I Would Prefer Not To *

February 13, 2010

Besides the noble art of getting things done, there is a nobler art of leaving things undone. The wisdom of life consists in the elimination of non-essentials.
• Lin Yutang

I’m a wordy gal, but there’s a word that I have plenty of trouble saying. It’s no. I try, but I still say yes way too often. When I say no I feel guilty. I understand that this puts me smack dab in the middle of a whole raft full of people who feel the same way. Most recently, I’ve not been following my instincts in a situation where the potentially sustainable simple is becoming infinitely complicated by wonderful possibility.

This is a problem for all of us, whether it’s at work or at home or at school. It is a particular problem as the term moves past the halfway mark and we move into the downhill stretch. All of the wonderful possibilities of creation collide with the reality of coming to completion with sanity intact. This is true for teachers as well as students.

Whenever I’m working on a piece of writing or prepping for class or putting together a conference presentation or creating an art exhibit, I always have lots of materials to work with, gathered over time. The problem is that if I actually integrate everything I’ve collected, I’ll never finish the task. There is always something I could add. Always more research I could do. Always more thought I could give to a project, whatever it is. Always.

But I know that what I must do, in just about every case, is to accept that no intellectual task is ever really finished. Even if it appears done, new revelations and insights will occur to me and to others who are exploring the same things. It’s not possible to integrate everything into a perfect never-again-to-be-touched whole.

To imagine this is to get stuck in procrastinatory hell. I should know. I do this often, although I have learned to pull myself out of these depths because I must get through. Done. Finito. Not infinito, but stopped. I must deal with what’s realistic and will let me sustain the energy to keep moving forward. I’ve been working long enough to know that attaining the wonderful possibility may leave me too drained to do anything else. Wonderful possibilities are wonderful to imagine. Sometimes they’re worth pursuing. But not always.

What can you say no to? What do you need to say no to?

Most of us are so busy doing what we think we have to do that we do not think about what we really want to do.
• Robert Percival

* Thanks to Herman Melville (1853), “Bartleby the Scrivener,” for the title quotation.



  1. I have always had a difficult time saying no to anybody who asks me to do something. While working for my parents the last several years I have come to realize that it is near impossible for me to say no. One of the employees who is also a family friend challenged me about a year ago to say no to somebody while at work just one time. I have not accomplished this task yet, but in my defense I haven’t been working much as I am completing my Masters Degree in Education this year. Even if I say no initially, I usually retract that statement before the conversation ends or I end up completing the task myself.

    While I have a difficult time saying no at work, I have an even harder time telling students no in the classroom. I want to help every student be successful and do the best that they can so I have a tough time telling a student no if they want extra help or want to turn in an assignment after it was due. It is more important to me that they at least complete the work, but I am also learning that there are times when you have to eventually stick to the deadline and stand your ground as the term or semester comes to an end.

    The past week at my placement has been consumed with seniors taking finals and students turning in late work. As a school policy, all of the late work had to be completed this week so there were students in and out of class turning in assignments as well as making up quizzes and tests. Even though the work piled up today, it was valuable to allow the students to turn it in because they at least took the time to complete the work. The true test for me will come next week when students ask if they can still turn in assignments because I know I am going to have a difficult time saying no.

  2. As you know, I definitely understand! Whether it’s personal or professional, saying no is difficult for many of us. I often remember the words of a colleague–a school counselor–who told me that his definition of “enabling” was when the teacher was working harder than the student to help the student succeed. But I still struggle with this because, like you, I want all my students to be successful! W-OZ

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