So They’re Telling You to Say “NO

The proper answer was “no.” The sane, reasonable answer was “no.” I came to the interview, curious, if not a bit hesitant. It was not a job interview, I believe that I was being wooed. It was late to be bringing someone into the leadership position that I was being asked to fill.

It wasn’t a high paying position or one that had a bunch of candidates. It was also possible that the previous candidate or candidates to me declined the honor that was to be offered to me. It was important, and meaningful and crucial. There was no compensation for me, should I accept. I felt unqualified and unprepared. If you can find any capacity to say “yes” when you feel unqualified and unprepared, it must be because your “no” muscles are totally atrophied.

The answer was “yes,” of course, or there would be no need for this preamble. I accepted the position, the highly vaunted and sought after “head chaperone” of a high school marching band.

That would be me, wearing the black shirt. It was probably me who told everyone to wear their white shirts… sigh


It started on that March day in 2005. For that summer and the next six summers after that, more than 100 parades, field shows or concerts, I was with them. I’d never experienced the kind of fulfillment, exhilaration, fun in my life. I’d never felt a closer kinship to the chaperones, truck drivers and directors who were a part of the band. Both my kids married other kids who were in the band.

“No” is very often – the right answer

“No” would have been the prudent answer, the proper answer, the right answer. I had no business taking on the responsibility for all those kids, 75 to 100 kids each year. I always said that my main concern, my “only job” was to get the band from “Point A to Point B” with all the same people that we had left with.  I got to know both adrenaline rushes and complete exhaustion as I never had before and learned that they can be sometimes separated by mere minutes.

Taking on this position didn’t align with my strengths, it didn’t align with any purpose. I had no experience, I hadn’t even gone along as a regular chaperone at all.

My only exposure to them was having been to a field show of theirs a few years before, and having seen them in a couple of parades. I had never been in a band and didn’t know what the big drums were called versus the smaller drums, and I think that I knew what a trumpet was and a saxophone was… My knowledge gap in almost every regard was significant.

That I served seven years in that position is a signature joy and source of pride in my life. I would not trade those memories, the travel, the lack of sleep, the chaos, the long bus rides, the laughter, the discomfort, and the exhausting feeling of pride and accomplishment.

Many of the thought leaders or influencers or meme-makers or the smart people are large into saying that we need to say “no” more often, more emphatically and with the utmost finality.

Sure, I’ll subscribe to that, say “no” if your gut says to say no, and think no more of it. I think too much and have “Adaptability” as one of my Clifton Strengths (it’s number 4) – so I can come at questions from a million different angles. Yes, this is a gift and a curse. What if we teach everyone to flex their “no” muscles and nobody ever says “yes” to anything anymore.

I posted a comment to someone’s post last week, and it didn’t generate much of a conversation. Here is how the post began: “When you learn to say “no,” you free yourself from unnecessary constraints and free up your time and energy for the important things in life.” — Dr. Travis Bradberry

This was my comment:

“I agree that we can’t say “yes” to everything, nor should we. But being in the non-profit world, we could not exist if we didn’t have a dependable core of people who not only say “yes” – they consistently strive to serve and do the best that they can. I know that we all need to say “no” probably more often than we do… but I can’t help but think that things are not going to get any better, in the long run, if people start with a “no” mindset. It might be useful to them personally, but we, as a culture and a society, need more people to adopt a “yes” mindset. Maybe if we could convince more people to say “yes” to the right kinds of things, it would take less of the same people who always seem to be the ones who say “yes.”‘

“I have always admired people who bite off more than they can chew and still chew it.”

I loved Dave Reilly’s response to my comment:

I didn’t reply right away to your comment, Tom Dietzler, because I wanted to take some time to reflect upon what you wrote. As always, you provide a lot of substance, which is something I, and the rest of my network, appreciate. My work has been largely associated with non-profit technical transformation. Many times my work was only possible when a super techie type of individual VOLUNTEERED their skills and abilities to make a project happen. For the organization, it was the equivalent of a surgeon committing to do a procedure in the operating room – so essential for LIFE requiring great SKILL and KNOWLEDGE. Every day, we encounter opportunities to make the world a better place. We need to say “YES!” to those opportunities trusting that the Lord will come alongside us and give us strength, resources, and abilities beyond our own to meet those opportunities. An old quote I once heard, “I have always admired people who bite off more than they can chew and still chew it.” 

So, you will be able to harness your inner genius and save the world by saying “no” to everything. That might work. Naturally, I will ask – what if we all said “no” to everything?

As someone who enjoys life, enjoys meeting new people and loves to tell stories, saying “no” would be a bad idea. My job is in the non-profit world. I am Director of Operations at a good-sized Lutheran church in Wisconsin. We could not exist without volunteers. We have a decent-sized faculty and staff at our church and school, but our lifeblood is volunteers. People who say “yes” to go above and beyond, give of their own time, many of them with full-time careers, families and other commitments whom we need to do certain critical functions so that we can function.

It doesn’t take a village, it takes an army

On any given weekend, we will have more than 1,000 people come through our doors to worship at our church. On a typical Sunday morning, we have found that it takes nearly 100 people to fashion our “Sunday experience.” That number includes not only our pastors but ushers, greeters, communion servers, musicians, slide builders, slide advancers, sound technicians, coffee crew, people to be stationed at our welcome center, Sunday school teachers… you get it, I’ve probably missed a whole bunch. At any rate, you can’t just throw up a building, put up a sign that says, “worship here” and expect the world to beat feet to your pews.

Nearly every position listed in the paragraph above is filled by volunteers. I am so thankful for every single person who gives up time to serve in any capacity to make what we do happen on a weekly basis. And putting on our “Sunday experience” is just one of the things that we do. We have a board of education, church council, we put on meals, need people to serve at funeral meals, people to help with our shut-in visitation, make our quilts, build things, fix things, clear snow, and on and on. The last time that I checked, we had 35 different groups or ministries that people could help with or volunteer for.

What really sits in my craw and makes me squirm is that I know the stats. 20% of the peeps end up doing 80% of the stuff. We burn people out. We take advantage of doers, of servant hearts and people who hate to see stuff not getting done or things not happening.

If we had more “yessers,” we wouldn’t have so many roles to fill…

I’ve met great people, created many great stories, filled my heart in so many ways, all doing stuff that could’ve been, and maybe should’ve (yes, I said THAT word) by others. When my kids were in sports, I took my turn selling concessions, being the hall monitor, selling tickets, whatever. I’m pretty sure because I did, I helped others to not have to be involved. It’s the way of the world.

When you say “no,” you are exercising your right to do so. You may feel that you have done your time, it’s someone else’s turn, there are only so many hours in the day. I get that. And if you have done your time, it may be time to let this go and give someone else a chance. There are examples of people being the control freaks that get into something and keep doing it forever because they can’t stand the thought of someone else doing it a little differently.

So here is Tom, on his high horse trying to guilt you into doing something you think that you shouldn’t do. It doesn’t fulfill your higher purpose, it doesn’t float your boat, you won’t know what you’re doing… yada, yada, yada – we’ve heard it all. If you do say no, just say “No, I’m sorry, I can’t right now.” If you add on that your dog is sick or that you’re working on your 5th master’s thesis or it’s your bowling night, the excuses seem flimsy and insincere. If you can’t, you can’t.

Try it first, and then if you say “no” – you’ll know what you are saying “no” to

Don’t build a straw person, don’t tell yourself lies of which you have no idea as to their truth or merit… Try it, say “yes,” maybe you’ll find it’s way different than you thought or than someone led you to believe. You might meet great people and enjoy yourself and kick yourself for trying to talk yourself out of it. If it flops, and it becomes as suckful as a root canal, talk to someone and quit. But at least you will know about what you are walking away from.

Don’t say “yes” to everything. Don’t say “yes” to just anything. Life is full of choices. Sometimes hard choices. My issue is not letting someone else build a template for your life and giving you cover to say “no” to some life-altering, people meeting, service rendering, world-changing opportunities. And if you say “no” and cling to “no” and die on the hill of “No No No” – just remember that, when someone flexes their “no” muscles to you, when you need someone to say “yes.”

If we could bump up the percentage of “yes” people from 20% to 25% or ridiculously 30% or more, maybe some of us wouldn’t always have to feel like we’re always the one saying “yes.”

Back in the spring of 2005, I said “yes,” when I had absolutely no reason to. I had no experience, no preparation, and no knowledge. Other than that, I was perfect for the job. Truly, I am as thankful for that decision as almost any other one in my life.

What might you be missing out on if you keep building and reinforcing your “no” wall?


Tom Dietzler
Tom Dietzler
Lifelong, proud somewhat strident Wisconsinite, I love my state and love to sing its praises. A bon vivant and raconteur, lover of history, literature and good conversations. Laughter and music are salves that I frequently am applying to my soul. I have spent time (too much) in manufacturing and printing and have found great joy in my current position as director of operations at a large church in the same area where I grew up. Husband to Rhonda and father of two adult children Melanie and Zack, I’m the constant companion of my five-year-old Lab, Oliver, who is my muse to a lot of my stories. I’m a fan of deep conversation and my interests are in learning and gaining wisdom, so in the last few years I have become and less politically vocal, and hopefully more respectful and open-minded. Rhonda and I sold our home in 2018, bought a condo and have traveled a bit more, golfed a bit more and are enjoying life a bit more. If you take the time to get to know me, prepare yourself for an invite to the 30th state to join the union, a gem located in the upper Midwest, full of beautiful scenery formed by the glaciers, with lots of lakes and trees and gorgeous scenery, and the nicest people that you’d ever want to meet.

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  1. A very meaningful and thought-provoking piece, Tom. I realize I may be an outlier, but I used to say “Yes” to just about everything including scam sales calls, every homeless person who approached me and asked for money, unsavory, shifty people who were selling (fill in the blank) asked for money, the woman from PTA who asked me to serve on a committee, the popular girls in high school who surprisingly invited me to a slumber party in which I turned out to be their target for the frozen bra prank (Right after they found my bra in the freezer and laughed & taunted me, I puked in the bathroom, called my dad, went outside to wait on the curb for him to pick me up). I have learned the power of an aligned from my gut to my heart and soul “Yes” and the power of a discerning, “No, thanks.” Unfortunately, I lived for a long time quite unguarded and gullible when it came to the fear and flattery tactics of all kinds of agenda driven, fancy talking people who knew “a fool and her money are soon parted.” or knew how desperately I yearned to belong, to be chosen, to fit in. Plus, I had grown up in a boundaryless vortex in which I had not learned where I stopped and other people began.

    Learning healthy boundaries including when to say “no” and when to say “yes” continues to be a really healthy practice for me. I ultimately learned to say “Yes” to me-my self-care, self-worth, growth, healings, and transformations. That’s made the biggest and most impactful difference of all. Every single “Yes” that’s come from a healthy, aligned, wiser place of my gut, heart, and soul has created exceptional and life-changing experiences which have lead to more astounding and life-giving experiences for which I hold absolutely no regrets. YES!!! 🙂

    • Learning healthy boundaries is key. Part of that would hopefully be not a “knee jerk” no. Life is about experiences, as you so wonderfully demonstrate. You show what it means to live out loud. We get to flex our creativity muscles a bit when we branch out into things that benefit from our gifts. I’m so glad that I’ve said yes to things like community theater, helping out the marching band, and some of the leadership positions that have helped me prepare for the job that I currently have. We don’t know what we don’t know, and we can’t find out if we stay stuck on no. Are there people out there, opportunities out there, causes out there that can benefit so many more people beyond our current sphere, and ultimately help us to become the people that we were meant to be by exploring a few things outside our comfort zone. Thank you, Laura, as always, for putting your heart out there for all of us to see.

  2. Tom — I believe that the ability to say “yes” or “no” starts with internal clarity about what is important – what really matters – in one’s life. What we’re here for; what we’re trying to accomplish. We need that “eye on the prize” to act as a filter. Otherwise we can drift aimlessly, saying “Yes,” only to have to back out later with “Um, no” when the energy to continue isn’t there. And don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying you make yes or no decisions purely on the basis of “me, me, me.” Rather, it’s “me, me, me because…” “Because” if I say “yes,” it will keep me from what I really want to accomplish. Or “because” if I say “yes,” it will keep me on the road to what I really want to accomplish.

    Your question at the end is an interesting one, but “missing out on” shouldn’t exist in a vacuum. I believe it has to be relative to something else.

    I believe when you said “Yes” to the band manager position, you probably were unconsciously weighing that decision against your “prize.” You have a huge, giving heart. You’re all about community and supporting others. It’s your DNA; it’s who you are. Saying “No” would have run counter to what to what you feel really matters in life.

    Thanks for a very thought-provoking piece.

    • We can’t do everything. What we can do, with the discernment and intention, is to offer more of ourselves where it makes sense. We need people who might be more comfortable sitting back and letting others do it, to just take a chance and try something different, just once, and maybe bring a friend along. As I told Susan, we can’t be all about laser focusing on only that which floats our own boat, branching out is good for our brains and own skillsets. As Susan learned, she said yes to something and it opened the door to starting her own business. We don’t know unless we take that chance. Thanks, Jeff, I always appreciate your thoughtful insights.

    • “Where it makes sense” – agreed. Unfortunately, Tom, there will always be those who “sit back and let others do it,” just like there will always be those who say “Oh, thanks so much for reaching out to me!” but they are NEVER the ones to pick up the phone or click away at the keyboard to initiate “Hello.” The world is made up of “givers” and “takers.” [That’s a BizCAT piece waiting to be written!] That said, I applaud your plea that we “offer more of ourselves.” That can be in through charitable work, our interactions with work colleagues, or simply related to friends and family.

  3. Tom, I’m reminded of the times I did say yes: to “will you marry me” to 1st and 2nd husbands. Hmmmm. Neither was the greatest idea, but … I learned a lot about myself in those years, so not all bad.

    Saying yes to “Would you help some new parents here?” then a few months later, “Would you lead our Friday night parents sessions?” both at my daughter’s drug treatment place back in the late ’80s. I stayed for five years, even after my daughter “graduated.”

    Which unknowingly prepared me for …

    Saying yes to the recruiter at Fred Pryor Seminars to become one of their international seminar leaders. Can we spell “clueless,” boys and girls?

    Which unknowingly prepared me for …

    Saying yes to myself about forming my own company, an idea that had me laughing for a long time! Actually still laughing …

    All of those prepared me for even more yeses, and I hope they keep on coming! Thanks for a fun trip (for me, at least) down memory lane, Tom!

    • Susan, thank you for such a warm and engaging response. I hope no one thinks that I was encouraging a continuous and unfiltered “yes” to all things. I’m not advocating a scattershot approach to life and living life without intention and discernment. The need for good people to help out is possibly more widespread than this pandemic we are now facing. My plea was to consider things that might not be in your “lane” or “wheelhouse.” It’s a great way to discover some skills, gifts and abilities that you may not have known about previously. I love how you said “yes” to one thing and your very next sentence said “Which unknowingly prepared me for…” That is the secret sauce… what can we learn about with “yes” that opens the door to the next big thing? I deeply appreciate your insight and perspective.

    • And until they were, Tom, they were NOT in my wheelhouse! But each step that I agreed to mostly worked out, so I took another one. Not right away; there were several years between my volunteering at the drug rehab and then signing on with Fred Pryor Seminars. But the courage came from that much earlier “work.”

      And you’re most welcome for the kind words and your articles, which are among the best published here … or maybe anywhere. Thank you!