Column #12 Motherland magazine

In a life of constant demands, when to say ‘yes’ and when to say ‘no’? CDH on making choices that feed our goals

I’ve been thinking about when to say yes to things, and when to say no. It’s so simple to write. Harder in real life. But, I realise, only harder if I haven’t consciously made a decision about my core ‘yes’. Once I know that, it’s easier to say no.

In this way: I used to feel that I had to say yes to nearly everything. That if I didn’t do everything, I might miss out. I think I missed out on a lot because I did everything. Maybe taking every opportunity is a state of mind when emerging into adulthood. But well-worn paths in my brain are easy to slip into, even now that I’ve been an adult for quite some time. A wise friend said if I knew my ‘yes’, the ‘no’ would be easier. To do things differently, I had to think about what my ‘yes’ is. It makes sense: if I have a clear sense of what I want, I won’t need to do things that don’t align with it.

This may sound ruthless, but it isn’t. Rather than shutting things down, it’s just a case of not opening them up. It’s seeing the big picture, and acknowledging that the fine details of everyday make that picture exist.

I’m not going through all the doors that open in my sphere now, because I see that it isn’t always necessary. It’s partly to do with security – finding a security in the yes means not worrying about the no. Saying no can actually be a real relief. This fits for work, family, friends, everything. Even on demands that I might ordinarily make of myself. And I don’t have to feel bad about it, because I’ve decided the space that I’ve chosen to cultivate. It’s about honing my space, and being able to really dig in to choice aspects of every area of life. This kind of thinking feels different to before, when the nets were wide and attention was scattered.

The fear would be that this thinking bricks up doors of opportunity, or cuts people off. Unfounded. It’s much more like the land metaphor again. Realising that sometimes I’m the only one putting energies into watering a relationship (with a person or a project or an idea) that has little return. Stopping that. Making a manageable area fruitful, so it becomes really fruitful.

To my surprise, life like this isn’t pedestrian. In fact, it can be much scarier. Putting all my energy into certain things will really tell a tale. And the doors I say yes to? It seems to me that they are much more risky to go through. They really matter. What’s more, I’ve discovered that the paths leading from those doors are not at all well marked. This is unlike the other doors I’ve run through just because they were open. While there was nothing inherently wrong with them, their paths were often circular, leading me straight back out to where I’d come from – and with a little less energy than before.

No, these doors are different. Often, when I open them, delighted to find they aren’t locked, I find they lead right out into the sky. There’s no discernable path through the blue and cloud. And then, really looking, I see a hint of a rope-bridge, with just enough visibility ahead for one step. The way ahead is not clear at all, but I know (and hope) it’s in the right direction.

This isn’t a treatise on throwing planning to the wind – quite the opposite. It’s a description of how planning looks different than I thought it should. Now I’m thinking that planning isn’t about knowing the twists and turns of my path ahead. It’s knowing what is of central importance, and doing what develops and benefits that core. (While bearing in mind that sometimes the situations that develop and benefit don’t have the most attractive doors in the world).

On the surface, it’s a mental shift. Deep down, this risky stepping forward becomes much more fulfilling than my previous plan: covering all bases for surety, and having no sense of surety at all.

Motherland magazine

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