Before we start, let’s get one thing straight. This is not quite Yes Man territory. Plenty of things don’t deserve a ‘yes’ answer. Mushrooms, for one, or checking your work email on a Saturday. (Or, for that matter, all that lime green clothing I was wearing, circa 1995.) Not to mention the fact that saying no can be liberating in itself, when directed at the right (wrong) things.
But in the last twelve months, I have started saying ‘yes’ to a lot more (non-mushroom-based) things. Maybe it started a little bit before that, when I moved to a new city and met a nice group of girls and instead of thinking they were only inviting me out for Chinese food because they felt sorry for me (and I don’t even like Chinese food all that much, and new groups of people are super scary), I said yes. Okay. Let’s go for Chinese food.
During that first outing, I managed to fire a chopstick across the room after battling with a particularly large chunk of soya. Despite my inability to keep my cutlery under control, those girls became my friends. A couple of years later, one of them is my housemate. Another one of them has rocked numerous work projects with me. All of them have made the ups and downs of academic life that little bit more manageable, and quite a lot more fun. A few years ago, I would have probably said no to that first meeting, and maybe there would have been a second invitation, but I would probably have said no to that too, and not only would my social life be much less awesome, but my living situation and work life would probably be completely different too. In saying yes to that first meeting, I ended up saying yes to a lot of things that couldn’t be anticipated at the time, but have turned out to be a big part of my life.
It’s a little bit like that episode of Seinfeld, where George decides to act against all his natural instincts and ends up completely turning his life around for the better. Except I am not saying yes against my natural instincts: often, I’m saying yes where I always wanted to, but where it was always easier to say no. Saying yes was scary, and saying no was safe. The problem comes when the brightest glimmers of opportunity aren’t wrapped up in safety; they’re just that little bit further out of reach, and you might have to stretch beyond your comfort zone to get to them.
I was the champion of saying no when I was growing up. I said no to potential new friendships, not because I didn’t like them, but because I didn’t know them, and with that faulty logic I probably missed out on a lot of fun stuff. I once said no to being interviewed for the local paper after achieving great exam results, because rather than feeling proud I just felt embarrassed. Basically, I said no any time it meant venturing outside of my safe little bubble.
But as I’ve gotten older, I’ve started to see the good that can come of giving yourself a little bit more credit and putting yourself out there. Six months ago I started a new job. Shortly after starting, I was asked if I wanted to take on an additional role within the same department: more hours, more responsibility, and a chance to accrue some valuable experience working with students. I wavered, which on paper might seem ridiculous: here was an opportunity, surely, to not only earn some more money but improve my own future job prospects. Yet all the reasons for saying no crowded into my mind instead. Maybe I was taking on too much. Maybe I just wouldn’t be very good at it. Maybe someone else had already applied, and (of course) by default that would mean that it wasn’t even worth my time putting myself forward.
Instead (after some gentle prodding), I said yes in a rather impulsive email that has since changed the face of my work life quite significantly. It turns out I am pretty good at this job. Other people have asked me to become involved in other projects. The experience has helped me secure more teaching work. My boss has taken an active interest in my career and has contributed a lot of ideas and good advice that are helping me make sense of what I might be doing in the not-so-distant future. All of this, from that one impulsive yes email. What I’ve discovered recently is this: if you don’t say yes, chances are no one’s going to do it for you.
Saying yes can be scary and it doesn’t always pay off; you don’t always get a yes back. But not saying yes at all can be much scarier when you think about all the things you might be missing out on. Not just the things you can see, but all the things you can’t see: the potential friendships and the unexpected career paths and the crazy, delicious adventures that all come from those three little letters.
You can read more from Katie Barnett on her blog.
Feature image via.