The enlightening power of NO and not giving a damn.

The enlightening power of NO and not giving a damn.

The one advantage of becoming a baby boomer that I would not change even if I was given the chance to hit the reset button.

Do you  worry about what others think of you?

For years, I worried about what other people thought of me, not so much on the big things like politics, where I have always been comfortable in disagreement, but on the everyday stuff that tends to occupy our minds much more than it should. Things like wearing the wrong colour tie for a particular shirt or suit, not expressing myself clearly in business meetings, sounding like an idiot in other conversations. I am not talking about major blunders where we do real damage to our careers or social lives and wish the earth would open up and swallow us, although I have had my share of those too.

Do you find difficulty in saying no to people?

For most of my career in the corporate world and in my personal life, I placed more importance on being thought of as a good, helpful person than a selfish and self-centred individual. I mistakenly thought that by saying yes more than no I was doing the right thing. The result was that I was constantly overwhelmed at work by agreeing to take on too many projects at the same time. By allowing employees to shift more difficult stuff up the line to me and other managers to do the same thing sideways. I was always a sucker when the request was camouflaged by the words “You are much better at this than me” or “You can do it much quicker than I can”. There were some expert manipulators in some of the businesses I worked for.

At the same time, I found it difficult to say no to invitations to serve on committees, Boy scouts, Athletic club, Marketing Associations, other industrial or business organisations.

The two problems were inter-connected, I didn’t want to say no because I worried that people would think badly of me. I also had the typical workaholic syndrome that was common in the 1980’s and 90’s.

As I got into my 40’s I started to wake up.

Several things happened to change my thinking. Almost like the planets coming into alignment.

  • My sons were teenagers by then – every parent knows that teenagers need many “NO” answers.
  • I was setting goals outside business (running marathons) and started taking more time for myself.
  • I started noticing how other successful business people handled themselves.
  • I read a quote that resonated very well and became a guiding light for me.

One of the best examples was a senior accountant at the last business where I worked as an employee. He headed a department of about 20 people. Surprisingly for South Africa in the 1980’s he was Asian. (At the time that was a disadvantage for corporate advancement). He came from a wealthy family and was also involved in the family business which involved some phone calls and odd absences during working hours. He was an incredibly effective manager, financial reports always on time and correct.  He and I were the youngest managers in the company, most of the others were 10 to 20 years older.

I noticed that he was never stressed, his desk was always clear except for whatever he was working on. I asked him his secret. He said it was very simple. When he was asked to do something by one of his staff that he knew that person was capable of doing, he said no. When he was asked to take on a new project by the Managing Director, he said no and stood his ground unless he was given more staff. He did not agree to any deadlines that he knew he could not meet without working longer hours than normal.

His basic philosophy was to say no first and then discuss how the request could be handled another way. But he did it in such a careful and confident way that he did not offend.

Most of us say yes first and then let ourselves get overwhelmed.

I can neither remember the quotation exactly, nor the author, regrettably all my old books and journals are still in Zimbabwe. It may have been Rudyard Kipling, but it went something like:

No matter how serious your problems, how huge your heap of troubles, how bad your misdeeds, the earth will still turn, the sun will still rise in the morning, life will go on and very few people will give you or your actions more than a passing thought. They will be too busy worrying about their own problems, troubles and misdeeds.

Think about it, we might comment loudly and publicly about some bad behaviour by someone, it could be a celebrity, it could be a disinterested sales person at a store. How long does that stay in our mind? Not long.

Even the major blunders are soon forgotten. How much time do we spend worrying about front page scandals from last month? Not much.

The two big advantages of getting old are the ability to say NO, loudly and clearly when it is the right thing to do and to not give a damn about what others might think of us.

It’s just a pity that it takes most of us until middle age to get comfortable with using both.

Since the upheaval of losing our farm, home and everything in the chaos in Zimbabwe and moving to a new country, I cannot help being different. Different accent, different values, different outlook and different way of life. I could spend the rest of my life worrying about how different I am and what others might be thinking or I can revel in my differences, celebrate that I am considered contrarian and eccentric by some and just unusual by others.

Don’t wait until you are baby boomers yourselves before developing these skills, start practising now in a politely assertive and confident way, you will be amazed at how your self-esteem and your life will improve.

Wishing you success and the ability to say NO!