(Disclaimer: This post is NOT about drugs or the 1980s anti-drug campaign spear-headed by Nancy Reagan, although I probably am the poster child for that program, as it worked on me… but that is another story. For the purposes of this post, I just thought the slogan would make a good title!).
Saying “Yes” to things I probably shouldn’t have said “Yes” to was my Achilles heels for a long time. It started when, as an 18 year old, I decided to go off to a college three thousand miles away. Looking back on it, I went there for all the wrong reasons; I was “supposed” to go to a prestigious school; I was “supposed” to go far away from home (an unexamined notion based on seeing others do the same); and I was “supposed” to go to the school that gave me great financial aid (of course, mysteriously, I never tried for merit-based scholarships anywhere, even though I was valedictorian of my high school).
To put it bluntly, from the point of view of finishing, College No. 1 ended in disaster: the learning I got while attending classes paled in comparison to the personal learning I got from having to drop out a year and half later, shell-shocked and battle-worn from being somewhere I didn’t want to be.
After my first college experience, I swore I would never again get myself into the kind of trouble where I felt forced to see through a commitment that didn’t feel right. Yet, a few years later, I found myself in a similar position, when I agreed to a volunteer position for an organization without knowing what I was getting into (nor that I had just committed to something for two years). Though I learned a lot from this situation, it wasn’t a great fit for me either, and I grinned and bore it with much strain and frustration for three years.
Similarly, my first piano teaching gig was a two-year commitment that I felt at best so-so about (I also ended up staying three years for this). Probably because of it, I did not even think I enjoyed teaching (my feelings changed when I moved to Sacramento a few years later and started my own piano studio). Most recently, I signed up with a business coach for two years, and while I got some very valuable help, I spent much of the second year eager for the commitment to be over.
How did I find myself in these ordeals, where my own virtue compelled me to “follow through” on my obligations? In each case, I said “Yes” before I really knew what I was getting into, or whether it was truly right for me. I didn’t really think things through. Instead, I went with my emotions. I took a leap (and waited hopefully for the net to appear).
There is nothing wrong with taking a leap. Yet ideally, you are leaping for the net that is right for you! My wife and I read a book a few years ago called “The Success Principles,” by Jack Canfield. Each chapter of the book addresses a different principle meant to bring success to your life. The principle that stands out for me perhaps the most is “Say ‘No’ to the Good, so you can say ‘Yes’ to the Great.”
Therein lies the rub. The problem occurs when, if you are like I was, you say “Yes” to something that turns out not to be a great fit and then find yourself feeling stuck (because you are an honorable person who keeps your word at all costs, even at the cost of your happiness). This can set you up in a sort of virtue trap (to use Julia Cameron’s excellent words), where you feel that you have to “finish the commitment” because after all you have integrity and you said you would.
When you take the right leap, the results will be joyous. At the beginning of 2011, I committed several thousand dollars to go to a retreat later in the year in Canada. That commitment proved an incredible blessing, because the retreat helped give me the clarity to come back and propose to my now wife. My life as I know it was the result.
Experience has taught me that merely taking a leap does not insure that the leap is truly a great one. Saying “Yes” to the good is no longer enough. I prefer digging a little deeper, finding what truly makes me happy, and doing that instead.
As for anything that doesn’t feel great, I’d rather just say “No.”