Box of Crayons Blog


4 Unexpected Things I Wish I Could Say No To

You’ll most likely have heard Michelangelo’s comment about how he created his sculpture. Let me paraphrase for you:
“I just carve away anything that doesn’t look like a lion, and I’m left with a lion.”

We all nod our head to that, but you have in that statement the very sine non qua of Great Work:

Focus on the No’s and you become clear on the Yes’s.

I talk about it a lot, not just because I think it’s the essence of doing more Great Work but because it seems to be the essential lesson I keep needing to learn about doing more Great Work for myself. (You do know all of us teachers teach what we most need to learn, don’t you?)

Here are four somewhat unexpected things I’d like to do a better job at saying No to – and how I plan to do it.

When you’re done, pop over to the blog post and let me know in the comments what you’re trying to say No to.

1. Saying No to Control
… so I can say Yes to Freedom

My very first boss was creative, prolific and a touch insane. I remember one of my mouth-operating-before-brain-career-limiting-move moments when, in a company strategy session and in front of everyone, I joked he needed to have a finger in every pie.

I seem to have become that very same person.

Box of Crayons now has too many pies. Either that, or I have not enough fingers.
But in any case, we – and by that I mean I – have reached a point where it can’t go on.
If I haven’t dropped a ball yet, it’s only a matter of time. And hamster-in-wheel is not
a job description worth much.

Here’s the shift in thinking that might make the difference for me. I am not Box of Crayons. I serve Box of Crayons.

Here’s the action I’m taking to make the shift. We’ve hiring some additional support for me, people who’ll lead projects, filter some of the communication that comes my way and help keep me where I belong.

2. Saying No to Popularity
… so I can say Yes to Friendship

I’m not super obsessed with numbers, and in fact am pretty lousy at managing metrics.
(I mainly go with “Is this the right mix of Great Work and Good Work?” “Am I having fun?” “Are we in the poor house?” I’m hoping for Yes Yes No as the answers).

But the rise of new technology means that one way of spending time is hanging out in the social media mirrored rooms waving at many (woo hoo! 8,000 people on Twitter!) but never really holding hands and having a conversation with a few.

At least, in my case, not enough.

The shift in thinking is to recognize it as a width vs depth thing, and feel the hunger for the depth.

The action I’m taking is to take the Call a Friend option once a day to connect to people I love.

(That said, you can always connect to me on Twitter here and on LinkedIn here.

3. Saying No to Money

… so I can say Yes to Impact

I have such an exciting project on the go, and you’re going to hear more about it in the coming months – in fact I’ll be asking for your help to make it successful. Here’s the high-level, top-secret summary: an ebook with a bunch of fantastic contributors writing about, in so many words, how to do more Great Work. Here’s what’s cool about it – it’s
going to help raise a bunch of moolah for a great charity…

More to come on that of course, but what I’m conscious of is that between now and January, I need to give this project – my Great Work Project for the moment – the appropriate time and space to come together.

This matters, and as such it’s in real danger of being ignored and shelved as the Good Work tide continues to rise and its waves lap my feet.

And Good Work is so tempting. The Great Work makes me fret, gives me sweaty palms, invites all sorts of self-sabotage. Good Work on the other hand is the relatively simple task of rolling up my sleeves and getting things done, having some fun and often making some money all the way. And yet – Great Work, unsafe and uncertain as it so often is, is where I hang out on the edges of my own competence and ambition, learning what’s possible for me and for the world.

The shift in thinking is to remember (and remember and remember) that Great Work projects take time and need time, and your calendar never lies about what really is most important to you.

The action I’m taking is to schedule and track my time on this project, with the goal of six hours a week to move it forward. (That means 132 hours committed between now and the end of the year. That should be enough for some progress.)

4. Saying No to Plans
… so I can say Yes to Now

Truth is, I’m unlikely to ever say No to plans. I love them – which is one reason at least that Charlie Gilkey and I ran a great little teleseminar on the art of mid-range planning. I’ve got plans for the week, the month, the quarter, the year. When in doubt, I pull out a piece of paper and start sketching out a plan (which, it must be said, often looks exactly like the plan I’d done two weeks earlier and then “filed” somewhere safe and forgotten about.)

But perhaps it’s time to plan a little less. Leo from Zen Habits is on a No Goals kick at the moment, but I can’t quite go that far. I am becoming aware that the price I pay for planning is that I spend more time in the future and less time in the here and now.

For instance, I’m writing this newsletter on the deck on my mother-in-law’s house in Nova Scotia. It’s a Friday, the heat from the day is still in the air but the humidity is gone as we drift towards evening. I’m sipping a rather delicious glass of Shiraz Viognier – if you’re thinking that the writing in this is a little OTT, that just might be a reason – and the garden is vivid with flowers, a family of robins dancing in and out of the foliage and the bird bath.

When I’m planning, I kind of miss all of that.

The shift in thinking is to realize that planning comes at a cost. A price I’m willing to pay, but perhaps to pay less these days.

The action is to spend more time with the Vice President of Everything Else, who is a genius at enjoying the moment.

Don’t Take My Word For It

Smart people thinking out loud about choices.

“Many are stubborn in pursuit of the path they have chosen, few in pursuit of the goal.”
– Friedrich Nietzsche, German philosopher

“I can resist everything except temptation.”
– Oscar Wilde, Irish writer

“Lead us not into temptation. Just tell us where it is; we’ll find it.”
– Sam Levenson, American humorist

“Choice is the essence of what I believe it is to be human.”
– Liv Ullmann, Norwegian actress

“Given the choice between accomplishing something and just lying around, I’d rather lie around. No contest.”
– Eric Clapton, English musician

“He who has choice has trouble.”
– Dutch proverb

“I exercise extreme self-control. I never drink anything stronger than gin before breakfast.”
– W. C. Fields, American actor

“If everything’s under control, you’re going too slow.”
– Mario Andretti, Italian-American race car driver

68 Responses to 4 Unexpected Things I Wish I Could Say No To

  • Sean Smitham

    This was exactly what I needed. Such a great post. Powerful, succinct, inspiring. Thanks Michael, for always leading me back to doing more Great Work. Namaste.

  • Cynthia Morris

    Thank you for sharing your process. I think some people hesitate to work toward success because they’re afraid of being deluged with opportunities and possibilities and they won’t be able to focus. Showing us how you’re making decisions is helpful.
    I’m in the middle of reading Do More Great Work. I’m amazed by how simple the distinction between good and great is. It’s helping me (fingers in many pies, too!) distinguish between what’s right for me. Yesterday I took an action that made me scared and sweaty-palmed but one that I had decided the day before was driving me toward great.
    I’ve been coaching for eleven years now, lots of good work interspersed with great work. It’s time to get my great work project off the shelf (after I wrap up some good work projects!). I owe you a big thanks for the simple distinction between good and great to help me make the decisions easier.
    Bravo! And enjoy more of those relaxing moments outside, Shiraz or no!

  • Shelley Fishel

    Michael – This really struck me today. I am on the verge of committing to a Great Work Project and your description of the complete scaryiness of it really resonated.

    So I am going to schedule time in to work on my new project – which by the way I will most definitly define as a Project and will make sure not to move that scheduled time to busywork.

    Thanks for the newsletter.
    I love it.


  • Melea Seward

    Brilliant. And much needed. Right now. I am starting to feel like new projects and clients coming my way aren’t clients or projects but tests. Can I say no? so I can do more of MY work? It’s my biggest struggle and my biggest downfall. And I LOVE your connect to one person you love on the phone depth v. width. Bravo.

    Thank you thank you.

  • Adrienne

    I’m working on learning how to say “no” to confusion, so that I can say “yes” to doing great work. Somewhere along the way, I learned that being “confused” is a reasonable response to difficult choices or too much information. While confusion might seem “reasonable” in the sense that there really IS a huge amount of information available to us these days, and there really ARE lots and LOTS of choices to make every day, confusion is just a killer. It kills dreams, momentum, and… great work.

  • Dave Herman

    Thanks Michael! Very timely post for me, as I just got back from a meeting in which someone I love to work with was trying hard to convince me to join him on a new project, which my gut was telling me was a wild goose chase and would get in the way of my own priorities!

    I’ve also recently been inspired by Dan Ariely’s chapter on “closing doors” in his book Predictably Irrational. Absolutely recommended reading for anyone trying to help themelves say no. Especially if, like me, you love so many different things!

    Cheers, Dave.

  • Sam Cox

    Michael wrote: “Box of Crayons now has too many pies. Either that, or I have not enough fingers. But in any case, we – and by that I mean I – have reached a point where it can’t go on.”

    Check out Sam Carpenter’s book “Work the System” in which he describes and addresses his similar situation. It occurs to me that by following Carpenter’s advice and methods, you will find more time and spirit than ever for your Great Work.

  • Leona

    Thank you Michael for creatively joining the “no” with a “yes”. So much more empowering than just saying “no” alone – but adding the “yes” invites me to actually know and move towards what is more important for me. The “no” alone, for me, tastes of my life being shaped predominantly by outside forces. Adding the yes empowers me to proactively, creativelyand with consideration choose the shape of my life as I am carving it out.

  • Martyne

    A year and a half ago, I said no to an 8 to 5 job so I could write a novel and stop running in the morning. Scary? Ho yes but now I have the schedule that suits me, enough business to sustain me and the book will be available on Amazon at the end of August or the beggining of September. The best part is, I’ve developped the habit of first saying No, then thinking about it so I only do the work I want to do.

    Thanks for sharing, Michael. Great blogpost.

  • John

    You have really hit on something. So much of what I do is not important and yet I still do it. (I’ll have to go back and re-look at your book.) Oh to say no! One of the most challenging is along the same lines as the “no goals” that you mentioned. After a lifetime of being told the opposite it is a real challenge to say no to certainty and to say yes to ambiguity, the unexpected, chance, spontaneity, living in the moment, and for heaven’s sake, to having a lot more fun!

  • Deb

    ” . . . . the sage learns how best to develop himself so that his influence may endure. He must make himself strong in every way casting out everything that is inferior and degrading. Thus he attains that tirelessness which depends upon consciously limiting his fields of activity.” I Ching

  • Nikki

    Hi Michael
    In this crazy Internet world, you stand out with your common sense guide to life. I love your comments and your graphics and layout are spot on. The colours and designs are beautiful but do not overwhelm the text. I enjoy your work and have your Eight Principles of Fun on my desktop so I can watch it when I want. I would love to know what program you used to make it. It is awesome.

  • Cristian

    [as a music composer and songwriter] I need to say NO to [the ultimate search for] complex acrobatic and awing and say YES to embracing the simple and beautiful. .. sometimes the answer is in the simple. And the simple, when it’s well done, makes us open our jaws in awe.

  • gail

    I’ve ran a horse show management company for many years. At first it was a way to make a little extra money and I became very good at it. Then I was able to help my neices financially by letting them work with me and they could make extra money and learn work skills. Then my own family was able to earn a little extra money and learn work skills. Now, the neices are married and have full time jobs, my children are working career jobs and I have decided to sell the business so I can spend time with my family and neices and their family. I’ll miss the extra money. Yet, the time I will spend with family and friends will be priceless. It’s all about choices!

  • Charlie Russell

    Fantastic post Michael. Enjoying the Great Works book. Just need a little time to devote to it. One thing I now realize, when you say yes to anything you are also saying no to something else!
    Cheers, Charlie

  • Chaim B

    Reason #1 really caught my eye here.
    For a lot of smart, creative people, it is often hard to let others make important decisions or take decisive actions on their behalf. They say that staff command is one of the most important modern organizational achievements — creating a chain of command in which the decisions of the head can be carried out autonomously, by others, who understand his way of thinking and the choices he would make.

    But one of the most often overlooked points is the difficulty that any inspired organizational leader has in handing off his decisions to a collective of different, largely unknown people. He is vanquishing control and placing complete trust in the people who support him — it is a big step to take, but one that is deserving of commendation when one has achieved it.

  • Kevin McIntosh

    Great post Michael. This is what I need to do…have a “No” list. Perhaps start with just one “No” so as not to overwhelm and add a new one each week (or when I master the last one!). I’ve always been inspired by the teachings of Jim Rohn whom I will paraphrase here since I am saying “no” to getting the quote exact…”If you don’t make your own plans, you’ll become part of someone elses…and guess what they’ve got planned for you? Not much.”
    PS…missed you at the Rhino last Thursday

  • George

    Thanks for adding in there “How I’ll do it.”

    Isn’t it funny – Just after I say to myself that getting a job right now would sort of just get in the way, and how it would require at least 30- 40 hrs of my time each week, and all I would get out of it is $50k-$70k each yr and health insurance, and stability, etc – funny how one shows up to taunt me just then. Reminds me of “Who moved my cheeze.”

    My two no’s –
    1. I’m going to start saying no to reacting and being rocked emotionally by the Elements Of Resistance (War Of Art) which crowd me on a daily basis both internally and externally, and yes to responding to them properly.
    I just spent a few moments reassuring my young daughter that her older sister can try to boss her around but in reality I’m the authority and I say the younger need not be a servant to the older. Daddy gives you permission to not jump just because she says so.
    This translates into my realizing that i don’t have to accept orders from any one other than the authority in my life, (My God) Who, by the way, seems to be encouraging me onto greatwork or at least allowing it.

    2. Today I determined to say no to starting the art just yet and yes to finishing setting up the structures for it (Design studio/sculpture studio, machine shop/wood shop) as this is a Great Work preparation year – a concept/realization I heard in one of your greatwork conversations.

    Keep up the Great Work.

  • Shalon Ironroad

    I *thoroughly* love this post. Our world is so information-rich and fast-moving that it’s easy to forget the importance of that “no” filter. Thank you for bringing that into focus for me! I also really appreciate your goal of calling 1 person per day that you’re close to. You didn’t say text… you didn’t say email or Facebook message…that voice-to-voice connection is so powerful in maintaining and strengthening relationships. THANK YOU!

  • Mariana

    Hey Michael, I love your post! And special this one the 5 things” I wish I could say no to..” Is so positive, cause sometimes in my case, I forgot to not try to control the things in life or work and of course I get in mess. So I like when you say to Say yes to Freedom over Control!


  • Diane Whiddon

    Oh, this is brilliant! I’m so glad to have found you as I’m just on the verge of beginning my Great Work. My fave No from the list above is Saying No to Plans. I’ve recently found that the more I listen to my intuition, the less I need to rely on plans. My intuition steers me right every time, and doesn’t suck my time and OCD energy the way plans tend to do. Can’t wait to read more. So happy to have found your Great Work. 🙂

  • Lisa Rylander

    Dear Michael. I think you need a vacation. That said, like so many of us you may not be able to afford one. So here is my suggestion…

    Write done everywhere you’d like to go to get away from it all that is nearby on small scaps of paper and throw them into a hat (your favorite one if you have one). Throw a potluck with a band that will play music (these are your friends or friends of friends so they will play for free or if you are a musician as well you can collaberate with others) and charge a $5 to $10 cover charge per person. Pull a location to go to out of the hat and go there. Let the website be for a few days.

    All of us appreciate you. Appreciate yourself for a few days.

    Times are tough. I make videos/films. The market and equipment needed has shifted to the point that I may be forced out due to lack of funds to keep up with technology. I need a vaction as well, but can’t pull one off yet, but I bet you can because there must be many folks around you that will provide that for you and maybe even go along with you.

    Hang in there. Take a lot of deep breaths and keep a sense of humor about you. Or cry if you need to. And then laugh over something stupid. You will survive.

  • Nida whole lotta lovin!!

    You are definately the most “human” of all these motivational speakers- authurs etc . I really appreciate that about you. I dont feel like beating myself up yet again for messing up after reading your letter!! You are REAL and more importantly FUNNY . It feel sso clear when reading your stuff that you are honest and its so refreshing. Telling us you are on your Mother in laws deck (and Im sure it is lovely ) sippping a nice wine(again REAL ..your not sipping an organic juice!!!) makes me feel you have a life apart form all this stuff . Good for you , I can trust you , Thanks. Im about to go on holidays myself and I think Il’ll bring some of your stuff for reading with me. I can really relate to how you think which means you must be as crazy as me!!! Thanks for the honest , humourous , fun, helpful, look at life!!! Nida

  • Jannie

    Well done Michael. Your peeling-of-the-layers of formal writing and openness to sharing a part of who you are gives inspiration and wisdom, and invites curiosity. Thank-you!

    My first NO: booking up all my time for performance with few windows for planning & reflection and family so I can say yes to self satisfaction, more Great Work and people I love!

  • Nida whole lotta lovin!!

    Hi There, What would you recomend of yours that I can download onto my ipod to listen to on holidays that will make me chuckle ,inspire me , and have me burstin out of me britches to get going when I come back!!! ( I know I could learn to spell!!)

  • Pietha

    Quote: For instance, I’m writing this newsletter on the deck on my mother-in-law’s house in Nova Scotia. It’s a Friday, the heat from the day is still in the air but the humidity is gone as we drift towards evening. I’m sipping a rather delicious glass of Shiraz Viognier – if you’re thinking that the writing in this is a little OTT, that just might be a reason – and the garden is vivid with flowers, a family of robins dancing in and out of the foliage and the bird bath.

    When I’m planning, I kind of miss all of that. unquote.

    Yes! And I am sure you miss something while writing this newsletter. Stop it, Michael, and look at your beloved ones, while sipping. That’s the greatest of all works. I wish you Lots of love and very few plans, love, Pietha

  • Pietha

    O, and another wish for you: I hope you don’t read my message!! It might mean that you are enjoying some time off. Pietha

  • Pekka

    My YES goes to…

    1. CHOOSING – I make my own choices, remembering who I am and what I want.

    2. TAKING RESPONSIBILITY – I take full responsibility of my choices; also the things I choose to leave out of my life.

    3. WALKING FREELY MY OWN PATH – I listen to others, but I choose my own path and the people I walk with.

    My NO goes to…

    1. WORRYING – I don’t worry about the future, I focus on the present moment

    2. COMPETING – I don’t compare myself with others, I try to be free of any kind of ranking

    3. HURRYING – I don’t respond to the invitations of hurry, I take command of my mind and remain still.

  • Alana Cates

    Hi Michael,
    I am trying to say no to choosing between what I want to do and what I think I should do, so that I may say yes to living in harmony with both. That is, let my heart lead the way, and use my head to manage the risk, instead of picking one path or the other.
    In the end, I guess it is really saying no to the self-sabotage that comes from not being fully and completely on board and yes to living with purposeful passion.
    It sure is a lot more fun.
    Thanks for pointing it out for me.

  • Sandy Ej

    Your website and your friendship is of UTMOST importance to me.
    I just don’t say it often enough.
    I will keep in touch. I will.
    Sandy Ej

  • Sandy Ej

    I am trying to say

    YES to creativity


    NO to joykillers.

    I’m doing a little bit better at it.

    It means being creative and putting my best foot forward even though

    nonsupportive people and noncreative people try to stand in my way

    and tell me “HOW STUPID” that is, this is, and so on….

    Those people will always be there.

    I’m choosing to put my best foot forward and to…


    Peace to you Michael,

    Sandy Ej

  • Tara M.

    This was really great & so helpful – I hope you realize how much your hard work and ideas are appreciated =)

  • Nancy

    I probably retained a tiny fraction of the great work coaching you delivered; *just* what I needed and was ready to consume. I stay in touch with your blog to supplement.

    And there are *very very* few posts that I hang on to (there are so many), and THIS POST will be one of them! Going right up on the wall.


  • Madeleine

    From me too a heartfelt thank you for your sincere writings…..
    My favourite lesson around this topic was one I learnt a few years ago when I was on a serious weight loss journey….
    To stop saying no to “bad” food and say yes more often for “good” food!
    Come to think of it, it’s not quite in the same line as your post…..but maybe there is a message in there all together.
    When we say no to something we often feel like we deprive ourselves. When we feel deprived of something we often sulk and feel like we losing out. When we say yes, we feel good…we feel like we can! That simple shift in focus was a big breakthrough for me losing weight. And I still do today….. It feels great to say yes….
    And thanks to you – today I’m saying yes to the moment. I’m saying yes to my friends and I’m saying yes to making an impact. (Maybe my plate will be so filled with everything I’m saying yes to that I won’t even have the opportunity to say no.)
    Great love to all – enjoy the journey.

  • Amy

    . . . a few fingers in so MANY pies!!!! I’m am an elementary school educator. Maybe Box of Crayons doesn’t really work in my field. The model you offer, hiring more help, is a wonderful remedy. I spend most of my year trying to solve the question of balance in order to be an effective manager and a whole person at the same time. Ideally I would hire my own secretary and at least one para-professional as full time staff for my “company” – they would be college educated, well suited to work with children and be more technologically capable than myself (and be happy to teach me what they know along the way). I’d also like to have access to a mental health professional, conflict resolution arbitrator or security guard, and an assessment expert I could sub-contract tasks to on a case by case basis. Once those pies were taken care of, I could actually generate enough energy to be a creative, informed and inspired individual, which is essential to even begin teaching. This ideal “action” would allow me to spend most of my passion and intellect on the art and science of educating – which should be the only pies I have my fingers into. Imagine student achievement if I could have 10 fingers in 20 pies. As it is, I have at least 5 pies for each of my 20 students. Any advice on gaining effective outcome for 10 fingers in 100 pies a day would be great to hear. My family would appreciate it too.

    • Michael

      Amy – I have a brother who was an elementary school educator, so I have an inkling of the very very difficult challenges you face. I don’t have an easy answers – and you of course already knew that, because you’d have figured them out already.

  • Amy

    Thanks for commenting – sometimes it helps just to ask the questions for someone else to notice. There is a lot of shame passed around to those of us who crave working hard and resent being made to work stupid – without question or recognition that there might be a better way of doing things. I stumbled onto your web sight searching for alternate careers for teachers. I suppose the best action I could take is to find a different way to make a living. I love the observations you make – thanks for what you do.

  • Beverly

    Saying no to mindless bureaucracy so I can say yes to enjoying my work. Saying no to fussing when others don’t do their jobs, so I can pay attention to my own. Saying no to work that is not mine so I can say yes to the work that lights my world.

  • Laurel Whitaker

    Thank you so much for this post…it is absolutely what I’m bumping up against this week and needed to “hear”

    I need to say no to favors & helping (err, sounds, weird, rather no to overextending myself at the cost of my health, family, peace of mind.)
    And yes to healthy boundaries and making decisions on whats best for my me & my family.

  • Nancy

    Just a follow up to this post..I am compelled to comment again…

    Sorry, but anything you have posted since THIS post is a blur to me, I have been taking actions according to THIS post. It is so clear and simple, and well “served up”, that it’s undeniable. This got my arse moving!

    Awesome what this post accomplishes in a small amount of space. I have taken actions on the four points, and the needle has moved for me.

    Great work.

  • Jim Everett

    Michael, great post! I love seeing what’s most important to you and the info you give to help us define no for ourselves. Reminded me of “Without the ability to say ‘NO’, ‘YES’ is meaningless.” – I think it may have been Peter Block.

    Definitely caught my attention that the title says 5 and you shared 4. Maybe #5 is saying ‘NO’ to saying too much. 🙂

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