A few months ago, the Junior League asked if I would speak at one of their monthly membership meetings. The topic was, “The art of saying no.” So, of course I replied with a resounding, “Yes!” I did sense the irony in that exchange. I wasn't sure what I was going to say, or what life lessons I would be able to impart, but I knew I had to put away my Jewish guilt and put on my best Nancy Reagan impersonation if I was going to teach these women to just say no.
In preparation for this speech I started to reflect on my personal experiences over the past few decades. What pearls of wisdom had I to share? What nuggets of advice had I to offer? In others words, how could these young people learn from my old mistakes? I needed to convey that an effective leader knows how and when to say no. Yes is easy. No takes discipline. And when you say no more often it allows for the possibility of saying yes to things that really matter. Like saying no to the hamburger bun so you can say yes to the tater tots.
When I am asked to help or volunteer my time, my natural impulse is to say yes. I partially blame my Southern upbringing for that. We Southerners are often too polite for our own good, and feel obligated to please others even at our own peril or discomfort. We don’t always say what we mean or mean what we say for fear of offending someone. And we would never want to offend someone. At least not in public.
My Southern compulsion for courtesy is often exacerbated by my deep-seated Jewish guilt. Those of you who are Southern-raised Catholics can feel my pain. This means I not only feel obligated to say yes, but I also feel extreme remorse when I turn someone down. In order to help combat these two forces of nature, I have started using the “Let me think about it and get back to you” stall tactic. That way no matter what my response is, the other person knows that I gave it thoughtful consideration. It also gives me time to consult with my non-Jewish or non-practicing Catholic friends who live north of the Mason-Dixon Line for added support. (Sorry, no offense.)
The reality is, I have never been very good at conveying a meaningful no. Just ask Oprah. There was a time in the early 1990’s when I was living in Chicago and dreamed of working for Oprah Winfrey. After sending my resume to a P.O. Box in response to a writer position posted on the Northwestern job board, I nearly got that chance. The P.O. Box ended up being HARPO Productions in disguise, and a few weeks later they called me to come in for an interview. I couldn’t believe it. It was everything I had imagined and more. They even had free Starbucks coffee in the employee lounge. After three weeks of consecutive interviews, I knew the fourth one would be the real test – a writing exercise. The job I was applying for was to respond to all of the requests that Oprah had to deny. And there were thousands of them. I was basically applying to be Oprah’s “Dear Jane” gal.
They put me in an office for an hour with a computer, a stack of letters, and the following instructions, “You need to write responses to all of these people as if you are Oprah and tell them she can’t help them. Be direct, but be nice.” As I started perusing the letters my heart sank. What I thought would be a pile of crazy fan requests was instead a mound of desperate cries for help and last ditch efforts to solicit support. An orphanage in South Africa that needed funds to stay open. A woman whose family had lost their home and all of their worldly possessions in a house fire. A nun who was caring for the homeless. Channeling a sympathetic Oprah, I typed over and over again how sorry I was that I couldn’t offer assistance and how inspired I was by their acts of generosity, courage, and resilience. But I wasn’t inspired at all. This had to be the worst job in the world, and one that I was ready and willing to sell my soul for. I could not say no to this opportunity. But apparently they had no problem saying no to me. I did not get the job.
Even though I never officially worked for Oprah, I did learn two valuable lessons from her that year. First, in order for a yes to mean something, you have to be willing say no more often. And second, Starbucks coffee is really not that great. Sorry, no offense.