Saying no

Saying no is hard. It means that if life were a musical, you’re telling the protagonist that what they just sang about in their “I want song” isn’t going to happen, at least not in a straightforward way. “Sorry, Tevye. God isn’t going to bestow a small fortune upon you, freeing you from the daily toils of being a dairy supplier.”

However, saying no can save someone from going on a wild goose chase and ultimately being both exhausted and disappointed. Saying no provides clarity and lets the person move on. To quote Brené Brown, who adapted this from a 12-step program, “Clear is kind. Unclear is unkind.”

I find it’s especially hard to get this clarity in government. I’m not sure entirely why. I think it has to do with the fact that there usually is a possible way to get around an initial barrier – it just might involve a nine month process or require approval from another department whose interests run counter to your request. Once I asked if it was possible to integrate my tasks on a team Jira board with a personal Trello board. This required administrator approval. I asked our team’s security point of contact, and the answer I got was basically “you can ask this other department”. What would have been helpful in this situation was what kind of chance I would have at success and what effort was required.

I have a hard time saying no to my kid. He is fascinated with superheroes, and often he laments the fact that he doesn’t have superpowers or super gadgets. Once he had the idea to make a jet pack so that he could fly. I told him he could draw it and pretend. He said no – he wanted a working one. I suggested I could lift him around the room and pretend fly him. He said no – he wanted to do it himself. I think then I said something like, “well, you’d have to grow up and learn how to use a jet pack, and that would take a lot of time and money.” Like everything in parenting, I wasn’t sure if I handled it the best I could, but the key was I wanted to let him know that while eventually possible, it wasn’t going to happen right then.

When I started in design school, I asked a department head about whether it would make sense to double major in industrial design and graphic design. He said it was possible, but each of these programs was set up to be a full-time and very demanding commitment. He also said in his tenure, he had seen one person do it. So my takeaway was that this was possible but probably not worth it.

We want our protagonists to find a way to do something once thought impossible. But also we owe it to them to set real expectations on what it would take to do it.