Why (and How) Creative People Need to Say "No"


The following is a guest post by Kevin Ashton, the co-founder of the MIT Auto-ID Center, which created a global standard system for RFID and other sensors.

He also created the Internet of Things.

Enter Kevin

A Hungarian psychology professor once wrote to famous creators asking them to be interviewed for a book he was writing. One of the most interesting things about his project was how many people said “no.”

Management writer Peter Drucker: “One of the secrets of productivity (in which I believe whereas I do not believe in creativity) is to have a VERY BIG waste paper basket to take care of ALL invitations such as yours–productivity in my experience consists of NOT doing anything that helps the work of other people but to spend all one’s time on the work the Good Lord has fitted one to do, and to do well.”

Secretary to novelist Saul Bellow: “Mr. Bellow informed me that he remains creative in the second half of life, at least in part, because he does not allow himself to be a part of other people’s ‘studies.'”

Photographer Richard Avedon: “Sorry–too little time left.”

Secretary to composer György Ligeti: “He is creative and, because of this, totally overworked. Therefore, the very reason you wish to study his creative process is also the reason why he (unfortunately) does not have time to help you in this study. He would also like to add that he cannot answer your letter personally because he is trying desperately to finish a Violin Concerto which will be premiered in the Fall…”

The professor contacted 275 creative people. A third of them said “no.” Their reason was lack of time. A third said nothing. We can assume their reason for not even saying “no” was also lack of time and possibly lack of a secretary.

Time is the raw material of creation. Wipe 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.

Saying “no” has more creative power than ideas, insights and talent combined. No guards time, the thread from which we weave our creations. The math of time is simple: you have less than you think and need more than you know. We are not taught to say “no.” We are taught not to say “no.” “No” is rude. “No” is a rebuff, a rebuttal, a minor act of verbal violence. “No” is for drugs and strangers with candy.

Creators do not ask how much time something takes but how much creation it costs. This interview, this letter, this trip to the movies, this dinner with friends, this party, this last day of summer. How much less will I create unless I say “no?” A sketch? A stanza? A paragraph? An experiment? Twenty lines of code? The answer is always the same: “yes” makes less. We do not have enough time as it is. There are groceries to buy, gas tanks to fill, families to love and day jobs to do.

People who create know this. They know the world is all strangers with candy. They know how to say “no” and they know how to suffer the consequences. Charles Dickens, rejecting an invitation from a friend:

“‘It is only half an hour’–‘It is only an afternoon’–‘It is only an evening,’ people say to me over and over again; but they don’t know that it is impossible to command one’s self sometimes to any stipulated and set disposal of five minutes–or that the mere consciousness of an engagement will sometime worry a whole day… Who ever is devoted to an art must be content to deliver himself wholly up to it, and to find his recompense in it. I am grieved if you suspect me of not wanting to see you, but I can’t help it; I must go in my way whether or no.”

“No” makes us aloof, boring, impolite, unfriendly, selfish, anti-social, uncaring, lonely and an arsenal of other insults. But “no” is the button that keeps us on.


This post originally appeared on Medium.

Posted on: July 31, 2013.

Watch The Tim Ferriss Experiment, the new #1-rated TV show with "the world's best human guinea pig" (Newsweek), Tim Ferriss. It's Mythbusters meets Jackass. Shot and edited by the Emmy-award winning team behind Anthony Bourdain's No Reservations and Parts Unknown. Here's the trailer.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

Comment Rules: Remember what Fonzie was like? Cool. That’s how we’re gonna be — cool. Critical is fine, but if you’re rude, we’ll delete your stuff. Please do not put your URL in the comment text and please use your PERSONAL name or initials and not your business name, as the latter comes off like spam. Have fun and thanks for adding to the conversation! (Thanks to Brian Oberkirch for the inspiration)

125 comments on “Why (and How) Creative People Need to Say "No"

    • I think there are hardly any overnight successes. Even the people who get famous/rich/recognized from on day to the next worked a long time to get to this point.

      We only don`t see time and effort they put in to get to this point. We only see the sudden success. Most of the overnight successes went out for a long time to build their opportunities.


  1. What is your suggestion for getting those subjects to say “yes”?

    I am trying to get 10-20 creative people together to comment and publish posts on a site dedicated to helping others like them AND to promoting those who contribute.

    Not a lot of interest so far.

    What approach would you you suggest to get them to say “yes”?


    • 1. Don’t rely on others to give you permission to so something. If you business model starts with “If I could just get these people to do X,” you may need to reevaluate your model.
      2. You are asking subjects to give your site value rather than giving those subjects value. If you built an awesome site with a huge following, great content, etc. people will volunteer to write because you’re able to provide them with things like traffic, customers, etc. If you have nothing to offer them except their own work, they have no incentive to work for you.
      3. Cash works some of the time.


    • Offer them money. Creative people are usually very busy, mostly in ways to support themselves. If your website is meant to be a useful tool that many people can use, then some sort of compensation for the people who will contribute to is the least you do offer.


    • Christopher,
      I suggest you make it:
      1. easy for them to fulfill (a short article, better a recycled article of theirs)
      2. a 1-time commitment (don’t even hint at a future involvement)
      3. a win for them (drive as much traffic to it as you can and tell them in advance all the ways you will promote their contribution; provide at least 2 live links back to their site; offer an author profile page on your site).
      4. close the deal (close your contact email with: all I need to get started setting up your profile page is your okay. Just hit Reply).

      In short, the BEFORE strategy is: make an irresistable offer.

      The DURING strategy is: prove yourself to be fun, fair and forthcoming.

      The AFTER strategy is: you are now a known, proven, worthwhile entity.

      At any future time you can send an email that basically says “Care to do it again?”

      Good luck and good hunting.


    • Or if you can find some who already do that on their own and you’re essentially offering them a wider audience. But it sounds like you don’t have the audience or the contributors yet, so you have an idea. (And what seems like a big roadblock).

      Remember that your site would always be very low on the list of priorities for theses creative people if there’s no compensation involved. AND, it may sound selfish, but I know I don’t give away my best advice as an artist. I’ll give good advice, but not my best, there’s always some sense of competition. And if the only factor in who succeeds is who works the hardest and creates the most, then that says I shouldn’t give away advice at all.


  2. This is SO true! I work in real estate and constantly feel pulled in every direction. Over the years I’ve learnt to say NO to people who want to view houses on Sunday’s (to leave one day for family). But I need to adopt this in many other areas. Thank you. Great article.


  3. So…I wonder if the 3rd who answered were really worth their salt in creativity…and now I wonder if I am worth my creative salt since I took time to comment. Oh well…great stuff!


  4. I would even go a step further and argue that the process of saying “No” to others is the same as (or is correlated with) saying “No” to yourself.

    No to instant gratification.
    No to that quick distraction.
    No to that thing they “should” do.

    Could it be that the people who say no to others are the same people that say no to themselves?
    Or to reverse that question: are procrastinators people who easily say yes?


    • Anouar…you caught me!!!

      I think you hit it on the head. For someone in a state of resistance re: his or her creative work, any opportunity for distraction — our own or from someone else — will draw us away.

      What I need is to stoke the kind of motivation and determination that will make saying “no” a no-brainer — to others’ time-wasters and my own.


  5. The son of a wealthy family put time into perspective on a Reddit thread recently.

    “Rich people spend a lot of money on things that do not need to cost a lot of money. I have a maid coming to clean my apartment every week. Not because I can’t clean it myself, but having those 3 hours extra every week means more to me than the $300 I pay her.

    Similarly, when I need a haircut, I generally have the stylist come to my office and do it during lunch break. I obviously could go to his store like anyone else, but that would mean me taking 2-3 hours out of my day to do so; instead I’d rather pay him $800 to show up at my place and get it done in 20 minutes.

    In this regard money isn’t an issue, because I have more of it. And I know how to make more when I need to. I do not, however, know how to make more time.”


      • Agreed.

        I am drafting a plan to have a virtual assistant to take over my e-mails. I find that I am happier when I am not living in my “inbox”. No more changing to desk making a reactive responses and I am free to pursue a meaningful work.

        Yes, people are angry at me for not be in the loop. They can always call me or find someone to reach me if it is an urgent. Otherwise, accept and stick with it.

        If they want to no longer collaborate with me and then it open me up to new set of people who share same outlook.


    • I sincerely hope that the $300 is a monthly fee for 12 hours of work, and not the weekly fee for three hours of work! That said, I completely agree. I have what my kids call my “helpers” who scrub my bathrooms, vacuum/mop my floors, dust furniture and change sheets on the beds. That’s all I need them to do, and they do it very well. Hiring this type of work out achieves multiple purposes, not the least of which are time & physical energy saved.


  6. Hey Tim,

    This is a question of mindset:
    You accomplished many things across different “tracks” of life so to speak. In most tracks, a certain personality fits in and is more effective than others. Do you apply the yo-yo effect to periods of your life where you live what feels like a different life – different personality, interests, behavior? I’ve found for myself this works best to quickly integrate and gleam a wide-range of skills and thinking of people in a certain life.

    If not, what’s your process? If it’s too long to explain, can you point me the general direction?

    Thanks for writing and sharing your thoughts and the thoughts of those you know.




  7. I think you could remain this in terms of boundaries. We need boundaries in our lives where certain things do not mix, we will not cross, and we will not waste our time with. If you have predefined boundaries, then it is not a matter of just winging it.

    Saying no just for no’s sake seems a bit churlish.


  8. I feel like this everyday. After work I go home and spend 6-10pm on my webcomic. Weekends are a jumbled mess of getting everything else done as quickly as possible to do the same. I have no other time to pursue it, so I am always unwilling to squander my precious few hours to write, draw and slave over my computer. It sucks; I miss out on evenings with friends, parties, and other hobbies. But I do it because I have a goal in mind. I won’t become a professional cartoonist by playing video games or goofing around. It’s just the price you have to pay.


  9. It’s refreshing to hear that great creative people are consumed by creation. I recently started a blog and find the creation of content all consuming (and very rewarding). I was feeling a little frustrated with how long it takes me to write an article, it seems now that I am not alone and that in saying “no” to distractions I am in good company.


  10. Awesome post!

    It’s also good to remember that saying no is always much less offensive than we imagine it before hand. Saying no to a request will not instantly destroy a relationship. People will hear it and move on.


  11. “A ‘No’ uttered from the deepest conviction is better than a ‘Yes’ merely uttered to please, or worse, to avoid trouble.” -Mahatma Gandhi

    It’s all in how you say it. You can learn how to say ‘No’ in a sincere, respectful, non-aloof manner…or you can use the it’s-not-you-it’s-me approach.

    I’ve politely turned down lots of low-bid graphic design projects. Usually, I would much rather have the time than the money. Rarely is anyone upset when I decline. And the few that are were probably destined to be difficult clients anyway.

    Great post!


  12. This is laughable. Is this still the blog of the author of the 4’hours workweek? Is this the site of a vagabond?

    I though this was a site about how to perform tasks in an efficient way, how to create the habits of effectiveness.

    Aren’t there a thousand places where one can tune and listen about the merits of hard work? Shouldn’t everyone outsmart his competitors, his boss, his co-workers and work more than them? Isn’t this a beautiful vision about how you should start designing your own life? Isn’t this what muses are all about?

    Does your journey actually end up where it has started? Is this a grandiose loop where creativity, smartness, effectiveness and rapidity, all of them, melt, fuse and boil down to simply … more work. To the urgent need of more time for more work.

    I find it strange, to say the least.


      • true…we have a Princeton connection. My daughter and son-in-law graduated from there and were just married there on May 26th. Ali Smith 2006 and Noah Kennedy 2012 and 2013 with Master’s. Your book is profound!!!! Becky H. Smith, Ed.D., Bozeman, MT


      • Tim, hardly anyone would dare say openly the opposite.

        The problem I find with this piece is the old cliche of equating correlation with causation. Once you become a “creative person”, or in a creative mode to be more specific, then distractions can indeed be harmful. But, once in creative mode it is instinctively clear that you should indulge in your work, rather than surrender to niceties. When out of such a mode, refusing invitations, just so that you can become like those “creative people” is really pointless.

        Reading your book, my understanding was that the 80/20 philosophy should be used to get things done faster and efficiently. To allow for time quantiles, for friends, family and enjoyment. Using all your 20s to get as much 80s as possible is really not the underlying message I got.

        Accepting hard work just for the right things is not an argument but rather a tautology.


      • The point of the article, as I read it, is the usefulness of saying no to opportunities/work/etc that take time away from what you want to accomplish. The more successful a person becomes, the more other people will want things from them, so its important to learn to say know early on. Neil Gaiman once said that after he became a successful writer, he found himself becoming someone who answered emails professionally, instead of writing books. It’s a common result of success and productivity, more people will want something from you. It’s a good problem to have, but it is a problem. Saying no so you can focus on what own work and goals is a necessity. I don’t see how it conflicts with anything Tim talks about.


    • Do what you love and you won’t work a day in your life.

      I’m happy to work more less at my ‘day job’ in order to work more on my craft. If I could I’d work 12 hours a day on art and never feel like I was working at all. 4 hour work week was about doing less of the stuff that takes up your time, being more effective, so that you can do the things that you want. Maybe that means scuba diving for you, for me it means spending time in a dusty theatre.


      • Don’t get me wrong, (you can use as much pejorative words you like, if they are not followed by a line of argumentation, they are just opinions), I love Tim Ferriss blog posts as much as the next person.

        Mainly this is the reason I don’t find the last one particularly constructive, especially given the philosophy of his books and the rest of his posts.

        After all, you are in a website here, getting distracted from your creative obligations. How come you don’t follow the rules you admire?

        Simply because they are impossible to follow except if you are already under a creative spell.

        Please read Ron’s last post. It seems that 1/3 of the people actually replied and helped. What happened there? Could it be that this 1/3 was following Ferrisses mindset and was rich in time to spare, though creative, and not under the phobia of other people stealing your time?


    • I find this strange too. Of course it is important not to get distracted, but if you are truly working a 4HWW why do you need to say no to every single person?


  13. The NO makes me look more interesting, like she might be onto something ;)
    Spending time in human activities provides great inspiration. However, once I get focused on something is hard to discontinue, mostly at the beginning stage. After that, leaving your work for final reviews is less consuming… So there’s always some fun here and there, or in between ?