Why Knowing When to Say No May Save You from Deathbed Regret
The consequences of not saying no may be more significant than you think
If you have not heard of Adult Swim’s latest science fiction cartoon show Rick and Morty by now, you must be living under the “Netflix only” rock. The show has been in production since December 2013, waiting to become one of the greatest cartoon portrayals of cosmic nihilism so far in TV show history. Whether or not you have had the opportunity to check out this cosmic crock pot of chaos, the premise of it is this:
Every single decision — whether large or small — has an impact great enough to create an alternate timeline with a whole new separate chain of events leading away from that point.
Since we are making decisions pretty much every moment of our lives, this would create a near-infinite amount of multiverses, each of them continually branching away further and further with every decision.
Before trying to ascribe meaning to this nihilistic show (a bit of irony there), I had not put much thought into the impact of all the small choices I made on a daily basis. I had always focused on attempting to pursue as much experiences as I could, saying yes to most things so I could gain the experience, and to get the most out of a situation.
As a writer, I crave to experience everything to be able to create relatable characters, feel everything to make their experiences believable to the reader, and create strong character and story arcs. I strive to create a multitude of characters with new and unique experiences, experiences which I may never have in my own life.
This poses a problem: that is, we can only be in one timeline.
We cannot make choices and have experiences outside of the ones we have made. Each time we make a decision, we are simultaneously losing all the alternate decisions we could have made. And all the decisions we chose not to make are in other timelines, trapped out there somewhere between time and space. We simply cannot choose everything at once; physically, it’s not possible. Unfortunately, we don’t have Rick here to take us through all the multiverses of our unchosen decisions. And at some point, we have to accept that.
I have been given the advice — from many parents, teachers, books, and speakers — to take every opportunity that I can get or that that is presented to me, because success is not a straight line but rather a winding road. People have told me, jump on opportunities as they come, settle for the first job you get, because it’s not a linear path to reach where you want to be; you never know where something will take you.
But can it be that those opportunities we take and choices we make along the way are just as important?
Do all choices have the impact to forge an entirely unique timeline?
According to Rick they do.
I can’t speak for others, I can only speak for myself, but the advice telling me to jump on every possible opportunity I could get could not have been further from the best advice anyone could have given me. Along with: “How about settling for a mediocre job with decent pay in order to use that money to do what you love on weekends?”
I know a lot of times we have to do things we might not necessarily want to do to get to where we want to be, but we also have to think about whether that thing we are doing now is ever going to get us where we want to be.
I had never really considered that not saying no to an opportunity might be an obstacle standing in the way of getting where I wanted to be or doing what I wanted to be doing.
I think the truth of success, while it does involve a lot of skill, talent, hard work, determination, perseverance, as well as risk taking and accidental encounters — or as they coin the term “planned happenstance” — I think a lot of it comes down to the ability to say no.
“Deciding what not to do is as important as deciding what to do.”
You see, the ability to say no indicates that you know exactly what you want based on knowing exactly what you don’t want. The ability to walk away from something you don’t want and know you will never want takes courage and confidence, especially if you have many doubts and fears of the uncertain position that saying no will put you in. When I quit the first job I knew deep down I didn’t want, I received a message from one of my coworkers that would forever change how I viewed success, adversity, and the importance of saying no.
It was a simple message, a one line gesture of a fine farewell, but it somehow struck me as important even upon reading it the first time; although, back then I didn’t yet realize why. I have it saved on my phone and have used its words to fuel me at the worst of times, immersed in my creative endeavours. It continues to fuel me daily.
He wrote: “You had the courage to say no.”
Saying no to the thing you don’t want now gives you the opportunity to say yes to the thing you will want later. A good analogy to this is the idea of closing doors.
If you keep a door open that you know you will never want, you can get so distracted by that open door that it might keep you from simply glancing down the hallway to see which other doors may or may not be open. This is why doing nothing or not making a decision is still a choice with its own unique set of consequences (see point #1 in So You Want to Provide Value).
And worse yet, if you go through that open door you don’t actually want, you won’t give yourself the chance or opportunity to walk down that hall full of doors, one of which may be the one you are actually looking to walk through.
So taking an opportunity that you don’t want might actually hinder you from going down the path you actually want to be on in order to reach the desirable endpoint in your timeline.
An obvious example of this would be taking a job you don’t actually want. If this job will eat up all your time and attention, it will take all your effort away from looking for something you actually do want.
Say no now in order to say yes later.
Now, I understand that not everyone may have an issue with saying no; I think there are many people who have no trouble saying no to things they know they don’t want. The other extreme would be saying no to everything that doesn’t line up exactly with what you want. If you have seen the movie Yes Man (if you have not, I suggest you put it on the list for the next family movie night!), then you probably already know that neither extreme ends in a favorable outcome.
The movie depicts both extremes: saying no to everything vs. saying yes to everything. Then it settles for the happy medium of saying yes to the things you know you want and saying no to the things you know you don’t want. When it comes to the things you don’t know whether you want or not, there is a whole other post I could write on that subject. But the short answer to this is that I would suggest you learn to check in with yourself about these things. Learn to listen to yourself; once you do, you’ll find your body will naturally tell you whether something aligns with you or not. But as for the current topic, I am now writing from the perspective and point of view of someone who tends to say yes even to the things they know that don’t want, or that their self is practically screaming at them that they don’t want it (if this is the case, don’t fight it; it will not end well, I can promise you that).
When you say yes to everything that other people are telling you to do, you are living by other people. And if you continue to do it long enough, you may risk losing touch with yourself and what it is that you want, independent of others. This is a dangerous thing, because it means you will eventually be unable to detach yourself from others and view yourself as an internally independent being from other people. You will learn to trust others over yourself. You might look to others to answer the question that you should be asking only yourself:
“What do you want?”
When you say yes to everyone else, you are saying no to yourself.
Say no to others in order to say yes to yourself.
In 2013, HuffPost published an article on The Top 5 Regrets of the Dying. Do you know what they found to be the most common regret? First, I’ll tell you what it was not. It was not: “I wish I had done more.” It was: “I wish I had done more things that I wanted to do. I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, rather than living the life others expected of me.”
Along with that was: “I wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings.”
So, the two most common deathbed wishes are for:
- emotional honesty
- a life lived in alignment with values
I believe that to live out a life with both of these things in alignment, we need to not be afraid to express what we don’t want and what we don’t like.
We need to be able to say no to the things we don’t want and know we will never want.
We need to say no now in order to say yes later.
We need to say no to others if it’s sacrificing us saying yes to ourselves.
We need to learn how to say no, we need to learn when to say no, and we need to know why we are saying no.
And then we can follow our timelines, satisfied to the end.