Why It’s Absurdly Difficult to Say “No” to Bad Ideas

In my new book, The Human Paradox, I explore the strange nature of human relationships and the deeply irrational ways in which we perceive them. Here’s an excerpt from the first part of the book.

Saying “no” at the right time is a skill set that will bless your life.

But not all “no”s are created equal. Consider the following examples:

[Scenario A]

“Hey Lawrence, want to do shrooms and go tandem hang gliding with me, even though I’ve never been?”

“No.”

[Scenario B]

“Hey Lawrence, want to go out, spend your well-earned money on drinks, and get wild at a club for a night you won’t remember?”

“No.”

While the “No” in Scenario A will prevent an instantaneous end to my life, the “No” in Scenario B will shield me from the death of a perfectly fine day.

The importance of the “No” in Scenario A is glaringly obvious, but we often neglect the importance of the “No” in Scenario B. After all, it’s just one day we’re sacrificing to the forces of debauchery… right?

Well, ever since I turned 30, I’ve grown more and more aware of the “Preventer of Waste” No, or the POW No for short.

Just think of it as a no that punches any time-wasting activity in its face, hurling it back to whatever shitty idea it originally came from:

The POW No is the “no” of Scenario B. It’s not the “no” that will save your life in an obvious way. It’s the “no” that will save your spirit in a gradually mindful way.

It’s the “no” that prevents the creation of empty holes in our being, and helps to direct us to more meaningful endeavors.

The sad thing is that the POW No is still hard for many of us to use. Even though the idea presented to us sounds like it won’t be a fruitful one, we still struggle to put our foot down against it.

For example, a friend tells you about an amazing show you guys need to check out tonight, knowing that you have to wake up at 8 AM the next day for an important meeting. You struggle with the thought, but within minutes, you find yourself having a few beers at the venue, listening to your favorite artist’s music from 3-story high speakers, blowing out your eardrums and paralyzing half your face in the process. Yes, it was a great show indeed, but you wake up the next morning groggy as hell, trudging along to a meeting that will include your physical presence, but certainly not your mental one.

You knew it would be a net bad idea, but went along with it anyway. All you had to say was “no”, but that “no” was scary to use, especially to an enthusiastic person that was so excited about his idea of a good time.

Why is there so much fear surrounding the usability of the POW No? Why are we able to foresee the shitty results of a bad idea, but can’t effectively use the tool of “No” to guard ourselves against it?

Well, just like everything else that makes no sense, it all comes down to the younger years of our lives.

“I like you because you’re just down for anything.”

In my adolescence, hearing that phrase was like hearing the sound of crisp dollar bills gliding against one another in my Fossil wallet. It was like hearing the soft whisper of the girl I was (one-way) crushing on in Spanish class.

It was all that mattered.

Social approval was my currency, and my only job was to keep that bank account balance above zero.

I often tell my friends that high school was a pretty positive experience for me, but I’m enormously grateful that I don’t ever have to do it again. Saying or doing one slightly unfavorable thing to a particular group of people was the difference between four years of relative peace (which I thankfully had) and four years of miserable, targeted bullying.

High school is kind of like Burning Man gone wrong. It’s a closed ecosystem where money doesn’t have much intrinsic value (just like Burning Man), raves are popular (just like Burning Man), but your identity there is constructed primarily by the opinions and judgment of others (not too much like Burning Man).

Self-awareness is a rare characteristic amongst high schoolers, mainly because the environment doesn’t really allow for it. The system of judgment is pervasive, and it doesn’t just stop at the ground level. Not only do you have to maneuver through the rocky social structures of teenage opinions, you have to win the favor of the adult teachers that stand in between you and the gates of higher education.

In a system designed on the blueprint of judgment, the only way to successfully occupy your space is through social approval.

So we play to the rules of the system. We allow it to imprint itself onto our young, impressionable minds. We are taught that “Yes” is much more interesting than “No”.

So we go through much of our adolescence and young adulthood like this. The fear of saying “No” becomes pervasive, even when it’s the most sensible thing to do. I can’t remember how many times I would come back home late from hanging out at 7-Eleven, wondering how on earth I would start and complete this 20-page paper that was assigned a month ago.

Here’s the thing about high school, college, or any other institution that has thousands of young people gathered in one communal space. There is this innate desire to be accepted by a diverse range of people with a diverse range of interests and personalities. This is when our social identities are most malleable, and can be shaped by even the smallest interactions with people.

So in order to maximize these interactions, we cast a wide net of meaning and try to capture a lot of folks in it. The net is then used to validate our identity by holding the people that will mold and define it. Let’s take a closer look at this phenomenon in the next section.

The Net of Human Relationships

The net we build in our teenage years is big, but hastily sewn together. Our social craftsmanship is a little impatient at first, so the net started well while we were building its center, but started getting a little flimsy toward the outer part of it.

As a result, the holes in the center of the net are nice and tightly woven, but the holes are gradually larger as the net extends outward. It looks something like this:

Since the net is so big, it initially encompasses a significant number of people. There are so many potential points of contact, many of which are due to the simple fact that you’re all in the same physical room together. Think of that first day of junior high school, sitting in homeroom, looking around at all the new faces surrounding you.

You don’t know any of these people, but being in the same room puts them in the periphery of your net.

You do an ice breaker where people introduce themselves and say something about their favorite TV show. When it’s your turn, you make a joke about Goku and why it takes him fifteen whole episodes to power up into Super Saiyan mode. Why doesn’t the enemy just fly over and beat the shit out of him before he finishes his power up?

(Some) people laugh.

They inch a bit closer into your net.

At the end of homeroom, one dude approaches you. He really, really likes Dragonball Z, and you love it too. You guys walk around the school during break, joking and laughing about the ridiculousness of that cartoon. He tucks in closer towards the epicenter of the net, above a hole that is nicely woven.

Next up is math class. You say “hi” to a few folks sitting around you and even chat a bit with them. However, there is no spark of connection. No shared interest. They’re nice people, so you’re open to having them swim inside your net, but they hang out near the outskirts of it, drifting above the wider holes.

And so your day is full of these types of interactions. You have one or two people that drift above the center of the net, and most that float around near the outside.

At the end of the day, the net is carefully pulled up so you can review what remains in it. All the interactions that lay on the outside falls through the large holes, while the few relationships in the center are snugly tucked into the bottom of the net. This is where you begin to build your core.

We don’t really know this at the time, but this review process will later be known as something called gratitude.

Day in and day out, we cast the net back into our environment and carefully pull it back up. Movement in and out of the net will be constant, especially near the outskirts of it. Sometimes even the people in the center of our net will move away to the outside and fall through the holes. Those moments hurt, but they do happen. But those that stay there for the long haul will give us the best experiences of our lives.

In our adolescence, many of us desperately want to crowd the epicenter of our nets. Social approval is a big priority for us, so we are less able to comprehend the depth of our individual relationships. It’s common at this stage to eagerly desire the approval of others, and to do it en masse.

And the tool we use to do this comes down to one word: “Yes.”

It becomes engrained in us to say “Yes” to as many things as possible.

“Want to go to the beach this weekend to kick it, even though we have a test on Monday that we don’t know jack shit about?”

“Yeah, sure.”

“Hey, he’s going to take his dad’s car and drive up north. Wanna come with? Oh yeah, by the way, he doesn’t have his license and we’re gonna get high right before going.”

“Uh… Yes! Sounds awesome, let’s do it.”

Individual participation becomes the gateway to communal acceptance, so our involvement in an activity is the pre-requisite to filling up our net.

However, as time passes and we move into adulthood, the limitations of “Yes” starts to become apparent.

First, the epicenter of our net can only hold so many relationships before its tightly woven holes start to widen. When your threshold to entry into the center is low, it is no longer meaningful to hold space there. Given the high volume of people we encounter everyday (both online and off), we must learn to acknowledge when certain interactions will remain in the outskirts of the net. Otherwise, the rope holding the center will fray from overpopulation, the holes will widen, and core relationships will naturally fall out.

Second, saying “Yes” for the sake of approval gets you into a lot of time-wasting and energy-sucking situations. As stated earlier, we spend a lot of our time in our youth saying “Yes” to anything involving group participation. And even when we realize that this “Yes” situation kind of sucks (like waiting in line for two hours to get into a ridiculously loud club), we don’t acknowledge it. Instead, our 21-year-old-selves will go above and beyond to explore the potential FUN in this activity. Well, as the years pass, one day you will find yourself in something you apprehensively said “Yes” to, and you will think to yourself, “What the fuck am I doing here? This shit is a waste of time.” You will then plant your feet on the ground, turn towards the exit, and promptly leave, feeling a sense of freedom inside. And you can comfortably go home, realizing that you are now conscious of yet another limitation of a blindly distributed “Yes”.

Third, and perhaps most importantly, you begin to realize that the people we try to please the most are largely peripheral figures. Or, in other words, the people we attempt to please through the tool of “Yes” have a generally low impact on your overall well-being and happiness. A classic example of this is your boss at work. This is a weird cultural figure that expects to be pleased, regardless of what you know about him or her. So their terrible jokes illicit scattered laughter, and a flurry of “Yes”es are thrown at their every request. But in reality, you really don’t know anything about this conjured social figure, and they couldn’t care less about what’s going on in your life as well. The same thing can be said about the peripheral acquaintances that consistently put you in time-wasting situations as well.

We have this strange tendency to put on a vivid “performance of character” for those that we don’t know well. When we meet someone new or are in the presence of someone we want to impress, we put a great deal of effort into highlighting the desirable parts of our being.

We want to crack jokes at a blinding pace to exhibit our wit. We want to have a reply to every topic to show that we are knowledgeable. We want to be down for anything to show that we are relatable.

But the problem is that we are all very flawed. It’s simply part of our nature. So in essence, it is deeply unnatural to solely exhibit your strengths to somebody. That’s why your typical corporate office environment feels so foreign and stale. When you are in a community where you are judged purely off your strengths, the relationships you develop become robotic and mechanical. There is a veneer of falsity that coats everyone’s perceptions of one another. There is no way “How’s it going?” is truly always “Good.”

The exhibition of your flaws is liberating. The vulnerability in showing them is ultimately what creates powerful connections.

That is precisely why there is an inverse correlation between this “performance of character” and meaningfulness of a relationship. The more we try to please someone through an exhibition of our strengths and a necessity in saying “Yes”, the less likely this bond will ultimately bear fruit for you.

Okay… So what do we do with all this information?

Well, the first thing is to acknowledge the people that make up the core of your net. The nonsensical habit of pleasing people with limited contributions to our happiness is also at play in the reverse scenario.

When it comes to our deepest loved ones, we tend to take them for granted because they feel safe and consistent in our lives. We feel comfort in knowing that we aren’t judged for our actions, and are embraced simply for who we are. This is a warm feeling, but if left unchecked, it can lead to laziness and an atrophying of the bonds that comprise your epicenter.

There is a careful balance we must maintain when it comes to our core relationships. Their existence seems to be unconditionally present, so it is remarkably easy for them to fall victim to entitlement and neglect. This explains the phenomenon of people nonchalantly acting like assholes to their loving parents, but tortuously mulling over that time those strangers didn’t laugh at their joke. Our core relationships feel like they will always be there simply because they should be.

Family.

Childhood friends.

Your significant other.

They feel so comfortable because you can simply be yourself. However, comfort often leads to complacency, and complacency is the permit that takes you on the fast lane to neglect.

The key is to proactively acknowledge the existence of these relationships, and take the time to truly nurture them into the present moment. There is nothing effortless about a powerful connection. As much as we like to tout how we can simply “pick up where we left off,” this is a mechanism we use to justify the lack of effort we put into our core.

Approaching our epicenter in a reactive manner frays the very infrastructure of it, so instead, we must strengthen it through dedicated proactivity. This is where we need to use “Yes” in a diligent manner. The limitations of “Yes” as described above don’t apply here.

Reach out to the people that define you. Call your loved ones instead of texting them. Take that coveted week off to simply be in their presence, even if they’re a couple thousand miles away from you.

It will be well worth it.

You see, here’s the thing about getting older. It’s calmingly chaotic yet vibrantly solemn at the same time. If that sentence doesn’t quite make sense to you, that in itself is essentially my point. You start realizing that life is full of contradictions and doesn’t really make any sense, but you gradually become okay with that.

In our adolescence, things seem to have a direct cause and effect. If I get good grades, I will be rewarded with a collegiate acceptance letter. If I have a lot of friends, I will win the approval of my community. If I go to college, I will have the job I always wanted.

But with age comes non-linearity:

You come to the realization that your journey is not as straightforward as you thought it would be. The job that you wanted then no longer excites you. The perfect partner you wanted when you were eighteen would be a reprehensible douche now. The friends you thought you’d have forever all live in separate cities, switching careers, getting married, and are doing all kinds of things that seem foreign to you.

At first that’s a tough reality to acknowledge.

So initially, we try to justify and make sense of these unexpected changes.

“We don’t hang out anymore because she’s starting to act weird around me.”

“My job would be so much better if they would just give me more stimulating stuff to do.”

When we try to make sense of the insensible, we often turn to judgment to attempt it. It’s easier to blame the situation or individual than it is to accept the temporal nature of our existence.

Non-linearity leads to uncertainty, and that scares the shit out of us.

However, as we get older, we learn to embrace uncertainty as a matter of life. It becomes apparent that it exists as a universal constant.

But don’t get me wrong, accepting it is still really fucking hard to do.

Ideally, we all want some degree of stability that anchors us. This is why we don’t long for additional mothers, thirty different passions, or multiple husbands and wives (for the most part). In a world full of uncertainty and winding roads, it’s comforting to know that there is a constant source we can turn to for guidance and sanity.

And this is precisely why we must nurture the core of our net.

It is a beacon that shines through the shitshow we often find ourselves in. Although we cannot be certain that the composition of our core will remain unchanged, we can be certain that the core as an entity will continue to live on. So the ropes that nest its framework must be strengthened and tightened to properly house it.

The only way to embrace the insensible is to strengthen what we can already make sense of. It makes complete sense as to why we should nourish and cherish the people that we love most. An explanation of that really isn’t necessary. Why some of us can’t seem to find a stimulating career, on the other hand, doesn’t make any fucking sense. That’s why there are hundreds of thousands of articles trying to explain how you can find the perfect job, but not much on why you should be appreciative of your parents if they showered you with love.

One makes complete sense, whereas the other is an exercise in mental acrobatics. To love our core is sensible, both rationally and emotionally. It is our light and shield that will help guide us through periods of uncertainty. It must be proactively fed by “Yes” and nurtured by sustained effort.

At this point, we have performed a dissection on our core and emphasized the importance of saying “Yes” here. But what about the rest of the net? The parts with the larger holes that have periphery characters floating above it?

In order to answer this, let’s do a quick 3-point recap of what we’ve gone over so far:

(A) Saying “No” to shitty ideas is hard to do because we’ve been socially conditioned to always say “Yes” in our youth.

(B) Our entire social fabric is essentially a net of relationships, with a tightly woven epicenter and a loosely connected periphery. In our adolescence, we try to crowd our epicenter because social approval is our currency.

(C) As we get older, we understand that saying “Yes” to everything sucks, and we tend to use it on people that don’t have much of an impact on our overall well-being. That’s an insensible concept, and we begin to realize that life itself doesn’t really make much sense either. So keeping a healthy core that navigates us through this uncertainty is very important.

Okay, great. Now back to the original question. We’ve clarified the importance of keeping the epicenter of our net nice and taut, but what about the rest of it? What about the parts of that net with the bigger holes? What about the bonds that we remain only loosely connected to, but we are still connected to nonetheless?

Well, this is where the truly difficult work starts. Yes, it’s important to nurture and tend to our core, but that can seem like an exercise in common sense. Instead, it is the mindful awareness and positioning of our peripheral relationships that ultimately bear the most fruit for our well-being.

Paradoxically, the relationships that have scattered themselves in the outskirts of our lives are the ones that are most relevant to our search for clarity. Therefore, it is crucial to explore the nature of these peripheral connections by identifying what they are, how they affect us, and why we must learn to let many of them go.

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