One of the most useful things I have figured out in my career is that I need help saying no. Looking around at academics, it seems pretty clear that we fall into roughly two categories: those who can’t say no and those who never say yes. How to be somewhere in the middle is turning out to be the great conundrum of my professional life.
This is both a personal and a systemic issue. I am personally always inclined to say yes to new projects, new ideas, new initiatives, new opportunities because I love the start of things. The energy, the thrill of what is yet to be discovered or organized or read or improved or worked out in all its nuance, the exuberance of possibility. I am always in danger of becoming what I think of as an intellectual magpie–perpetually collecting the next shiny new idea as if they are all so many interesting gimcracks that I will surely have use for one day. Of course, this means it is all too easy to substitute the collecting of project starts for the harder and longer-term work of finishing all those essays, books, articles, or catalogues. My DRAFTS folder contains nuggets of at least a dozen different projects in nearly as many genres. And I sometimes find it easier to workcrastinate by starting some “small” new thing rather than doing the last 5-10% of tedious revision and polishing on the last one.
But the inability to say no is also a systemic issue. Once you have been in academia a while (where “while” is completely undefinable and depends upon a host of factors that make you more or less visible to people who are in the position to seek out participants), you start getting asked to do things. Lots of things. Things like contributing to edited collections, serving on committees, writing book reviews, mentoring colleagues, being an external reviewer, taking leadership roles on campus or in professional organizations, or speaking at public venues.
It is tempting to want to say yes to every one of these things because someone picked me. Every invitation feels like a form of validation. And in a profession in which it can be two years between when a manuscript is accepted and it appears in print for anyone to read, public acknowledgement is itself a thing that comes infrequently. Asks mean a peer thinks our work on a particular subject matter is smart enough to include in a volume. Or our Dean thinks we are good leaders. Or some public entity, say a local museum, thinks we have something to say that might be of interest beyond our campus. And all of that is extraordinarily gratifying.
Beyond the affirmation that at least someone thinks we are good at our jobs, it is also the case that I feel it is important to say yes to service requests. After all, any professional standing I have has depended heavily on the generosity of mentors and the labor of (sometimes anonymous) reviewers and recommenders of all sorts, and if I am now at the place where I can return the favor, I have an obligation to be a good academic citizen.
And yet, as we know, women, faculty of color, LGBTQ faculty, and those who have helped diversity the academy in many other ways all tend to be vastly disproportionately asked to take on service and mentoring work. And if you occupy more than one of these categories, or if you have already gained a reputation as a dynamic speaker or a thoughtful reviewer or a strong mentor, you can easily find yourself not only struggling under a service load but also asked to contribute to all kinds of shiny exciting projects.
Hence: your Committee of No.
This is the group of people you trust to help you decide whether the thing you have just been asked to take on is actually a thing you should do. Not every new idea, invitation, and opportunity needs to be run by them. Some things are obviously yes based on clear career upsides or obviously no based on timing or workload.
But there are an awful lot of things that sound interesting, or that I feel I ought to agree to do as a good academic citizen. And there are huge benefits to asking someone else whether those reasons are good enough in any given case. Not least of which is: if you forward an invitation to one of your favorite No People, you automatically take a step back from answering the invitation right away, which gives you a little time to consider the cost-benefit analysis yourself. It is also important to recognize that if you are person who is generally inclined to say yes, almost every single friend you have will be more protective of your time than you are.
You should let them.
My Just Say No people include friends whose research interests overlap with mine substantially: they are the ones who help me decide whether to agree to write a chapter or be on a conference panel or accept a talk invitation in my field if the primary question I have is whether doing so will advance whatever project I’m currently in the middle of. They also include people who currently are or who have been Chairs (since I am currently a Chair): these friends help me figure out what additional obligations on campus I can reasonably take on, when, and how. And they include a few trusted academics whom I just think are smart about balancing obligations of various kinds; these friends help me consider quirky-but-interesting invitations or generally assess my workload and realistically consider how long New Thing X will take and whether I can reasonably find the time to do it based on the deadline.
As the above suggests, I turn to different people with different questions. Some of my No People only know me professionally, and some are dear friends who know my personality well and can help me through the complex calculous required when I really want to (or feel obliged to) do something that I probably don’t have time to do.
My No People have helped me remember what I am already doing and what I am good at (or not). They remind me that there is less guilt in saying no than there is in saying yes and then being unable to deliver. And they have helped me think through not only whether I should take things on but also how to say no gracefully when I cannot. And I try to do the same for them.
They are a completely invaluable group whose names ought to appear at least five times each in the Acknowledgements of my next book. And they are a resource I think every academic ought to cultivate.