 2011 at 1:02 pm

    Along the same lines, my coach says the key moment in anything is when we decide to go for it. Truly decide. Which most of us are guilty of not doing. Instead we waffle and ponder and don’t throw ourselves wholly into our paths. That being said, I’m going to go work on the novel I only last week completely decided to write. There is power in saying yes!

  9. Jason
    August 31, 2011 at 1:07 pm

    I’ve never regretted my decisions. I’ve made plenty of bad ones but that’s life. I go with my gut and it’s right a vast majority of the time.

    In the end, everything does work out.

  10. Rich
    August 31, 2011 at 3:16 pm

    Like I used to tell my guys when faced with a decision. “It’s not about making the right decision. It’s about making the decision…right.” In other words, put all of your effort towards making whatever you decide upon the correct decision.

  11. August 31, 2011 at 3:35 pm

    Yes, he who hesitates might be lost or is he looking before he leaps?
    Theory:
    If looking at all those doors, one sees the one that moves him, the choice is easy. Give fear the finger and go for it.
    Ah, but how to know which door is calling you?
    That’s my question.
    Maybe none.
    Maybe I’m deaf.
    Isn’t that what this conversation is about?
    Going with your gut as Jason said makes the most sense to me.
    I suspect there’s a wall between my gut and I.
    Where it came from, I’m not sure.
    How to ‘Tear it down’ (ala pink floyd)not sure of either.
    Is this a condition of the years and fears forming a crust over my intuition? It didn’t seem a problem as a kid.
    Maybe it’s just resistance. Is resistance something we’re taught, by example?
    Am I getting off the subject or is resistance, The Wall, Fear of trying and Gut Insensitivity all basically the same thing?
    “Comfortably Numb”

  12. Kelly
    August 31, 2011 at 5:25 pm

    While a minor point in your article, that’s an interesting tidbit about the Louise role being passed up by Sigourney Weaver and Angelica Houston. For me it’s hard to imagine anyone else in that role other than Susan Sarandon, and Geena Davis as Thelma for that matter. Their instincts to say yes to those roles certainly served them well.

    But while we’re on the topic of Thelma and Louise, the characters, I find it interesting to think: At the very end of the movie, in the very most final scene were they saying YES or were they saying NO?

  13. August 31, 2011 at 9:00 pm

    Is there a back door? Or side doors up ahead? I have walked through doors willingly and worked an area in graphic design and it has not paid off. My struggle becomes, how long to persist, or whether to quit, or at least shelve the venture. I tend to hammer away, but sometimes have to stand back and say, ‘You know, I think I’ve put the roof on the side of the house!” I had better check those closed doors. One or two might be worth opening, worth a second look.

  14. August 31, 2011 at 9:47 pm

    I think people get paralyzed feeling the pressure of closing all those doors, so they fret about their decisions or take forever to make them.

    Luckily, in today’s world we can re-invent ourselves a million times. We can get divorced, start a new business after one fails, begin writing and achieving hidden dreams at any age. It all just takes courage I think.

  15. Walt
    September 1, 2011 at 5:15 am

    Who dares wins.

  16. September 1, 2011 at 11:43 pm

    Hey!

    Yes, it is Georges Danton’s quote.
    Just discovered you and your books, great!
    Cheers from France. Ce que vous écrivez est génial 😉

  17. September 2, 2011 at 9:58 am

    Oh man – this is brilliant! And you’re right – so close we often miss it completely. Thank you, thank you, thank you! I will keep this in my heart all day.

  18. Larry
    September 2, 2011 at 1:05 pm

    Steven,

    A common facet of decision making is the ability of the decision maker to tolerate the mental pain of unknown factors. When training Marines, we constantly pound into their heads that “a decent plan based on imperfect information, executed aggressively and violently, is ten times better than waiting for perfect information and executing too late to have the desired effect”. A bias towards action, coupled with the courage to accept risk, is the hallmark of a good leader and an effective human being. I enjoyed the allegory of doors as alternative courses of action/realities. Great post!

  19. September 6, 2011 at 6:01 am

    The ONE BIG YES requires a lot of little No’s :-)

  20. September 6, 2011 at 9:31 am

    Funny how, even many years later some of those ‘doors’ you pass up show up again. And usually you notice the ‘timing is perfect’ because somehow you are ‘finally open’ for that particular door. I love that smile of recognition and that certainty “Im not missing this one again!”

    Awesome site and thank you for sharing what’s been going on in your mind :-)

  21. September 12, 2011 at 2:47 pm

    Two perspectives on this that arrive at the same conclusion!
    Just posted on Twitter a video of Steve Jobs -Apple-http://tech.fortune.cnn.com/2011/06/17/steve-jobs-video-the-stock-will-take-care-of-itself/?utm_source=twitterfeed&utm_medium=twitter
    regarding the importance of saying no, and how it frees us up to focus on viable options — The opposite side of the same coin! No more paralysis thru analysis!!!