“Something that worked for me was imagining that where I wanted to be – an author, primarily of fiction, making good books, making good comics and supporting myself through my words – was a mountain. A distant mountain. My goal.
And I knew that as long as I kept walking towards the mountain I would be all right. And when I truly was not sure what to do, I could stop, and think about whether it was taking me towards or away from the mountain. I said no to editorial jobs on magazines, proper jobs that would have paid proper money because I knew that, attractive though they were, for me they would have been walking away from the mountain. And if those job offers had come along earlier I might have taken them, because they still would have been closer to the mountain than I was at the time.”
—Neil Gaiman, 2012 keynote address to the University of the Arts Philadelphia*
“..it’s critical that we (both individuals and companies) get really good at “pruning” – learning to say “no” to opportunities and projects – that don’t align with the important work that we’re doing. This means passing on opportunities – even really good ones – in order to preserve the energy needed to bring our best effort to the work that we know we need to excel at.”
—Todd Henry, author of The Accidental Creative**
They say that opportunity knocks only once and I suppose a lot of us have been conditioned to open the door when that happens. Creating and grabbing opportunities is not easy, especially when competition is fierce and people are all vying for the same thing. So anyone can understand how hard it is to even find paths that can lead us to the things we want most in life.
But in many ways, it’s probably more difficult to walk away from an open doorway or to stop ourselves from taking a peek inside an open box. As hard as it is to find something to say “yes” to, it may even be harder to say “no” to opportunities that come along the way. As I grow older, I’m beginning to realize that the things we decline are as important as the things we accept. Maybe saying no to something doesn’t mean turning away from an opportunity but more of a conscious decision not to be distracted from the things that matter to you.
Lately, I’ve found myself saying “no” to things. It’s not like I couldn’t use the money. I need it more now than ever before. At one point, I may have viewed them as opportunities. But It’s getting to a point where I’m trying to be more deliberate with my choices because I know that time is short.
The time I spend creating a storyboard for another person’s product could be better spent making a storyboard for my own movie. The effort required to create an illustration that deliberately apes another artist’s style while forgetting my own (which may be easy and at the same time profitable) can best be used to make my own stuff. Of course, I’ve done all these things before and may do them again, but does it bring me closer to my “mountain”?
The heart of every decision seems to boil down to discernment. Something parents don’t always teach their children, but may ultimately be the most important thing one can learn. To know oneself and one’s desires is a gift. Nevertheless, there is never any real assurance that one is “on the right path” and moving toward one’s mountain doesn’t guarantee an easy time. The future is always an uncertain and doubt will always remain.
So, it may not be about learning to say NO as much as learning who you are. When the image you see in the mirror is clear, hopefully the decisions we make for ourselves become right and true.
* Read the full transcript of Neil Gaiman’s speech here.
** Read Todd Henry’s article “Want to Get More Done? Stop Doing So Much.”