Friday, 9 September 2011

zen habits: The Four Things I Wish I Could Say No To

zen habits: The Four Things I Wish I Could Say No To

The Four Things I Wish I Could Say No To

Posted: 09 Sep 2011 08:30 AM PDT

Editor’s note: This is a guest post from Michael Bungay Stanier of Box of Crayons.

You'll know Michelangelo's comment about how he worked, so let me paraphrase:

"I just carve away anything that doesn't look like a lion, and I'm left with a lion."

In that statement is the fundamental choice at the heart of Great Work: focus on the No to become clear on the Yes; define the Yes by clarifying the No.

I think it's the essence of doing more Great Work; or at least it seems to be the critical lesson I keep needing to learn. (You do know we teach what we most need to learn, don't you?)

Here are four elusive pairs I'd like to do a better job at saying No and Yes to, and the four experiments I’m going to start to see if I can move in the right direction.

1. Saying No to Control … so I can say Yes to Freedom

My very first boss was creative, prolific and a touch insane. I remember one of my early Career Limiting Moves when, in front of the whole company, I clicked into mouth-operating-before-brain mode and joked he needed to have a finger in every pie.

I have become that very same person.

Pies? I’ve got pies everywhere I look, way too many pies. Or perhaps it’s not enough fingers.

But in any case, we – and by that I mean I – have reached a point where it can't go on. If I haven't dropped a ball yet, it's only a matter of time. And hamster-in-wheel is not a job description worth much.

I’m inspired by Chris Brogan whose philosophy, as I understand it, is to start something, hand it over and then get the hell out of the way.

Here's the shift in thinking that might make the difference for me. Realizing I am not Box of Crayons but that I only serve Box of Crayons.

And I’m going to test that by staring one thing, something I’d normally hold on to, hand it over, move aside and see if it will be the end of the world (which has been my theory to date).

How about you? Where has staying in control become your own mind-forged manacle?

2. Saying No to Popularity … so I can say Yes to Friendship

I'm not super obsessed with numbers, and in fact am pretty lousy at metrics. (I mainly go with "Is this the right mix of Great Work and Good Work?" "Am I having fun?" "Are we in the poor house?" I hope for Yes Yes No as the answers.)

But the rise of new technology means that one way of spending time is hanging out in the social media mirrored rooms waving at many (Woo hoo! 14,000 people on Twitter!) but never really holding hands, looking into the eyes and having a real conversation with a few.

I notice that this week, Gwen Bell is leaving Twitter and moving to Google+, because she feels it’s a place where she can create intimacy, community and digital sanctuary. And Scott Stratten, one of the Twitterati, has said his greatest mistake was to follow back blindly.

My shift in thinking is to recognize it as a width vs depth thing, and see if I can find the hunger for the depth. I think it’s there somewhere.

I'm going to start taking the Call a Friend option once a day to connect to people I love.


3. Saying No to Money … so I can say Yes to Impact

For the last eighteen months I’ve been walking a fine line, working on the business that I love and that pays my bills, and working on my Great Work Project, a new book whose sale raises money for an important cause.

It has been a constant struggle to give this Great Work the appropriate time and space to come together, and that’s primarily because of the seductive comfort of Good Work.

Great Work, because it’s work that truly matters to me, makes me fret, gives me sweaty palms, and invites all sorts of doubt and self-sabotage.

Good Work on the other hand is the relatively simple task of rolling up my sleeves and getting things done, having some fun and making some money along the way.

And yet, Great Work – unsafe and uncertain as it so often is – is where I hang out on the edges of my own competence and ambition, learning what's possible for me and for the world. Great Work is also where I can most easily invite other extraordinary people in to help me create the meaning and impact I’m hungry for in my life.

The shift in thinking is to remember (and remember and remember) that Great Work projects take time and need time, and your calendar never lies about what really is most important to you.

And the experiment for now is to look again at “the bottom 10%” of what I do, to see if I might say No to that in some way, to say Yes to Great Work.

What is it for you? Where might you trade money (or time) for meaning?

4. Saying No to Plans … so I can say Yes to Now

Truth is, I'm unlikely to ever say No to plans. I love them – which is one reason at least that I hang out with Charlie Gilkey, who’s a master at them.

I've got plans for the week, the month, the quarter, the year. When in doubt, I pull out a piece of paper and start sketching out a plan (which, it must be said, often looks exactly like the plan I'd done two weeks earlier and then "filed" somewhere safe and forgotten about.)

But it's time to plan a little less. Leo has been talking about No Goals for a while, and (following in his footsteps as I so often do) I am becoming aware that the price I pay for planning is that I spend more time in the future and less time in the here and now.

For instance, the last few months I’ve been deep in the planning of today’s book launch. The price I’ve paid is that summer has slipped by largely unnoticed. I haven’t stopped enough to feel the heat of the sun on my shoulders, to hear the ice clink in my drink on the deck, to give myself up to the swing of the hammock.

And as I write this now, the first of intimations of Fall are here and I know I’ve missed a season that I won’t have back.

The shift in thinking is to realize that planning comes at a cost. A price I'm willing to pay, but perhaps to pay less these days.

My action is to not fill up the final months of the year, but to try to wander a little in the white space that’s there.

Got any non plans?

Yes is too easy

But a strong Yes is hard, and say a strong Yes to the things that really matter is harder still.

So rather than starting with the Yes, start with the No.

Get to the heart of the choice you want to make, then design your own experiments to see what might be possible.


Michael’s Great Work Project is End Malaria a collection of essays on Great Work from 62 brilliant people and where $20 from every book sold goes to Malaria No More.

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