Why You Need to Say No More Often

When you say no you remove yourself from conformity. What others want you to do is no longer part of your decision-making.

The sitting room is filled with overstuffed aunts and uncles. They know better than to insult you, but every gesture they make towards your pot-lucked black bean brownie dessert expresses regret. It stings – even more so when they poke it with a fork and ask a younger cousin, “Do you know what's in this?” Little do they know, the secret ingredient is strength of will. Choosing a lifestyle – vegetarian, bohemian, Methodist, whatever – requires fortitude against a culture obsessed with consumption. The reward, though, is worth more than any pre-packaged good. It's treasured independence.

In the early-20th Century, semiology posed the idea that signs (words, ideas, physical objects, etc.) are valued not by their inherit merit, but instead by how they relate to other signs in a system. For example, a tree is not a tree because it contains distinct tree-ness, but because it lacks distinct bush-ness.

Likewise, a vegetarian is not a vegetarian because they eat vegetables – anybody can eat vegetables. They are a vegetarian specifically because the don't eat meat.

Think of it this way: You are not what you do. You are what you don't do. Or, as Kanye West put it, “Everything I'm not made me everything I am.”

Not a Doctor, Nor Firefighter, Nor Much of Anything At All

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When I was sixteen, I met Democratic Presidential Candidate Barrack Obama. He was lean, tall, and well- spoken, just as I pictured myself. For some time after that, I seriously entertained going into politics. Compared to other paths, it shined. I didn't want to be a doctor; my mom was a nurse and I didn't like visiting her hospital. I didn't want to be a businessman; money has never been of any consequence to me. And I didn't want to be a firefighter; my uncle Harry was a firefighter and he once gave me a piece of duct tape when I needed a Band-Aid. Politicians, on the other hand, had it all. They garnered massive audiences. They represented truth (to some degree). They all wrote books for some reason. In my mind, a politician was a rambling, rock-star writer.

What I didn't know was that politics requires moral forfeiture, trust in institutions, and a relatively straight-edge lifestyle.

Fifteen-years later, I realize the folly of my youth. I had mistaken Barry O for a late-career Bruce Springsteen. But in recognizing that I don't want to be a doctor, businessman, or public servant, I've narrowed in on who I do want to be. It's someone who doesn't have a coherent answer when overstuffed aunts and uncles ask what he does. But when they ask him how he decided to lead this incoherent mess of a lifestyle, he can answer, “I said 'no' to all the other options.”

Would I Be A Fool To Refuse? (Just Say No)

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Learning to say no is the ultimate exercise in undergraduate semiology. In terms of signs, it is a word whose meaning is strictly defined by the absence of agreement. When you say no therefore, you remove yourself from conformity. What others want you to do is no longer part of your decision-making. You have taken complete control of your life. Obviously, that's a reductionist understanding of the word.

Going around saying no to everything offered to or asked of you would lead to enlightenment as much as walling yourself into a crypt. “But Bob,” you ask, “How am I supposed to know when to say no?”

Well, I could say to chuck your phone into the East River, hitchhike to Honduras, and live out your days as an ex-pat with no ties to reality, but you'd only be able to do that for some time. It's an answer – maybe even a good answer – but it's not sustainable.

A sustainable answer is this: Only say 'Yes' to people you admire.

Simple arithmetic tells us that the average person will meet somewhere between 80-thousand and a 100-hundred thousand people in their lifetime. Some of the meetings will be inconsequential. Some will be distinguishing moments of a life. Most will fall somewhere in the middle. No doubt, all of them will have an effect upon that person's identity. After all, who you are is defined by who surrounds you.

Surround yourself with people who will make you the best person you can be. Find them at the vegetarian meet-up downtown, or at the open mic poetry jam, or at the United Methodist Church. Wherever they are, they are waiting for you just as much as you are waiting for them.

First, though, you have to put yourself out there. You have to be willing to say 'yes' to people in order to later tell them 'no.' You have to welcome in order to reject. In the end, you will have found a lifestyle and surrounding culture that accurately reflects who you want to be.

In that space, you will find true independence.