Today’s Daily Stoic writing prompt: What can I say no to so I can say yes to what matters?
A few learnings from a couple of decades doing volunteer jobs, or, the nuances of saying “Yes, but…” or “no.”
1. Volunteer early, for the job you want to do. In general, I’ve always found it is easier to get sucked into overcommitting if it’s a job you need to be talked into doing. (Have a couple of backup jobs you’d be willing to take, or be willing to team up with someone on a job you really like.)
2. If you’re new to an organization, always take a job where you’re a team member and not a leader first if you can. This is not because you need to prove yourself (well, sometimes it is) but because every organization’s culture is a little different and you want to be able to observe that culture and learn from it before you are in a position of responsibility. This applies even if (and particularly if) you have a lot of experience doing the thing it is you’re volunteering to do, but with another organization or group. One of the best ways to get pushback from a team of volunteers is to swoop in from outside and assert that you know everything there is about doing X. Get to know people and the culture you’re coming into. If you end up in that leadership position anyway, make sure you still can observe and learn, and talk to others in the group about the expectations on leaders.
3. Do a risk assessment on your participation. Are there other commitments you have already made that could escalate? Is there anything coming up that could impact your involvement? Let your organization know the risks up front.
4. Ask for help the moment you start having issues.
5. If you are leading, train a backup person. That not only trains another potential future leader, it gives you a good option if #6 occurs.
6. If you need to back out of a commitment, do it as soon as you know there’s a problem. Ideally, present an alternative solution to your assistance or presence, such as someone else who can do the job.
7. Learn to say “no” upfront if you, for whatever reason, cannot commit with a reasonably high degree of certitude. This is easier to learn if you are at the same time willing to accept “no” from others, realizing what a gift the word “no” can actually be.
I just listened to the legendary Stuart McLean tell his story about the 1945 World Hockey Championships, where Canada was represented by a team of miners from Nova Scotia and the finals–Canada v. Czechoslovakia–ended in a tie; in sudden death overtime, the two teams divvied up sides and played a giant game of shinny. It never happened, of course, but it should have, and McLean–whose storytelling I came to love just a couple of years before his untimely death from cancer–absolutely makes you believe in the essential truth of the story, even if the events themselves were fictional.
Telling a good story is an art a league away from simply being a good writer. I like to think I’m a decent writer, and I can narrate a historical event decently well, or tell someone else’s story, but to be able to write a fictional story–long or short–has usually eluded me. I do a bit of fictional writing as an ongoing exercise, and have for years–a narrative of a world based on ours but not ours, historical yet anachronistic at the same time, with a narrator that is some fictional variation on myself in temperament and beliefs, but idealized. It will never go beyond the confines of a bunch of files on my computer. I have no illusions that it is destined for glory; for one, it’s too personal to share. However, it has helped my polish my skills of description and the rhythm of the written word, and sometimes has aided in clarifying my own ideals and concepts of virtues. Sometimes I have an idea that I think might work for a short story, but I find it difficult to create characters that are their own beings–not based on me, or on people I know or historical figures–and for the latter two, I always find it presumptuous to deign to put myself into the minds of either people I know and love or people who have been dead for 50 or 500 years, almost as if that is an invasion of their privacy. And I don’t see this changing much. My imagined narratives remain unrecorded.
But here is the sketch of a dream I had, where details were blurry but impressions were strong: Imagine a hereditary line of people who gain power from stars going supernova–power that is gained instantly at that point of explosion, even though humans may not see the light of the supernova event for centuries or millennia. The energy is transmitted through the generations for when it is needed, which will be signaled by when the supernova becomes visible to human beings. At that point, the universe has the chance, through the agency of this group of people, to correct recent mistakes in the weaving of time, when some figure has come to a juncture of some significance in their life and has died when they were meant to live. At this juncture, those of this fellowship, who have the ability to channel that power (and who, not coincidentally, were born on the exact day and time that the figure from the past should have died, had a mistake not been made) has the power to open up a portal to the past and to correct the mistake by channeling that power backwards through time. This power is limited–it cannot change the broad sweep of history; in fact, though many of its recipients have some degree of fame, many others will be less well-known. The recipient of this gift is made to know that this power is theirs to use for as long as it is needed to keep them safe–the weight of that decision is theirs, but the power has a half-life related to their eventual lifespan–but it most be returned by investing it in their actions. Only those who have wielded this power (both sender and recipient) will know that the correction to history has been made, and the sender will know through contact with the artifact in which the energy was returned–a physical artifact such as a building or a work of art, or with a literary work or piece of music, or with an invention or scientific discovery, or even with a person who is born who would not have otherwise been born.
And thus ends the holiday break. I completed one sewing project, started one embroidery project, read about 500 pages of War and Peace, did a lot of proofreading, did a couple of listening marathons, did two Pathfinder sessions, watched two movies, and took some time to just relax–about as good as can be expected in this strange year.