The rejection challenge
What our writer learned from trying to just say ‘no’
“It’s so dark in here. Do you want the lights turned on in here?”
“No!” I bark. I like the natural light that filters into the office, the shift in ambience as clouds block the sun from the skylights.
And then my colleague Mozes Zarate, the voice behind the question, switches the lights on anyway.
He has no idea what he’s gotten himself into. Not a clue.
It’s 11:30 a.m. on Monday, Aug. 12. My mission: Spend a week saying “no” to as many things as possible—especially the things I don’t want to do.
This experiment is loosely inspired by the 2015 Shonda Rhimes book Year of Yes (or the 2008 movie Yes Man starring Jim Carrey, if that’s more your speed), in which people either choose, or are compelled, to say “yes” to things that scare them or don’t want to do—and it makes their lives a lot better.
My clever twist is saying “no” instead of “yes.”
The concept got mixed reviews from some of my go-to collaborators. My brother Ryan was particularly against it.
“That’s a terrible idea,” he said, mentioning a friend who also tried saying “no” to every opportunity and ended up turning down a lucrative job offer.
It’s contrary to the whole point of life, Ryan said—embracing the opportunities that come your way.
Well, that made me think about why I was doing it. In principle, I am in favor of saying “yes” to opportunities, but there are also times when you should say “no.”
I’m guilty of taking on too many tasks—especially at work—and being too eager to please. It has led to some fun opportunities—recording some radio spots, writing some interesting stories—but I might save some sanity by saying “no” more often.
So my working philosophy was to be more aware of what I was agreeing to do, and to have my “no’s” on the tip of my tongue. I would craft my own little world based on my whims, refusing to back down and apologizing for nothing.
No, I don’t want to fold the laundry
I walked out the door Monday morning and hopped on my bicycle to head to work, “no” on my mind.
Not one person asked me for a favor I could bluntly refuse during my bike ride along the American River, but I still made a few “no”-inspired choices. I said “no” to my usual route and added a mile to my ride by taking the Guy West pedestrian bridge.
I also backtracked twice to take a couple of photos of wildlife—one of a quail perched atop a dead tree, and one of some sheep near Cal Expo, next to an empty beer can suspended in midair on a branch. It was a good, calming experience.
I arrived at the office, sweaty as always, but feeling like I had more free will than usual, like a light had come on.
The next day, my partner Emily returned from the laundromat. She had texted me 10 minutes earlier, asking if I could help slog them home in the heat. Somehow I missed that text, and she arrived lugging two large bags full of clothing.
Whoops. I felt bad, but I also made a commitment to this saying “no” thing. Did I really want to help fold the laundry? Not really, but my mess-up compelled me to do my share. I mentioned to her (for the first time) that I’m doing a “week of ’no,’” and I asked her: Hypothetically, what would she say if I told her that I really shouldn’t be folding laundry?
Well, needless to say, after she’d done the laundry and schlepped to the laundromat and back, that kind of remark didn’t land particularly well. A sort of quiet fell and we were a little at odds for a few minutes. I quietly folded laundry and inexplicably sang Smash Mouth’s “All-Star” in my head, upset at myself about how dumb of an argument this was.
Later that night, out of the blue, my friend Adam invited me to his birthday party, camping in the low Sierras. Was I interested? I replied: “I think so! That sounds like a lot of fun!”
It hit me a few minutes later: I really am terrible at saying “no.” I sent him another message: “Don’t tell anyone I said, ’Yes!’”
Phew. At least no one will find out I screwed up again.
No, I don’t want to see a mime troupe
Waiting around for things to happen that I can say “no” to is boring. It’s a lot like my everyday life, but with more checking my phone expectantly. After a while, I forgot I was supposed to be saying “no.” My friend Daniel called me on my phone—he rarely texts—and invited me to watch the San Francisco Mime Troupe in Southside Park with his family.
Without thinking, I said “yes,” because I like seeing him and his family, but I also have a big reason to say “no” to this: I really dislike most live theater. It’s so boring, and I hate the feeling of having to sit still for so long.
Still, I’m not too keen on reneging, and I’ve canceled way too many plans with Daniel at the last minute. So Emily and I showed up to the tail end of the performance.
What’s the point of this exercise if I’m not saying “no” to things I’m on the fence about? At least I’m making myself more aware about how easily I agree to do things these days.
Like my dad always says, you can only cancel on someone so many times before they get the message and you stop getting invited to places. I guess that’s more ingrained in me than I thought.
Back in the office, I sat in the artificial light Mozes foisted upon me. I sat there thinking for a minute. He walked out of the room, and I walked over and flicked the switch, turning the lights off again.
Time passed, the lights still off. Mozes returned to his desk and wasn’t commenting on the darkness, and I was starting to feel guilty. His desk is away from skylights, so he was typing away in a dim corner of the room. I was seriously considering asking if he wanted the lights back on, apologizing for placing him in the crossfire of this thought experiment. But the lights automatically switch on before I can mention it.
Apparently I’m bad at saying “no.” That’s what the week taught me—and that those petty “no’s” I’ve been swallowing should stay that way. Also, automatic lights take a little bit of tension out of the workplace.