Last week I attempted to have a week off, and again completely failed, until a late-night asthma attack almost put me in hospital. After which point, I determinedly stayed in bed for the next three days.
This required me to say ‘No’ to people, including people to whom I had previously said ‘Yes’. Some of those people were hoping I would bring them a food parcel, others wanted me to design a flyer, others wanted a meeting, others just wanted me to run errands.
I had to really make an effort in order to say ‘No’. None of the requests were unreasonable, taken individually, none of them were arduous. But collectively they amounted to a continuation of work, and if you’ve ever been self-employed you’ll know that taking time off is actually really hard.
To launch a business requires a huge amount of continuous effort over weeks and months, and an almost permanent state of mental focus.
That’s what seems to be needed in order to get anything new off the ground. The flip side is that continuous effort cannot be indefinitely sustained, and nor should it be. But it becomes so ingrained it becomes more than habit, it becomes character, a fundamental aspect of self.
The result is that taking time off feels, quite literally, wrong. It feels like doing something bad, something you shouldn’t do. You feel guilty for taking time off.
So people work, hard, and continuously, until their body or mind malfunctions and crashes them out of service. If you’re lucky, it’s half a week in bed in recovery mode. If you’ve really been overdoing it, it’s a heart attack, a stroke, or a mental breakdown that’ll change your life forever.
The power of saying ‘No’. Even whilst writing this, on Friday, someone phoned me from a call station in town, they have no mobile credit, and need a food parcel.
They wanted me to come today. I said ‘No’. The weekend then? No. It’ll be Tuesday. Someone goes without. That’s the price of it. And the feelings of guilt try to edge in, he needs a food parcel… ‘No’.
There’s power in the word. It closes a door, and sometimes that’s exactly what’s needed. It’s unambiguous. Not maybe, not probably, not yes but then not doing it. It’s a fact. No.
And it’s feeling good. Feels like having control over a situation, over my life. People ask for help. Mostly I say ‘Yes’. Sometimes I say ‘No’. That’s good.
Simone Biles did something amazing in gymnastics last week. She said ‘No’. That extraordinary act changed the unwritten rules of the game, of sport, of competition itself. The aim isn’t to win at all costs. The aim isn’t to do or die. The aim isn’t to sacrifice yourself.
The aim is to play the game, and to trust yourself, and know that it’s not life or death, not the end of the world, and when you know it’s time to stop, to stop.
That took incredible courage, and also, extraordinary self-awareness, to even know it was time to say ‘No’. But she has, from what I understand, been through circumstances where she learned this hard.
Saying ‘No’ is one of the most under-spoken topics in business. In businesses it’s all about ‘getting to yes’ and ‘pushing through’ and ‘punching today in the face’. It’s all about ‘winners never quit’ and ‘being the best’.
I think any gymnast will tell you it’s also about balance. If you’re going to punch today in the face, you might want to book tomorrow off for a day in bed. After all, today might punch you back, even if you don’t feel it until later. Saying ‘No’ can even change the world. Ask Rosa Parks about that one. Respect.
Bird Lovegod is an independent fintech consultant
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