Writing Wednesdays

Writing Wednesdays

Saying No

By Steven Pressfield | Published: February 1, 2012

Ask me what I envy most about people who have lots of money. My answer: “I’m jealous that they have secretaries to say no for them.”

Mailer

Norman Mailer. The author of "The Naked and the Dead" and "The Executioner's Song" had a few more in him.

Saying no is hard for me. Always has been. It’s hard for a lot of people. Maybe we want to be thought of as nice guys. Maybe we remember people turning us down when we asked them for help, and we don’t want to be that kind of person when other people ask us. Maybe we truly have empathy for the plight of whoever is asking us for something. Maybe we really do want to help. We don’t want to turn a deserving individual away.

But you can’t be a pro if you can’t say no.

(I’ve addressed this issue before in a post, “On Becoming More of a Pr@#k,” and another called “An Ask Too Far.”)

Bottom line for me: we can do it nicely, but we have to learn to say no.

As artists and entrepreneurs, what capital do we possess? Time. That’s all we’ve got.

We have to protect that time.

I’ll tell you the truth. When some people call me and ask me to lunch, in my heart I’d like to murder them. To drag me out from noon to two is to steal my day. I know the person asking doesn’t realize this. I know there’s no way I can explain it without sounding like a total sonofabitch. But that’s the truth. I’m working! I’ve got stuff to do. I can’t sit around shooting the shit over margaritas. Forget about it.

You and I live in a different universe from most people. We’re like pregnant women. Our interior planets rotate around a singular sun, and that sun is our work—the project or projects that we are giving birth to. That work takes precedence over everything except kids’ soccer games and all-out emergencies.

Sometimes even our spouses don’t understand this.

Are we crazy? You’ve read the same articles I have in the Sunday supplements that say on your deathbed you never regret the days you didn’t go in to the office. Bullshit. That’s not my world. I do regret those days. Norman Mailer toward the end of his life was asked if he had any regrets. The interviewer expected, I imagine, an answer like, “I wish I’d spent more time with my kids.” Instead Mailer said, “I have three or four more books in my head; I wish I had written them.”

Was he crazy? No. He’s just like you and me. He had babies inside him and he wanted to give birth.

So I’ll make you a deal. If you ask me to lunch and I respectfully decline, please don’t take it personally. I won’t be offended if you do the same to me. I understand. You’re working. You’re crazy. You’re just like me.

Posted in Writing Wednesdays

28 Responses to “Saying No”

  1. Todd Henry
    February 1, 2012 at 5:12 am

    Fantastic post. I especially love the line about regretting the days when you don’t go in to work. YES! We should embrace everything with that kind of tenaciousness, including (and especially) our work.

  2. Todd Henry
    February 1, 2012 at 5:14 am

    Oops – tenacity, not tenaciousness.

  3. February 1, 2012 at 5:54 am

    Awesome! Love it. Reminded me a lot of this older Paul Graham essay:

    http://www.paulgraham.com/makersschedule.html

    If you’re a “Maker,” the “managers” in life will never understand that a 15 minute or 1-hour interruption is NEVER just about the 15 minutes or single hour removed from your schedule — it’s about the invitation to Resistance that that interruption represents PLUS the time lost for the event PLUS the time spent getting back into a working mindset after the interruption.

    Also loved the bit about Norman Mailer and giving the lie to cliche about not regretting going into the office enough.

    Thanks, Steve!

  4. February 1, 2012 at 6:33 am
  5. February 1, 2012 at 8:53 am

    “You can’t be a pro if you can’t say no.”

    Perfect.

    I think of it in Hulk terms: “Don’t make me skip work. You wouldn’t like me when I skip work.”

    Of course, no one can make me skip–it’s up to me. But when I give in to Resistance and don’t work, I have failed. I haven’t earned my keep that day, and I’m a surly Hulk. It’s best for everybody if I get my writing in, because I also look terrible in purple cutoffs.

  6. February 1, 2012 at 11:20 am

    knowing when to say no seems to be the key…

    Mtn Jim

  7. February 1, 2012 at 11:35 am

    You nailed it again. thanks!

  8. February 1, 2012 at 11:36 am

    I think that being a pro also means being mature; sometimes doing things you don’t want to do sometimes because it’s part of your job.

    Obviously the key part of the equation is when does socializing and networking become Resistance. Probably a different answer there for everyone.

  9. February 1, 2012 at 11:41 am

    Yeah, one of the things I learned from Seth is when you ask, make it easy to say “no” but make them want to say “yes” if they can.

    We’ll never do lunch, ’cause I don’t, either.

    Drinks, late at night? That, I do.

  10. Fritzie
    February 1, 2012 at 11:43 am

    A huge point for me in this post is that there are for many of us specific times in our day that we simply cannot afford to divert from our work except for an emergency. For many of us, all time is not created equal.

  11. February 1, 2012 at 12:27 pm

    Saying no is the ability to discern between assistance and resistance I suppose! Good read, thanks. Derek

  12. February 1, 2012 at 12:57 pm

    I know it will take me three years to finish writing and illustrating my current book, plus write and illustrate the book I have planned, that is, if I give it my all. It really does seem like a race against time.

  13. February 1, 2012 at 2:34 pm

    Duly noted… Only ask Stephen Pressfield to dinner, and never on a weekday.

    Got it.

    ~AS~

  14. February 1, 2012 at 2:48 pm

    The single most important concept in my art business is the phrase “regrettably unable to attend”. We always use some previously booked event as an excuse, as one doesn’t want to look like a prima donna.

    A terrific bonus with this approach is the positioning…the harder it is to get to you, the more they want you, and funnily enough, price resistance disappears by the time they do get to you.

    It’s tougher with your non-professional relationships, however. The Colonel (my wife) tuned me in on this by asking “Would they take the day off from their jobs just to hang out with you?” Still, we use the previously booked excuse, or sometimes the looming deadline to cushion the blow.

    Early in my career I used a faux ‘personal assistant’ who had his own email account and who handled unpleasant tasks. It was me the whole time, but a staff member could say things about me that I couldn’t! :)

    • February 6, 2012 at 4:30 pm

      Thanks, Owen. I’m gonna steal that.

  15. February 1, 2012 at 3:12 pm

    I can’t imagine days not writing. Not necessarily at my desk in front of a keyboard, but often.

  16. Jasvir samrai
    February 1, 2012 at 7:07 pm

    Dear Mr Pressfield
    You are right we do have to say no to those events or tasks that take us away from our true passion and vision. I once saw an interview with the secretary of the Dali Lama on a PBS show. The lamas’ secretary reported how his highness related to people. Once a block was once sensed and his holiness realized he was being taken away from his vision and mission he simply moved on. No excuse, no reason, just a simple respect for one’s life.
    Also inregards of pleasing people churchill said it well, if you come to the end of your life without making any enemies, well In his opinion you didn’t live much of a life. You can’t please everyone.
    With repect
    Jasvir Samrai

    Javir Samrai

  17. February 2, 2012 at 4:14 am

    Would you like lunch…!?

  18. February 2, 2012 at 4:30 am

    Thank you.

    You have said what I have tried to communicate to the people in my life for….well, a lifetime.

  19. February 2, 2012 at 8:13 am

    10a-2p is sacred. I won’t leave my office during that time, and it’s then, and ten again in the evening (9p-midnight) that I get most of what I get done, done.

    Paul Graham convinced me of this with his post on the “maker’s schedule”

    http://www.paulgraham.com/makersschedule.html

    • February 6, 2012 at 4:36 pm

      Wow, Chris, that was a great article. I have never thought of it that way: the difference between the “maker’s schedule,” i.e. artists, writers, etc. and the “manager’s schedule.” That helps me a lot. Thanks!

  20. February 2, 2012 at 8:21 am

    Love this, Steve. Especially the part about time being our only capital. How often do we as artists forsake this valuable resource, because we’re timid or scared or just don’t want to hurt someone’s feelings? Thanks for sharing this thought. Going to let it ruminate.

  21. February 2, 2012 at 2:33 pm

    Saying “no” creates boundaries, saying “yes” expands them, having the wisdom to know when to say yes/no …. priceless.

    – Contrarian

  22. February 4, 2012 at 2:07 pm

    Whoa!
    I am so glad I too can join the club of crazy ones. I totally ‘see’ you Steve with your ‘don’t disturb’ policy.
    Shipping our art is what we are here for, right?
    I am grateful for all lunches you declined…
    cheers and energy is flying your way from Slovakia,
    i.

  23. February 5, 2012 at 8:16 am

    Wow!

    No wonder I’ve been struggling with saying No. I will put this into practice with all the voicemails and emails I get and also figure out how to route people to other ways of accessing my work!

    Thanks.

  24. February 6, 2012 at 6:07 am

    My family calls it obsession.

  25. February 7, 2012 at 4:22 pm

    Writing Wednesdays: Saying No – just great!

  26. March 19, 2012 at 7:29 pm

    Say “yes” in the thing you can’t do or never do is a kind of challenge in our life,