Why (And How) Creative People Say No
[I never do this—pull a post from another site—but this one is so good (and I am in such passionate agreement with it) that I couldn’t resist.
[Thank you, Tim Ferriss, from whose blog this came, and thank you, Kevin Ashton, for writing it. Kevin is the co-founder of the MIT Auto-ID Center, which created a global standard system for RFID and other sensors. He also created the Internet of Things. Here’s Kevin’s article:]
A Hungarian psychology professor once wrote to famous creators asking them to be interviewed for a book he was writing. One of the most interesting things about his project was how many people said “no.”
Management writer Peter Drucker: “One of the secrets of productivity (in which I believe whereas I do not believe in creativity) is to have a VERY BIG waste paper basket to take care of ALL invitations such as yours–productivity in my experience consists of NOT doing anything that helps the work of other people but to spend all one’s time on the work the Good Lord has fitted one to do, and to do well.”
Secretary to novelist Saul Bellow: “Mr. Bellow informed me that he remains creative in the second half of life, at least in part, because he does not allow himself to be a part of other people’s ‘studies.’”
Photographer Richard Avedon: “Sorry–too little time left.”
Secretary to composer György Ligeti: “He is creative and, because of this, totally overworked. Therefore, the very reason you wish to study his creative process is also the reason why he (unfortunately) does not have time to help you in this study. He would also like to add that he cannot answer your letter personally because he is trying desperately to finish a Violin Concerto which will be premiered in the Fall…”
What I love about this post is it’s exactly the way I feel. My own problem is it’s hard for me to say no. Despite years of therapy I still have the demented idea that I should be a nice guy. This is crazy. It’s a character flaw for anyone who is trying to accomplish something.
The professor contacted 275 creative people. A third of them said “no.” Their reason was lack of time. A third said nothing. We can assume their reason for not even saying “no” was also lack of time and possibly lack of a secretary.
Time is the raw material of creation. Wipe away the magic and myth of creating and all that remains is work: the work of becoming expert through study and practice, the work of finding solutions to problems and problems with those solutions, the work of trial and error, the work of thinking and perfecting, the work of creating. Creating consumes. It is all day, every day. It knows neither weekends nor vacations. It is not when we feel like it. It is habit, compulsion, obsession, vocation. The common thread that links creators is how they spend their time. No matter what you read, no matter what they claim, nearly all creators spend nearly all their time on the work of creation. There are few overnight successes and many up-all-night successes.
Saying “no” has more creative power than ideas, insights and talent combined. No guards time, the thread from which we weave our creations. The math of time is simple: you have less than you think and need more than you know. We are not taught to say “no.” We are taught not to say “no.” “No” is rude. “No” is a rebuff, a rebuttal, a minor act of verbal violence. “No” is for drugs and strangers with candy.
Creators do not ask how much time something takes but how much creation it costs. This interview, this letter, this trip to the movies, this dinner with friends, this party, this last day of summer. How much less will I create unless I say “no?” A sketch? A stanza? A paragraph? An experiment? Twenty lines of code? The answer is always the same: “yes” makes less. We do not have enough time as it is. There are groceries to buy, gas tanks to fill, families to love and day jobs to do.
People who create know this. They know the world is all strangers with candy. They know how to say “no” and they know how to suffer the consequences. Charles Dickens, rejecting an invitation from a friend:
“‘It is only half an hour’–’It is only an afternoon’–’It is only an evening,’ people say to me over and over again; but they don’t know that it is impossible to command one’s self sometimes to any stipulated and set disposal of five minutes–or that the mere consciousness of an engagement will sometime worry a whole day… Who ever is devoted to an art must be content to deliver himself wholly up to it, and to find his recompense in it. I am grieved if you suspect me of not wanting to see you, but I can’t help it; I must go in my way whether or no.”
“No” makes us aloof, boring, impolite, unfriendly, selfish, anti-social, uncaring, lonely and an arsenal of other insults. But “no” is the button that keeps us on.
Amen, brother. And one last thought:
In one of the final interviews of his life, Norman Mailer was asked if he had any regrets. He said (I’m paraphrasing), “There is one big book and a couple of smaller ones that I have in my head. I wish I had written them.”
The big problem with (needless) “Yes” is the loss of time. Eventually there will be no time even for your projects, and the leeches will keep demanding “Yes”.
There is a movie, (I think the title is “Just say Yes” or something), that we should watch and learn what happens to a person that follows the river of “Yes to anything”.
From the other hand the “No” shuts doors.
I guess the real problem is how to keep balance.
This is something I really struggle with at times. The guilt of saying no to a friend vs the guilt of time spent away from creating.
Saying no to my wife, neighbor, and bowling buddies, also makes it more likely I’ll say no to myself when, with a deadline looming, I decide the fate of the free world rests on me vacuuming out the back of the closet in my office.
Brilliant. We (I) say yes far too often. Even if not aloud to a request, I say yes to the Resistance, to my laziness, to distraction. “No” gives YOU the power and the permission to immerse yourself in what you NEED to do if you’re going to be at all satisfied with your life, your work, and finish it as regret-free as possible.
I’m a huge fan of yours Mr. Pressfield. I’ve talked about your books – namely the War of Art, Warrior Ethos, and Turning Pro – a lot on my site. They’re life-changing. Thanks for writing every one of your books and articles, they’re very much appreciated.
Could you provide a link to your site – I’d like to check it out – thanks!
Hey Karen, just click my name and it’ll take you there.
Thanks for this post, Steve.
I followed the links you provided to Ferriss and Ashton, but was unable to locate the original source of the quoted post. Any chance you could give us a direct link?
Karen, sorry, I had it but I lost it!
The post is now a little ways down here is the permalink.
The Hungarian professor was Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and he related these anecdotes in either Creativity or Flow. These books probably won’t make you more creative but they may be helpful in understanding why creativity can happen and why creative people act as they do (or in light of this post, must!)
The rejection by Saul Bellow was particularly amusing because he and Csikszentmihalyi were colleagues at the same university at the time (U. of Chicago)
I loved the book. I think the Author’s name took me longer to pronounce than the book.
Thank you for your kind words.
The original post, which Tim republished with permission, was on Medium. You can find it here:
It is a small piece of a book which will be published at the end of 2014.
Love this -Thank goodness you were in passionate agreement! What a great post. I too am a huge fan of your work- dog eared copies of your books on my desk are a testament.
I am just learning how to say no and how much freedom it gives me to create when I do. Such a small word that yields so much power. I get criticized for being anti-social but I find that my creativity has increased ten-fold by simply saying no more often.
Thank you for confirming what I am learning.
Wonderful! I gave up a lot for art and I was happy about it and spent most of my time alone. For the past two years I added back in the social, the family and sleep and I’ve barely gotten 1/3rd of the work I would have liked done. I’m going to call it a sabbatical and go back to the way it was. Thanks for the truth.
Great advice. I just spent the afternoon in a meeting I didn’t need to be in. A complete waste of time. A chapter in my book is still in my head because I didn’t say no.
Saying “no” to others is a lesson I mastered a long time ago, but saying “no” to myself/Resistance proved far more difficult. In the five weeks since reading The Art of War and Turning Pro I have been saying “no” and beating Resistance one day at a time. The television is off, friends aren’t hearing from me, and my day job gets only what it has to have. But I have ten legal pads filled so far as I complete the first draft of my novel. There’s nothing I’d rather say “yes” to than that. Thanks for sharing such an inspiring post, but most of all thanks for being a source of ongoing inspiration through your own books and blog – I hope you know how much gratitude is coming back to you from all of the artists you have impacted and continue to help.
Everyone’s an @hole to at least one person.
If the desire for you to create is strong enough it’ll drown out the negative feeling you get from saying no.
What hurts sometimes is when you want to help but have to forge ahead because until your work is done you’re not in a position to help those you might want to help.
I think you said it yourself Steven that the best way to help is to show that you’re making your own path diligently.
York, I so agree with you. How can I be of service to others if I’m not first of service to myself? I do my own fiction first before I dive into any client work. It’s becoming a reflex, though i still make it a conscious decision. I feel the betrayal in my gut if I put the client editing first. It all gets done; I just get the first burst of energy, and my writing gets done!
Thank you Stephen for all you passionate inspiration! Your example inspires me to get it done!
Sorry, Steven, that I don’t have time to read today’s blog. I’m just too busy creating, and I bet you’ll understand.
Thank you, Steven, for what you share. And thank you for saying no.
Saying no has become important because in today’s world we are all rushed for time. But the basis of this concept you realize is the antithesis of the creative process itself. What are we put on this world for if it is not to reach out to another human being? Why do we create unless it is to communicate the essence of our experiences with others? When you shut out others there can o ly be selfish brilliancy of a synthetic process much like strobe lights which can never match the authentic shining sun. The rich satisfaction of extending a helping hand will show in your work and make it more meaningful even if you get less done you’ll be a better person for it.
Please don’t propagate selfish production of art. We are not machines although present living is designed to make us that way.
Thanks for listening.
A timely post.
I had a potential client email me on Monday asking if I would spend several hours on a test for them, to see if I qualified. Mind you, I’m a professional freelancer in my day job, and have been doing that work for over 20 years. So I wrote back a rather lengthy reply, telling them essentially that I don’t work for free. That was Tuesday. Then last night I came across this post and wished I had just told them no, saving all the time writing an email.
The good thing about all that writing is that even though it was wasted on the client, at least I know how I feel about it now. This post only confirmed my feelings. Next time I will be less polite.
It took a day for this to sink in. What I am saying no to today is Facebook, checking e-mails more than twice a day, and radio. What I am saying yes to is SILENCE, so I can listen to my characters and see my story unfold.
After spending the bulk of the summer rising at 5:30 and being astonished that I STILL don’t have time to do everything, I am reminded of Steven Covey: The only way to say “no” is to have an even bigger “yes.”
Now I am working on a bigger yes.
The mention of Norman Mailer’s interview made me remember of a situation where it was possibly my last day on Earth. Just thought back then: Please God, give me one more day, so I can write, if not a book, at least a short tale to let something in the world. Also remembered that same day when reading in another Steven’s post something like: “Would you write if you were the last person on Earth?”. It’s interesting that, when you feel the bull’s horns about to hit your ass, you forget everything and just climb up the fence like Captain Marvel: Shazam! In those moments, you don’t need the motivational self-talk, the cognitive auto-therapy, the Pomodoro Technique, the beat-resistance-tomorrow-by-committing today…you don’t need that “just a cup of coffee to make the mind sharp”, don’t need that “just roll a little joint to get inspiration from the Muse”, that “quiet place so I can concentrate”, no need for that “just a little special oil massage from that Asian sweetie so I can feel relaxed” nor a better laptop with a larger screen, a more comfortable chair… Necessary is nothing, besides doing what must be done. Sometimes I pretend to be in a situation where the bull is coming like a train behind me. It doesn’t work as fine as when it is real, giving the mighty powers of Superman or Captain Marvel,but it gets closer to an outstanding human like Doc Savage The Man of Bronze or The Phantom The Ghost Who Walks.
This line just made my wall of inspirational quotes: “There are few overnight successes and many up-all-night successes.”
@Steven-Thanks for the re-blog–I never would have seen it otherwise!
If you’re so good at saying no, why do you waste time moderating this blog?
And why are you on Twitter?
And why do you enable others to set aside their real work to spend their valuable time commenting on this blog?
And why do I postpone my real work to comment on this article?
It’s because in this internet and social media world, every creative, regardless of medium, must promote himself. Must create his “brand.” Ugh.
The smart creative must figure out a way to maximize bang for the buck. How to be strategic about the add-ons to our core work so as to maximize visibility relative to our expenditure of time.
Socializing on Saturday night doesn’t steal time from my work because I’m not cut out to write 24/7.
However, sitting at my computer and writing this comment does detract from my real writing.
It’s a quandary . . .
Thanks for this comment. As someone who has been helping Steve share his work for a few years, I’ve asked myself many of the same things you have asked.
The reality is that authors do need to share their work. But at what cost to their own work? When you aren’t doing your work, you aren’t producing.
How have we handled this?
Steve rarely does interviews. When he does do them, it’s often a matter of them coming up during a time when he has a bit of a breather, which isn’t often. It’s rare to schedule an interview in advance for him.
On the blog . . . Steve often receives e-mails and calls from friends and/or readers about many of the topics addressed in Writing Wednesdays. Yes, writing this blog series takes time away from his other work, but it is time well spent as it also address the questions people send him beyond the blog. He’s sincere in his interest in readers and being in touch via the blog has proven a good way to interact with them. Because many have similar questions, the blog shares one answer with a variety of different people, so one post is a more efficient way to share. The intention isn’t to pull people away from their work, hence the short and to-the-point, once-a-week posts.
R.e. Facebook and Twitter. I post to both. Twitter is used as a feed. I rarely interact via Steve’s account and he never interacts on Twitter. On Facebook, as on his blog, he’ll respond when able. Right now he’s traveling and on deadline, so not as many replies.
So what does this mean for the authors who don’t have someone helping them with the above? Go narrow and local. By local, I don’t mean location, but by topic. For example, I do a lot with military-related topics. The military community is thus my local community. What community do you want to reach? And, what do you want them to know about you? Some authors feel the need to tweet and like and post dozens of times a day. But it is WHAT you say, not how often you like, tweet, post, etc. that matters. The key is adding to the conversation. If you aren’t adding to the conversation, you are creating noise, and wasting your time and your readers’ time. So if you are going to blog, as one example, is your blog a series of links to other news articles, shared just for the sake of having something to share? Or, do you take those news articles and put them into a different context, and inspire a new conversation? Or do you write something original and start the conversation?
When taking time away from your work, ask: 1) Is this something that relates to my work? If not, don’t do it. It’s easy to get caught in Facebook feeds, or cruising one site after another online. I’ve been stuck there myself. Hours down the drain. If you do it, save it for end of day, when you’ve closed out on work. 2) If it relates to your work, do you have something to say that is new, or is a different spin? Can you add to the conversation? If not, don’t post it. Posting might take a few minutes, but every time you do it, it is a few more minutes away for your work. Yes, it’s fine to post something every now and then, just for the sake of posting – something funny or heart-string tugging that you want to share with friends – but keep it to a minimum. Otherwise you’ll be doing it all the time, falling away from your work — and your posts will encourage friends/readers to check out what you shared, which pulls from their work.
In the end, it comes down to time management. Do a few things well – this is the “go narrow” part – than try hitting every social and traditional media outlet, trying to share your work. Getting to know your local community, and becoming a respected voice within it, is among the best things you can do.
I hope the above helps answer those questions a bit.
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