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How often do you say 'yes' when you really wanted to say 'no'?

Today is June 9 and the Navigate the Chaos question to consider is “how often do you say ‘yes’ when you really wanted to say ‘no’?” As you leverage your mind, body, and spirit to translate one dream after another into reality, the one constant you will share with everyone else in the world is time. Everyone has the same amount of 24 hours in a given day. Unfortunately, many people develop bad habits, lack the required self-awareness, or say ‘yes’ when they wanted to say ‘no’ and often experience trouble navigating the chaos.

To help people better understand what they say yes and no to author Jim Collins proposed the following exercise: “Suppose you woke up tomorrow and received two phone calls. The first phone call tells you that you have inherited $20 million, no strings attached. The second tells you that you have an incurable and terminal disease, and you have no more than 10 years to live. What would you do differently, and, in particular, what would you stop doing?”

  • Which of the two phone calls resonates with you more? Why is that?

  • What would you do differently the day after each phone call?

  • What would you stop doing the day after each phone call?

  • If you would stop doing something after either phone call why don’t you wake up tomorrow and stop doing it (assuming you do not get either phone call today!)?

Today’s reflection involves the backstory of someone who did say ‘no’ when he wanted to and in so doing changed the course of his life. Wallace Stevens was a Pulitzer Prize winning poet who had an entire career outside of his writing. The son of a successful lawyer, Stevens graduated Harvard University.

He briefly worked as a journalist in New York City before attending New York Law School and graduating in 1903. After working for several law firms in New York from 1904-1907 the American Bonding Company hired Stevens in 1908. After his brief career in law, Stevens joined the home office of The Hartford Accident and Indemnity Company in 1914.

By 1934, he had been named vice president of the company. It was during this time that he engaged in subtle maneuvers and started to write poetry at nights and on weekends. Stevens published his first book at 44 years of age. Harmonium was published in 1923 in an edition of 1500 copies. The collection comprises 85 poems, ranging in length from just a few lines ("Life Is Motion") to several hundred ("The Comedian as the Letter C").

He would go on to produce additional works throughout the 1920s and into the 1940s. He won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry for his Collected Poems in 1955. After he won the Pulitzer Prize in 1955, he was offered a faculty position at Harvard but declined since it would have required him to give up his vice presidency of The Hartford. He said ‘no’ to Harvard. Imagine that! He said ‘no’ to Harvard because saying ‘yes’ would have been untrue to himself.

By engaging in subtle maneuvers and writing poetry while working in the insurance industry Stevens is often described as one of America's most respected poets. He was a master stylist, employing an extraordinary vocabulary and a rigorous precision in crafting his poems. But he was also a philosopher of aesthetics, vigorously exploring the notion of poetry as the supreme fusion of the creative imagination and objective reality. Noted literary critic Harold Bloom, called Stevens "the best and most representative American poet of our time.”

Best-selling author and Harvard Negotiation Project co-founder William Ury (2016) recalled a breakfast conversation with financial magnate Warren Buffett. Buffett remarked, “I don’t understand all this ‘Yes' stuff. In my line of business, the most important word is ‘No.' I sit there all day and look at investment proposals and say ‘No, No, No, No, No’—until I see exactly what I am looking for. Then I say ‘Yes.’ All I have to do is say ‘Yes’ a few times in my life and I’ve made my fortune.”

Buffet’s decision-making paradigm around ‘no’ offers a simple reminder for today’s reflection. When people ask you to do something, think of the task as an investment proposal Buffet is considering. Would he invest? Should you invest your time? If no, say so and move on. Implementing such an approach, of course, if far easier said then done.

As F. Diane Barth wrote in Psychology Today: “Many of us are afraid of conflict. We do not like others to be angry with us or critical of us. We therefore avoid saying ‘no’ when we are afraid that it will put us into conflict with someone else, whether that someone is an intimate partner, a colleague or friend, or a supervisor or boss. Many of us also try to avoid battles with our children, because we feel that if we say ‘no’ to them, they will stop loving us.”

  • How often do you say ‘yes’ when you really wanted to say ‘no’?

  • How often do you remind yourself you are afraid of conflict?

  • How often are you worried that other will be critical of you?

  • How often do you avoid saying ‘yes’ in order to keep the peace even though you wanted to say ‘no?’

  • How often do you find yourself saying ‘no’ to someone because you are afraid that if you said ‘yes’ they would stop loving you?


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