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Creative People Say No is an article has been making the rounds this week, about how creativity demands focus and time and suffers when it’s interrupted by extraneous jobs and tasks requested by others. The overall message works as a pique to get you to realize that you don’t have to say ‘yes’ to everything, and that doing so may prevent you from realizing your goals. That’s good advice. The problem is, that advice doesn’t work the same for everyone.

The article describes a researcher who tried to interview creators about their process, and who was struck by how many said ‘no’ to his request. But if you read the summary carefully, you’ll quickly realize that many of them said ‘no’ via assistants or agents. Of course, it’s much easier to say ‘no’ (or ‘yes, with strings’) when someone else does the negotiating for you, which leads to the excellent advice: be successful, wealthy, and confident already, then say ‘no’ via proxies.

Here’s a different idea about how creativity and success works: you have to say ‘yes’ for a long while before you can earn the right to say ‘no.’ Even then, you usually can’t say ‘no’ at whim. By the time you can say ‘no’ indiscriminately, then you’re already so super-privileged that being able to say ‘no’ is not a prerequisite of success, but a result of it.

Naturally, there’s some truth to a word of faith-style interpretation of creative success. That is, by adopting or even feigning the confidence of success, one can partly will it into existence. The confident fashion their own success through charisma. But where does charisma come from? Sometimes from one’s innate personality, but more often from having had enough of a taste of success to ratchet up one’s confidence.

For those who did respond to the researcher’s request (rather than ignoring it), those who said ‘no’ cited lack of time as their reason. Of course, the flip-side of lacking time is having the good fortune to choose exactly how one spends time in the first place. Which leads us back to where we started: saying ‘yes’ may prevent you from realizing your goals, but only if you’ve already realized enough of them to know what sorts of activities will lead you there in the first place. Overall, it’s not that creative people say ‘no,’ but that fortunate people do.

published May 26, 2013

Comments

  1. Chris Sanyk

    I think yes|no is a little too binary, don’t you? Say yes to the right things, no to the wrong things. Which are which? That’s the question. “It depends” is the answer.

    In case anyone’s looking at this, I’m over here, ready to say yes.

  2. gene

    creative people say no, powerful people say yes and keep a tab

  3. Jason Mittell

    Great point! Another group of fortunate people who’ve earned the right to say no: the tenured.

  4. Bryan

    I generally agree with this, with one thing to add.

    Some time ago, I asked a creative (someone with whom I’ve had a very tenuous 1st degree relationship with, and many additional 2nd degree contacts with, to use a certain parlance) if I could run by a few questions on a subject they are conversant in, via email and at their convenience. I got a direct ‘No, maybe next year,’ with time being the cited reason.

    Oh, okay.

    Over the course of the next month, they authored 900+ tweets totaling 9,000+ words ranging from chit-chat, to identity-building, to industry-oriented thoughts and observations. A fraction of that time could have been directed towards a set of five questions (to be fair, I could have probably mined the info I needed and ghost-wrote the answers myself.)

    So, while time, productivity, and privilege are certainly factors, I submit that reputation is another. It makes people feel good to think that their attention is valuable enough to deny specifically but waste broadly. And, it’s self-fulfilling: if one were to respond to every request for an interview (or even reply to every @-mention), the perceived value of extracting exclusive information from them would plummet. In the end, it’s all strategic: some embrace equal access, others keep tight lipped for the same reasons – to build reputation.

  5. Gabe

    @Bryan:

    Saying “Sorry, I can’t answer your emailed questions because I don’t have time” doesn’t mean “It’s literally impossible for me to answer your emailed questions.” It means, “Answering your questions is sufficiently low on my list of priorities that all my time is occupied by higher-priority activities.”

    Obviously this person ranks tweeting as a higher-priority activity than answering your questions. And fair enough! When you call his tweeting a “waste” of time, I submit that you’re seeing the situation from your perspective rather than his.

  6. Michael Thompson

    I know someone who is so crazy busy that she has no time for anything, she is literally swept downriver by the current of her responsibilities. She does not say no to me unless she is close to deadline, so I respect her workspace to increase my probability of getting a yes, I can speak to you, think with you, now.

    Of course, I have access. I am a close friend. Otherwise it is a negotiation and you have to have something to trade of at least equal value. If not, you lose and do not gain access.

  7. Mattias

    I get contacted by several people every day who would like to “jump on skype and chat about their latest project”. I don’t say no to these people, I don’t even reply to them.

    I normally never reply to blog posts online either, since it usually means I need to take the time to formulate a clear response (in a my non-native language). And I probably have to check in here later to see if someone replied to me. This is time I could have spent coding on my new project instead.

    So, I would say, yes fortunate people say no, but people who actually want to spend 100% of their time building something, also say no. Because otherwise nothing gets done. Especially when you are the single coder on an indie game dev project.

  8. Bryan

    @Gabe

    “Expend” would be a more appropriate term, I’m not judging anyones use of time. I’ve also observed this behavior between others enough to call it a pattern, I just happened to recall a personal experience. You’re correct: it is a matter of priorities. I’m just saying that time isn’t always the constraint. I’ll even remove success/privilege from the equation: a starving artist will say ‘no’ if it helps build their reputation.

  9. Ian Bogost

    @Mattias

    My point is this: being able to spend 100% of your time building something is already a very fortunate situation indeed.

  10. Andy Welch

    Some years back, I remembered having read in some business guide in a section about sales to remember that ‘no is only no now, and may not be forever’ :) so from a consumer point of view you are a bit of a spoil sport if you only say no, and even if you say no you’re going to be bugged for all eternity to say yes. If the project manager says do such and such whether you do it depends on the nature of the problem, but you will most likely always say yes at the initial point of contact, in order that the project manager can efficiently do their job. I would say that in a capitalist environment most often the choice you make is preconfigured to the context unless you choose to sabotage things, which I remember, I think Zizek said, was the only freedom.

  11. Greg Borenstein

    For contrast, there’s Dave Eggers grat rant about saying yes: http://students.ou.edu/M/Eric.C.Mai-1/DE.htm Eggers is responding to a slightly different prompt, the idea of “selling out”, but he articulates a critique of reflexive self-protection and “no” that also applies to this fantasy of “creative people control the requirements on their time”. An excerpt:

    “The thing is, I really like saying yes. I like new things, projects, plans, getting people together and doing something, trying something, even when it’s corny or stupid. I am not good at saying no. And I do not get along with people who say no. When you die, and it really could be this afternoon, under the same bus wheels I’ll stick my head if need be, you will not be happy about having said no. You will be kicking your ass about all the no’s you’ve said. No to that opportunity, or no to that trip to Nova Scotia or no to that night out, or no to that project or no to that person who wants to be naked with you but you worry about what your friends will say.

    “No is for wimps. No is for pussies. No is to live small and embittered, cherishing the opportunities you missed because they might have sent the wrong message.”

  12. Andy Welch

    @Ian, @Mattias,

    Being able to spend 100% of your time building something is already not possible because of having the basic requirements of survival covered.You have to have these covered to the extent that you don’t have to think about them for long enough to ‘get into the flow’ of whatever it is you are building. Depends greatly on what you are building. For example, if you are building an app, you need a computer, a calm quiet place, and an internet connection (probably). If you are building a tractor such as one from the open source ecology project then you need a huge workshop, materials, etc. You need assistance from your relationships to get these things and this requires a balance of saying yes to the things that are needed and no to the things that aren’t. Once all the tools are in place, then you will likely, as Mattias says, say No, in order to concentrate on the task in hand of building. I understand that, like my last comment, this one is probably too bloated to post on the site, but its lunchtime, I’m at work and I don’t have time to edit it.

  13. I. Read

    Truly, being able to spend 100% of your time building something is a blessing that is not often afforded the underling creative, mired in corporate bureaucracy and bandwagoneering, dreaming of one day creating art worthy of Ingmar Bergman or someone similarly lionized and influential.

    Although people don’t keep their jobs this way, I like the idea of “creatives saying no” being interpreted to mean that creatives should decline to whored out for ill-conceived, “caress the low-hanging fruit” style missions. Sadly, the linked article only offers no more than some expected pull quotes about time being of the essence. Ian’s commentary provides some empathetic context to the effect that being able to saying no is a rite-of-passage separating streetwalking prostitutes from call girls.

    Color me disappointed that “Creative People Say No” and Ian missed a golden opportunity to correlate creativity with iconoclasm as its money shot. I really only got the impression that higher echelon creatives zealously protect their time, not that they are intent on doing anything creative with what they have gained: heavy on the “no” and light on the “creative”. They don’t sound like “creatives” anymore than bought and paid for company men and women receiving orders two steps removed from $4,000 suits.

    All this being said, I appreciate Ian’s short treatise acknowledging the growing pains of the up-and-comer. It’s really hard to pick and choose your projects, it’s a dog eat dog world, etc. There is a significant truth here and I consider the technical and philosophical discourse on this site elevated, succinct and anything but pedestrian. As far as I can tell, its an oasis.

    I miss the days when trolling creatives was as simple as lobbing “sell-out” as an ad hominem (in no particular direction) and watching the sparks fly. The days of a simple moral foundation for artists are over.

    If only they’d invent a device to spraywash the kids on my lawn over the internet.

  14. Scott

    I think another problem is that by the time you can say ‘no’ and get away with it your teeth have already been ground down so that your creativity is no longer a danger. Like a dog that’s free to go outside but is no longer trying to court other dogs.