Most challenging thing in life: Learn how to say no

May 31, 2023 08:53
Photo: Reuters

The most challenging thing I ever had to learn in life, was to say No.

Here in Hong Kong, we are told from a young age that to succeed, we must ‘try our best’, and to be the best at each and everything we opt to enrol in. Early childhood programmes, mothers clamouring to feed their babies the most nourishing foods - not only literally, but in the form of music and arts - in order to give their children a head-start.

At high school, college admissions preliminarily screen for what they take to be outstanding achievements at precocious ages. The clock starts ticking before one even gets to university - the worth of 15-16 year-olds is 'determined' through their number of extracurriculars, their pre-seed start-ups, and the number of folks their soup kitchens have served. East and West alike are united in their search for students who can take on insurmountable and excess levels of perfunctory responsibilities and achievements, as if that were a demarcating feature of their future competence in the workplace. Hint, it is not.

College then takes this tendency and amplifies it - there's a need to secure internships, to build connections, to establish networks. Then there's the amour-propre associated with accruing social capital and visibility both within and outside campus via initiatives. Throw into the mix the increasingly commercialised and cutthroat race for future employment in 'elite' schools - perpetrated no less by prominent businesses looking for 'standout talents', and it's no wonder that undergraduates and postgraduates alike are expected to 'do it all', to ‘have it all’. these days. We are raised to valourise success, to chase success - before figuring out what success in fact constitutes.

The cultural mores then morph into a deeply engrained mindset even after graduation. Accolades, titles, bonuses await. Promotional and publicity opportunities are rationed in accordance with one's ability to signal rarity, which is in turn pegged to the perceived scarcity of the combination of skills and profiles that one assumes. We are encouraged to say 'Yes' to everything - 'Yes' to new jobs, new hustles, new bosses, new commitments, new skills... Yes, Minister. Yes, Boss. Yes, to the gluttony of late-stage capitalism.

And then we burn out. We burn out because we don't know when or how to say No. Because we define ourselves by the hundreds of tasks that we do, buried under an ever-growing pile of half-fulfilled promises and unfulfillable pledges. We seek to outcompete one another by orders of magnitude in impressiveness, not impact; in so doing we begin to forget the very motivations, values, and principles that had guided us to write that college essay, to pen that job application, to start that non-profit all those years ago.

Let’s face it. It's hard to say No. Every time we turn an offer down, or refrain from a new venture, or opt to wind down on a path that clearly isn't working out, it could feel like we're closing a door on ourselves, with each shut door seemingly leading us down a better road not taken. What if that had been “the” opening? The unicorn that would have delivered us millions of USD in valuation? The groundbreaking discovery that would have landed us on the front pages of some elusive publications? Or the title, the mother of all titles, serving as a convenient springboard to turbocharge a political career?

Recognise such thoughts. But do not succumb to them - for they are merely the products of social conditioning, designed to imprint upon us a constant sense of FOMO anxiety. With every "No" we say, we inevitably will shut off some doors. But not all doors are worth opening, just as not all roads are worth pursuing. We have scarce energy, time, attention. We all have to choose. We have to pick our battles. And fight them wisely.

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Assistant Professor, HKU