Saying Yes is Overrated—This is Why No is Actually the Best (Even if You Have FOMO)

On Saturday evening, Dan and I were browsing at a used bookstore. It smelled like old books and burnt coffee. Fluorescent lighting cast an unnaturally bright glow on the jam-packed shelves. Not counting the woman who wouldn’t stop talking loudly on her cell phone (and who wouldn’t even pause her conversation to pay for her purchase), it was heavenly.

I picked up Year of Yes by Shonda Rhimes, skimmed through the first couple of chapters, and set it back down. (I ended up buying a copy of Middlesex.) Nothing against Ms. Rhimes. She’s prolific and brilliant and I loved Grey’s Anatomy for many seasons (although I never could get over how not-lifeless the ICU patients appeared or the fact that the doctors had time to play cards and schmooze with their patients). But I don’t need any inspiration to say yes. Yes is my jam.

It’s No that terrifies me.

Between Twitter, my Facebook groups and the approximately eleventy million email newsletters I subscribe to, writing opportunities come at me with alarming frequency. For years I felt like every call for pitches and each request for submissions was a potentially perfect opportunity that was mine to take advantage of… or to squander. I approached this firehose of opportunities like an ill-prepared Supermarket Sweep contestant, sprinting through every aisle, frantically throwing all the things in their cart with no strategy. It was draining and it wasn’t very productive. Most of the time, I felt like I was spinning my wheels.

But I was terrified to narrow my focus.  I’ve always struggled with FOMO. I remember being in my 20’s, having a glorious time with my friends during long, leisurely Sunday brunches. Over coffee, strata, french toast, and scones, we talked about everything. It was heaven, except for the fact that my bladder was always full to the point of bursting. I could not bear to hit the ladies room, because that would force me to miss part of the conversation.

FOMO is annoying when you’re talking about brunch, but when it’s interfering with your work, it can be toxic.

Being intentional about the topics I wanted to write about would, by definition, mean saying no to everything that didn’t fit in my niche. And that made me feel claustrophobic, like I’d be intentionally walking into a tiny, windowless room with no emergency exit,  locking the door behind me, and throwing away the key.

What if my focus was too narrow? What if the perfect opportunity passed me by because it was just an inch outside my niche? What if I didn’t like it? What if I wasn’t good at it?

On the one hand, I wanted to stay comfortable; my situation wasn’t great, but it was what I knew. Stepping into the unknown was scary. On the other hand, fear and opportunity tend to hang out together.

While I hate fear for the same reasons everyone hates it—it’s scary, it’s uncomfortable, and it has an annoying way of forcing me to confront my insecurities—I also kind of love it.  I’ve found that if you can allow yourself to feel uncomfortable and go toward what you’re fearing instead of retreating, there’s something amazing on the other side.

Fear is the price of growth.

With that in mind and (full disclosure) with clear instructions from my coach, I allowed myself to say no to most of the opportunities that were jamming up my feeds and my inbox. I said no with conviction. I said no without second-guessing it. I scrolled past opportunity after opportunity without guilt or anxiety. But that wasn’t even the best part.

The best part was, saying no it made it easy to say yes to the right opportunities. It also gave me the breathing room to create the kind of opportunities I wanted. Now,  Instead of trying to jump on everything that feels like it could be a “yes” a “probably” or a “definitely maybe” I know exactly what’s in my wheelhouse and what isn’t. It is liberating.

Here are some of the stories I’m proud to have published lately. None of them would have seen the light of day if I hadn’t been willing to say no.

This Grandmother Learned to Swim in Her 50’s. Now, at 73, She’s a Returning Ironman Champion (The Washington Post)

Trina Peterson is Riding 140 Miles to Save the Planet (5280)

After Nike and Asics, a Track Star Found a Family-Friendly Sponsor. Here’s Why it Matters (The Washington Post)

This 70-Year-Old Has Completed 350 Triathlons in 30 Years (Triathlete)

My Daughter’s First Triathlon Tested Her Body—And My Heart (The Washington Post)

 

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