Learning to say no

It’s funny how this simple thing has eluded me for so many years (and still eludes me from time to time). Something as simple as saying “no”,“I won’t”, “I can’t”. I’ve spent so many years running after time, saying yes all the time, abiding to things I didn’t want to do, investing energy I didn’t have, forcing myself to be someone I wasn’t or to do things that only pulled me down further.

But I wouldn’t say it was a fear to say “no” in fact. I think it was going way deeper than not being able to say that. So I took some times to work on myself, but also to understand what I really wanted, what was the purpose I defined for my life, what were my healthy boundaries … I must say that this was the most terrifying blank page I’ve ever faced. While I did read many books about “discovering yourself” (some even joked on the amount of self-help books I was reading), I must admit that when the time came to write what were exactly “my rules”, I was staring in the void like a dead fish.

So I turned the problem around, searching for all the things that pissed me off, or where I failed in the past years, my errors, my mistakes, to try to define something by removing the fog around them. If I couldn’t express exactly what I wanted to, at least I would be able to express exactly what I didn’t want anymore.

Failure shows us the way — by showing us what isn’t the way.
 — Ryan Holiday (
The obstacle is the way)

By doing so, I was able to clear the fog almost completely, allowing me to define my personal boundaries and some moral rules I wanted to abide to. I realized also that we all have a finite amount of energy to give each day, and that I was clearly deep into debt on this side. The worst part? Most of this energy was lost into things that didn’t bring me anything.

I discovered also some of my flaws. Like how I was postponing tasks for the sake of treating them later (hello procrastination), while acting directly on it would require just 5 minutes of my time (and especially keep my mind cleared of it). Or how much time I could spend uselessly complaining about things (without acting). At this time I decided to stop complaining as much as I could, and to act directly on things that would take only a very small amount of time. I still complain from time to time, I must admit, but every time I do say, I notice it to myself, and try to find how to avoid it for the next time. Still not perfect, but improving.

I realized also that I had a tendency to avoid things by going sideways mostly by fear or hurting other people. I spent a lot of time thinking I was doing the right thing by using those so-called white lies. But it’s by reading Lying by Sam Harris that I realized that those weren’t useful.

First they made me feel bad, and I had to be weary of everything I was doing not to contradict them, and second they didn’t give any real information and kept me in a spiral. How could I stop doing things I didn’t want to do if I never said that I didn’t like them? I was having a hard time just being myself. So I decided to stop. To slowly learn to say exactly what I wanted to do, what I didn’t like, … I was surprised to realize that people were able to accept my limits and weren’t pushing me anymore to do things I didn’t want.

The truth never harmed anyone. What harms us is to persist in self-deceit and ignorance.
 — Marcus Aurelius (
Meditations)

Going deeper in the process, I discovered several other things important to me (first and foremost honesty and speaking the truth, on which I’ll write something deeper later), allowing me to see exactly where I was and where I was going. This allowed me to be able to trace a line in the sand to be finally able to say “no”, this is where I stop, this is something I don’t want to do, this is something I won’t tolerate or accept anymore.

This whole process took me quite some time (in fact it stayed two whole months on top of my to-do list), but once done gave me a peace of mind I’ve never felt before, and a feeling of relief quite impressing. I also regained a lot of personal time, and while I still have an important social and work life, for the first time in a long time, I must say that I feel in command of my ship, and free.

Reframing our window

For a decade now and with a surprising increase during the last years, I tend to encounter a lot of words used without any interest for their basic definition, thinking only about creating or increasing some “wow” factor. Those words I keep seeing? Exclusivity, Groundbreaking, Revolutionary, Unique, Innovation, … While at some point this tendency was limited to marketing (and which is part of well… their job), this spread to the general public (and I fell for this several time too).

Everytime it happens, it’s usually based on the fact that we don’t have a sufficient knowledge of the subjects, or didn’t do enough research, so we tend to use them because, from what we know they’re exact. This is a common problem in our times, where we’re all having trouble saying that we don’t know.

It then creates a false narrative and an unnecessary fuss around things that are perhaps non ground-breaking. But at least, this is caused by a simple slip of the language based on not enough facts, and we all tend to fall for it. Be it when we advise this “revolutionary” app, or that we tend to proclaim something as “unique in the world” (something that tends to happen a lot in the French market, where we have a remarkable blindness to everything non-French-speaking that is happening in the world).

The problem for me happens when we tend to fall for the marketing jargon and to defend sayings that are not our own, through the only window we were provided. Or worst, when we tend to reframe this window to be smaller and smaller, just to justify the use of a word that we simply shouldn’t use. Hence this app really is exclusive* (*in your language), revolutionary (*in your country, your neighbor have it since 10 years now), unique (*on your platform).

This is not “that bad”, but I tend to think that words have a meaning, and when we use those words in the wrong place we tend to reduce this meaning. And while the motto of the last years on every mouth has been “innovation” yelled clear and loud everywhere, it’s rarely true (nor based on anything). In a world where everyone is becoming an entrepreneur (which is neither good or bad), perhaps we should be a bit more honest, or picky in the choice of our words.

While not every idea is a revolution, you have plenty of other things you can promote your idea on, plenty of possibility that you offer that, while they’re not exclusive), provide a different/better experience for your audience. And this won’t require you to reframe any window while it might make you appear less “bullshit-prone” than any other idea out there.

“If you see fraud and do not say fraud, you are a fraud.”
 — Nassim Nicholas Taleb (
Antifragile)

When non-doing is better

One thing I’ve come to realize more and more in our society, is our tendency to intervene all the time in everything, for the sake of the intervention. Things are being changed, teams are being shuffled, plans are being remade, … all the time, especially with a new-comer. While sometimes those changes can be good, most of the time they end up being quite a waste of time, energy, and human resources, while they give the impression that something is accomplished (when it’s not).

It’s interesting to find examples everywhere that, sometimes, the act of non-doing is better than changing things just for the sake of our ego. In Chinese, there’s the concept of Wu Wei, an important concept of Taoism which means non-doing or non-acting, to let things behave according to their nature, go with the flow. It’s interesting to note that the same thing was explained by the Stoics centuries ago, who put following nature as one of their core principle (if not the core principle).

You can find a related thing in chess, with the zugzwang, where you are forced to move one’s piece when doing absolutely nothing would save your game. Throughout history, we encountered a lot of times where our interventionism did more damage than good but still we learn nothing on our human scale. If you look into health, you’ll discover the iatrogenic effects, which occurs when your health is worsened by the medical care you’re receiving (One of the worst example? Decades ago lobotomy was considered as a great health practice.).

Ego isn’t the only culprit in this, depending on one’s position, the root cause could be also our own fear. Fear that people will think we’re not working, fear that not giving an advice will feel like giving up on someone or something, … Which is why, even when we’ll choose not to act, it is important to take the time to explain ourselves. Because even the act of non-doing requires some thoughts and thinking, and by being prepared to explain our non-actions, we’ll avoid useless fears and judgments.

Our tendency to intervene in everything, all the time, in a way that suits our egos more than the greater good ends up costing a lot in our lives, jobs, friendships, … and we are all guilty of it, even if we tend to persuade ourselves that the changes we’re making ends up, at best, changing nothing. Sometimes we need to take some steps back before making a decision and ask ourselves a simple question : Am I really doing this to improve something or am I doing this so people won’t think that I’m not doing anything?

“Ask yourself at every moment: Is this necessary?”
 — Marcus Aurelius (
Meditations)

Think, wait, fast

Some days ago, I finished Siddharta by Herman Hesse, a very strange and compelling book that immediately jumped into my life changing shelf of my library. One particular passage in this book hit me with the velocity of a full-speed train :

Everyone can perform magic, everyone can reach his goals, if he is able to think, if he is able to wait, if he is able to fast.
 Herman Hesse — 
Siddharta

In this small excerpt of the book, Siddharta explains that every man needs to learn how to fast. Because when you face hunger, when you miss something, being in a state where you wait for it might lead you to make a lot of bad choices. This resonated a lot with me as, being subject to anxiety from time to time, I have made several decisions in my past based only on fear of the future, the unknown, the loneliness, …

And I’m always surprised by how I could react, postpone things, decisions, ideas, based solely on those fears, those panics moments. I’ve bitterly regretted some of those choices, while some very rare turned out to be not so bad. Looking backward, none of those decisions ever led me to something good.

In fact, the only decisions I took that I consider now to be good decisions (and even life changing one), were all done in times where I wasn’t feeling a particular need, being it financial, sentimental, social. In this, I recognize Siddharta’s teaching when he says that learning to fast is the most useful thing a man can do.

And while it’s really hard not to take hasty decisions when I’m going through a panic attack, I now know that, for my own good, it’s better that I postpone the decisions to the next morning / week. But it’s something really hard nowadays, when people are always in a hurry. In times like this, when you’re pressured to take a decision, it’s just good to remember that you can always take time. If it’s not a life threatening situation, it can wait.

You have the choice

There are some conversations where you realize a lot about yourself, how and why you act the way you do. I remember a particular one with a friend of mine, as we were discussing our shared professional past. I remember talking about how unhappy I was and how I felt I was slowly dying for such a long time, expressing some bitterness over the job. That’s when she told me “but you had the choice, you could have left”. That particular sentence really hit me hard.

It hit me hard because she was right, I could have. In fact, looking back now, everything at this time was already in my hands, but instead of acting on it, and changing my life, I decided to stick in a job that was slowly killing me. I stayed because of multiple factors, the main one being fear. I was terribly afraid to find myself losing my flat, ending up on the streets, … (drama much ? I must admit). So afraid in fact that I was ready to go all the way straight to the burn out just because I was too afraid to make a decision I knew was the right one but where I couldn’t predict a 100% success rate.

The problem is that nothing in life has a 100% success rate, we can never be assured that everything will go well. Things can go wrong, but they can also go pretty right, we can’t predict them. Most of the time we get over it, being able to make decisions, go on with our lives, but sometimes, for big decisions, we tend to postpone, waiting for this 100% rate solution, this perfect answer. And even if we’re unhappy in our current situation, at least we know it, we own it (or rather, it owns us). So we stick to things we don’t like, in jobs that are sometimes depleting us from exactly who we are, because taking the chance to make a change is frightening.

Sometimes those choices end up being bad. As I said, we can never know. The only thing we can do is to avoid to end up in a state of learned helplessness and not to let those failures own us. Because even if something fails we can learn from it. And if something succeed, we’re gaining a bit more confidence, a bit more self-trust, and we finally escape situations that destroy us. Do not let fear take the best of you, take the leap, trust in your guts because that’s what life is made of. Keep learning, keep growing, keep choosing.