Year of No

It’s December 31, 2016. My kids and I are gathered in the kitchen discussing our goals for the New Year. My kids are mostly grown, but I have always been a big believer in resolutions.

I announce that 2017 is going to be my Year of No. “What does that mean?” my middle child sounds alarmed, “You’re going to say no to everything?” They all sigh disapproving sighs. The teenager remarks, “So what else is new?” surely in reference to his limited access to my car. Despite the pervasive sentiment among them that No is not a positive way to embark upon a fresh, new year, I am holding fast to this resolution. 2016 was a bitch of a year, and as it comes to a close, I am exhausted.

Last year, I said “Yes” A LOT, too many times. Here’s the thing-- I pride myself on showing up. I may be late, and I may be disheveled when I get there. But I come when I say I will. And when I get there, I try my best to be fully present. Last year found me running around like a chicken-sans-head-- over-booked, always late, texting apologies and looking at my phone last minute for directions. Plenty of good came out of all of my frantic hurrying. Goals got met, people got served, family and friends got tended to. I got a publisher (yay). I got frequent flyer miles (whoo hoo!). And I streamlined my scheduling process (by sheer necessity). Still, I left too many important things hanging—unfinished and neglected, including my health and that partially completed book of fiction my friends are tired of hearing about..

In 2017, I am trying “no” on for size. You can say “no” in so many powerful ways, for many sound and powerful reasons. So on New Year’s Day, in a quiet moment when no one was in earshot, I practiced saying no in the mirror--

Angry “NO” (loud with grimace, clinched fists, unblinking eye contact).

Firm “No” (quiet with straight face, posture erect, shoulders relaxed, facing subject squarely).

Gentle “no” (almost a whisper with a smile, head tilt, soft touch to subject’s arm).

I can do this.

This year, by saying no, I can simultaneously liberate myself and pull myself back in.

Ironically, one of the motivators for my Year of No is Shonda Rhimes’ inspiring book, Year of Yes, which I happened to read in December. In her book, Ms. Rhimes explores the joys of going outside of her comfort zone; of stepping into the sun and allowing herself to blossom. Although we readers already know that Rhimes is a badass in her field, I believe her book was a bestseller because we all are both surprised and comforted to know that someone so well accomplished still grapples with her own personal development. Each of us has our own personal stuff to deal with: those parts of us that are still not quite right; those habits that are still obstacles that keep us stuck where we are. She reminds us to embrace the idea that everyone is a work-in-progress and that we are not only worth the work, we are worthy of uncovering the greatness within.  She also takes the brave step off a cliff when she reveals her dissatisfaction with her own life— she dares to explore what is not working in that privileged world of hers, so full of loving people and satisfying work.  So she directs her competitive energies toward the challenge of saying yes to every invitation and opportunity to share her authentic self.

Year of Yes is a testimony kind of story. And it is a religious conversion type of testimony, where Rhimes abandons her well-entrenched belief system—that she is safer and happier if she keeps herself hidden and out of the light—for a new way of being. She looks hard at where she is and decides that this belief system of hers is no longer working for her. She makes a decision and she jumps. I love conversion stories. They show us that real change is possible, that a stubborn mind can shift, that old dogs can learn new tricks. So I am with her all of the way. I want to say YES, YES, YES, too! Problem is—saying YES is not my issue. Saying yes has gotten me in the not-so-great place that I am right now. Tired. Burned out. Anxious. I am, in many ways, the other side of the Shonda Rhimes coin. I am the much less successful, less shiny side of that coin.

“Yes”, as Rhimes convinces, is such a beautiful word. It is brimming with positivity and possibility and hope. Yes means acceptance. And acceptance is composed of all good things, but especially beginnings—the fresh, the new, the dawning of adventure. I am deeply committed to opening myself up to opportunity and stepping up, leaning in-- turning my face toward the bright, warm sun. I love saying yes. I love the feeling of yes and the responses it inspires. I often say yes because I am honored to be asked. And I say yes because I am a person of good intention. I want to be the right answer for you. I want to help.

“No”, on the other hand, is so dark and brooding. It connotes not just an ending but a thwarting— to cut-off, shut-off, hold-up, prevent. Worse yet, No is rejection. And everybody hates rejection. So a part of the effort this year will be to let go of the negative aura of No, and embrace her (yes, I have assigned No a gender) as my savior. She will be my muse. We women must make No at least our friend. We often fail to invoke her when it matters most, because we are afraid, at least hesitant, to disappoint. And this fear and hesitance get us in trouble in so many ways. We end up in places we should not be at work and in relationships. This is why I don’t make the argument to turn my No’s into Yeses. Here, I could recommend some turn of phrase that makes each chance to say No into a cosmic Yes. But sometimes--say it with me-- No means No. Sometimes, we are best served by expressing the clarity of limitation and restraint with a simple “no” or “no, thank you” or “HELL-TO-THE-NO!”

As a woman of a certain age, I know that I can have all of the things that I want in the way that I want them. I’ve spent my life setting myself up for success and happiness. But at this point, success and happiness mean something different. I want my success to look more like purpose and meaning. I want my happiness to feel more like lasting contentment. I want good food to function more like nourishment. I want my interactions to look more like love and compassion—networking to be more like collaboration; negotiation to end with true win-win. But to have all of that, I must hold out for the real goods. And I must say no to the more superficial trappings that look good when curated on Facebook, but feel empty in real time. I’m not saying no to Facebook, but I am saying no to a “Facebook life”.

As a writer, I am accustomed to saying no. It's true that writers, like any other artist, must be open to the world and all that they can take in. But if “Yes” in writing is the openness required to find and receive ideas and information, then “No” must represent the editing part. Any good writer will tell you that editing is as important to the writing process as getting your thoughts and ideas down. Some would argue, even more important. It takes skill and discipline to say no to a brilliant concept when it is not so brilliant for the particular subject at hand. And this is what editing requires-- saying no to the words that you have already written when they do not, upon second read, tightly fit your message. This year, I am going to fearlessly edit my life in the same way that I mercilessly edit my work. This will mean that I must find the willpower to choose the experiences most vital and valuable to my purposes and cut away all else. And not just on big picture decisions (like saying no to work projects and community work that do not squarely fit with my skill set), but in the small day-to-day choices, as well.

In the movie City Slickers, Billy Crystal’s character asks Curly, the burly cowboy played by Jack Palance, how Curly had come to live so self-satisfactorily. And Curly says, “One Thing. One Thing.” In essence, pick your one thing, stick to it and the rest takes care of itself. I refer to Curly’s response often. In fact, some friends are thinking right now-- Is she really invoking Curly again? Yes, I am because Curly's one-thing statement uncovers a fundamental truth. Though very few of us choose Curly’s simple one-thing lifestyle, the reality is we work best when we do one thing at a time. Studies show it. Our own experiences prove it. Multitasking is not the best, most productive way to work or live. When we multitask, we rob each undertaking of its total potential. And we deprive ourselves of the full experience of each endeavor.  I, for example, always have my computer open on my lap when I watch television. I feel guilty if I am only watching, as if television is not worthy of my full attention. This drives my family crazy because I am constantly asking questions about the TV show we are watching, questions I would not pose if I were fully attentive. Here is how I rationalize this obnoxious behavior— when my family has gathered together to watch television, I want to take part. But by the time I settle down to watch, I am usually already sleepy. So I multitask in order to stay awake. I am either working on the computer, on my phone or asleep. If I fall asleep (I almost always do-- head back, mouth open, soft snore), I wake up intermittently and then ask questions to catch up on what I missed.

This year, I am going to say no to being the worst television companion and other fractured ways of living. No more reading my texts at the dinner table. No more putting on make-up in the car. No more taking notes while listening to a podcast, while cooking breakfast, while getting dressed for work. The morning multitask is serious. One morning, not too long ago, I left the house wearing a lovely, well-cut dress, but the shoes on my feet were not a matching pair. They weren’t even the same color. I only discovered the mistake at work when I looked down to see what the other people in the elevator were staring at. There was one collective inner dialog cloud over their heads, “Wait, is she wearing a blue pump and a black one?”

This year, I will try one task at a time. Focus. Finish. Next! (And I might just say no to late night television!)

...I'll let you know how it goes...

Gina Carroll