The Abundance of “No”

January 1, 2017

Across my desk, sat the Vice Chair of Surgical Education. She was debriefing with me after an observation of my interactions with the residents and students I have the honor of teaching and mentoring in my new job. She offered some kind and complimentary words followed by a few pieces of advice to make me a better teacher. The interaction was comfortable, but matter-of-fact and compulsory as part of my role as academic faculty. But just as she was getting up to leave, she paused, and sat back in her chair. “So, Jen, overall…how’s it going? You’ve been here almost a year now. How are you? Are you doing ok?” I knew this conversation had turned into a little more personal, a little more relaxed, and a little more “off-the-record”. I thought for a minute and finally replied, “I am so happy. I love this job. I really do. But I am overwhelmed. I feel over committed. I wanted to say ‘yes’ to everything when I first got here, and I think I took on too much.” She smiled and leaned it, “You aren’t alone in feeling that way. You are doing great. And for 2017, I want your new goal to be to say, ‘No’. Say ‘no’ to your boss, to your colleagues. Realize that it’s ok to say, ‘I’d love to help you with that project, but I need to think about it. I will get back to you tomorrow.’ If saying ‘yes’ doesn’t help move you forward with your career goals, then it’s ok to say, ‘no'”.

And she is right. It’s ok to say “no”. It’s ok to evaluate how each commitment I take on has a fall-out effect on my other commitments. And my colleagues. And my husband and kids. And me. Does agreeing to sit on another committee or write another book chapter bring me another step closer to being the surgeon-educator-researcher that I want to be? Does signing up for the class party and the Cub Scouts popcorn sale make me a better mom? Does the extravagantly planned, Pinterest worthy date night make me a better wife for my husband? Maybe the answer is “yes” to all of these. But maybe not. Maybe saying “no” will buy me more time at home; to be present, not productive.

I’ve really been thinking a lot about this freedom in saying “no”. And in fact, I believe, there is terrific abundance in saying “no”. You see, every time I contemplate having to say “no”, there is the implication that I have a choice. That I have options. That I am terribly fortunate to be in the position to be able to say “no”. For there are hundreds, maybe thousands, of women who wish they had a job in which they could say “no”…but they are unemployed. There are moms who burn with the desire to say “no” to the Cub Scouts, but that moment has slipped through their hands because they have lost their child. There are wives who dream of a fancy date night, but their love is long gone. Desperate mothers and fathers, nervous employees and scared children don’t have the option of saying “no” to anything…for saying “no” will leave them hungry, unsheltered, and vulnerable.

So in my fortunate and secure life, in 2017 and beyond, I will learn to say “no” because that little word has the power to refine and direct my time and efforts towards the things that matter the most. And those two tiny letters have the capacity to shape my perspective from, “Poor me, I am so overwhelmed” to “Wow, what a crazy good God who has given me this choice…to work and learn and serve and play…in a way that I choose!” Behind the word “no” is profound abundance. There is the reminder that I can choose how I want to teach, serve, and learn. God, remind me that every time I have the chance to say “no”, there is someone else who does not. God, remind me that there is terrific abundance behind that simple little word…”no”.

Disclaimer: My viewpoints are not necessarily reflective of my employer, or any local, regional or national organization that I belong to. As a matter of fact, I pretty much just speak for myself. Please keep that in mind.

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