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My husband and I had planned our beach vacation for months. As the date approached, I tried like crazy to finish up all my work so I’d be worry-free on holiday and able to be in the moment with my little family.
Of course that didn’t happen.
Instead, the day before we were set to leave, a client asked if I could turn around a presentation in 36 hours. And knowing full well I was leaving for vacation that week, I replied, “Of course!”
I justified this to my husband (and myself) by saying the payment I’d receive would cover our entire vacation, and I’d only need one day, tops.
The payment part may have been true, but I spent the next twodays working inside our bedroom while friends and family hung out on the deck in the sunshine drinking rosé, hitting the beach, and grilling dinner together. I could hear their laughter through my open bedroom window, and as I sat uncomfortably hunched over my computer, I couldn’t help think to myself, “What the hell am I doing?”
The Story of the Fisherman
It reminded me of a story I once heard, about a busy Wall Street investment banker who traveled to a tiny village in Mexico. There, he hired a fisherman who took him out to sea and helped him catch more fish than the New Yorker had ever seen in his life. Wanting to “repay” his captain, the businessman offered some advice. “Look amigo,” he said, “you’re the best fisherman I’ve ever seen. You need to raise your prices and advertise more so you can get another boat. You can have your son run that one, and soon enough you’ll have a whole fleet!”
The fisherman asked, “Why would I do that?”
Laughing condescendingly, the banker said, “So you can be rich. Then, one day, you can retire and move to the ocean where you can fish all day, enjoy your family, and drink wine and play the guitar with your amigos.”
The fisherman replied, “I do that now.”
Good lesson. I’ve always struggled saying no to things, whether it’s work projects or social invitations. With every opportunity declined—even when saying no is unquestionably the best thing for my health or family or just plain sanity—I have trouble sitting with the “no.” Because there’s always that nagging worry that the work opportunity would have been a career game-changer, or that the party could have opened the door to irreplaceable memories and friendships. Will my passing on something now means that I’ll be passed over when the next project comes along? Basically, I suffer from an acute case of FOMO (fear of missing out) syndrome.
Learn to Say “No”
But here’s the thing I’ve started to notice: Once we know what we want, it gets much easier to say no. In fact, the more clear we are about what our long-term goals and values, and dreams are, the simpler that two-letter word becomes.
Why? Because when we’re saying no to something, it’s because we’re empowering ourselves to say yes to something that actually matters more: our lives. Little “no’s” become one big “yes.” Trippy, huh? Ready for the kicker? Looking back, I’ve realized that what I really learned on my vacation was that when we say little “yeses” to too many things at once, it’s the same as saying one big no to all of them.
Quarantined in my room at the beach, I was neitherenjoying my family nor my work. I’d progressed from FOMO to “busery” (busy-induced-misery). We need mental space to recognize beauty, feel joy, be creative, and (yes) do good work. Just like we can’t fully appreciate a fresh flower on a crowded table, it’s hard to tease out and actually engage with experiences when they’re crammed next to each other.
Inevitably, I plugged away, turned in my project, and got “busy” paying attention to my family. Luckily my husband was no worse for the wear, and my daughter was thrilled to be back being the center of my world. But then-and-there I vowed to myself and my family to honor our time away together, because overbooking really equals under-living, and that is really no way to live at all.