Last week I was offered a free, all-expense paid trip to Hawaii. This included airfare from New Jersey, a hotel room with an ocean view, luau, hiking, the whole package.
The context was this: I was invited to speak at what looks to be an AMAZING conference. The organizer invited me herself, and I was bowled over by how impressive she is, and how thoughtful the event was.
I would be sure to meet some “heavy hitters” in the publishing world as well.
But after much thought and consideration, I said, “No thank you.”
Today, I would like to talk about why I came to that decision, and how this relates to how each of you can find more time and focus to do the work that matters most to you. At the end of the post, I’ll give you a small assignment to get you started.
What I Say YES to Matters More Than What I Say NO to
In the past few years, I have seen lots of articles and talks online about “the power of saying no.” This really seems to resonate with people, this word “no.”
For one, I think most people have a very difficult time saying no. We want to please others; we want to avoid conflict; and oftentimes it is easier to just do the thing they are asking than figure out how to get out of it.
I never resonated with NO though. What I focus on instead is saying YES.
Like, full-on, deeply, emphatically saying YES to a handful of things that matter most to me.
For me, saying no to Hawaii wasn’t a negative. It wasn’t a loss. It was saying YES to the things I care about deeply.
Very often, when I hear people talk about “the power of saying no,” it is in the context of removing things that they don’t want to do. For instance, “Say ‘no’ to going to the PTA meeting that you dread.” Or “Say ‘no’ to volunteering for a committee at work that you don’t believe in, but would only do so because of peer pressure.”
This distraction includes real responsibilities, as well as new and shiny things. This may include checking Facebook constantly, or rushing over to Target for a big sale, or — yes — a free trip to Hawaii.
Something so appealing that it seems like an obvious “yes.”
Let’s try this out:
Me: Would you like a free trip to Hawaii?
You: Um, of course.
But this is so often why we are overwhelmed. Why we feel like we are constantly distracted. Always treading water. Always distant from our passion.
Distraction takes us away from devoting our focus to the things that matter most. The problem is not just that we say yes to too many things, but we don’t identify the few key things that matter most, and commit fully.
In other words: we don’t say YES to what we want with emphasis. We say “yes” meekly. This is a huge problem.
You may be asking, “Gee Dan, what do you believe in so deeply that a free weeklong stay in Hawaii would get in the way of?”
- My wife and son
- My work
These are the two things that matter to me more than anything. The things I have taken huge risks in my life to focus on in the best way I can. The things that I wake up each and every day deeply thankful for. I don’t treat these as flippant obligations for even a moment. Instead, I view them as privileges I must honor.
Sorry if that sounds flaky, but that is genuinely how I feel. Let me explain…
To go to Hawaii without my wife and son means being away from them for a week, which is a big gap. I especially don’t like having such a big experience as Hawaii without them. Yes, I did the math on bringing them along. It doesn’t work out (I’ll take you through the math in a moment).
For my work — this is my passion. I love the work that I do, who I get to collaborate with, and the vision I have for what is being created because of it.
This is where math comes in. Right now I have a full plate of clients and projects. I LOVE working with these folks. To take a week off would require me to not charge them for that week. With a full roster of clients, that would cost me thousands in lost billing.
Likewise, to bring my wife and son along would cost at least a couple grand.
So, just for the sake of this post, let’s say it would be an outright cost of $5,000 to take this opportunity. That is still way less than a normal Hawaii vacation.
But then Diane Krause, who works for me, framed it this way: “Lotta money for a trip that’s not 100% vacation.”
In other words, I would be half-assing it.
There are things in life I gladly half-ass. I half-ass it when I wash the car. But I don’t half-ass it when it comes to my family or my work. I’m all in.
Are there very good arguments for going to Hawaii? Of course. As my brother pointed out, “It would take only one good connection that turns into a new client to make this wildly worthwhile.” In other words, going to the event could feasibly turn into tens of thousands of dollars of revenue.
And that is 100% true.
This is another aspect of saying YES vs. saying NO. I mentioned I have a full roster of clients. To me, that means I am saying YES to them as emphatically as possible. I will not trade a bird in hand for two in the bush. I see myself as a partner with my clients. I am invested in their mission.
Removing myself for that for a week because I am chasing some big name client does not resonate with how I like to work.
Another person I spoke to when weighing my options was Jennie Nash. She talked about how this opportunity was the shiny object that leads to distraction. She put it this way:
“EVERYONE would say yes to this. Even if it meant they would be busy and overwhelmed, and it meant their wife would be mad at them. It’s because they rushed for the shiny object and were distracted from what matters most.”
This is why Jennie and I are friends. For the record, my wife was very supportive of my decision.
But in this process, I wanted to fully own up to my motivations. At every step, I had to ask myself, “Am I considering taking this trip because it is a boondoggle?” This is the word I remember from working in corporate America, used to describe an expensive trip that executives wanted to take for personal reasons, only mildly justifying it for business reasons.
I didn’t want to just selfishly grab at a free vacation. That would not honor the incredible generosity of the event organizer. It wouldn’t honor my clients and my commitment to them. And it wouldn’t honor my own intentions to my work and family.
Clarity Should Provide Direction
When I wrote out those two things above, that my focus was intently on my wife and son, and my work, that sounded kind of trite, right? You perhaps nodded your head, “Duh, Dan. Of course those things matter to you.”
For me, being super clear about what matters is not meant to illustrate values, but instead to provide direction. It is a decision-making tool.
For instance, have you ever heard someone say, “The thing I want most in the world is to write.” But they never write. Or someone who says “Time with my mother is more important than anything.” Yet, they barely see her.
Clarity is a tool. One you have to use actively.
This is where a simple list of what matters most to me turns into a strategy. A strategy to creating the experiences and results I want most in my life.
In the Hawaii instance, it was a fun idea to imagine, but the bottom line is:
- I would be creating distance between me and my family.
- I would be walking out on my clients.
The two things that matter most to me.
In writing this post, I reflected on my decision-making process. How was a choice about a free trip to Hawaii something that could be viewed as strategic, instead of reactionary? How could it be filled with clarity?
These are the three steps I took:
- I listened to my emotions. What was my gut telling me?
- I wrote down justifications for going vs not going. I tried to clear away the sparkle of the phrase “FREE TRIP TO HAWAII.”
- I spoke to trusted business advisors. This consisted first of Diane Krause who works for me, then my brother, then Jennie Nash. And of course, my wife.
Below I am going to give you a small homework assignment that aligns with these three steps. I give each a title:
- Your true north
- Your map
- Your compass
Your Biggest Challenge
A few days ago I sent out a newsletter and asked “what is the biggest challenge standing between you and your creative work?” I received dozens of thoughtful responses. The big overaching theme in the answers was this:
“Me. I’m the biggest thing standing in my way. I can’t get out of my own way.”
Of all the responses, this one jumped out at me:
“My job was so draining that I always felt too tired and hopeless to try writing again.”
“Then, guess what? I got cancer last year. It was the best thing that ever happened to me. My friends and family couldn’t believe that I wasn’t wailing and grieving, but I saw it as a way out of my prison.”
“I have 4 ebooks out now, nearly finished with 3 more, and 11 more in the research stage. I’m almost finished with my first fiction, which I thought I could never write.”
“I’m loving my life and I get up every morning looking forward to getting back to writing. Never, in the last 30 years, have I woken up happy and excited like this. We are poor right now, but it is what it is. I don’t know if I’ll ever make a living by writing, but I bet my last years will be wonderful. This is better than retirement.”
“It sounds so trite to say life is short, but that is an understatement. I hope other writers don’t wait for cancer to free them from themselves.”
In other words, it took CANCER for her to get out of her own way, and to emphatically say YES to the things that mattered most to her. It took cancer for her to find her true north, her map, and her compass.
Again, this is where tactics fail us, and where strategy becomes essential. The scope of changes she needed to make in her life couldn’t be solved by downloading a new to-do app, or via a simple “life hack.” It required a massive reshift.
Scary, right? Not just the cancer, but the thought of needing such a shift. Most people hate uncertainty and change. I get that. So, let’s do a simple task to get things started for you…
Here is Your Homework
This is what I would like for you to do, the goal is to create a system that helps accomplish three things:
- Identify what matters most to you — your true north.
- Decide where you want to go — your map.
- Ensure you stay on that track — your compass.
Finding Your True North
Get out a stack of index cards, or a suitable substitute. Then, one item per index card, write down everything that is important to you.
When you are done, lay them out on the floor or a large table.
Move them around with the most critical things at the top. This may take some time. Try to create layers of threes. A row of your three biggest priorities at the top, then three beneath it that are a tiny bit less important, then three beneath that, and so on.
Take a photo of it.
Then, wipe away everything beneath the top three items. Have a trash can handy.
Again, this is not about saying NO, but about emphatically saying YES to the three things that matter most to you.
The final step is to honor those things. If you want to do meaningful work, but hate your job, then you need to address that.
Okay, now you have your true north.
Creating Your Map
If you are following along with my emails from the past week, you should already have this one done. Answer this question:
If you knew you couldn’t fail, what is the one thing you would like to accomplish with your creative work?
Think about it perhaps not as a milestone to reach, but an EXPERIENCE you would live each day. Or an EFFECT you want to create in the lives of others.
This is your map.
Setting Your Compass
Your compass is what keeps you on track. What helps you make decisions when the variables aren’t so simple. This is not a “thing,” but rather, trusted advisors. Someone you can bounce ideas off of; who offers a different perspective; whose wisdom you trust.
Spoiler alert: this is not always someone from your immediate family. Sometimes it is someone who understands you as an artist before they see you as someone responsible for house and home. Someone who defines in terms of what you can create, not just what you provide for them.
I listed four trusted advisors above. How they became so varies:
- Diane Krause is someone I hired. She is my go-to person on a day-to-day basis to discuss business and strategy. We use Slack (a text messaging service) to chat when we need to, without interrupting each other.
- My brother is someone I trust implicitly. He also tends to have a slightly different perspective than I do, which is why I called him next. Clearly, this was a relationship I was born into.
- Jennie Nash is someone I have a private mastermind group with — meaning we meet weekly to review challenges we are working through. As I have said before, Jennie is amazing.
- My wife — my most trusted partner.
Two of the above are family. But TWO are relationships that I had to take efforts to forge in the past couple of years. I would encourage you to do the same. Map out clear steps to identify others who can be trusted advisors outside of your family.
This is your compass.
In the next few days, click reply and email me the following:
- Your true north: The three things that matter most to you.
- Your map: A single sentence describing where you want to go — the experience you want to create in your life — with your creative work.
- Your compass: The first names of 1-3 people who are your trusted advisors.
These things represent clarity. The biggest tool you can have when battling distraction, overwhelm, and lack or resources.
On Monday I will send you another note with something really special I will be offering to help you take your true north, your map, and your compass and embark on your own journey to doing more of the creative work that you love most.