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.

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 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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Melissa Hughes, Ph.D.

This is such a great post, Tom. “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.”

It reminded me of a Neuro Nugget I shared a few weeks ago about the secret to human motivation. It turns out that a simple “thank you” is all it takes to keep those passionate people volunteering their time and energy engaged and motivated.

You can find it here: https://youtu.be/VnOZjQF0lzE

That said, there is another piece out there just screaming to be written about the difference between the internal and external motivations that drive us. Thanks for sharing this one!

Dr. Mary Lippitt

Tom, Thanks for saying yes. I wonder if we should start saying “yes and?” With the “and” being I will train my successor because we need a team. Many volunteers accept a job and act as the sole champion, which means they burn out. When recruiting volunteers we must plan for the future and reduce the pattern of burning through our supporter. Mary

Maureen Nowicki
Maureen Nowicki

A thought-provoking read, Tom. Who wants to die on a hill of no, no, no! Try opening yourself up to yes…What I appreciate is your message to look at life and the opportunities that come your way and some of those unknown offerings – without full understanding or even competence – one should just leap into, take the dive without knowing what the outcome of it will be.

Like what you did in high school or your list of volunteers that you work with at the church (in which it would be so helpful to have more help, I am sure!) I see the adventure in it all and in leading a purposeful life.

I am a former social worker having worked for many a volunteer agency and recruited volunteers. Those that opened themselves up to some of the most obscure projects and causes I can remember dearly today. I see the curiosity they had for life and it helped transform myself to remain in curiosity and consequently take on many things that I have unwittingly but trusting in life’s process – jumped on the bandwagon to do.

Life is full of possibilities that can lead us down the most exciting paths at times.

I am with you Tom. I do not want to die on a hill of no, no, no.

Thank you for this sincere work today.

My kindest thoughts to you, your family, and your parish over the holiday season.

Kimberly Davis

Your “army” reminds me of how much goodness there is in this world, Tom. When so much ick is getting all the attention it’s hard to put it in perspective. You did that for me. Thank you, friend!

Mike Pitocco

Great article Tom. I’m sure many of us have been on both sides of this…..saying “yes” when “no” really WAS the right answer and visa vesa. Like your experience with the band, it can be so rewarding to get out of our comfort zone and try something new. It’s out on the thin ice that we learn and grow. I really try to honestly evaluate opportunities as best I can without reflexively saying “no”. I’ve found too that – it is just as important to know when it is time to move on after saying “yes”. Thanks for sharing.

Joel Elveson

Very interesting article, Tom. Often we or job candidates get seduced by the proposed amount of money that is being offered or for that matter similar situations in life. At other times when a “yes” is in order we say “no” when the opposite word is what is called for. Only you know what is inside of you and how you really feel. You and you alone must map out the blueprint for your life. Be open and truthful with yourself as well as others.

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