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N to the O: the power of saying ‘NO’ and how I’m still learning to do it

"The difference between successful people and very successful people is that very successful people say 'no' to almost everything." - Warren Buffett

The word ‘NO’ is amongst the first ten words most children, across the world and all languages combined, will learn to say and use. Yet, and to paraphrase Sir Elton John ‘no siree seems to be the hardest word’ to say as an adult. Definitely in my top three.

Why do those two letters carry so much weight in our lives, personal or professional? I’m no psychology major; I am merely asking thee. What are we afraid of? Why is it hard to say ‘no’ to prospective clients? Why is it stressful to say ‘no’ to a lowball rate? Why is it so challenging to say ‘no’ to a project that doesn’t spark our chi?

Early in my photography career - and I feel it can apply to any career - I thought I couldn’t afford to refuse any job, even the ones I hated. ‘Don’t be picky, you’re a beginner. You should be grateful to work at all,’ I thought. To a certain extent, I wasn’t wrong. You want to expand your portfolio and flying hours, not to mention maintain a roof over your head. I took everything that was on the table: events, product, food, family, lifestyle, maternity, newborn. I did it all (except weddings). I didn’t know how to negotiate a rate for a project or a session either. I figured I never went to school for this, I’m not worth the big bucks, I'll take anything. Again, to a certain extent, not completely wrong. The counteroffer was always way below what I needed it to be, and I was afraid of ‘passing’, of saying ‘I’d rather not do the job at all at this low rate than accept those conditions’. Because a little seemed better than nothing.

I was experiencing fear of disapproval, guilt mixed with low confidence due to being a self-taught photographer, some FOMO (let’s be real), and a clear lack of assertiveness. And, full disclosure, I was never one for open conflicts either. I didn’t like the job, the client, the rate or the project, yet I couldn’t bring myself say ‘no’. It felt harder to handle that than to suck it up, have burning anxiety and do the job, always promising myself I’d try again next time.

Of course, when you start you have to go through the 'pay your dues and accrue experience' phase. There is a learning curve, and the better you become the higher your rates can be. Later on, as I learned my strengths, my interests, passions and creative preferences, my images began to speak for themselves. I’ve since learned that turning down a project does not make me a snob. If it's not the right fit, it’s ok. It happens. It just means I can respect the request, the project, the client’s needs and the budget they come with, and not be the right person for it.

Still. ‘No’ is darn hard.

It is imposing your view and needs over those of others. It implies trusting that you know what is best for your circumstances. ‘No’ is a legitimate, healthy and necessary way to prioritize your own well-being. We have to understand that there is a fundamental difference between selfish and self-care. On a professional level, you gain more by refusing a couple hundred dollars or a couple of jobs that do not fit your brand, or schedule, or preferences, than by accepting them. They don't have to like you or your work, just as you don't have to like them as clients.

And beyond the lowball projects, there will also always be freebie requests. You don't have to say 'yes'. I personally choose to accept a very specific category that has personal meaning, and I keep those jobs quiet. Not because I don’t want others to ask, but because they are a private journey in front and in back of the camera. The non-financial reward is ten fold for me. There are causes I will always stand behind, but I can’t be there for all of them. I have to be ok with that. It doesn’t make me a bad person, it makes me a dedicated one. I have to keep reminding myself.

At 46 years old, after ten years in photography and twenty-five in the workforce, I am STILL learning to communicate my limits with confidence, and be attentive to my own priorities. Boundaries are not a flaw, on the contrary. They’re perfectly ok. Better yet, they’re a superpower. The culture trend that claims we (especially women) should be doing it all is a toxic myth. We are no Energizer Bunnies, and shouldn’t strived to be. Be who you need you to be and, in the words of Paulo Coehlo, "When you say 'yes' to others, make sure you are not saying 'no' to yourself."

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