The lost art of saying ‘no’

Opinion by Jasmine Sun
Nov. 23, 2017, 3:00 a.m.

I don’t consider myself much of a moviegoer, but long flights, with their lack of legroom and characteristically bland food offerings, tend to be an exception. So when I found myself on a grueling 12-hour flight from Seattle to Shanghai, I selected “The Devil Wears Prada” from the A-Z movie listings to occupy a couple hours of my time. After all, a classic featuring Meryl Streep had to be a safe pick.

For anyone unfamiliar with the plot, the film follows Andy, an aspiring young journalist, as she works as an assistant for the editor of New York City’s most prestigious fashion magazine. Despite Andy’s initial disdain for her boss’s harsh leadership and seemingly impossible demands, she begins to embrace her new role: overhauling her wardrobe, dashing furiously from errand to errand and picking up work calls at every hour. And even as her work-life balance and outside relationships deteriorated, I watched in awe and admiration as Andy earned her boss’s rare approval.

When the movie ended, the moral of the story was clear: Life is far more valuable than a fancy job title. Yet, I found myself far more impressed by Andy’s extreme commitment and rapid ascension of the career ladder during her time at the magazine. That’s who I want to be, I thought. That’s who I will be.

I have no dreams of entering the fashion industry, but the glamorization of the workaholic is present across America — and perhaps nowhere more than on Stanford’s campus itself. We’re ensconced in Silicon Valley, a locale that one disillusioned ex-coder described as “a tribe of depressed workaholics living on top of one another.” I’ve seen more Eat/Sleep/Code tees here in two months than I have in 18 years in Seattle. Furthermore, the prototypical Stanford student adorning the cover of the shiny Visitor Center brochures is someone who does it all: perfect grades, active social life, long list of extracurriculars and a burgeoning career to top it all off.

It’s difficult to be surrounded by so many competent and accomplished people and not see this as an ideal to aspire towards, especially as a freshman hungry to prove myself among the crowd. After arriving on campus, I began my project of “self-improvement,” seeking to expose myself to as many new opportunities and experiences as possible. This project revolved totally, completely around saying “yes.”

Initially, I arranged my freshman fall to contain a comfortable 16 units. But when I received an email asking if I would be willing to switch my PWR from winter quarter to fall, I of course, said “yes.” And when the full weight of a 20-unit course load made itself known during my very first midterm season, I dismissed my friends’ concerns about my erratic sleep schedule and failure to make it to 11:30 lecture. No pain, no gain … right?

On top of academic responsibilities, I told my introvert self that I had to begin reaching out more and “networking,” whatever that meant. So I set up coffee chats with club leadership, hit up professors during office hours just to chat and arranged lunches with friends — even when I had readings to tackle or sleep debt to catch up on. After all, those things could wait. Why not take advantage of the hour to spare between seminar at 6 p.m. and a speaker event at 7?

Dutifully, I mapped these commitments, color-coded, onto my weekly schedule. I wasn’t satisfied unless my days were full, and I actively sought to fill in gaps where they weren’t. This is the “good kind of busy,” I told myself. Like Andy, I’m finally working hard.

However, though some of the fruits of my labor had begun to appear, something felt amiss. A week ago, I made a call to a high school friend to seek advice about whether I should attend a debate tournament in early December. On one hand, the tournament could be a launchpad for future competitive success; on the other, it lay in between three finals and coincided with Frosh Formal.

“Jasmine,” he said. “I’m glad you’re thriving at Stanford, but like, maybe you shouldn’t be on the grind all the time. Maybe that weekend, you should chill?”

“Don’t worry, I do chill,” I replied.

After the call, however, I began to doubt myself. Two weeks ago, while at Yale for a tournament, I suddenly became dizzy, found myself unable to walk and collapsed on the ground. Thanks to a glass of water and a bit of rest, I recovered quickly and thought little about it the rest of the weekend — attributing the incident to an unfortunate combination of midterm stress, travelling, a lack of sleep and a nasty cold. But was this really something I wanted to experience again?

After days of deliberation, I decided the answer was “no.” Though I desperately wanted to prove myself capable, and I might have sacrificed a degree of future success in the process, saying “no” to another major responsibility was an act of self-restraint. Really, it was an act of self-care.

I won’t say my experiment in saying “yes” was a failure. I pushed myself out of my comfort zone, met new people and explored the diverse array of resources Stanford students are privileged enough to access. In many instances, stress and busy schedules motivate people to work harder and broaden their horizons.

But at the same time, while there’s value to saying “yes,” I want to eliminate the guilt associated with saying “no.” Whether it’s to joining another student organization, accepting a leadership role, attending a Friday night frat party or adding another five units to your schedule — the decision not to partake is oftentimes just as difficult and important as the reverse. And though it might seem like a waste of precious opportunities, choosing to prioritize mental and physical health never is.

So I will be embarking on a new and improved project of self-improvement. Sometimes that does mean attending resume workshops at BEAM or trying to shop six classes at once. But it also means feeling okay about spending an hour watching Buzzfeed “Worth It!” videos on YouTube, really trying for a steady seven hours of sleep a night or taking a 10-minute bike ride just to get off campus and relax.

For bright, ambitious young people, Stanford might be a palm tree paradise, but it’s also a pressure cooker. So despite the ever-present temptation to add more to our already-overbooked lives, knowing when to take a step back might just be the secret ingredient in the recipe for success.


Contact Jasmine Sun at jasminesun ‘at’

Jasmine Sun '21 is a sociology major from the greater Seattle area. She's fascinated by the future of cities, education and digital media. When not trying and failing to catch up on her Goodreads Reading Challenge, she nurtures her caffeine addiction and hosts a podcast on civic innovation.

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