Creative People Say No

When I was a master’s student working as a PR writer for the engineering school at the University of Virginia, I had the chance to interview Randy Pausch. His phone rang numerous times while we were talking. The first time it happened, recognizing that I was imposing on his time, I asked, “Do you need to get that?” He didn’t. For the hour or so that he had blocked out for me, I was his priority.

My job was to write up his “Virtual Reality on $5 a Day” project, which aimed to take off-the-shelf hardware parts and create a 3D sensory experience (something that was very ambitious back in 1991).  He took me into his lab for a memorable demo. His staff would use the lab for nothing but demos, he said, if he didn’t say “no” most of the time.

0*QIwlTOdKhJhfR9IH.tiffWipe away the magic and myth of creating and all that remains is work: the work of becoming expert through study and practice, the work of finding solutions to problems and problems with those solutions, the work of trial and error, the work of thinking and perfecting, the work of creating. Creating consumes. It is all day, every day. It knows neither weekends nor vacations. It is not when we feel like it. It is habit, compulsion, obsession, vocation. The common thread that links creators is how they spend their time. No matter what you read, no matter what they claim, nearly all creators spend nearly all their time on the work of creation. There are few overnight successes and many up-all-night successes. —Thoughts on creativity — Medium.

I’m conscious of the fact that whenever I find myself at home scrubbing mold in the bathroom, it’s because there’s some other job I’m hiding from. In the days before my annual report is due, my bathroom is usually very clean… but since I connect “scrubbing mold” with “reflecting on my professional year,” I tend to do a lot of mental drafting while I scrub.  Likewise, while I hate mowing the lawn, I do benefit from being isolated in my own thoughts for a while.

Years later, as Pausch knew he was dying of pancreatic cancer, he carefully scheduled his remaining time. For instance, he spoke with his co-author while riding his stationary bicycle, working hard to keep his body in as good shape as possible in order that he could have as much good help as possible.

The point is, of course, not to say no to everything. I’d rather phrase that as “Say ‘yes’ deliberately,” but that’s probably because — as the article excerpted above points out — we’ve all been socialized to believe that saying “no” is rude.