Say yes. Be free.

Not long ago, I wrote a post on saying no that got quite a bit of traction. It was about taking back your freedom and feeling secure enough to set comfortable boundaries.

Once you get good at saying no and setting boundaries, it’s easy to take it too far. It’s easy to turn your nose up at regular work and say, “Poo. No thank you. How pedestrian.” You can go from the most generous business owner to the stingiest in a heartbeat… if you let yourself.

I’ve been writing quite a bit on boundaries lately, since it’s a big problem for service providers all over the map (not just designers and developers).

No is uncomfortable, until it isn’t. Then yes is uncomfortable. Then everything makes you squirmy and you decide that maybe it’s time to throw in the towel to let someone else make the decisions for a while.

Quitting isn’t the answer. (Until sometimes, it is.)

The Art of the “Yes And”

A lifetime ago, I was a stage actor, where I spent a good chunk of my formative years. My favourite part of theatre was theatresports or, as it’s more commonly known, improv. Improv is a practice where you learn to say yes. It’s not just about saying yes – it’s about learning to add your spin to the yes.

When I first dove into improv, I was barely a teenager – fourteen, maybe. I was awkward and strange and didn’t want to make an ass out of myself. My acting teacher taught me something that I’ll never forget:

“Improv will make you look silly and weird and strange. The best improv actors are the most confident people in the room.”

It’s not something you develop overnight. It’s an openness that is sharpened and learned. And it’s up to you to determine if you’d rather be cool or be successful on the stage.

Sure, being cool has its fringe benefits – you look great on paper and your visage is coifed to perfection – but I’ve determined that sticking to the coolness is the best way to stagnate.

There is an art to the “yes and” that requires you – the creative, the artisan, the business owner, and entrepreneur – to be open enough to possibility, no matter how uncomfortable it seems.

During contract negotiations, I often find myself saying, “Absolutely we can do that, and it’ll cost you X monies in order to execute your vision.” Or, “I love where you’re going! And we can improve that even more by doing XYZ action.”

The power of the “yes and” ripples from your client relationships to your team as well. When you’re brainstorming, every idea is awesome and no one should feel like they aren’t smart enough or talented enough to contribute.

“Yes! That is an awesome idea and I think that we could incorporate it in XYZ category. Write that shiz down and put it in the brainstorming file!”

The Insidious Nature of No

There’s a paradigm or two that states that you should say no three or four or twelve (I can’t remember which) times for every yes you say.

For one year, I followed that. During the course of 2013, I said no to more and more while saying yes to less and less. I thought that the no was opening me up for the bigger yes.

In some ways, it did. In many more, it didn’t.

All it did was show potential clients how inflexible I could be, which contributed to a serious and incredibly troubling lull in my business.

Boundaries are incredibly powerful measures to cultivate, especially for we lovers and givers; if left unchecked, “yes and” can make martyrs of us. But there’s an equal insidiousness to “no” that we don’t tend to question.

We have to tread that fine line that encourages us to be firm and steady, while still being flexible; to be the bamboo or willow tree, instead of the firmly rooted oak.

Say yes to generosity and opportunity.

Tweet: Say yes to strange and wildly improbable possibilities. - @AmandaJFarough http://ctt.ec/NJBmb+Say yes to strange and wildly improbable possibilities (Tweet that.)

Say yes. Be free.

Photo by JD Hancock

How generosity shaped my business

I’m rounding the corner into my fifth year of entrepreneurship — a significant milestone, considering that approximately 30% of small businesses (in Canada) fail in the first five years.

self-five

(Ahem. How I Met Your Mother reference + Rumi quote = winning.)

But it’s not just me that requires The Highest of Fives.

I’ve built my whole business on mutual generosity for generosity’s sake.

In 2009, I built my first website under violetminded’s umbrella. I did it absolutely and 100% free of charge.

I didn’t just do it because I was looking to build a portfolio (though that was part of it, I’ll admit) — I did it because I genuinely adored my client. Her writing set my soul on fire. She pulled back a veil on motherhood that I didn’t realize I was hiding behind. And, ultimately, it was her writing that changed my mind on becoming a mother.

And her website sucked.

So, I made my offer, fully aware that I was running the risk of coming off as a complete stalker. (This was still months away from Brene’s TED Talk on vulnerability, which broke me open all over again.)

She agreed. We built a website. She quit her job to go full-force with the writing thing and referred all of her business contacts my way. I forged ahead and started to build a little somethin’-somethin’ that slowly formed into a viable business.

Over and over and over again, I repeated the same pitch ‘n design prospect. If I really and truly adored the person and/or the business that I was pitching, I would do my best to make sure that I did the work, no charge.

But I didn’t do it for free.

I generously donated my time and expertise to folks that didn’t have the budget for a beautiful website (yet). I did it out of love, not out of a “barter” system that would put them in my debt.

In spite of folks saying that doing work for free is the absolute worst of the worst, donated work is not the same as free work.

Donating your time, your expertise, and your personal resources is generous — generosity paves the way for generosity in our own businesses and lives.

Folks will argue until they’re blue in the face that doing work in exchange for “exposure” is bullshit. If a company approaches you and pitches YOU the “exposure” bit, they’re likely being disingenuous. Or, at the very least, they need to be educated on the dangers of spec work.

But if it’s YOU — the service provider, the artist, the artisan, the creative — that makes the approach, it’s on your terms. You make the rules. You give of yourself and your craft to the betterment of your community. And that. That is beautiful.

In the last year, especially during my haze of PPD, I brooded a lot. I felt desperately unfulfilled by my work and was beginning to lose my creative edge.

It wasn’t until the end of 2013 that it dawned on me.

I wasn’t generous in my business anymore.

I built my whole business on generosity and somehow in the midst of that haze, I lost that. All I could do was survive. There wasn’t any notion of thriving at that point. I was just getting through my work, month after month, deliverable after deliverable.

As 2013 came to screeching halt (thankfully), I decided that I would actively invite in generosity once again into my business. I would do giveaways, much like the one that just ended. I would put on a few free workshops in my city, just to help out my DIY and bootstrapping entrepreneurs. I would write content more frequently, especially if it helped people make the hard decisions. 

I would give it all away.

And I would rebuild my business with the generosity that started the whole damn thing.

Give it all away. Watch it come back a thousand fold. Build a business of generosity. Tweet:

Say no. Be free.

I spent much of the first few years of my business reacting to other people’s problems.

I would obsessively check my inbox, stalk my Twitter feed, and refresh my Facebook stream many, many times a day to make sure that I was on top of anything and everything that could be thrown in my direction.

If I had a day where I was away from my computer, my blood pressure would go through the roof. My hands would shake, my temples would sweat, and my heart would race the entire time I was supposed to be doing something else. (Usually necessary errands, though I did try to take the occasional day off here and there.)

When I was unceremoniously binned from my software job in 2008, I worked twelve hour days most weeks, which had wreaked havoc on my body. The hours gave me migraines, stomach problems, and anxiety that I didn’t even know I had. (Turns out that I was just overstressed, not anxiety-ridden.) I started violetminded in 2009 with the goal of working here and there, able to enjoy my newfound freedom and evenings with my husband.

Wrong.

Though much of building a service-based business is to pitch projects, make stuff, launch, rinse, and repeat… much more of it is discovering where your boundaries are. I didn’t start violetminded to work sixteen hour days back-to-back because I didn’t know how to say no.

I could feel the migraines pulling at the edges of my temples as my hands shook on the keyboard.

The sleepless nights of feeling guilty about not doing more in a day.

The unrelenting reminders that I was only as good as what I could accomplish in a day.

I morphed into an almost-perfect facsimile of my software developer persona, where it was more important to crunch than it was to sleep, eat, or move regularly.

Running a business through reactivity turned me into a burnt-out stress-monster that fantasized about burning it all to the ground and starting over at least four times (a day). Other people’s emergencies ruled my life. Just one more email. Just one more hour of coding to make sure that my client doesn’t hate my guts when I don’t come through like I said I would.

Around 2011, Danielle LaPorte asked me how I was doing in my business as we met up at an event. I smiled through my stress and told her that it was okay, could be better, but hey, I had to do what I had to do in order to get ahead, right?

“Or, you could say no.”

I remember gulping, my face hot.

How in the ever-loving-fuck was I going to say no to the people that I’d been so fervently telling yes to for the last two years?

She hugged me and looked at me with that fierceness that startles huge audiences into silence.

“Say no, Amanda. Let it set you free.”

I remember nodding and smiling wanly, trying not to burst into tears right then and there.

But I went home that night and grabbed my notebook — the analog kind that I tend to collect — to write down some thoughts on how I could build better systems to protect my work from my tendency to say yes to everything and worry about the fallout later.

The first thing I wrote on that fresh page was:

Say no. Be free.

It was the first step in taking back the little fragments of myself that I’d given away in the last two years. The simple act of writing down an affirmation to saying no (as opposed to lifestyle design’s mantra of “say yes”) was a breakthrough. Danielle had inadvertently given me permission to build a business with beautiful boundaries, instead of a freelance career that was at the mercy of my own character flaws.

Today, I say yes every day. But, even if I didn’t have two toddlers running around, I say no far more often. It’s the no that creates space for opportunities that wouldn’t exist otherwise. It’s the no that reminds me that my work is made for better things than other people’s emergencies.

It’s the no that continually sets me free.

As usual, this photo is brought to you by the always amazepants JD Hancock.