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Learn to Say "No" (but not to this article)


Recently I took on a side project that resulted in utter failure. I was brought in to lay down guide vocals for a film so that the actors would have tracks to choreograph their scenes to. I was given six days to learn ten songs which they wanted to record all in one day. That should have been my first *abort* clue, but sometimes I see red flags more as pretty decorations than as signs that should be heeded. I was really busy working on a few other things but I reasoned that I could learn the tracks in the car, grouted in between the tiles of my life. That was a fat stack of wrong. The day came where I stood in a recording studio and proceeded to waste both hard drive space and tape (they were recording analog as well for some reason). Eight hours later, I left the studio with a kind of grime on my body that you almost convince yourself can only be scraped off with tree bark peeling off your skin after you run your car into a tree. It’s hard to admit to failing at something–failing people, their time and yourself. But that’s exactly what happened.

Fortunately, failure has a way of teaching valuable lessons. So where did I go wrong? I never should have taken the project on to begin with. I knew deep down that I was too busy to give it the attention it deserved but the fat guy that is my ego sat right down on those doubts to silence their warning yaps. As a freelancer, it’s very difficult for me to say no to things. Not only do I enjoy new challenges but there seems to be a script running in the root file system of my brain that says that the only way to succeed is to always take on everything. Also, I think a lot of us have that “Hero Syndrome,” where we want to come to the rescue because we want people to like us and then tell other people, “Hey, that dude/lady is COOL!” Then everyone high fives you. Then Rodney Dangerfield shouts, “We’re all gonna get laid!” and “I’m Alright” plays as the gopher starts dancing. Needlesstosay, this is all terarded. Taking on too much not only stresses you out more but eventually dips your energy scales into “Diminishing Returns Land,” a land where failure-dragons swoop in and burn all the crops of your labor, and the saline content of the water supply causes your kidneys to harden because your are drinking from RIVERS OF YOUR OWN TEARS. That’s not metaphorical–those things actually happen.

The trick to avoiding Diminishing Returns Land (again, this is an awful place: termites of impotency devour your chewy productivity centers from the inside out) is to stifle (or at least, ignore) the knee-jerk response to try to please everyone. When presented with a project, ask these three questions:

1. Is this in the wheelhouse of things I normally do?
NO! – Not a deal breaker, but definitely see questions 2 & 3.
YES! – Well, that’s a start.

2. Would taking on this project REALLY change my life?
EH, NOT SO MUCH – The longer I live the more I find that it’s rare that any one thing or job will change your life. Real,
long-term success seems to be the aggregate sum of your tapestry of work.
DAMN SKIPPY! – You will know on a deep level if you’re ultimately being offered the keys to a pile of success and better-looking sex mates.

3. As objectively as possible, do I really have the time to give this project the attention it deserves?
NEIN! – Then why are we still talking to ourselves about this? Do we have multiple personality disorder? Maybe we do…oh shut up. No, YOU shut up!
YES, YES, A THOUSAND TIMES YES! – Then spread your wings and fly! Fly free, you delicious bastard!

I know, I know…we’re all still basting in the affirmation juices of Yes Man, but learning to be honest with people and say, “I would really love to take this on but I’m afraid my current workload wouldn’t provide me with the time and energy to do your project the justice it deserves,” will not only spare you the self-flagellation usually reserved for religious types but the job-offerers will also appreciate your sparing them a failure that could also affect their jobs. This also goes for the pro bono work that many of us freelancers do for our broke friends. It’s good to help out others, but not at the expense of your mental health and career. You can use the aforementioned line. If they get mad at you anyway, well, then they’re dicks. The other tasty side benefit to turning down work is that it makes you more attractive. Just like dating, people want what they can’t have and not what’s too available. It’s like my good friend Alex (a high-powered Entertainment Industry fat-cat with a tiger’s heart and moxie where his blood should be) always says: “No” is a very powerful word.

Image: Chris Hardwick/Nerdist

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  1. click this says:

    Hello to every single one, it’s really a nice for me to visit this website, it consists of priceless Information.

  2. Jeremy says:

    I totally had a situation arise in recent months where having this article in my memorybanks would’ve seriously saved me and a few other people a lot of time and stress. I went from being jobless for a few months and desperate for money/stuff to do, to signing up for school again, finding another day job, and being asked to draw a graphic novel. Should have been plenty! But then a production company saw that I could draw and asked me to do art for a project of theirs– shoooould have said no, but I didn’t, and after a long while of floundering I finally had to bail, which is just the friggin’ worst.

  3. Vanessa says:


    I saw Hard ‘N Phirm on Comedy Central months ago and totally fell in love with your comedy stylings. “Not Illegal” was stuck in my head for a solid week. Thank you for being awesome.

    This post reminds me of the book “When I Say No, I Feel Guilty.” The author argues that we are inherently forthright and assertive, but we are taught non-assertive techniques of interacting by parents whose wills were beaten down by families and social structures that benefitted from them being pliable and non-assertive.

    As a result, instead of telling people no if we don’t want to or can’t do something, we’ll make up excuses or try to make people feel bad for asking. Throw in some worries and experiences of conditional love, and we’re afraid that if we don’t live up to what people expect from us, they will withdraw from us, not like us, etc. And so we engage in one of the more absurd practices of the animal kingdom: we do things that we don’t want to do and shouldn’t do and feel miserable about it so that someone else gets what they want. This is the process by which homo sapiens becomes homo sap.

    But you’re right, the only people who get mad at you for being honest are manipulative narcissists who are afraid of dealing with people they can’t control with manipulation. Who doesn’t love getting those people riled up?

    Well, I guess I’ll stop masquerading as if I a firm grasp of human psychology, but it’s just so much fun.

  4. mrmonkeyman says:

    U r so nerdy. we should hang out some time to renew the riches of the soul.

  5. Scott says:

    Learn to say “No” to irregardless!

  6. Saying no is even harder when it’s to something attractive, like a pumpkin pie slathered in cream, or a stripper, slathered in cream.

    But irregardless, taking away from someone what they want is a surefire way to make yourself irresistible.

  7. Chris Hardwick says:

    Stever: I’ll happily listen to your podcast. I’m always up for good advice and different perspectives. Still, I firmly believe that you HAVE to say “no” sometimes. You just can’t say “yes” to everything. Your brain would melt through your eyes. I think it’s important to be selective with your “yeses.” You know who says yes all the time? Sluts. Don’t be a slut. People don’t respect sluts…NO MATTER HOW FUN THEY ARE.

    That being said, I’d hate for you to lose valuable yes-dollars on my account. Looking forward to the podcast!

  8. Hey, Chris,

    Fellow nerd here. I just read your article on productivity experts and was shattered to find that I’m not one of them. That’s just as well, since I think systems, frameworks, and lists of life categories are nothing but mental masturb… er, tricks used to keep consultants employed.

    But could it be as simple as saying “No?” Get serious. I run a personal productivity podcast. If people started saying no, they wouldn’t need me. Would you like it if I started advising people to learn to laugh at themselves and their loved ones? I think not. You would be sitting in empty comedy clubs, listening to the three remaining glum people in the world bitch about their comb-over. Not pretty.

    But if you absolutely insist on learning to say no, please let me offer a free, brief podcast on the topic. Sadly, had I to bring in an outside expert, since I suck at no-saying, but the advice is top-notch: . And of course, feel free to say no.

  9. Kyle says:

    As a busy high school tech kid, I find that its also hard to meet up with demands. I made some promises to my xbox community (I said I would have a certain video done in time) while I was also trying to operate the sound board for my school musical. So I eventually started to get very close to the deadline for my website video so I decided to bring my video stuff to my Mac Mini I use for the sound effects.

    So I figured I could edit and operate the sound at the same time. Every time I muted the mac and popped my headphones in, I was one page away from the next sound cue so I got nothing done! Eventually I was getting tired and I tried to cut it closer and closer to my sound cues to the point where I forgot to mute the mac and my video audio with the music and voice filled the auditorium with noise. Everyone just stopped what they were doing and look at me. Thats the story of how I was never permitted to use a mac in theatre again.

    If only you could have been there to point and say “tard” when it happened. (ATOS Dare review.) Priceless!

  10. I have to agree with every word…. saying no is hard. What pisses me off the most is when people ask you for you to do free stuff for them when they know you are packed. It’s so inconsiderate. Then they proceed to remind you of any type of “friendship” you might have with them. Sadly I haven’t had an opportunity to say no to anyone in a really long time, hell not even someone to say yes to. But things shall get better in time, and you my friend keep up the good work!

  11. Nicofopolous says:

    as a screenwriter, I tend to take on any and all projects that come my way (heck, that’s how I ended up with my current sole produced credit)

    a producer who recently signed on to something I cowrote told us to not let anyone know we can write and revise as fast as we do. she said that if you turn it in too far ahead of schedule, not only will they have unreasonable demands in the future, they’ll think you’re not putting in enough work.

    sometimes I guess you just have to do what you can but not too quickly or they’ll hate you for it

  12. mackie says:

    you and mike should go to rapid city, sd

  13. Alan says:

    I feel that way after every audition/meeting and some jobs… that said, I bet you were fine and you’re just being hard on yourself. You’re talented, funny, witty and sounds like you tried your best.

  14. Scott says:

    I found your site after the recent Wired article and have been enjoying all the posts, but most especially when you offer advice such as this, especially as related to freelancing. Though still in school, I’m working on developing a professional network () that will be able to help me. Though “No” will likely be a difficult word at first, your advice and decision-making process here will definitely help.


  15. Mike says:

    I think we should all keep in mind the habits and favors for our friends, especially if there’s a strong professional relationship too. We have to take into account that if we are helping out a friend, saying No! is not always the best option even if the job is not the best fit for us. There may come a time when we need them in a similar circumstance and they might go out of their way like we have done for them. Just remember to not always say No!. Using Chris’ rules is a great way to identify the best fit for the job, but there’s always exceptions to be made. In any case, I’ll definitely be applying your decision process before I take on my next project. Thanks!

  16. Tony says:

    The thing about me is that when i say “No” to something the decision always gets stuck to my head. It’s like what if i would’ve said yes? But since I don’t have a golden “What If? Machine” I can’t really do much.

  17. Jessica Rae says:

    I must know: How did you decide you were a nerd and not a geek?

  18. Chris Hardwick says:

    lisa g: week-long fetal stints are bad for your back

    cassie: failure’s not terrible. it stimulates growth. of course, it stings in the process and i wouldn’t go out of my way to fail…but as long as you can learn something from it, it’s usually worth it in the long run. why do you think the odds are stacked in favor of the house in blackjack? they HAVE to draw until they hit 17 or fail. sometimes they bust, but a lot of times they draw five low cards in a row to hit 21 and leave you stringing swears together under your breath. my point? BE A DEALER.

    everyone else: thanks for the nice words!

    ps – yes, i seemed to have gotten caps-lazy in this comment

  19. Cassie says:

    Great article! It’s so hard to say no to work. I always rationalize to myself that there is SOME awesome benefit, whether it’s money, brownie points, or experience. How do you say no to those things? Which is why I wind up doing things like taking changes for a friend’s enourmous pro bono design project at 2:30 a.m. after I was supposed to submit it to the printer. (whole thing was WRAPPED in a red flag, but it was a nice ruby red color.)

    I have to say though, telling the world you failed at something is pretty damned brave and impressive. And in detail too! Bravo! The great thing about failure is that even the best have done it.

  20. thecroztm says:

    Wow, I was going to comment on this story, but so many people already did, I just said: No! Glad I didn’t waste my precious time trying to think of something clever to write….

  21. Lisa G says:

    Once again, you say exactly what I need to hear at the moment I need to hear it. I’m printing that photo and putting it over my desk as a reminder.

    I’m just a girl who can’t say NO to fun projects. Then I over-extended my time. Then I let people down. Then my solar plexus turns into a black hole and sucks the will to live out of every cell in my body. Then I curl up in a fetal position for a week. Then another sparkly project catches my eye and I squeal, “Oooh, that’ll be fun!” And repeat.

  22. senan gorman says:

    That’s funny stuff Chris! Part of reason it must be as difficult as it is to turn down projects is due to the sheer coolness-factor! I gained a fair overview of some of the other projects you’re involved with through your Wired/Time Management article and most if not all tend to straddle and fall on the fun side of things. But that said, it’s tough when you’re trying to do the right thing, progress your career, add another cool thang to the list of checked-off projects and have it turn out, not’s’good. Good effort though.

    Keep up the great writing! I had a handful of laugh-out-loud moments while reading through this one! Thanks — needed that!

  23. Channing says:

    The most difficult part of saying “no” for me is rationalizing it to my suped-up work ethic. I find myself willing—though not always happy—to do just about anything that remotely resembles getting ahead. This compounded by the infinite possibilities and time sucks of college pushed me to my breaking point last semester. Once you stumble head-long over that point, it’s much easier to relinquish a few things.

    Of course, meaningless (from a work standpoint) distractions also come into play, like commenting on blogs…

  24. Murphy1d says:

    I read this once as “Defining your NO’s”. Its a great way to add focus to your life.

    BTW – I have a HUGE career decision to make this weekend and this is very timely advice. You reminded me to find my no’s (find my nose??). LOL

  25. Good read. I always find myself saying yes and taking on more than I can handle. I think it definitely has a lot to do with ego and feeling like we can handle it and can come out on top… Or maybe, subconsciously we’re all masochists. :/

  26. myNando says:

    I was a real workaholic. I felt the pressure of doing everything for everyone until I let it get to a point where I stopped caring about everyone and began slacking off at work & ignoring friends. I thought “I’m tired. The hell with everyone.” I’m okay now cos I moved to Egypt away from my job and friends. LOL! But don’t worry, I’ve learned my lesson.

  27. Bud Gallant says:

    Very insightful.
    Thanks for this. I really think this is an excellent checklist to go through for projects of all sorts.

  28. Suhaila says:

    I have no problem saying no unless it’s something I really SHOULD do and I have PLENTY of time plus the person really needs my help. Even then I usually say no because I’m evil, lazy, and ultimately selfish. Though I do say yes sometimes to friends just because in the end it will benefit me more. Yea, I’m that selfish that I do charity work for the payoff.

  29. kuda says:

    i skipped the whole article just to say this..

    plz host AOTS soon again.. cause u rock

  30. Beau Ryan says:

    This is a good lesson since my year sounds like it’s gonna be a nice wave of gigs, I hope I remember this article when that day comes.

  31. Chris Hardwick says:

    Walter: I think Paul nailed it with the fear-of-not-working-again thing.

    Ori: Nice tactic!

    Mark: Thanks for the tip! I’ll check that business out.

    celo: Agreed! Some people just feel the need to get all quid pro quo about everything.

  32. celo820 says:

    I think I got the ”no” thing down packed already. The only problem is a lot of people start getting mad when you can not help them. But just like Chris said they are ”dicks”. I especially hate when you ask someone for help and they refuse to because ”i did not help them the last time.” I hate when people have that attitude about things because they only do favors so you owe them and are not your real friends.

  33. This ties in with your previous column (and article in Wired) on Time Management: Take Time For Your Life by Cheryl Richardson includes the advice: If the answer is not an “absolute yes” then the answer is no, to preserve your own sanity (paraphrased). Keep up the good work 🙂

  34. WOW! That’s the story of my life (‘cept the saying no…. still working on that). I actually discovered I was a workaholic (scored 20 out of 20 on, and everyone said “Duh! You didn’t know?” *shrug* thought every freelancer works till 4am, and gets up at 7 so they can squeeze in a workout before the workday. What I’ve done lately, as I’ve realized that distractions suck, is raised my prices…a lot! This means that when a client pays the higher rate, I can actually dedicate the time they deserve, and tell other clients “No! Unless you can afford the new price 🙂 Then it’s back to not sleeping!”
    Remind me never to challenge you to scrabble though! You got some sweet metaphors in there. If only The New York Times wrote like that.

  35. Walter says:

    I can totally relate with this, it’s way too easy to take on more than you can handle. (I’ve spent too many long nights slaving away at work) But the question is: Is it our own work ethics or something else that makes us feel obligated to take on too much work?
    Crap! Now I’ll be up late trying to answer my own question.

  36. i think we have all been in these kinds a situtations and this is good advice. you are wise like master yoda.

  37. Chris Hardwick says:

    Paul: I know, right? The truth is, most of the time it’s never as bad as the scenario we craft in our heads. I wish we could all remember that more often. Damned overactive survival mechanism!

    Jackie: “I’d keep playin’. I don’t think the heavy stuff’s gonna come down for a few more hours.”

    Aaron: Keep on fightin’ the good fight!

  38. Aaron says:

    I like this article, I need to keep it in mind. As a Teacher’s assistant in the video editing lab at my school, I’m constantly being asked to do projects that I don’t really have the time for in the middle of my own school schedule. Thanks for this.

  39. Having just watched Caddyshack two nights ago, this really resonated with me.

    For real – very well said. I have a hard time saying no, but have learned that I’m not a hydroponic grow light. I can’t make dozens of weed plants (or other projects) thrive just on the glow of my own existence.

    Great reminder for the new year. Thanks!

  40. Paul says:

    It’s called freelancers curse – take on every potential source of income you can find because ‘OMG I may never work again’. Get so busy that you burn out and need a break, can’t enjoy break because ‘OMG I may never work again’. Then take on every job you can. Ad infinitum.