Just Say Yes. Meaningfully.

By Julianne Vega

In this post, I hope to convince you that when opportunities arise there is no need to panic and say “yes” or “no” immediately. Rather, I hope to convince you that by thoughtfully considering what the opportunity means to you and how you will accomplish it, you can respond meaningfully. In doing so, you will find yourself engaging in experiences that are impactful and aligned with your personal mission statement. I will share with you how I approach decision-making and some questions I ask myself along the way.

Let me start by providing three touch points to anchor this post.

The first happened two years ago. I went to the Graduate-Professional Student Leadership Conference at University of Kentucky and attended a session titled “How to Be a Graduate Leader.” The two moderators, one other graduate student, and I were the only attendees. Because of the smaller turnout, our session became a discussion. During which the other student said, “This is my second year at this university and I would like to get into leadership roles. How do I do that?” To my dismay, the moderator responded, “I have a friend who is a Dean and the way she got there was by saying ‘yes’ to everything. So, if you want to get into leadership roles you should say ‘yes’ to everything.” Now, I hope this makes you cringe as much as it made me in the moment. Just say “yes” to everything? Just say “yes” to everything, as a second year graduate student? I couldn’t believe it. Saying “yes” to everything is a slippery slope to burnout and the advice is in direct contradiction to the typical advice of learning to say “no.” I jumped in to redirect the message from saying “yes” to everything to saying “yes” meaningfully. I encouraged the student to think deeply about what his strengths were and what he wanted to accomplish as a starting point.

The second touch point happened about a month ago. As a brand new assistant professor, I reached a professional benchmark: I said no to something that was truly meaningful. At the end of a virtual Math Circle research camp, my students expressed interest in continuing the project to work towards writing an expository paper. I really enjoyed my time working with these students and I would have loved to continue, but upon further reflection I realized with the pace we were working coupled with moving, starting a new job, and several research commitments of my own, there was potential that the students would feel less excited and less empowered at the end of the project than where we were at the end of the camp. It was only after careful consideration of how much time I could commit and what a successful product would look like that was able to make a full decision. I was also concerned that by not continuing I would be letting down the students. My fears subsided when I saw that their email responses were still filled with genuine joy and gratitude for the time we did spend together.

The last event happened a few days ago, as I attended a faculty orientation. As we discussed service opportunities one of my new colleagues wrote in the chat “Learn to just say NO!” This led me to think “rather than learning to say no, why don’t we learn how to say yes meaningfully?’’ So, I went on a bit of soul searching to try to understand what leads me to feel so empowered to say “yes” with purpose.

Why is it so hard to make a decision?

It would be wrong for me to continue without acknowledging that part of the reason why it is so hard to say “no” is because of the pressure to please supervisors, the pressure to avoid making waves pre-tenure, the fear of letting others down, and the fear of missing out. My aim is to empower you to view saying “no” as a positive response that will lead you to a more fulfilled mathematical journey.

How to navigate saying yes or no meaningfully?

1. The first thing you’ll want to do is buy yourself time before giving a response. Express some interest and ask about the timeline for the invitation and by when they require a response from your part. Then reflect on the following questions: How much time will I need to spend per week on this new task? What does a successful product or outcome look like? When does it need to be completed? The purpose of this step is to punt your answer so you can provide a thoughtful response after consideration.

2. Consider whether the opportunity is right for you. Ask yourself, does this fit with my personal mission statement? If you haven’t done so already, check out this post on personal mission statements. Taking the time to create your own personal mission statement will be invaluable when it comes time to think about engaging in an opportunity. If the opportunity does not align with your personal mission statement then saying “no” is a breeze. No matter how meaningful it is overall, if it’s not in alignment with your mission statement there are certainly people better suited for the task.

3. If the opportunity does align with your personal mission statement, then you want to consider if you have time to commit to the task. Ask yourself, what would success look like for this project and do I have time to commit to completing the task? More generally, you can ask, can I see a way to complete this project in relation to the rest of my work?

Notice that the second question is not just considering time in the present schedule. Instead it’s viewing all of your projects as waves that are in the process of coming in and going out. This will allow you to say “yes” on more occasions than may seem possible while still accomplishing them to your personal standard.

Hopefully, your answer to this question will allow you to make the final decision of whether to say “yes” or “no” to an opportunity. If you need a little extra push in your decision-making process, see the next section.

What else should I consider when deciding if I should participate in an opportunity?

1. You are a leader. Let me say it one more time for those in the back, you are a leader. We are all leaders. “Leadership is the art of motivating a group of people to act toward achieving a common goal (Ward).” The sooner you see your leadership strengths and the impact of your actions, the sooner you will be able to find meaningful activities to fill your time. I truly believe that everyone, starting from kindergarten, is a leader and engages in leadership.

The book that really cemented this strong leadership view within myself is titled Awakening the sleeping giant: Helping teachers develop as leaders by Marilyn Katzenmeyer and Gayle Moller. The following excerpt focuses on teacher leaders, but parallels leadership at many levels. As you read, reflect on what parts resonate with you.

“Teacher leaders lead within and beyond the classroom; identify with and contribute to a community of teacher learners and leaders; influence others toward improved educational practice; and accept responsibility for achieving the outcomes of their leadership. […] Teacher leaders also reach outside their schools to a wider professional community. […] These communities of learners and leaders can be the impetus for teachers to realize that their leadership skills are valuable and can give them the courage to lead within their own school while developing both professional expertise and leadership skills.” (p.6-8)

Did you see parts of yourself in there? To strengthen the parallel consider replacing “teachers” with “students” in the last sentence: “These communities of learners and leaders can be the impetus for students to realize that their leadership skills (i.e. contributions and strengths) are valuable and can give them the courage to lead within their own school while developing both professional expertise and leadership skills.”

Leadership comes in many forms. Formal leadership roles include positions held during extra curriculars, volunteer work, or committee work. Informal leadership occurs during group work, collaborations, and even takes the form of personal leadership throughout your own learning. In all of these roles we are contributing to a community of learners and leaders, influencing others, and accepting responsibility for the outcome.

As a leader, your time is important. You need to find what is meaningful to you and pursue it with passion. If all else fails and you are ever on the fence of whether to say “yes” or “no” to an opportunity stop what you are doing, gather up all of that Lizzo[1] energy, and think to yourself, “I am a leader and my time is important. Is this something that I want to do with my time?” Then, listen to that gut reaction and run with it.

2. “Every time you say yes to something you are saying no to something else.” I received this advice from Ben Braun and it has resonated with me since. Admittedly, this advice is never the reason I say “no,” but it is advice that makes me feel better about saying “no.” As we discussed above, there are many reasons why it is hard to say “no” and this advice has given me the extra boost of confidence to follow through on a “no” response.

3. Who will you be working with? When you are making a decision, consider who is in the group. Is it just one other person or a group of people? Is there a chance that you will find mentors, sponsors[2], or collaborators among the group? Will you be supported? Is there someone in the group that you know you don’t work well with? Could this opportunity be a stepping-stone? All of these questions could impact your decision. In the words of Elizabeth Gilbert, “Sometimes to lose balance for love is part of living a balanced life” and in the words of Pamela E. Harris, “You need to find your people. Focus on finding those people whose working and communication style match your own.”

If you have reached the point where you are committed to saying “no,” check out The Four Parts of No by Courtney Gibbons which details how to craft a “no response.” Of course decision-making is always difficult especially when it comes to professional commitments, but my hope is that you are walking away feeling a little more empowered to confidently make decisions that are right for you.

Julianne Vega

Short Bio: Dr. Vega is an assistant professor at Kennesaw State University and an MAA Project Next (Brown ‘20) fellow. Her mission is to cultivate a community of compassion and empowerment, a place in which everyone is growing together.

Katzenmeyer, M. & Moller G. (2009) Awakening the sleeping giant: Helping teachers develop as leaders (3rded.). Corwin.
Ward, S. (n.d) What is leadership? And can you learn to be a good leader? Retrieved August 13, 2020, from http://www.thebalancesmb.com/leadership-definition-2948275.

[1] If you are unfamiliar with the singer, rapper, songwriter, and flutist Lizzo, take a moment to listen to her music. Her energy is amazing.
[2] A sponsor is someone who advocates for you as you advance in your field.

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