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.

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)

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

  1. I have read a lot of the comments and would like to add, The ‘no’ from your head is certainly different from a ‘no’ from your heart. I like to ask the same question to both. Quite often the answers are different and lead to a separate consideration.


  2. i think the golden line of this post is, “..They know the world is all strangers with candy..”

    and i believe that this is the best summary line which might help to explain Tim’s point, in my opinion.

    the explanation is simple;
    everyone has an agenda, an interest just like yours – its private and all personal – this is how people work.
    when you do stuff (etc spending time) that does not follow one of your agendas, your investing your time in this world for other man sake. that’s nice only if your agenda is to be nice.
    therefore, you need to say NO. more important than the assertiveness needed to refuse people suggestions and requests, is knowing how to identify the short term meaning and long term meaning of choosing YES or NO in each specific situation.


  3. The only people who need to learn to say ‘no’ are people who are overly generous. But telling creative people to say no all the time is just teaching bad manners, or even being a bad citizen. Take the time. Don’t be self-important. Your creative self might even benefit from some thoughtful interaction with another.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. It’s good to know I’m not the only one out there saying no a lot. The last line of your post certainly applies to me, I’m sure many people, including relatives think that of me. Thanks for the encouragement to stay focused and the permission to be different.


  5. Fantastic post. Thanks for the emphasis on saying “no”.

    My favorite quotation on time/priority management is Annie Dillard’s: “A schedule defends from chaos and whim.” It avoid giving to outside distractions (chaos) and my own weaknesses (whim).


  6. As The Blog of Tim Ferriss has been my homepage since I decided that I could no longer stand the Weather Channel’s constant fearmongering headlines I have seen the title of this post a hundred times or so over the past few days. It has kept my attention on the subject and I find that I remain fascinated by two things.

    1. Kevin’s particular worldview shows up in his choice to emphasize the two thirds of respondents (and non-respondents) to the invitation to contribute to the creativity project of the Hungarian professor who said no rather than the 1/3 who said yes.

    2. If we are looking at resourceful actions and choosing to aim ourselves toward those (rather than continuing with our non-resourceful actions) wouldn’t the most interesting topic of conversation revolve around contemplating the skills and mindset that enabled the 1/3 who were creative enough to be invited to be interviewed AND were able to say yes to the project rather than no?


  7. An interesting concept. I did find the idea of being uncompromising slightly idealistic. I would challenge the notion of saying no to all of lifes possibilities outside of a discipline with the idea that there must be balance based on what makes you happy. What is the point of completing a beautiful painting if there are no friends left to enjoy it with you? I enjoyed your blog and found value in the content. Thank you.


  8. Totally understood the quote by Dickens – he says it so very well. A hour scheduled for the afternoon can undermine the entire day as I contemplate it and have to prepare for it.

    One thing that this post doesn’t seem to address is the concept that helping others can be beneficial in many ways to the giver. Surely this doesn’t suggest that we should always be miserly with our time. Wouldn’t the occasional well-chosen moments to refocus by offering assistance to another, like answering an interview question, or a bit of mentoring, help to increase creativity and give renewed energy to our projects?


  9. I say ‘no’ all the time.

    Mostly because…

    a) I’m an introvert
    b) I don’t wanna

    I find that a lot of people ask help with creative projects because they want the motivation to finish it – few of these projects come to fruition.

    I used to say ‘yes’ all the time because I was a Jill of All Trades and I wanted to be good at EVERYTHING.

    It hurt my ego to say “I don’t know – I can’t help you with that” because I loved figuring shit out.

    Now – it feels really great to say NOPE!

    xx Denise “No” Duffield-Thomas


  10. Been teaching “NO” to my family and students for years. In fact, my son, (Musician and photographer) came across this blog article and sent it me, as an affirmation of a message received. Remember, God created the world and everything in it. Don’t you think He values our devotion to creativity as a show of honor to Him? I think so. For with our great deeds we improve the world, filling it with our own special Light, so that many may be illuminated and draw closer to us, that we may encourage and build them up. But first, we must pursue the Vision, and fulfill it as completely and beautifully as we have the Power to do so. We must finish, because our works are our legacy.


  11. This is an eye opener. Most of us hate to say no, because of our, ugh, gutless way of thinking. Did I just say that? Well, when we don’t accomplish, we blame that person we could not say “NO” to. On the other hand, some will think, that by saying no, they will be shunned. Well, so what! At least you’ll get something done.

    Saying yes is by far, the easiest thing you will ever do. No backlash, no behind your back talk, and/or rejection. Can you imagine if your bride to be had said, no to your proposal? What a blow. Hmm! Perhaps not to some of you? :-)) Well, in our chosen line of work, we need to redefine the word, no. It can be said in the most gentle way, without sounding like one of your parents. Oops!
    No, can be your best friend, especially, when a dateline is looming ahead.
    One needs to be wise, and/or selective, when saying yes, and/or no.
    My take.



  12. This post is legendary, especially the ending. Saying “no” is probably one of the biggest challenges most people encounter, including myself! However, sometimes we simply have to be selfish in order to contribute. I remember reading the section about time wasters in 4HWW for the first time and thinking: “this is gonna be tough…”
    Thanks for sharing, made me think.


  13. Even among the simple things in life, helping friends, etc., this is true. I once asked my brother-in-law for weekend help with his truck, and his answer was, “Ooh…a weekend? No, I only have so many of them left.”


  14. This is essential information. With today’s lifestyles it is almost impossie to say ‘no’. Thank you for giving us permission to do so


  15. Amen, Amen, Amen.

    A life crisis several years ago required all my attention and gave a “legitimate” reason to begin saying no to things I typically said yes to. Once the crisis had smoothed over, I realized the freedom and opportunity that came with saying no. Therefore, I decided to make it a habit. With my brain and spirit clear, I could focus on my own goals and priorities (some of which do indeed involve doing things for others). Saying no — without feeling any obligation to explain — has now become a habit, and I highly recommend it to others.


  16. The reactions of those who balk when I indulge in the art of saying “No” is an interesting study in human behavior. Notice I said, “reactions”, a huge red flag to me for those who wish to monopolize my precious time and health. In my experience, those who “react” do so to manipulate me in order to serve their agenda. I could expound on the interesting non-adult behaviors that occur from “reactors” to the word “No”. Needless to say, insulting my intelligence never gets them anywhere with me. Contrast them with “responders”, who respect the word “No”, who respect my time and my health. For those, whose company I enjoy, I give the special gift of a “yes” once in a while to reward great behavior.


  17. Great post guys…I’m 32 and I’ve only realized the importance of saying no in the last 6-months or so in all honesty. I truly believe every experience has something to offer but once I got into my 30s, I started realizing that my Yes-man mentality had cost me a lot of valuable time in my life which i couldve used working towards my goals. I feel this realization along with the 4-hour workweek has helped me become more cognizant of how I spend my time and how i can be more efficient, and I’d imagine there are a lot of Yes-men / Yes-women out there who could really benefit from dropping some more ‘No’s in their lives. Thanks.


  18. This was a fantastic post! I LOVED these lines…

    “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,”


    “But “no” is the button that keeps us on.”

    Wonderful read!


  19. Excellent article! I totally get this. I work a great fair paying day job which will grow into a very healthy career, but then after work Ibspend almost equal time volunteering on Boards in my community and running a neighborhood civic association. I am involved in multiple projects that is new ground in my community. I have no time to date and am constantly reworking the infrastructure. Somehow I seem to see a bigger multidimensional organizatiin. People think I need to got an AA group, or that I bit off more than I can chew, but the truth is now is the time to get these things in order, or they never will. I say no all the time to everything but more ideas and work for myself. Im single, 43, no kids, so really, why not?


  20. This also can work the other way around….. One of the owners of Cafe Gratitude (ever been there tim?) said to me “if your not hearing NO in your life, your living a small life.” :)