When a promoted link to a Forbes magazine slideshow entitled “15 Little Things to Do When You’re in a Career Funk” appears in my Facebook feed, I get that eerie feeling that I’m being watched.
As someone who’s about to embark on a big career shift in my early 30s with no permanent address and very little financial stability, I am basically a receptacle designed for this exact clickbait. I want what everybody wants: answers that combine the tailored wisdom of a horoscope with the simplicity and ease of the instructions on a box of Pop Tarts.
I flip through 16 slides of the best advice on career transitions Forbes has to offer before arriving at the No. 1 Little Thing That Will Help Me Face My Funk. Beneath an overexposed stock photo of a blond, white man with straight teeth and a suit that my limited experience allows me only to describe as “nice,” there’s the following caption:
“Say yes. If you want to get stuff done and further a specific vision, say no to most things unrelated to your goal. If you want to get out of your funk, on the other hand, say yes.”
I’m a depressive; my whole life feels like a funk. Even my goals depress me. But I’m no stranger to saying yes.
In fact, I think it’s plausible that I am addicted to saying yes. More specifically, I’m addicted to keeping open my ability to say yes. The idea of saying no, of closing off any opportunity completely, makes me feel like someone dumped a truckload of rocks on my chest. It’s a terrible feeling, similar to the one I get when I think about getting sober, or getting married, or having a child. The forever of it closes in on me, and I can’t breathe. All the air pushes out of my lungs. Saying yes is like popping a Claritin whenever I’m having an allergic reaction to the concept of “forever.” It’s a magic pill that opens up my airways. Saying yes makes the future seem exciting and endlessly possible, instead of just endless.
But here’s the truth: I’ve managed to turn something affirmative and potentially healthy into a kind of carte blanche permission to do whatever I want—like avoiding the difficulty of saying no. When it comes to imposing discipline, like making better eating choices or quitting smoking, I use saying yes as a way to avoid making sacrifices. I can have my cake and smoke a cigarette too.
For instance, when I’m feeling guilty about my cigarette smoking because it hurts the people I love and will certainly shorten my life, I tell myself that I’ve only got one life, and if I enjoy smoking cigarettes, I should say yes to whatever behavior will make my time on earth more enjoyable. Of course, I don’t think these self-justification gymnastics are quite the application of the power of yes that the Huffington Post had in mind.
Still, I do this kind of thinking frequently and without remorse. I’m a pathological yes-sayer. And in the last 10 years, I have said yes with such dedication that my life has become a borderless mess of yes.
I used to pride myself on how often I said no. I called it pragmatism, which is a word I grew up thinking was synonymous with, “you can’t always get what you want.” I was the kid who said things like, “If I can’t tell my mom about it, that probably means it isn’t a good idea.” I didn’t get invited to many parties, and I had exactly zero sex.
But the more pragmatic my decisions, the more I seemed to be limiting my access to interesting people, exciting opportunities, intellectual stimulation, and physical pleasure. While everyone in my freshman dorm was partying, or experimenting, or whatever we want to call the acceptable form of risk taking college students undertake on their parents’ dime, my first real boyfriend and I were breaking up because he wanted to get drunk with friends and I wanted him to stay in with me and watch a movie and almost have sex but not quite. The only time I’ve ever found myself close to bullied was during that same year, by a group of girls in my dorm who found my attitude toward living in general so lame it actually made them angry. They channeled this anger into writing messages to me on the whiteboard in the hallway, things like “This is college,” and “Get a life.”
It wasn’t long before I found myself mired in the deep, existential loneliness we call FOMO. Still, I needed help learning how to engage with a world that seemed like it was rapidly leaving me behind. When the initial strains of “say yes” as legitimate, culturally sanctioned advice began to swirl around me like a weird whisper on the wind, I was an easy sell.
Are you making decisions based on fear? the wind said. Yes, I said. Well, stop! said the wind. But what if my fear is informed by an awareness of possible negative consequences? I said. What are you, a pussy? said the wind.
Somehow, the wind was harder to dismiss than peer pressure. It appealed to my desire to be a more positive and optimistic person, one who could master fear and manifest her own destiny. It also promised increased creativity and success. All peer pressure ever promised was that instead of being picked on, I’d be left alone.
For the past ten years, I’ve pursued a “say yes” agenda the way Meg Ryan accuses Billy Crystal of pursuing women in When Harry Met Sally: like I’m out for revenge or something. I’ve lived and worked in six states because I wanted to say yes to seeing new places and expanding my comfort zone. I’ve taken jobs for little or no pay and no benefits, usually several at a time, because I wanted to say yes to doing work I found exciting and meaningful. I’ve gone after countless opportunities that have forced good, solid relationships into unstable long-distance situations because I wanted to say yes to independence, and ended good, solid relationships because I wanted to say yes to the excitement and uncertainty of “playing the field.” I’ve also said yes to substance abuse, poor eating habits, unhealthy relationships, and reckless spending. It’s felt, to a certain degree, like I’ve been making up for the years I spent saying no. Because #YOLO.
I’m not saying that irresponsible behavior is what the “say yes” crowd is advocating; I’m saying that I’ve been able to justify all kinds of decisions, good and bad, using their formula. I’ve also experienced no shortage of positive reinforcement for saying yes to things that have resulted in a life with very few boundaries or safety nets, and judging from the number of my friends who have found themselves in situations similar to mine, I’m far from the only one to have done this.
For someone who has a tendency to be pragmatic and risk-averse, the “say yes” philosophy has this forbidden, intoxicating luster. It’s also immediately rewarding. Just by saying yes to saying yes, I would tell myself, I’d be taking the first in a series of important risks that I could feel good about taking. Bam: positive reinforcement.
Plus, saying yes comes with all kinds of great SWAG: Self-justification We All Get. When you say yes to opportunities that take you far away from the people you love, you can call it independence. When you decide to meet a guy from Tinder at his house instead of the bar, you can tell yourself that’s bravery. When you force yourself to go to a party alone, you’re not just engaging in a cognitive behavioral exercise—you’re saying yes to life! You can “yes” your way into, or of out, anything. Basically, you’re just making choices every day like every single other person on the planet, but you feel you’ve earned the right to be a little smug about it. You may be checking Instagram on the toilet at a bad party, but at least you’re the one doing it with intention, right?
What I didn’t realize when I embarked on my “say yes” campaign is that taking a risk feels pretty good on its own. And that’s an actual science fact: Risk taking is usually accompanied by a nice hit of dopamine. That’s how risk taking has managed to survive, despite the fact that many of its most dedicated practitioners have not. It’s also how I gradually began to replace my fear of fear with a fear of boredom. Over time, saying yes became a way for me to pursue dopamine hit after dopamine hit, and to turn away from the sustained, often mundane efforts that are required to maintain a stable life and a healthy body. There’s no risk in routine, I told myself, so why bother. Healthy people are people who have decided that risk—and therefore, reward—just isn’t for them.
Because at its core, the “say yes” philosophy—or my clearly flawed interpretation of it—privileges risk taking. It implies a direct relationship between risk and positive outcome, and perhaps even more problematically, between selfishness and courage. The more seriously you take yourself, and the bigger the risks you take to get what you want, the braver and more enterprising you can perceive yourself to be. This not only makes sense, it’s essentially the heart of the American dream. Many of us were raised with this ideal at the center of our psychology. When we’re encouraged to “say yes,” to embrace a greater risk for a greater reward, we experience a kind of truth deja-vu. It sounds true because it sounds like something we’ve heard before.
I’m finally starting to learn that risk is relative. I used to have to give myself a pep talk before introducing myself to a classmate. Now I’m more afraid of having the same 9-to-5 job for three years than I am of having sex with a stranger. If I’m a different person than the one I was 10 years ago, why am I still taking that person’s risks?
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I want to tell the successful blond man in the Forbes slideshow not to worry—although he hardly looks worried—because human beings will always say yes. If we’re determined to say yes to something, whether that something is a loud room full of drunk people or a regular exercise regimen, we will find a way to make that “yes” defensible. But some of us could use a little guidance in choosing what to say yes to, and a reminder that when we say yes to one thing, we are often saying no to something else.
Maybe one important aspect of growing up—if that’s actually what I’m doing—is thinking not just about what to do, but about how to do it. What I’m craving is a slideshow that tells me how to say yes to a more disciplined life, and how to risk investing in my own stability and health. How to scale back on the reliance on novelty and sweet, sweet dopamine I’ve cultivated through years of mostly only embracing the risks that felt good. How to start facing my fear of forever, one better yes at a time. But I have a feeling answers to these questions won’t be so easily summarized in a two-word mantra, or delivered by the Facebook algorithm gods. And maybe that’s a good thing. Maybe accepting that this is going to be hard work is a yes in the right direction.