Learning to Say ‘No’… again

It was the fall of 1982 when I had just started freelancing fulltime as a commercial illustrator. Most of my clients were ad agencies and design firms located in Miami, Florida, but I would get the occasional request for something different every now and then. At the time I was too gung-ho to consider saying “no” to any project that didn’t fit me perfectly. (Especially when I was living paycheck to paycheck.)

A perfect example of this was when a A.D. friend of mine named Viviana asked if I could design a brochure for a customer of hers. I said. “Sure! That sounds like fun. Sure thing. I’ll take it on!”

Big mistake.

Sure, I was stoked and ready to rock the project, but design was never really my strong suit. Hell, I pretty much sucked at it. Still do. But there I was up to my eyeballs in it, I was miserable. Not only did I spend three times as many hours as I’d planned JUST on figuring out what they wanted, but I honestly didn’t know enough of what the hell I was doing. I’d never designed a piece quite as elaborate as the one they were looking for! I thought it would be simple, but it was a whole other world.

This thing not only sucked up all my time, taking me away from my best clients, but it also drained my energy and my confidence. Even worse, I couldn’t take on better suited projects that I was offered in the meantime due to the commitment I had already made on this thing.

I felt sick to my stomach every time I looked at that project folder. We’ve all been there, right? Anyway, I lost a crazy amount of sleep worrying that I wasn’t doing a good job on it, and worst of all, my fears were about to be totally confirmed…

One day Viviana left a message on my answering machine that MORE major revisions were needed. Then, it sounded like she hung up the phone, because there was a soft click. But then I heard her start to talk about me with her partner (obviously unaware that her speaker-phone was still on).

At first I stopped the message from playing, because I figured their was nothing left for me to hear. But I was so paranoid and self conscious about how badly I was handling this project, that I wanted to know if they might be talking about me, so I listened. My heart sank as I heard things like, “Carlos doesn’t know what he’s doing on this… we should have hired a real designer… I feel bad he’s trying so hard, but this just isn’t working out like I thought it would.”

I got so ANGRY! I mean really PISSED!

Not at Viviana, but at MYSELF.

Here I was… an award-winning illustrator working with some of the top ad agencies in the South Florida market. Illustrator! That means illustration. NOT graphic design!

So why had I taken on that project?

A good friend of mine calls this “bright, shiny object syndrome”, and it happens to many of creative types, especially those of us bent on entrepreneurialism. You see, we love ideas! We enjoy moving from idea to idea, and it’s easy to get distracted by something that seems new and exciting.

Especially when you start experiencing success, it’s as if every opportunity in the world starts falling in your lap. You have to become a master of saying “no”. That was very hard for me.

Uh… Act two

Although, not so hard apparently that I didn’t have to re-learn it again, several times. In fact just recently. This time however, the project was in line with what I do best, but it’s just taking me away from other projects that are more important to me and should be higher on my priority list.

So, two lessons learned.

1- Sticking with what you KNOW you are good at, you are always confident and calm in your work. You know how to market yourself, and you know who you’re marketing to! (Plus you can charge high rates with confidence.)

2- Just because you can do something, doesn’t mean you should. (We all have a limited amount of time to do those things in our business and in our personal lives that will deliver the most amount of value, results or satisfaction. Be crystal clear with your purpose. Revisit it daily.)

Become very clear at what you’re amazing at, what you offer, and how you want your life to look like, so that any business or life decision becomes crystal clear. I’m learning once again exactly what to say “no” to.

(Besides, they say for every “no” you give, a better “yes” comes along!)

So today, make a list of what you are good at, what you’re confident in doing, what you want to do, and who you do it for. And then practice saying, “No!” to anything else.

You’ll find that your creative work and your business will magically become easier, more enjoyable, and way more successful!

So,  have you gotten derailed by not saying ‘NO’?  Share your thoughts below and let it serve us all as a clear reminder.

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4 Responses to Learning to Say ‘No’… again

  1. Awesome.
    No. Really.
    Been there, done that.
    (Except I’m a publications/collateral/logo design specialist)
    I made this mistake volunteering to do pen&ink illustrations in a style I didn’t do. ‘Volunteered’ because although they said they would pay me, they never did.

    Excellent advice on the lists and making up your mind to say no when you should say no.

    We didn’t have that problem when we were 2 years old, did we?

  2. Great post, timeless truths! I remember that in my college economics I class I first heard the term “opportunity cost.” It means that before you invest in something, you also have to consider what you COULD have been using that money for otherwise. Working on stuff that’s “bright and shiny” has a way of keeping us from our more important personal-project work.

  3. The most powerful two letter word …
    Great story, I was captivated by it.
    When you’ve got amazing talent, coupled with being a “people pleaser,” one must really master their communications skills and be able to say “No” effectively.
    I remember first learning how to say “No,” it came across so awkward and unemotional that people were initially offended. There is a graceful way of packaging your response so people respond with “Thank you.” And that is when you know you’ve become a black-belt, 10th degree master in the art of “NO!”

    Thank you for such a wisdom filled article.

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